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View of Our Street | Karangahape Road Queer Space

This blog is taken from the zine 'VIEW OF OUR STREET' a companion zine to the exhibition A View of OUR STREET 16 June 2023 - 9 September 2023 at The Charlotte Museum Te Whare Takatāpui-Wāhine o Aotearoa. Originally written and printed in August 2023 as part of Auckland Zinefest, it explores the history of queer space on and around Karangahape Road.

Melanie Church, Aotearoa: Buckwheat performing at Foxy Love Party at KAMO, 1999.

This zine aims to tell a story of queer space in Tāmaki Makaurau. By mapping these spaces, we hope to create a narrative of how lesbian, gay, trans, and queer spaces have existed in the city. How they began, moved, and exist now.

Spaces inhabited by queers vary, created through guerilla tactics – marking public spaces, unofficial gathering spaces, queer homes – or formalised spaces such as clubs, cafes, and community hubs. But what makes these queer spaces? Some understandings of queer geography see queer spaces as layered onto, under, or through heterosexual space. For example, a queer person or couple walking down Karangahape Road does not walk the same pathway as their heterosexual counterparts. Instead, we can imagine them passing through a uniquely queer landscape. Queer space is somehow oblique, passing through and around. It is separate from but touching heterosexual space. We can consider queer space to be these pathways taken and shaped by queer people.

PART I. the beginning

The origins of lesbian, gay and queer spaces in Tāmaki Makaurau lie in private homes. From the late nineteenth century and onwards, bigger cities, such as Tāmaki Makaurau, and Te Whanganui-a-Tara, attracted people seeking to live queer lives. Compared to close-knit rural communities and nosy suburban neighbours, central city living offered a layer of relative anonymity. This protective layer allowed people to form queer relationships and a network of queer friends while avoiding scrutiny.

Particularly for lesbian women, living authentically was an almost exclusively urban affair. Until at least the second half of the twentieth century, it was both socially and financially difficult for women to move out of their family home and live independently while unmarried. The result of this barrier was that living independently was almost exclusively available to wealthy, generally Pākehā, women. It was not until partway through the 1900s that available urban housing began to accommodate larger numbers of single women. (While working class women had been able to live in boarding houses previously, this did not offer an ideal level of privacy to maintain (secret) relationships.) However, with the construction of the Symonds Street apartments in the 1930s, independent, urban life came into reach for a growing number of lesbians. Thus, a network of queer space emerged moving through the heterosexual world from one private home to another.

Queer spaces continued to be almost exclusively domestic: gay and lesbian flats. These flats were generally either all gay or all lesbian, possibly with some heterosexual flatmates. Very seldom did gay men and lesbian women live together. The now-common framework of gay and lesbian people sharing a common identity and political struggle had not yet emerged.

In the 1970s and 80s, a circuit of queer homes emerged in the central suburbs of Tāmaki Makaurau. Concentrated primarily in the inner-city suburbs of Ponsonby, Grafton, Grey Lynn, and Herne Bay, they featured a rotating cast of queer residents seeking a sense of community and, in some instances, connection to the emerging political movements of gay liberation and radical lesbian feminism.

Melanie Church, Aotearoa: Poker Night at Ruby Palace, 161 K'Rd, 1998.

PART II. migrating queer venues

Starting in the 1950s, the growing numbers of gays and lesbians living in Tāmaki Makaurau began to frequent alternative establishments, co-opting them as impromptu or unofficial queer gathering spaces. Among these were Ca D’Oro and Blake’s Inn coffee bars and Lilypond at the Great Northern Hotel. These gathering places, were located primarily in the vicinity of the waterfront and where frequented and shaped by sailors who spent their time in the city drinking and seeking sexual encounters with other men.

With relaxing laws around the consumption of alcohol and closing times for bars in the late 1960s, queer spaces became increasingly formalized. These spaces began to emerge at the very end of the 1960s and continued to thrive well into the 1990s. Various gay clubs and bars began to open, further inland than the coffee houses had been and eventually clustering around Karangahape Road. These included Tāmaki Makaurau’s first gay nightclub, Chaplins, as well as strip clubs such as Las Vegas, cafes including Indigo Café and Treetops, and regularly scheduled queer events such as Fruits in Suits among others.

Of particular community importance was the KG Club. (The name KG is reported to come either from Karangahape Girls or Kamp Girls, ‘Kamp’ being a common self-descriptor for gays and lesbians at the time). The KG Club migrated through at least four locations on or around Karangahape Road. It was unique among formalised queer spaces because of the way it was organized as a community project. The club did not operate as a business and all work for the club was voluntary. The only exception to this rule is that the two cleaners, Janet and Joanna, were paid, a nod to a feminist perspective on the value of labour. In its early days, the KG Club was known as a relatively mixed space, welcoming lesbians, gay men, trans folk, drag performers and sex workers. However, when it was later taken over by a group of lesbian feminists it was restricted to women only.

PART III. outsiders keep out!

The changing audience admitted to the KG Club gestures towards a too often overlooked element of exclusion in queer spaces in Tāmaki Makaurau. Already we know that early lesbian living was not available to every lesbian. This problem of access did not disappear with the growing scene of queer venues on and around Karangahape Road. Drag performers, sex workers, Māori, Pasifika, and trans people were regularly excluded. A situation not improved by the fact that spaces tended to be either all male or women-only. Reports of women being excluded from lesbian spaces based on a failure to appear sufficiently ‘lesbian’ show that even those nominally included could be cast out. While queers had made ‘safe zones’ inside their spaces, an atmosphere of paranoia for the heterosexual world persisted. And while this may have been justified (Nicole Duval, a trans woman, recounts having been arrested while crossing Karangahape Road between the Pink Pussycat Club and the Windmill Follies in her own words for “wearing women’s panties”) it prevented many of the most marginalised community members from accessing the safety of queer space.

PART IV. what now?

Before it was a road, Karangahape Road, was a ridgeline, the landing site of Hape and his brothers in Aotearoa. It was on this ridge that Hape performed his karanga to is brothers arriving after him. Many years later, the ridge became a middle class Pākehā neighbourhood until the construction of the central motorway made the area increasingly undesirable. As the middle class Pākehā residents fled to more desirable suburbs, the ridge transformed again into a neighbourhood of mainly migrant Pasifika communities. It was only then that Karangahape Road attracted a gay crowd. As is often the case, a home of marginalised ethnic communities was appropriated by gays and lesbians.

In recent times, Karangahape Road has come to be considered something of a ‘gaybourhood’. But in many ways, this reputation is an afterglow: most of the gay and lesbian bars of the 1970s and 80s are long gone. Alan Collins suggests a way to understand the lifecycle of queer spaces. Beginning with in a marginal urban area, often home to other marginalised groups, which provides a convenient location for the building of gay spaces, typically gay male spaces. Eventually, the grouping of gay spaces diversifies to include lesbians and other queer groups followed by assimilation into the mainstream (often alongside growing ‘tourism’ by heterosexuals looking for an authentic queer experience), and eventually migration to a new, more affordable locale. Perhaps we can map this cycle onto the bloom of queer spaces that emerged and disappeared in the Karangahape Road area.

Does this mean that Karangahape Road will follow this cycle, transforming again into a new thing as queer spaces migrate again? Perhaps. Much has changed since Karangahape Road first became a queer space. We queers are better equipped now to test our staying power than we were before. And anyway, in some ways, the paths walked by these queer people remain. We can imagine a (probably glittering) trail of queer space passing through, over, and under the heterosexual city map. Starting in queer homes, venturing out to the waterfront coffee houses and coming inland again to dance on Karangahape Road. Where to next? Who knows!

Melanie Church, Aotearoa: De Za Star leading the walk from Sinners to the final club of '4 All or Nothing Women's Dance Party,' HERO Festival 2000.

References and Further Reading:

Clark, Fiona. “Remembering the Gay and Drag Scene of 1970s Auckland,” The Spinoff, October 15, 2017.

Collins, Alan. “Sexual Dissidence, Enterprise and Assimilation: Bedfellows in Urban Regeneration.” Urban studies (Edinburgh, Scotland) 41, no. 9 (2004): 1789–1806.

Hill, Julie. “Dark Side of the Rori.” North and South: New Zealand’s lifestyle magazine, 2015.

Laurie, Alison J. “Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies: pre-1970 lesbian life in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” PhD Diss., Victoria University of Wellington, 2003.

McCabe, Michael. “tracing steps on an empty dancefloor, or, nightclubs as queer spaces.” Thesis, University of Auckland, 2017.

Voit, Friederike. ““This was Paradise”: The Rise of Queer Public Spaces in Central Auckland,” Auckland History Initiative.

Winn, Harriet. “ ‘Oh my god, I’m home’: Lesbian nightlife in 1990s central Auckland.” Women’s Studies Journal. 34, no. 1/2 (2020): 48-58.

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