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Wednesday 08 April 2009


Tracking down Mates and Lovers - Pt2

Posted in: Books
By Jay Bennie - 2nd July 2008

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Dr. Chris Brickell
After three and a half years researching historical records and interviewing gay men, Dunedin-based author Chris Brickell has produced an epic book, Mates and Lovers, A History of Gay New Zealand.


Along the way he has contrasted public and private notions of homosexual life, sought to describe changing homosexual culture and to bring some clarity to our historical record.


Although the historical record is often based on negative perceptions of homosexuality, such as court procedings and tawdry newspaper representations, Brickell feels that for gay men of the times more positive interpretations emerged from these writings. “For every episode that is somehow quite negative and depressing, and where the public discussion might be really negative, [gay men] still recognised and saw themselves in it and found that useful in some way.” Brickell  has been impressed by “a kind of constant ability to read the dominant culture against the grain, in ways that provide opportunities to develop an identity and develop a culture.”

Brickell highlights media coverage, often in Truth newspaper, of homosexuality, such as reporting of the 1954 Mazengarb Report on Moral Delinquency, as fundamental to generally accepted negative understandings of homosexuality. The inclusion of homosexuality as a psychological state which, once categorised could be legislated against, was another low point against which gay rights activists had to struggle in their campaigns to realign public perceptions with often invisible and generally unrecorded private realities. "There's been a sense in which in New Zealand prior to Gay Liberation in the 1970s, there was a view that there was a black hole there. That there was nothing but medicalisation and depression. Seeing the shades of grey has been a real revelation to me, being able to start filling in the space where, in terms of what was written about our history, there was nothing there."


Personal networks and NZ gay culture

Against this background of increasing public awareness and disapproval, gay men’s social and personal networks were, in retrospect, remarkably strong. “Looking at the pictures of those guys, and a lot of them are Wellington guys, times may have changed, but a lot of those guys are still really good friends. So that sense of their culture over the 1960s and 70s in some ways is still there - those friendships have endured over many decades. In a sense you've got not so much a society displaced as times change but augmented. People's networks do endure.”

Have we developed a unique New Zealand gay culture? Brickell feels the overseas influences are very strong, all the way through from the 19th century when the Oscar Wild trials were widely reported here and shaped perceptions of homosexuality for gays and straights alike, up to the present. “I think we have woven those into perhaps a bit more of an indigenous culture. Certainly as I've been looking through the pictures of people, I've been excited at the signs of ‘New Zealand-ness.’ You kind of get an amalgamated culture of international and New Zealand [elements], and a sense of place comes through quite strongly.”

In the 1960s and 70s, as gay men began to travel overseas more extensively than their predecessors could, the age of global communication and culture impacted on New Zealand’s gay communities. “Gay pride here was very very influenced by what went on overseas. Our gay liberation manifesto was based on the London gay liberation manifesto. And people came and went between New Zealand and overseas, particularly Australia of course in the 1970s. We were incredibly influenced by what happened overseas, but New Zealand urbanisation had its own pace. During the 19th century the British had a subculture that was quite strong, but I've never found a sense of that here, and that may be partly because our cities were much smaller, and our population more dispersed. Maybe by the 1970s we were becoming more similar.”


Inferences and assumptions

If gay pride led to being out and proud and on to the broader visibility and assimilation into mainstream culture that we have these days, there is a sentence in the preface of Mates and Lovers that seems a defensive throwback to a more censorious age: “The appearance of any man’s likeness in this book is not meant to indicate his sexual orientation...” Brickell now has doubts that it should have been included. “Some people advised me that I should say that. Actually, I would rather have not said it."

But that irksome disclaimer does raise the question of what assumptions or inferences which can be taken from the images in Mates and Lovers, either by Brickell or by the reader. “I've still had people looking in my book and saying 'how do you know? Why are those men there? You can't be sure if they were gay or not.’ So there's still that pervasive kind of view that someone shouldn't be put in this kind of context unless you have completely irrefutable proof that they belong there. Some men have arms around each other, but they might just be brothers. There is an issue that that sentence speaks to, and I'd rather it wasn't there, but I don't want people saying 'you're implying that my uncle Herbert is gay, and I really take great offense'.”

Brickell is quite clear throughout Mates and Lovers that he is using a historian and sociologist’s judgement in interpreting material. “That sentence is disjointed with the rest of the book... the book is arguing that we're not nailing these things down, and we shouldn't have to. It does jar a bit.


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The Sargeson affair revisited


Official information, memories and hand-me-down anecdotes are sometimes at odds with each other, and finding a more accurate ‘truth’ behind half-understood incidents has also been a challenge Brickell has revelled in. For instance, “what happened when [gay man and iconic New Zealand author] Frank Sargeson was charged with having sex with Leonard Hollobon?”

This was a murky late 1920s affair replete with allegations of blackmail, ‘corruption of young boys’ and the stench of personal betrayal. “For instance, there's a version of that story that says he was entrapped in a public toilet. I have no idea where that comes from. The other version, historian Michael King's, based on the memories of Sargeson’s elderly sister, is of the police breaking into their room. But I couldn't make King's version of what happened fit with the pattern that I'd deduced from the policing.’ A reading of police records of the times is at odd with these versions of the story. The police at the time actually seemed ambivalent about what Sargeson and Hollobon were up to as adults in the privacy of Hollobon’s room. “The reason wasn't that the [official records of the case] didn't fit with the pattern, it was that the telling of the case wasn't the accepted telling.”

For Brickell, stories about the lives and incidents such as the Sargeson affair underline the purpose of  Mates and Lovers. “The repeat telling of those stories speaks to people's need to know something about the past and about where we came from. The fact that a story like that has been told over and over again, in lots of different place, and takes on a resonance of its own as it does so, that says something about people's interest in the past.”

“The Samuel Butler story is similar.” Butler, author of the great New Zealand novel Erewhon, was another gay man whose same-sex relationship became messy and difficult. “Quite a lot of the older guys I talked to, they knew about Butler, and they knew about [missionary] William Yate, and somehow that stuff was passed down through the generations, in an invocation of our shared past. Those stories do fulfil a function.”


The legacy of small, ephemeral artifacts

During his lengthy and extensive research for Mates and Lovers, few revelations stand out for the author as much as the material contained in a poignant autograph book kept by Derek Hancock, an inmate of a wartime conscientious objector's camp. “This was one of the moments of high excitement for me, because it's one of the things that's tricky, using interviews and so on, is actually getting a sense of what language and descriptions people were actually using at the time, as opposed to the way they remember them. And so to actually have some guys jotting down in an autograph book what their sexual relationships with one another were, and using that language, that was a really neat little find, because it's something completely ephemeral.”

Brickell makes the point that much of the reality of past homosexual lives is handed down to us through such everyday items, rather than formal material and official records. “I remember showing one of my historical postcards [sent between gay men] in a seminar a couple of years ago, and people asked 'What about the real issues? Why are we looking at postcards?' And in a sense that made me more gleeful about those utterly ephemeral things that are so easily lost, yet which so encapsulate the world of their time in such a unique way.”


Mates and Lovers - A gay history of New Zealand
By Chris Brickell
Random House
$49.99

Jay Bennie - 2nd July 2008