New Zealand society is generally fairly relaxed in acceptance of gays and lesbians. The gay-friendly environment is epitomised by the fact that there are several Members of Parliament who belong to the LGBT community, gay rights are protected by the New Zealand Human Rights Act, and same-sex couples are able to have their relationships legally recognised with a civil union, which generally gives them the same rights as a married couple, although this is a relatively recent development, having come into effect in 2005. Sex between men was only decriminalised in 1986, and like all countries, there is always the issue of homophobia with which to contend. Due to New Zealand's relatively small population, the LGBT community is small, but still visible, with Pride festivals and LGBT events held around the country throughout the year.
Some of the earliest European settlers in New Zealand were Christian missionaries who arrived in the early nineteenth century and eventually converted most of the Māori population to Christianity. They brought with them the Christian doctrine that homosexuality was sinful. Despite this, one missionary, William Yate, was sent back to England in disgrace after being caught engaging in sex with young Māori men.
When New Zealand became a British colony in 1840, British law was adopted in its entirety, making sex between males illegal. In 1893, all kinds of sexual activity between men was criminalised, with penalties including imprisonment, hard labour, and flogging. Sexual acts between females were never made illegal, which could be the result of many social factors of the time.
Despite discriminatory laws, a small gay subculture developed. A number of gay men were involved in New Zealand's even smaller literary subculture, including Frank Sargeson. However even in these circles, homosexuality was not always accepted. Lesbian subcultures are more difficult to detect, but in late 1971, the KG (Kamp Girls) club for lesbians was formed in Auckland.
Violence against gays and lesbians was often condoned. In 1964, Charles Aberhart was beaten to death in Christchurch's Hagley Park by a group of men who claimed he had propositioned them. They were tried for murder but found not guilty. As in many countries, homosexuals were often committed to mental institutions and given 'treatment' for what was rendered a mental illness.
In 1961, the Dorian Society was founded in Wellington. Two years later, it established a legal subcommittee out of which the Homosexual Law Reform Society emerged. In 1972, the Gay Liberation Front was formed in Auckland by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. In the following decades, numerous gay and lesbian rights groups were formed across New Zealand.
After several attempts (see gay rights in New Zealand), the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 was passed, decriminalising sexual activity between men over the age of 16. In 1993, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was outlawed. In 2004 the Civil Union Act was passed, giving same-sex couples an equivalent to marriage. New Zealand was unique in passing homosexual law reform in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Supporters of reform argued that removing the stigma from homosexuality would help prevent the spread and aid the treatment of disease. AIDS has primarily affected the gay male community in New Zealand, and gay men are prominent in AIDS fundraising and in running organisations such as the New Zealand AIDS Foundation.
New Zealand's first gay pride week was founded in the 1970s in the wake of the Stonewall riots in New York of 1969, the symbolic start of the modern Gay Rights Movement. In 1991, New Zealand's most prominent gay pride event, the Hero Parade, was founded in Auckland. This developed into a festival that became burdened by financial problems, and no parade has been held since 2001. Smaller scale parades were held in Wellington in the 1990s.
New Zealand also boasted the world's first transgender MP. Georgina Beyer was elected to Parliament in the 1999 election for the seat of Wairarapa, and left Parliament on 14 February 2007. Before entering parliament, Beyer was the world's first transgender mayor, of the small town of Carterton.
As in many other countries, there are numerous gays and lesbians involved in various branches of the arts. They include Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera, dancers Michael Parmenter and Douglas Wright, award-winning teen book author Paula Boock and Chief Censor Bill Hastings. The creator of the Rocky Horror Show Richard O'Brien also spent most of his childhood in Hamilton.
The gay scene in New Zealand is small by international standards, especially outside Auckland, which has a small number of gay venues, and even a de-facto 'gay street', Karangahape Road. Outside Auckland, larger cities and some towns host one or two LGBT pubs, clubs or sex venues. Many smaller centres have LGBT organisations and social networks that cater to their community.
The internet is heavily used by gay men in New Zealand to meet others, especially in areas which lack specifically gay venues. Another popular website, GayNZ.com, is frequently used as a source of information and current affairs for New Zealand's LGBT population.
There are no dedicated lesbian bars in New Zealand, but elaborate Lesbian Ball events are held annually in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Auckland and Wellington also hold regular lesbian social events.
There are a number of gay and lesbian festivals in New Zealand. The best known of these is Hero, held each February in Auckland. Until 2001, this included the Hero Parade, which attracted huge crowds, both gay and straight. Financial problems led to the parade's demise, but the festival continues as a celebration of the city's LGBT citizens that comprises many events throughout February, including the popular Big Gay Out (in contrast to the music festival Big Day Out held in January), which is held on the Sunday closest to Valentines Day.
Many cities around the country host annual Pride Weeks, usually operated by the local UniQ, related youth-focussed organisations, or the New Zealand AIDS Foundation as a community-building initiative. The Out Takes film festival was a popular event in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, however the organisation have pulled the 2008 festival due to monetary and funding issues.