Whanganui is now home to New Zealand's first rainbow heritage listed building, marking the spot where a former mayor shot a man who was threatening to expose him as being gay.

The building at 23 Ridgway Street in Whanganui was Charles Mackay's private office when he was mayor of the city back in 1920. 

On May 15 that year, returned soldier and poet Walter D'Arcy Cresswell threatened to expose Mackay as being gay if he did not resign as mayor.

Mackay responded by shooting Cresswell in the chest.

Cresswell survived the shooting and Mackay went to prison. 

Mackay’s wife divorced him after the incident, while a street that was named after him had its name changed. 

Marking this moment in time

Now, the site of the confrontation between Mackay and Cresswell has received heritage status. 

It is the first building in this country to be listed as a historic place specifically for its queer history, according to Heritage New Zealand Area Manager Kerryn Pollock.

“This is a really groundbreaking listing for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga,” she says. 

“The events that took place there, and the subsequent impact on the lives of the people involved, are emblematic of the threat of incarceration and social shame which was a reality experienced by homosexuals living in New Zealand - a reality that only began to change with the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986.”

Criminalisation of gay men and the social stigma attached to queer identity meant many gay people had to hide their sexuality in the 1920s, but Pollock says Charles Mackay is a “tragic exception”.

“[His] scandal and court case is a record that society could bury but not erase. Duigan’s Building [at 23 Ridgway Street] is the place which holds the story.”

A big deal for Whanganui

Christina Emery, Trustee of Pride Whanganui, says this heritage listing is an incredible moment for the LGBTTQIA+ history of New Zealand, and for Whanganui in particular.

“For so long our queer history has been glazed over, pushed to the side and in this case eradicated,” she says. 

“This listing shows not just that we are here but that we've always been here!”

Acting Whanganui Mayor Helen Craig is also welcoming the rainbow heritage listing. 

“Seeing, touching and knowing our history is a basic human need,” she says.

“Whanganui has many heritage stories but this listing is unique and personal, bringing out of the shadows the homophobic prejudice of the time that caused the downfall of someone as talented as Mayor Charles Mackay.”

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