- “Waiting for Uncle Ben”: Age-Structured Homosexuality in New Zealand, 1920–1950
At six o’clock on a Monday evening in March 1947, Cyril Townsend met twelve-year-old David Potts in a public toilet in Christchurch, New Zealand. Townsend, a separated income tax clerk of forty-seven, recalled that Potts approached him, at which point Townsend asked “if he went with many men.” Potts volunteered that he met men in the toilets on Monday nights. According to Townsend, “He said he was waiting for ‘Uncle Ben.’ I said ‘What is Uncle Ben going to do?’ He replied ‘What the other men do.’”1 Needing no further clarification, the clerk asked Potts to accompany him home.
Townsend and the boy stopped at the closest fish and chip shop, picked up a feed, and wandered toward the clerk’s house. “Immediately we got inside the boy went and sat on the bed,” Townsend later explained to police. “He opened up the fly of his trousers. He took out his penis. I got hold of it and played round with it. I may have rubbed it for a while. The boy had an erection when he took his penis out. I had an erection also when I rubbed it.” At one point, Townsend recalled, Potts “discussed sexual matters with me and he said he went out with other men.” David Potts’s account of events is broadly consistent with the older man’s, and he continued the story:
He had said if I would have one before tea and one after tea. Then I said “Alright.” Then I lay down on the bed and undid the fly of my pants. He started to play with my private parts. And after a while I said I had had enough and [the] accused said we would have the fish and chips. After a while we left [the house] and I went with him to change some books at the library. I left him at the Theatre Royal. . . . I met [End Page 467] another man the same evening after being to the place of the accused. That was about 30 minutes after being with the accused. I met this man in the same lavatory.2
Subject to further questioning, Potts added: “I have been going into town like this on my own since about before Christmas. I go into town about once a week. I did not always go to the same lavatory, but usually.”
The references to police and “the accused” reveal Cyril Townsend’s fate. When David Potts returned to the toilet, he aroused the suspicions—not the desires—of the second man. This fellow asked Potts where he had been that evening and, upon hearing the lad’s story, took him to the police station. Townsend was duly reported, arrested, found guilty by a jury, and sentenced to six months in prison with hard labor. Potts, who admitted that “he has made a practice of soliciting men about the town for some time past,” was placed under state supervision.3
Townsend and Potts’s story is recorded in a case file from the archives of the Christchurch Supreme Court. It evokes a landscape of cruising, wandering, hospitality, sexual activity, and subsequent state action and tells of an interaction between public and private sexual worlds. Most important for my purposes, it reveals the fleeting connection between a forty-seven-year-old man and a twelve-year-old boy. The sexualization of age differences between adult men and youths and their circumstances, meanings, and consequences are this article’s key themes. In the following pages, I use court records to explore the intricacies of age-structured homosexuality—those same-sex relations in which men take an active sexual role with boys and youths rather than adult men—in New Zealand between 1920 and 1950.
To examine this theme over a thirty-year period is to see how a once common, but now mostly forgotten, type of relationship occupied an important—and transitional—place in midcentury patterns of sexual life. Sex between men and sex between men and youths were coterminous realms of experience between 1920 and 1950. This was...