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Thursday 09 October 2008

Tim Barnett's remarkable journey

Posted in: Features
By Jay Bennie - 4th September 2008

When Tim Barnett announced in February that he would not be standing again for Parliament it signaled the departure of New Zealand’s most openly activist gay MP.

Tim Barnett
In his twelve years in Parliament Barnett became indelibly linked with publicly contentious, socially progressive legislation. Like Civil Unions and the legalisation of prostitution. It was a role he had grown into over many years.

Born in Rugby, England in 1958, Barnett received a solid education in state schools and at age eighteen started to show his community-oriented nature by spending two years doing voluntary work in strife-plagued Northern Ireland and in the Caribbean. Three years at the London School of Economics followed, then he immersed himself in community project management in the grittier parts of London and Birmingham before washing up in local body politics as a city councilor in London between 1982 and 1986.

In 1983 he started coming out as a gay man. "When I was a city councilor in Greenwich, London we were invited to the local Polytechnic Gay Society who would brief the city councilors on what the issues were. And I thought the young guys presenting the meeting were really rather lovely, and I’d had a few gay... not relationships... gay contact, I guess, over the years. But never really got my head around what it was all about. So I thought: 'Well, let’s just take this a little bit further.' I went around to the bars and this and that," and by 1989 Barnett was internationally out as the Executive Director of the UK’s national gay and lesbian rights organisation, Stonewall.

During his time at the helm of Stonewall he played a significant part in the eventual repeal of a section of Britain’s Education Act which had forbidden the mention of homosexuality in classroom settings, especially sex ed classes. A social reformer had found his calling.


When his then-partner, Rev. Jonathan Kirpatrick, spotted a job opening on the other side of the world, Barnett felt ready for change. “In one sense I came to New Zealand because Jonathan got a job here, but also because I’d been at Stonewall for a time, and it was starting to get towards take-off, there were people approaching us offering us money. And I thought ‘I either go now, or stay for the next period.’ Kirpatrick, too, was ready for a change. “Jonathan had done his parish stuff, had been working in the Church of England as a personnel person, and we were at a loose end. We saw a job advertised in Christchurch, and had the colonial sense of adventure, really. We wanted to come to a new place and see something new.”

Barnett regrets that established friendships became casualties of the pair’s move. “Our friends without exception thought we were absolutely mad… we probably lost most of the friends we had, not because they stormed off, but just because you lose friends when you travel across the world... you lose most people. Despite email and everything else, it’s quite hard to keep in contact, in reality. I told family and friends we were coming for three years, and then they realized after that we weren’t going to come back.”

It wasn’t long before Kirkpatrick was appointed Dean of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Dunedin. Barnett remained in Christchurch, where he had been working firstly for the NZ AIDS Foundation and then the Community Law Centre. He became more and more involved with the Labour party, emerging in 1996 as MP for Christchurch Central. The long-distance relationship took its toll, most infamously when Barnett fell asleep at the wheel while driving the pair from Invercargill to Dunedin. The car left the road and Kirkpatrick sustained serious back injuries.

Barnett at 2005's Wellington LGBT Fair
Barnett immersed himself in Parliament, gaining credibility and reputation as a forthright, articulate and strategically savvy promoter of social reform. One day he glimpsed an iconic early AIDS Foundation poster featuring a group of Maori men on a set of stairs. There was something about one of those men that appealed. “ I remember thinking, 'Hmmmm, rather good looking.'”

In 2000 Barnett was accompanying overseas friends, including Tasmanian gay activist Nick Toonen, to the Queer of the Year awards at the Staircase nightclub in Auckland. "Jeremy Lambert was around, and I was introduced to Ramon through Jeremy, very briefly.” Ramon Maniapoto was the face on the stairs on the poster.

“And then a year later Ramon was flatting in Wellington with [Labour MP] Nanaia Mahuta, and she brought him along to the pool to go swimming at night. Then about two months later she asked if he’d made contact with me. I realized then what she was up to, and my relationship with Jonathan was getting a bit rocky. So it all happened from there. Very quickly. We moved in after about two days.”

Mahuta would later tell the pair she wanted to wear angel wings at their civil union because she was their cupid.

Maniapoto and Barnett exchange vows
After seven years together, and the passing of the Civil Unions legislation extending legal recognition to same-sex and other couples, the pair were hitched in front of 350 friends and family at Maniapoto’s home marae, a picturesque setting on the shore of Lake Taupo.

It was a measure of Barnett's political standing - he had risen to the powerful and important position of Government whip - that Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen and Speaker of the House Margaret Wilson were amongst those who participated in the ceremony. Helen Clark might have attended if she wasn’t committed to a Netball final. Moana (Maniapoto) and the Moa Hunters entertained. “It was very big, and slightly anarchic, and ideal weather and very musical and more food than you can possibly imagine. It was one of those extraordinary days when everything went right.”

A follow-up ceremony attracted the sniffy objections of the Anglican Church. “We had something two weeks later in Christchurch with about 200 people, which was even less organised. It was in an Anglican church. They went into panic apparently and the Bishop said we shouldn’t be doing it. But we didn’t formally get blessed and therefore we didn’t break any rules!”

Although clearly appreciative of the numbers of people who turned out to help the pair tie the knot, Barnett downplays this aspect of the ceremonies. “I’ve never been somebody who’s into those big things. Well I’m a Leo but I’m not really into the big production numbers.”


Since 2004, when the enabling legislation passed, Barnett has attended “about ten” civil unions, and has come to appreciate the fine distinction which has emerged between the legally proscribed format of marriage vows and the looser requirements of civil union vows. “There’s a subtle difference between civil union and marriage – and I hadn’t realized when we made the change what it meant. Regan Andrew, one of a host of young campaigners around our law reform, put a submission in about how the wording of the vow in the Marriage Act shouldn’t be in the civil union legislation. So, basically, you don’t have to say certain wording. All you have to do is to clearly indicate a commitment to each other.”

For their own ceremony Barnett and Maniapoto each wrote their own vows “and we didn’t tell each other about them. Mine was about four minutes and Ramon’s was about six or seven... very long vows. And when I was reading my vow to Ramon - I was first - I could hear people starting to cry. It was very quiet for that number of people, so they were all listening fairly intently. And I thought" 'Yeah, there’s something in this. There’s something people are understanding about same-sex love being the same, but not being the same. That whole combination.'”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a politician, Barnett detects a frisson of politicking in most ceremonies. “Each civil union that I’ve been to has had a bit of politics in it. Has had a bit about those who’ve gone before, about the attitude of family, and that’s what I like about them. They have an edge which marriage doesn’t have. They are nearly always more powerful.”

And he isn’t above crediting the Anglican Church with a hand in raising civil union ceremonies above the average. “Because the Anglican Church in their normal, idiotic way have banned them from their churches it’s actually caused people to think more about formats and venues. I mean, most marriages aren’t in churches, but for same-sex couples, apart from in places like [Auckland’s] St. Matthew's in the City, it’s not really an option.”


After Parliament shuts down for the coming general election, for which a date has yet to be announced, Barnett and Maniapoto are heading off on  three months of OE. “We’ll go to southern Africa. We got an invitation to go to Zimbabwe... a political invitation by one of the new senators.

Zimbabwe, the brutalised realm of tyranical Robert Mugabe who once equated homosexuals with pigs? Would Barnett go as an openly gay man and make an issue of it there? “Hopefully by then Robert Mugabe won’t be in power. There are things happening there. So I think my invitation is predicated on that happening.”

By early December the pair will be in Britain, “to have a month with my mother, then do a trip out into Europe from there, and then either driving or train or a bit of both across the ‘States. And then coming back via Rapa Nui, Easter Island."

After that Barnett hopes to be back working to improve people’s lives, something he clearly has coded into his DNA. “I’ve applied for jobs with the United Nations, which could take us anywhere. I’ve put applications in to Albania, Slovakia, Nepal, Thailand, Fiji, South Africa, Nigeria, New York… so we’ll see. And if they all come to nothing, there’s plan B and C here in New Zealand.”

However it pans out, the call of home, on the other side of the world from his birthplace, is likely to eventually lure Barnett and Maniapoto back to Christchurch where the couple has lived in the trendy but laid back Avon Loop, spoiling Ngeru ("Her name is Maori for cat... very much a Madame, and very affectionate and very loving) and feasting on Thai food whenever possible; “or to Ramon’s area by Lake Taupo” and “perhaps some work with the Iwi” on the picturesque shores of Lake Taupo.

Jay Bennie - 4th September 2008