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    For queens and country - 9-Jul-2006
    Twenty years ago today parliament scrapped the law banning homosexual acts - but some older gays still stay hidden.

    John was a God-fearing army officer who cruised the public toilets looking for sex. He risked everything on those nights: his job, his reputation, his freedom.

    He still did the bogs, though. One night he drove a bloke down to the beach at Island Bay and afterwards they found the car was stuck in the sand. Frantic digging rescued them from the darkness. What if they had been caught?

    John, now in his 70s, recalls the time a fellow officer was caught in bed with a corporal. The officer went before the judge, and John, ironically, had to go as his official army friend at court. "I thought the corporal was quite cute," he remembers. The officer went to jail.

    Perhaps it is not surprising that John can't quite come out even now, 20 years after homosexual law reform and 13 years after another law change forced the military to stop discriminating against gays. He is scared to have his name in the newspaper. Law reform doesn't free you from history or habit.

    "I've come out to lots of people - I just haven't come fully out. But I don't seem to need to advertise the fact."

    He is afraid that it will cause hostility, from one relative in particular. "I think if I came out the reaction would be, `I always thought so.' We don't get on very well anyway."

    John's conflict is evident: he fears the reaction of a person he thinks knows anyway; he doesn't want to alienate someone who is already estranged.

    The military avoided the gay reforms longer than anyone else, and it was in the old anti-gay army that John served for 28 years. Senior officers had to undergo security clearances that included the question: Does he have any homosexual tendencies?

    "I only found that out when I was a lieutenant-colonel looking at security clearances for other people," he recalls, and laughs. "I thought, `Oh my God!"'

    Young gays nowadays might condemn John's generation as sad old queens who never adjusted to the new world, the lingering victims of ancient wars. Secrecy and denial have twisted their ageing souls. What has it done to them, all those years of burying their identities so deep? Aren't they damaged, even poisoned?

    John's answer is a cheerful: "Nope. I don't think it harmed me. I've had an enjoyable life." He loved the army. As a senior officer, he nearly always had too much work to do rather than too little, "and that's how I liked it". He travelled widely. And he can even savour the absurdities of clandestine sex.

    He was in a gay sauna in Wellington's Wakefield St one night when two cops raided. They found nothing, just a lot of blokes in towels. "When the police had gone everyone got quickly dressed and hurried off. It was a bit late for that!"

    It turned out that the young cops "were having a bit of a laugh, they popped in there without any authority to do so.

    "Because in those days the police were generally tolerant in the sense that I believe their attitude was it's better for people to be in the sauna than prowling around the toilets."

    Back then, "hardly anyone ever talked at the sauna. It was quite funny - just afraid of revealing too much about themselves, I guess. But it was not very sociable". In fact, he admits, it was a bleak and ridiculous business, anonymous sex and no conversation.

    He never told anyone in the army he was gay. After he left, he found former army colleagues at several gay venues, including the sauna. They didn't talk then either.

    Homosexual law reform has changed gay people's lives "very greatly, I think. It's made them feel generally happier in themselves".

    "There is a great deal more freedom. I think overall it has changed their social participation. Gay people don't necessarily gather together in gay groups as in times past. They even see themselves as being normal acceptable members of the community. They don't have to hide away.

    "Among the young there are many, of course, who are quite openly gay, but there are still those who are wary about coming out."

    Parents can still sometimes struggle to accept their child is gay - fathers more so than mothers. "They might feel it reflects on their masculinity, perhaps."

    Young people still struggle with their own sexuality, although nowadays they are not likely to take as long as he did. "For ages I didn't really believe I was gay. The old stereotype of a gay person was being a fairy and somebody who dressed up and that sort of thing. I wasn't like that."

    When he was in his early 20s, another soldier "once called me a poofter and I didn't really know what they were talking about... I knew it was meant to be derogatory but what it meant I really didn't know".

    Reform of the law, he says, has one clear benefit: "I'm no longer afraid of ending up in jail." But some good things may also have been lost. There is less activism in the community nowadays. "There is probably not so much to fight for as there was."

    However: "You've still got to be aware of those who might try to set the clock back. Those fundamentalists seem to have an increasing amount of influence - well, they do in the States, and what happens in the States often become contagious and ends up elsewhere as well."

    Destiny pastor Brian Tamaki and his black band show that gays still have enemies.

    As gays suburbanise, there may be less buzz and less fun in the community, he says, although "perhaps that is just old age speaking. I'm not prepared to go out and rave on as I used to". And a community does draw a certain strength from persecution. "People who are oppressed become stronger."

    The oppressed gay community naturally developed "all sorts of shades of anti-authoritarianism". John developed his own liberal attitudes in reaction to his authoritarian father. His father was Labour; he turned National. So how does a gay liberal fare in the army, a notoriously authoritarian institution? Well, he replies, the New Zealand Army is much less dictatorial than the British Army. The late lawyer, Mike Bungay, who served in both, once said: "In the British Army, an order was an order. In the New Zealand army, it was more like a topic for discussion."

    There were, of course, limits to military liberalism. John recalls one long discussion he had with a very senior officer "and I thought it was friendly enough. Next day my OC said to me, the corps director didn't appreciate your arguing with him". But John didn't like yes-men and when he gained senior jobs he always encouraged debate. "Unless you've got people who are prepared to take a different viewpoint, you'll never make progress."

    Were those lost decades, then, the long years of secret sex and anxiety? "No, if I had come out earlier I might have been dead of Aids now. Well, I know a number of people who are."

    And if he had lived in a gay-friendly society: "I might have been less disciplined and might have gone over the top.

    "One doesn't know. I see a lot of young fellows today - I suppose this has always happened - who just go over the top in enjoying themselves and one worries whether they will ever settle down and become useful in their lives... Think of gay as in `gay abandon'."

    Young straight people can also party uselessly, he concedes, but "I think young heterosexuals tend to settle down quicker". It's easier for them to do so. "It's easier to be normal than not, in whatever field you're in."

    Now John lives in his tiny flat and divides his time between his abiding loves -rugby, his liberal Protestant church, and classical music -and a dwindling amount of gay partying. In his long life he had only one lasting relationship. But after six years, "he ran off with somebody else". Now he has nobody and doesn't expect to find another partner again.

    In his old age he misses not having a family. Just once, a real shadow seems to pass over this cheerful man's face. Law reform, he says, will also make it easier for gays to adopt children and enjoy their company during old age. But for John, it is too late.
    Ref: - Sunday Star Times


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