Thursday, 12 February 2015

“Her Feminine Bridegroom” : cross-dressing women in New Zealand history


There have always been cross-dressing women in New Zealand, many of whom have worked in traditional male jobs, and lived in lesbian relationships. Occasionally in the past, they came to the community’s attention after being charged for criminal offences such as acting under false pretences.

Hokitika-born Bertha Victor was taken into custody for vagrancy in Sydney, in 1906. Known as Bert Rotciv (Victor spelt backwards), she continued to cross-dress upon her return to New Zealand the following year and was charged several times for being a rogue and a vagabond, and for drunkenness while “masquerading in male attire”.


While in Sydney, she demanded to be interviewed by NZ Truth who wrote an article with sub-headings such as “The Sapphic Singularities of ‘Bert Rotciv’” after she told them “Girls got so ‘mashed’ on her as to be positively embarrassing” and that prior to her arrest she’d passed “the night with one of her own sex” (NZ Truth, 5 January 1907).


In 1909 Amy Bock married Agnes Ottaway in Dunedin. Agnes was shocked to discover after the ceremony that her “perfect little gentleman” husband, Percy Carroll Redwood (aka Amy), was a woman. Amy received a sentence of hard labour for the deception.


When the petition for an annulment of the marriage was heard in the Supreme Court, Counsel reminded the Judge that the situation was not unprecedented in Dunedin, and commented on the earlier Lance v. Trequair case, where two women had lived together for eight years before parting ways. “The fact of a woman [like Agnes Ottaway] marrying another woman in ignorance of the ‘bridegroom’s’ sex is remarkable enough, but what is to be thought of a couple that keep it up for eight years?” he asked (NZ Truth, 26 June 1909).

Oamaru’s Netta Morton moved to America in 1905, where she worked as a journalist and as a literary agent - and became known as Deresley Morton. By 1917 Deresley was living as a man named Peter Stratford. Peter worked for the US Army Medical Department and later married Elizabeth Rowland. It wasn’t until he died in 1929, that authorities discovered his gender.


NZ Truth’s article about Peter ended with “Little is known about this strange man-woman so far as her New Zealand associations are concerned, but her escapades will go down in history as being among the most weird and strange that ever startled the public in America or any other country” (NZ Truth, 13 June 1929).

In 1945 Peter Williams (born Iris Florence Williams, in Northland) was charged with making a false statement after marrying Phyllis Jones in Auckland. Once the deception was revealed the Court ordered the couple to live apart, and to undergo psychiatric treatment (until 1973 psychiatrists defined homosexuality as a personality disorder).

Peter had long lived and worked as a man – and had had both breasts removed in order to feel more comfortable in this role. He told Truth that he and his wife often went to dances and movies together and worked in the same firm, where they were known as man and wife. He agreed that their relationship was unusual, although to him, acting and feeling like a male, it seemed perfectly natural. He was happy, his wife was happy, “they were not doing harm to anyone. Why couldn’t they be left like that?” he asked (Auckland Star, 22 November 1945).

For more information on some of the women featured in this story see the following resources:

Auckland Libraries' heritage collections aim to provide a diverse and inclusive range of materials on LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex & questioning) people and communities and we welcome donations that help this goal. One of our major collections in this area is the Auckland Lesbian Archive, an inventory for this collection can be found here.

Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre

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