To be a lesbian in 1970s New Zealand was often to live in "a twilight world". By day, women went about life as assumed heterosexuals – many were married to men, many had children. If
they didn't, their sexual preference was seldom talked about, unaccepted by most. But by night, by way of clubs, feminist groups, sports teams, even a Dominion Rd bakery, they were able to find each other.
In an occasional series profiling everyday New Zealanders who have lived lives less ordinary yet largely unknown, Rebecca Blithe speaks to three women about the challenges and triumphs of being lesbian in the 1970s.
Dr Miriam Saphira was married to a man for 14 years and had five children when she first heard the word "lesbian".
"Oh! That's the word," she recalls thinking as lesbian feminist Sharon Alston delivered her speech at an Auckland Women's Liberation Meeting in Princes St.
"My face just lit up," says Saphira, who notes in the 70s the terms "gay" and "camp" were also used.
"I went home rolling the word around on my tongue. I could go and look up the word. It started a great search."
But it wasn't the first time Saphira had tried to find an explanation for her feelings.
At 14, she sneakily looked up "homosexuality" in the family's set of encyclopedias.
"It said that homosexuals had 'arrested development'. So, I thought they were all short. As I grew bigger and taller – I was a tall teenager - I felt I was a freak. I thought I was the tallest homosexual in New Zealand, maybe even the world."
Then at 19 Saphira "got drunk and got pregnant. He decided he would do the decent thing and marry me."
But to live as a heterosexual married woman, knowing your heart was elsewhere, was "awful", reflects Saphira, now 80.
"I didn't have any affairs with women all the time I was married. I would always have an attraction, often to another housewife down the street, but I could never do anything about them. I couldn't be who I really was."
Many marriages in this era bore the shadow of unrequited lesbian love, women holding secret but determined yearnings for different lives.
"You fell in love with someone who was totally inappropriate, married and didn't want a bar of it … there was a lot of longing and broken hearts."
Saphira, who became a clinical psychologist and worked with lesbian mothers, helping them through custody issues, says alcoholism was common. "Because you were hiding so much, of course alcohol sort of softened the pain and the loneliness."
While Saphira spent 14 years married to a man, fellow Aucklander and former English lecturer Aorewa McLeod, 80, had a somewhat different experience. She spent her teens exploring her sexuality before embarking on her first relationship with a woman.
"I guess you'd say I was bisexual then. I was doing what all my school friends were doing: having affairs with boys. But they all went off and married them. I didn't."
It was during her time as a student on work experience as a psychiatric nurse aid that she first met other lesbians and fell in love.
Stationed at a hospital in Stoke, Nelson, McLeod set eyes on a psychiatric nurse who she describes as "a very striking Māori woman". The pair had an "on-off affair for years", in between which McLeod says she "would occasionally sleep with guys".
By the 1970s, McLeod had been to the UK to study at Oxford and returned to Auckland, taking up a position at Auckland University where she became a senior lecturer. Her status as a lesbian, and even application of the word, was "all very quiet". She says while "certainly in the 70s I wouldn't have said anything, I think I came out to my students in the 80s".
Meanwhile, in 1970 a young Englishwoman by the name of Prue Hyman was settling into life in Wellington and a job at Victoria University, becoming Associate Professor of Economics and Gender and Women's Studies. A keen cricketer, she'd come out in the late 60s and after meeting her first partner, a Kiwi, followed her home to New Zealand.
"She sort of brought me out," Hyman, now 78, recalls. "And she would tell me who was lesbian and I would say, "How do you know?"
Signs and signals
In a society where anti-lesbian sentiment prevailed, relationships were often covert. Many women remained closeted. But they developed discreet ways to identify each other.
With the help of her first partner, Hyman got pretty good at spotting others.
"It was behaviour, clothing, the whole sort of works," she says.
According to Saphira, the 70s saw lesbian women favour "dull clothing and sensible shoes. In the 70s anyone who wore a denim jacket, we would think had a possibility. In the mid 70s denim became just about the uniform."
Saphira, a keen reader, also utilised her knowledge of lesbian books as a way to confirm her suspicions about another woman.
"I would often mention a book or a biography ... Katherine Mansfield for example."
Saphira remembers confident children of lesbian mums asking loudly about any woman with short hair: "'Is she a lesbian, Mum?' We began using the word 'aubergine'. At least it was purple, our colour."
According to McLeod, it was a case of using your "gaydar", your ability to identify another through subtle indicators. She notes while short hair and casual clothing was a common look at the time, she also knew women who wore "beautiful dresses. It wasn't necessarily a butch look," she says.
Standing in front of her students in the 1990s, however, McLeod says those old pointers could no longer be applied.
"There was no way I could tell which ones were lesbian. They all had long curly hair, wore dresses, makeup. Or didn't have long curly hair, didn't have makeup and weren't lesbian anyway."
Cricket, an unlicensed club and a bakery on Dominion Rd
Beyond identifying each other from afar, women found and created opportunities to meet up. This was particularly challenging at a time when newspapers refused to list information for lesbian groups or events.
For Hyman, her cricket team became a place for socialising: "Cricket was always, both in England and here, and probably everywhere else, very heavily lesbian. We were lesbians but we didn't talk about it."
She points to the stark contrast this makes to the New Zealand cricket scene today: "These days two of the New Zealand team [players] are married to each other and one of them got maternity leave," she breaks into a laugh before saying, "that is so far out from what would have been the case in the 70s, it's not funny. I mean we didn't talk about it."
Hyman enjoyed post-match drinks with the team at the pub. Often someone would invite the players to their house afterwards. "It was all women. Everybody knew. It was all quite open in many ways, but it wasn't talked about and it wasn't political."
She says while a lot of people "had real trouble finding the scene", the 70s marked a turning point where lesbian organisations "really got going. There was a lesbian softball club, for example."
From the windy Wellington cricket pitches to the long stretch of Dominion Road, a little bakery was being established as a place where lesbian women could roll dough and get to know each other.
Marge's Bakehouse became a favourite spot for McLeod. "Most of the women [Marge] employed were lesbians, were her friends. So that was a centre where you brought your lesbian friends. Marge had this mixture of working mates and university lecturers and at Easter we'd go and work all night putting crosses on hot cross buns."
McLeod also frequented the rising wave of feminist self-help therapy groups. "The whole feminist revolution movement made it easier to find other women. I feel it started to change by the late 70s and early 80s. It made it feel possible to say you were a lesbian."
For Saphira, she found a place to belong at Auckland's KG (Kamp Girls) Club. "It began in 1972 on K'Rd above what's now The Tattooed Heart. Then it went down to The Wine Cellar in St Kevin's Arcade, then to Beach Rd and Hereford St.
"I was able to go there and meet other lesbians. There was a couple there who really welcomed me and made you feel at home. Most of the women were like that."
Often raided by police over liquor licensing issues, Saphira recalls in particular lesbian schoolteachers seldom frequented the club. "... only at the end of the year. They came because they were lesbian but they were frightened that someone would see them from the everyday world. It was like living in a twilight world, it wasn't public. It only opened when the sun went down really. So that meant that we had more freedom."
Love under cover
Saphira's first relationship with a woman was "very closeted. We worked in the Justice Department. She didn't want to be out at all and, of course, I just wanted to tell the world, after all that time.
"We did go to a restaurant fairly regularly for dinner and she'd come over to my house usually once a week. I wasn't madly in love with her but I was enamoured with the whole being in some sort of relationship."
Reflecting on Hyman's relationship in the 70s, she recalls: "I don't think I ever hid it. My partner was also a lecturer at Vic. We lived together. I think everybody knew, but I'm not sure how much I really talked about it at work in those days. I certainly didn't feel I needed to hide or wanted to hide it."
Similarly, McLeod says she never felt ostracised or criticised over her relationships with women - "unless it was behind my back."
While McLeod says she didn't feel any negativity, public displays of affection were considered with caution.
"Certainly in the 70s you wouldn't walk down the street holding a woman's hand," McLeod tells the Herald. "Even well into the 90s, when my partner and I were in Brighton and we saw two women walking along, holding hands. We said, 'Ooh, look. They can do it.'"
But when Saphira did this in central Auckland back in the 70s, she was attacked.
"One night I had dinner downtown with my partner. We were so in love and held hands. Then three men smashed a bottle onto a parking meter and threatened us, grabbing at my bottom."
Saphira's partner, a former policewoman, was quick to direct Saphira into their nearby car and they sped away as the men hit the vehicle with the broken bottle. It wasn't the only time she was attacked.
Into the 80s and beyond
"The 80s and 90s were great days for being a lesbian," McLeod reflects. "It was when feminism was alive and books and music were coming out." She says from the late 70s "feminism sort of hit New Zealand. At that stage, the books, the records, all the lesbian stuff came from the States. And all the exciting feminist stuff came from the States too." McLeod also went on to write an autobiographical memoir: "Who Was That Woman, Anyway?: Snapshots of a Lesbian Life" in 2013.
Hyman, who has also written several books including Hopes Dashed? The Economics of Gender Inequality, says by the time the 1980s rolled around, she had become political. "I saw sense. I stopped being a totally euphemistic, cricketing academic and thinking that was all I had time for. I realised that's where things needed to be. I gradually became more part of the political scene.
So much so that Hyman agreed to be featured in a double-page spread in The Dominion Post when the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Bill was passed.
"A lot of people couldn't [be featured] because they'd have been in too much trouble with family or work or custody. I didn't have any issues like that. I was totally out by then."
By the end of the 70s, Saphira says there were so many mothers with difficult custody issues she ran a weekend workshop in Auckland's Blockhouse Bay – securing the venue by saying it was an event for single mothers. From here she began writing her book Amazon Mothers as a guide to help lesbian mums as well as "highlight the ridiculous things judges in the family court were saying."
Now approaching their 80th decade, Hyman, Saphira and McLeod, "dinosaur lesbians" as McLeod refers to herself, have witnessed massive changes for lesbians: marriage, children, integration and acceptance. And in their efforts to help other women through political endeavours, support groups and their literary offerings, perhaps the greatest triumph, as Saphira notes, is also the most seemingly simple: "Being free to gradually be open about my love for women."