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    A queer history of New Zealand - 28-Jun-2008
    Scant research on homosexuality in New Zealand has meant the puzzle of male masculinity has lacked a few pieces ... until now. Dunedin academic Dr Chris Brickell hopes his new book presents a clearer picture. Shane Gilchrist reports.

    Some friendly suggestions can involve a lot of work.

    Just ask Chris Brickell who, on the urging of a mate, has spent more than three years writing a book that examines male friendship in all its forms.

    Its title, Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand , leaves the reader in no doubt as to its subject, yet the very process of documenting the history of homosexual relationships in this country has unearthed areas of male sexuality that could best be defined as "grey".

    Through 400-plus pages a range of characters are given voice.

    "Errant" missionaries, miners of "low character" and "rouged queens" vie for attention with the "dabbling normal man".

    A key point, backed up by hundreds of intriguing photographs, is that these men are not the same sexual being.

    In parallel, and often intertwined, is the author's charting of the ebb and flow of society's moral tide, from the mid-19th century to more recent times.

    Friend aside, Dr Brickell also saw a need for such a book.

    There has been scant research on homosexuality in New Zealand, he says.

    And that omission from the history books has meant the puzzle of male masculinity has lacked a few pieces.

    "The treatment of masculinity we had here had very much written out intimate and erotic relationships between men.

    "It really was a matter of trying to redress the specific lack of gay stuff but also to have a look at masculinity more broadly," the University of Otago senior lecturer in gender studies explains.

    Speaking by phone last week during a visit to Wellington, where he attended a book pre-launch as well as catching up with friends and family, the Hutt Valley-born academic says he handed in the final manuscript late last year, having started the project at the end of 2004.

    In the process of researching Mates & Lovers, Dr Brickell unearthed court records dating back to the 1860s, leafed through 1880s photo albums featuring images of men reclining or posing intimately with their male companions and accessed a raft of private correspondence.

    The detective work revealed a few surprises, even for an academic whose interests include gender relations, sexuality, social debate and consumer culture.

    "Because of the way it has been written out of history, there was a sense there was nothing there before gay liberation.

    "What I found pre-gay liberation was a bit of a revelation to me: there was quite a rich history, one that goes back right through the 19th century. All of that material was a surprise.

    "Talking to guys in their 80s about what their lives were like; that was a revelation, too. I had no idea there was quite a rich [gay] social life in the 1940s in the cities, for instance."

    In his intro to Mates & Lovers, Dr Brickell writes, "the history of homoeroticism is the history of all New Zealanders".

    Given such a statement is bound to provoke reaction, further explanation is required.

    "One of the things that struck me when I was doing this was that I had to delve into a lot of areas and get some knowledge of all of those things: law, medicine - it took a while to get my head around all the medical stuff - entertainment and so on.

    "In doing that I got an appreciation for how this topic is woven right into all those aspects of New Zealand life."

    Homosexuality is implicated in class structures, identity, law, politics, art and medicine, among other fields, he points out.

    Thus to exclude homosexuality from a sociological or historical picture is to crop that overall view.

    "I think to get a full picture it is really important to look at all aspects. Take entertainment.

    "The entertainment histories that have been written completely exclude it and when you look at it, it becomes a really glaring omission. The involvement of homosexual men has been quite significant."

    The concept of a fluid male sexuality is also explored in detail.

    In Dr Brickell's own words, there is a "tantalising ambiguity" to much of the material found during his research.

    Still, the detailing of sexually explicit language among men would seem to present definitive proof of the nature of their relationships.

    "There is an ambiguity to a lot of those pictures which means we can't nail down what they mean, but where you have records of men talking about their sexual involvement it is pretty undeniable.

    "It is interesting, too, to look at the changes in sexual vocabulary . . . It is another part of culture that wouldn't usually be recorded so I thought it would be quite neat to make a little bit of that."

    The idea of fluidity is twofold.

    Though Dr Brickell largely uses it to refer to the swings of sexuality within an individual, it also illustrates wider social perspectives in which sexual labels were either eschewed or, as time went by, invented and adopted by various subcultures.

    "I think it is an ebb and flow. The 19th century was fascinating because only some things that men did together were illegal and were denounced in the most hyperbolic terms, yet the culture left a lot of space for men to connect in various ways," Dr Brickell says, pointing to prevailing gender divisions that offered scope for men to "roam".

    Working environments of the time also played a part.

    Within rural miners' camps and urban boarding houses alike, males lived in close proximity and often lacked female company.

    "I think certainly in the rural areas, looking at the case of the gold-miners and so on, that is quite clear," Dr Brickell says.

    "In the cities, where the gender imbalance wasn't as marked overall, there was still a sense that there were men's spaces and women's spaces.

    "I'm sure quite a lot of those men were also having sex with women where that was a possibility, too.

    "The division between men who only have sex with men and men who only have sex with women was perhaps less marked than it is now."

    In examining 19th-century court cases involving allegations of sexual offending, Dr Brickell discovered a theme of disinterest among witnesses; that many of those asked to present evidence had paid scant attention to any nearby sexual liaison.

    "There is that sense of seeing it as fairly much inconsequential. My guess is that usually if a man made unwanted sexual advances, the other one would shove them off or thump them and that would be the end of that ...

    "Often, when men made that first approach it wasn't a problem; it was when they persisted that it was a problem.

    "It was OK to ask. They might be brushed off, but if they kept trying then it was a problem."

    In an early chapter, "Sex and romance in the colony", Dr Brickell writes: "In many establishments there were several beds to a room, but men rarely worried unduly about their room-mates' nocturnal activities.

    In 1864, for instance, Edgar Petersen claimed that Alex Morrison, a waiter at the Port Chalmers Hotel, crawled into his bed in the middle of the night. 'When I awoke I found one of his hands on my thigh, and the other one on my privates ... he pulled my shirt up and tried to have sexual connexion [sic] with me'.

    "The two carpenters sharing the room slept through the whole thing."

    For most of the 19th century, only forcible assault and sodomy were illegal, but the introduction in 1893 of the Criminal Code Act redefined the meaning of indecent assault, deeming any sexual act between men, regardless of the factor of consent, to be an offence.

    "It did become clear after that date that men were convicted for mutual masturbation and oral sex - two things that weren't criminalised before," Dr Brickell explains.

    "Prior to that, what comes up in court cases, at least for Otago, is attempts to force sex on someone else or anal sex [were illegal]."

    However, despite the Act being passed, subsequent court cases still usually involved an aggrieved party.

    "There still doesn't seem to have been any real kind of systemic police surveillance . . . Very rarely did it seem to capture consenting men."

    Yet the documentation of homosexual relationships is not limited to the 19th century. Mates & Lovers examines the rise of same-sex subcultures through the following 100 years: numerous anecdotes from military servicemen detail relationships with other men; and the contribution of the Kiwi Concert Party, a World War 2 spin-off from the New Zealand Army's entertainment unit, provided a theatrical outlet for some, including those who enjoyed dressing up as women.

    "I think by the end of the war, the subcultures were well-established in the main centres.

    "The figure of the 'queen' connected to both the entertainment world but also to the street culture a bit earlier; you're looking at the 1910s-1920s.

    "Clearly, there were mixed circles in which quite flamboyant men did circulate relatively comfortably."

    The rapid urbanisation after World War 2 contributed not only to the rise in homosexual subculture but also to an overall shift to a more cosmopolitan attitude within our cities.

    Coffee houses, just one result of this social shift, were nonetheless a popular spot for men seeking the company of men.

    Dr Brickell cites Dunedin's former Sirocco Café as just one meeting place.

    Others, some of which had been used for many decades, included the Queen's Gardens and Exchange, St Kilda Beach, the North Ground and the Town Belt.

    There is also mention of cribs at Goat Island and Whare Flat, places where "men could get away from town with their friends and have an alternative space".

    Though the title of Dr Brickell's book includes the word "gay", the transformation of the term as an adjective describing cheerfulness to a proclamation of sexual leaning is a relatively recent occurrence.

    And like the concept "coming out", its use in New Zealand can be linked to the Gay Liberation movement of the early 1970s.

    " 'Gay' is so interesting because it was virtually nowhere until the dawn of Gay Liberation in New Zealand.

    Then it was everywhere . . . 'Gay' is an astounding example of something that has suddenly emerged and structured people's understanding pretty quickly.

    "Gay Lib brought in that new language - not only `gay' but ideas like `coming out'. Coming out is the bedrock of modern gay identity.

    "This idea that guys get together and talk about their stories ... it is coming from that private consciousness into something more public.

    "You don't have to look back too far to see or talk to guys of a generation who just didn't do that . ..

    Some of them now see that 'coming out' as fantastic; some of them see it as actually not such a good thing, perhaps because they were used to it not being proclaimed and also because some of them quite liked that sense of tight friendship and clubby atmosphere, an exclusivity."

    The emergence of Gay Liberation, which is "very important in the way we see gay identity now", was predated by another influential group, the Homosexual Law Reform Society.

    Established in the mid-'60s and with connections to Wellington's politically-minded Dorian Society, the law reformists' efforts have led to more recent legislative changes: the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Bill, which decriminalised consensual sex between males over the age of 16; amendments in 1993 to the Human Rights Act to protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality; and the 2004 Civil Union Act.

    Though relationships between Gay Liberation and the law reformists were strained at times - the law reformists saw the gay liberationists as "utopian" and the gay liberationists saw the reformists "as a bit conservative" - the two groups did provide a certain critical mass.

    "Those two strands, the more reformist one and the gay liberation one, came together - if not politically, then at least in ways of understanding sexuality . . .

    "The Law Reform Society supplied the legal focus and Gay Liberation supplied the equality of age of consent and the public marches and demonstrations."

    As a sociologist, one who examines the weave of cultural fabric, Dr Brickell contends it is the tension between continuity and change that often defines history.

    He uses a rope analogy to make his point: core themes may continue, but new threads are being spun all the time.

    "Men look back and see themselves in other men's lives, even though the lives of them and their predecessors may not have been the same. You can see how the past influences the present.

    "One imagines the present begins 30 years ago, but when you extend your reach back, you actually do see these themes; you can see the changes, what is continuous.

    "I think there is something about doing history with that long a range that allows us to put the present into some perspective - as well as the past."

    So can the publication of a book that delves deeply into gay life in New Zealand be regarded as a definitive point on the continuum of cultural debate?

    Dr Brickell pauses briefly before replying: "I was talking to some guys last night; I said in a way it's a pity it has taken so long, but some of the others said if it had been done before now it might have been less acceptable.

    "In some ways, the timing is good."
    Ref: - Otago Daily Times

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