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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Review: Mates & Lovers - A History of Gay New Zealand

Posted in: Books
By Craig Young - 26th June 2008

Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand. Godwit Press, 2008. (Available from Unity Books: $NZ50)
Otago University academic Chris Brickell has gone where no gay man has gone before, and has managed to pull together a comprehensive review of what gay male history in Aotearoa/New Zealand has been like over the last one hundred and seventy years of European settlement.

As for life beforehand, I suspect that responsibility lies with a gifted taksatapui linguist, anthropologist and/or cultural historian who may be able to uncover their narratives within Maori oral accounts of their whakapapa.

Be that as it may, this work concentrates on gay men, because Alison Laurie is at work on a long awaited lesbian herstory of the same period. In any case, it includes a few familiar characters, but also a few unfamiliar ones. The Church Missionary Society's Reverend Yates puts in an appearance, and then we are on to wholly new territory. Chris managed to dig these out from kept family and archival correspondence, oral histories from older men, Dunedin Supreme Court records, the odd medical and psychiatric journal clinical report, and inclusion of some ephemera.

What did he find out? As one might guess, the Victorian era wasn't all that straight or straightlaced in European times. For one thing, there was the disreputable colonial neighbourhood (ie. European colonisation of Australia), and the gender imbalance amongst the whalers and early missionaries, which meant all sorts of hi-jinks went on.

Later, when this initial imbalance was addressed, the early Colony of New Zealand was still largely rural, with large vistas of non-urban land available for those who wanted to have a fumble with a farmhand in the hay, or "camp" by a river with a "jolly" itinerant. As time went on, cities grew, and as a result, so did urban cruising grounds.

It might be asked where the colonial police were during this period. Curiously, there were some initial loopholes in colonial era 'anti-sodomy' statutes, which only applied to anal sex and same-sex male rape firstly, and were only extended to include mutual masturbation and oral sex in 1893. That didn't slow down emergent gay social networks in the cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and even some provincial cities. Same-sex public baths and steam rooms were established, and in some suburban living rooms, drag shows were put on. Later on, there were also occupational networks amongst train and inter-island ferry staff (especially the Maori), as well as the fashion industry, the arts and creative industries.

Apart from homophobic violence, increased levels of criminal apprehension in the fifties and sixties, and admission to psychiatric institutions to try to 'cure' male homosexuality,we're then onto well-documented ground - the birth of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, Gay Liberation, National Gay Rights Coalition, homosexual law reform (1986), the Human Rights Act (1993) and Civil Union and Relationships (Statutory Amendments) Acts 2004/2005.

Chris has written an encyclopaedic reference work, although personally, I would've liked to see more about the 'phobes. Of course our foreparents courage, tenacity and heritage should be celebrated, but what about what and who they had to resist? I know that there's a scholarly debate about the relationship between repression and resistance in some quarters of social history, but has he emphasised the resistance at the cost of detailed discussion of the repression?

With those reservations aside, this is an elegant, easily readable coffee table book, and fills a gap in our historical knowledge of the colonial LGBT past in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Now, if someone could work on takatapui and whakawahine/transgender histories, we'd have the full gamut of the LGBT experience.

Craig Young - 26th June 2008