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Sunday 09 April 2017

My Life before Law Reform: Jay Bennie

Posted in: Our Communities
By Jay Bennie - 3rd April 2016

In the late 1970s, as I became aware that girls weren't for me, there was very little reliable information on what being a guy into other guys really meant.

Certainly not in Nelson where I worked for a year or so and had the last of a short series of unsuccessful mixed-sex semi-snogs. Growing up, homosexuality hadn't been talked about in our part of suburban Christchurch and it certainly wasn't part of the hour-long, obliquely-worded 'so your body is changing' evening at Cobham Intermediate.

1970s Dunedin
A posting to Dunedin helped a little but not much, until on a trip back to Christchurch I stumbled on a sordid little second-hand book and magazine shop just off Manchester street.

From a few dog-eared back-issues of the bi-monthly Out! Magazine I learned a bit more about what my horny feelings were about, written up in a less-sensational and sneering manner than in my (and most people's) previous guide, the court pages of Truth newspaper. The high-profile trial of a popular radio announcer a few years earlier for being caught in bed with another man had been sordid and scary. Although Out! provided little about the practical side of the subject it did indicate that in Dunedin there were apparently two pick-up places.

The Albany Street men's toilets were not a goer as I was working at 4ZB just two blocks down the street and somehow that seemed a bit sordid and fraught with danger or exposure. The alternative was apparently a 'cafe-cum-coffee lounge' in Dowling Street, uncomfortably close to the TV studios where I sometimes also worked. But late on several Friday nights, when the TV staff were long gone, I nervously prowled the short street, surreptitiously looking for anything that might strike a chord. But, to be honest, I didn't actually know what I was looking for.

In the back of my mind I had the idea that gay men were effeminate, artistic and predatory... but nothing like that was evident and looking back I wasn't sure that I really wanted to find it, or 'them.' For the next three years I put my sexuality on hold.

Promoted eventually to Christchurch, and now in my early '20s I had slowly become a little more mature, a little bit better informed and so horny I was near bursting point.

1980s Cashel St, Christchurch... the Dorian was upstairs on the right.
My first attempted rendezvous with my homo destiny was, in retrospect, laughable. Out! listed the Dorian Club in Cashel Street as a place to go. For weeks I cased the anonymous doorway between Whitcoulls and Hannah's shoe shop, by walking past with a flick of the eyes to see if I could see anything up the stairs of the open door, hanging around across the street to try to spot anyone else going upstairs, then feigning prolonged interest in the book and shoe displays trying to muster the courage to go up those bloody stairs.

Part of my reluctance was fear of the unknown, part was knowing that by going up there I would be admitting to myself, whoever was up there and anyone that saw me going up that I was a homo. Being a homo was patently not a good thing, though the presence of a couple of fairly out gay guys at work had given me a better-balanced understanding of what it was to be gay. But the ingrained prejudices of society, the court pages and denigrating representations on TV and in the media still had me hovering between fear, self-disgust and a yearning for some kind of liberation.

My first visit to the Dorian was a farce when a plus-sized boufant-and-kaftan-bedecked old queen at the landing at the top of the stairs sneered down at me that the club was for homos only. Feeling totally rebuffed I retreated, with my prejudices reinforced and whatever growing self-awareness I had in shreds of confusion.

By now it was the early '80s. I met a few gay men socially and was inveigled into going home with several but they weren't my type – though I didn't really know what my type was – and as soon as they got me off I fled. I tried hanging around the back bar of the Cantabrian but didn't seem to fit in with any of the cliques who meet there on Friday nights, and the occasional Gay Lib dances at the University were vapid affairs with over-priced drinks, tragic music and a few dozen well-meaning gay men plus a few lesbians echoing around in what seemed a cavernous space.

I flagged the Uni dances away and under cover of night turned into an occasional bog queen, loitering about and within the Manchester Street Carpark gents toilets. I wasn't out to my family or any friends except one, I didn't really know – properly know – any gay people. But I knew what I was, my ignorance was abating and the sense of shame was less intense. Slowly I came out to a few more friends and one or two extended family members. I had a semi-relationship with a wonderful but deeply closeted guy and just when I thought he and I might make a go of it he died in a car crash.

His death was shattering but there was no-one I could really share my grief with... no-one who seemed to understand that a homosexual relationship could be just as intense, wonderful and meaningful as a straight one. That the loss could cut deep. I bottled it up and retreated into myself. Work suffered. The Colombo sauna opened and I became a semi-regular habituee, getting off on a seemingly endless series of one-night flings in slightly damp cubicles.

1980s San Francisco gay pride march
In 1984 I headed overseas, to find myself. Over several weeks I learned a little about gay community in Sydney and Melbourne and met some really cool men. Women were a rarity in gay bars and nightclubs in the Kings Cross and Oxford Street areas. But in Los Angeles, far from prying eyes and with the anonymity of being mistaken for a Brit thanks to my Radio NZ diction, I let rip. I tried anything and everything, leather, S&M, fisting, groups, exhibitionism, fight-sex, cuddle-sex and much more. I met, mainly through a growing number of leathermen acquaintances in California, a wider spectrum of gay men than I ever knew existed. I went to a gay church service at Grace Cathedral, saw my first Gay Pride march and watched the sun set in the arms of a hunky and laid back Skokomish Indian amongst the Pacific Park sand dunes. I pondered my future in the Guatemalan jungle and sampled the gay life of Key West and New Orleans.

Back in New Zealand I was restless. The movement to repeal laws against homosexual intimacy was gaining momentum but being gay in LA was way different from being one of the few openly gay men in fuddy-duddy Napier where I worked for the next couple of years. I still agonised over buying condoms - we knew we had to use them by now - from the local pharmacies. I eschewed what to me now seemed a very dowdy, limited and insular local gay scene and spent as much time as possible in Wellington. As the push for law reform started grabbing media headlines I responded to my deeply unsettled psyche and headed to Sydney, there to eventually read that the law in New Zealand had changed, that we were no longer officially perverts, an underclass and mentally suspect.

Brave and forthright protesters lay it on the line to free New Zealand gay men
My father's death soon brought me back to NZ, and within months I began putting all the pieces of my life together in a more coherent, more sustainable way. The relief of no longer being illegal, the lifting of the fear of exposure, the reinforcement of self-respect grew and grew month by month. Over the course of a year or so the fog of internalised suspicion, fear and doubt lifted.

My levels of self-esteem and personal courage soared. I became rather proud of being gay and, with the benefit of hindsight, began to wear my pride on my sleeve. I came out to everyone who mattered and even a few who didn't matter. I eventually and unexpectedly met a wonderful man and, although the early years of our relationship were rocky to the point of disastrous, we've made it through and are now a content and gently aging couple just like all our brothers, sisters and cousins. And for the most part our straight family and friends, educated and informed by the Law Reform campaign and its aftermath, with any prejudices they might have held about homos erased, unflinchingly and warmly accept us as such.

For the hard work they put into striking that hellish legislation off the statutes, for their courage, determination and foresight I will always be grateful, supremely grateful, to the men and women who liberated me and eventually my partner too, from a rather stunted and narrow gay life that, in all honesty, I would never want anyone to have to live.

That some glbti people, in New Zealand still, certainly in the Pacific and even more-so further afield are still forced by society, laws and religion to live lives of fear, confusion, denigration and duplicity is a profound disgrace - and something those of us whose lives have been immeasurably improved by Homosexual Law Reform and subsequent legislative successes must never, ever ignore.

Jay Bennie - 3rd April 2016

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