15 Gay New Zealand Icons Worth Celebrating

Today, New Zealand is one of the best gay-friendly environments on the planet. Not only are most people generally accepting of an LGBTQ+ lifestyle, but gay people over 18 make up at least 4.5 percent (over 169,500 people) of the country’s population. 

New Zealand became one of the first countries to decriminalize homosexuality in 1986. In pre-colonial times, the indigenous Māori people welcomed a gay and transgender lifestyle, but this became penalized during the colonial period. Now, New Zealand offers one of the best atmospheres in the world for gay people. Many actors, dancers, musicians, sports celebrities, and even politicians have come out in public as gay. 

Discover these top 15 gay New Zealand Icons worth celebrating for their contributions to their community and to their field

1. Campbell Johnstone   

As a former rugby player for New Zealand, Campbell Johnstone made headlines when he came out as a gay man in January 2023. This made him the first All Black team player to come out in public as LGBTQ.  

In 2005, Johnstone played with the All Blacks, which is New Zealand’s national rugby union team, in three international matches. Despite his successful career, the ex-rugby played felt like he had been living a lie portraying the rugged, straight, family-man type that he believed that fans wanted to see. 

If he could come out as an All Black player, Johnstone hopes that this will inspire others to live their most authentic lives and give closure to everyone who wondered about his orientation.

2. Marilyn Waring

Born in 1952, Dam Marilyn Waring is another gay New Zealand icon that is worth celebrating. The renowned author, former politician, public policy scholar, environmentalist, feminist, and consultant for international development knows how to get things done as a gay woman in leadership. 

During her term as a National Party MP in the 1970s through 1980s, someone outed Waring as a lesbian, but this did not decrease her popularity and instead, she landed another re-election term. 

Throughout her political career, Waring focused more on pro-choice and feminist issues rather than her lesbian stance. After leaving the New Zealand Parliament in 1984, she has been more vocal about her sexual orientation. 

3. Tim Barnett

This prominent New Zealand icon is also an openly gay man who became elected to public office in 1996. 

Born in 1958, Barnett is an immigrant from Britain to New. Zealand and has earned the distinction of being the second man who is openly gay to get elected as a politician in the country. Even before he joined the New Zealand House of Representatives for Christchurch Central (1996-2008), Barnett represented the Labor Party as a gay man.

Following his political work in New Zealand, the politician headed to South Africa to work as the global program manager for the World Aids Campaign based in Cape Town in 2009. After three years in the field, he came back to New Zealand to head up the Labor Party as general secretary in 2012. During his time in office, Barnett has helped decriminalize prostitution and heads up other causes that have not always had a voice in a more conservative political climate.

4. Anna Paquin

This New Zealand-Canadian celebrity is a popular actress born in 1982. Raised in Wellington, New Zealand, Paquin moved to Los Angeles as a young woman. After doing a year of study at Columbia University, Paquin decided to pursue a career in acting instead. 

Even as a. child, Paquin was into acting. In 1993, she played the character of Flora McGrath in the romantic drama movie The Piano by Jane Campion. This performance launched her critically acclaimed career and earned her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress by age 11. This made Paquin the second-youngest person, after Tatum O’Neal, to win an Oscar in history. 

After marrying Stephen Moyer, a True Blood actor in 2010, the actress came out in public as bisexual the same year.

5. Danielle Cormack

Born in 1970, Danielle Cormack is a well-known actress on both the screen and the stage. As a member of Shortland Street, one of New Zealand’s longest running soap operas, Cormack is also famous for her role as Ephiny in Xena TV series, her work as Cynthia Ross in The Cult, and as Shota in Legend of the Seeker film. 

She is also known for her work in Separation City (2009), as Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor, as Bea Smith in Wentworth, a prison drama by Foxtel until 2016, and in popular Australian television series Rake.

As a gay celebrity, Cormack prefers to avoid labels when it comes to her personal sexuality but acknowledged that she has had relationships with both men and women. 

6. Freda Stark

One of the earliest gay New Zealand icons was Freda Stark, a popular exotic dancer and witness for the prosecution at a 1935 trial for the murder of her lesbian lover, Thelma Mareo, by her lover’s husband, Eric Mareo. 

Born in 1910, Stark worked as a famous exotic dancer during the Second World War to raise money and morale at the Wintergarden nightclub and cabaret in Auckland. Known as the “Fever of the Fleet”, this gay dancer became a favorite performer for American servicemen stationed in New Zealand. 

In 1933, Stark met Thelma Trott and fell in love. Trott soon married a conductor named Mareo and the woman’s unexplained, drug-related poisoning death resulted in a murder trial for Mareo where Stark had to sit through a public outing as a lesbian and an array of exotic photographs displayed at trial. Despite the difficult situation, the court considered the celebrated dancer a “model witness” who helped secure a conviction for Mareo who had caught the two women together. 

After the war, Stark moved to London where she married gay New Zealand dancer Harold Robinson and starred together in the 1947 film Curves and Contrasts. 

7. Douglas Wright 

Known as one of the most remarkable dance artists of the 20th century, Douglas Wright was also a gay man from South Auckland who revolutionized dance choreography in New Zealand. 

Born in 1956, Wright remained active until his retirement in 2008 when he began publishing poetry.  After publishing his first book, Laughing Mirror, he stayed busy writing works of dance. In 2015, three years before his death, Wright joined the tour of The Kiss Inside. 

His works often brought out the surreal and edgy elements of dance choreography that echoed his experiences growing up as a gay boy in rural New Zealand. 

8. Alexander Grant

Known as a high-ranking Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), Alexander Grant was an iconic ballet dancer, instructor, and director of a ballet company celebrated for his talent in both New Zealand and abroad. 

Born in 1925, the dancer began dancing at age 7. As a young man, he also won a scholarship to study ballet in England. Grant rose to fame after he moved to London and starred in the Royal Ballet as the company’s most remarkable dancer during the ballet’s golden period during the 1940s-1960s. He remained with his partner, Jean-Pierre Gasquet, for 54 years until his death in 2011 at the age of 86.

Many consider Grant, who privately identified as a gay man, as one of the most tremendous male dancers to ever emerge from a British ballet company. His life and work highlight how many LGBTQ+ people worked in popular art mediums such as theater and ballet. 

9. Madeleine Sami

 Born in 1980, this New Zealand director, actress, musician, and comedian is also a proud lesbian icon of the arts.

Sami began her acting career in the theater and afterwards switched to television. During this time, she wrote and acted in Super City. In 2018, she became co-writer, co-director, and starring actress for The Breaker Uppers which became a box office hit in New Zealand. 

In 2015, Sami wed singer and songwriter Pip Brown, known by her stage name as Ladyhawke, and welcomed a daughter with her wife in 2017. 

10. Urzila Carlson

This fat positive Kiwi is also a popular actor and stand-up comedian who keeps audiences rolling with her punchlines on Netflix’s Overqualified Loser. She is also a self-titled “lesbytarian” (a cross between lesbian and Presbyterian) who has appeared on both New Zealand and Australian TV programs. 

Born in 1976 in South Africa, Carlson has acted as a panelist on 7 Days, Have You Been Paying Attention? and on The Masked Singer Australia’s second season. As busy and hilarious as ever, Carleson has even published a memoir entitled Rolling with the Punchlines. 

11. Craig Parker

As a famous New Zealand actor, Parker is also an outspoken gay man.

 Born in 1970, he achieved fame for acting the role of Hadir in the 2001 Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers in 2001, and for the role of Darken Rahl in the TV series. 

Parker is also known for coming out to The New Zealand Herald during a 2008 interview. While many of the actor’s fans had suspected his orientation for a long time, due to his absence of a public dating life or a female partner, Parker’s interview confirmed what fans wanted to know. To this day, Parker is still very private about his relationships and may still be single.‎ 

12. Alison Mau

Alison Mau, who goes by Ali Mau professionally, is another gay New Zealand icon who is also a celebrated broadcaster, journalist, and former news anchor. 

Born in Melbourne in 1965, Mau has worked in multiple TV news capacities including a position as a co-host of the TVNZ current affairs, Seven Sharp, Fair Go, and TVNZ’s Breakfast program. 

Mau and her partner, Simon Dallow, represented two of the most high-profile news couples due to their jobs presenting the weekend One News show from 1999 to 2003. The couple had two children together. 

Only in 2010 did Mau publicly address her relationship with a woman for the first time. She also revealed how the news media, particularly Gaynz.com, hounded her about her break with Simon Dallow and how Woman’s Day outed her relationship with a woman without her consent. This didn’t stop Mau from introducing Karleen Edmonds, her girlfriend, to a fundraiser audience that same year. 

Mau considers coming out as an intensely personal and private process and believes that a person, celebrity or not, should have control over when they choose to come out, not the news media.

13. Sara Wiseman

Sara Wiseman is a popular bisexual New Zealand actress who has achieved recognition for playing roles such as Dr. Nicky Somerville in Mercy Peak, Carolyn Bligh in A Place to Call Home, and as Annabelle Willis in The Cult.

Born in 1975, the actress is married to Craig Hall, another actor, but came out as bisexual to the public in 2021.  

14. Tamati Coffey

Born in 1979, this member of the New Zealand Parliament is also an indigenous, gay person who serves the Labor Party on behalf of the Waiariki electorate. 

Coffey emerged as a gay man in a Woman’s Weekly interview done in 2009 where the politician stated that he lives with Tim Smith, his long-term partner who previously worked as a music teacher in northern England. Coffee, who descends from the Te Arawa tribe, married his boyfriend in a civil ceremony in 2011. 

15. Grant Robertson

In 2020, Grant Robertson became the first publicly gay man to hold the role of Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand. Currently, he is ranked with a top team of lawmakers, including indigenous Māori politicians such as Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahut, and Minister for Children Kelvin Davis, who is known for diversity and inclusion efforts. 

Robertson joined Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s liberal cabinet lineup after her Labor Party emerged victorious in a landslide reelection victory. The gay Deputy Prime Minister is one of Ardern’s longtime political allies and announced his intention to advocate for all New Zealanders. Robertson also believes that it is important for young gay people to see one of their own ascend to a top position. 

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