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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Review: Gay lives revealed, in our own words

Posted in: Books
By Jay Bennie - 22nd March 2010

Slowly, piece by piece, gay New Zealand men's lives are being documented in substantial ways and it is good to see that this is happening through our own efforts and not on the front pages of tabloid newspapers as in past decades.

Danny Mussett and Pascal Monti
For example, Nigel Gearing's Emerging Tribes took a stab at explaining who we were in the mid-1990s and how we got there. A decade later Chris Brickell's remarkable Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand took a longer and slightly broader view of the romantic bonds between gay and bi men from colonisation until the latter part of last century. These were, largely, overviews, with interviews and recollections serving to illustrate the authors' messages. Now Mark Beehre's Men Alone - Men Together has arrived to focus on individual lives as they are lived now.

There are some wonderful stories in Men Alone - Men Together, all written by the men themselves, some of whom are in relationships some of whom are not - for the moment anyhow. Warren Robertson and Michael Corcoran describe their courtship, the coming together of a world-wise Londoner and a Timaru boy and their subsequent adoption of a street kid with Downs Syndrome.  Ian "The Duchess" Griffiths recounts in loving detail aspects of his long-term relationship with the late broadcaster Murray Forgie. Chris "Krispie" Leckie, a gay bogan who has moved through Auckland and Rotorua to Christchurch defies the usual homo stereotypes. And there are heaps more, all brought into the public view by photographer Beehre.

The strength of Men Alone - Men Together is that it is largely gay and bi men telling their own stories of their own lives in their own words, with the emphasis on the present. Sometimes those stories are so personal the reader will feel a voyeuristic unease. Mostly they are written with surprising charm and lack of artifice. New Zealand men are stereotypically uncommunicative and ill at ease discussing their feelings. Clearly us gay men are not.

Beehre's portrait photography is crisp and elegantly executed and the selected photos nicely complement and inform the stories. His narrow subject range is, however, this book's major fault. He chose to contact a few likely men then get them to suggest a few more who might take part and so on and so on. This gives a homogeneity to the subjects which engenders a feeling of repetitiveness. At times Men Alone - Men Together feels like an introduction to the male members of Auckland's Gay and Lesbian Singers. It is almost entirely populated with middle class urban white gay men, many of whom have emigrated to New Zealand. Out of 46 men profiled, if you include the author's running personal commentary which tenuously introduces each profile, only Wharehuia Hemara represents our non-pakeha brethren.

Because of their rarity, every book about New Zealand gay men is expected to be encyclopedic in its scope. Every history is expected to be definitive. It's grossly unfair on individual authors and editors but overall it's a realistic attitude. We don't get many chances to project ourselves in such considered and polished ways so it's a pity when a work feels limited or just misses the mark. If only Beehre, a first-time author, and his editor had cast their net much wider and then been more selective in the stories they included.

That said, this is a good read, the pictures are excellent and Men Alone - Men Together is yet another useful element in the emerging record of our gay male lives. Now, will someone please address lesbians and the other folk who make up our communities!

Men Alone - Men Together
Author: Mark Beehre
Publisher: Steele Roberts

Jay Bennie - 22nd March 2010

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