Tuesday 1 January 2008

Mates & Lovers - A History of Gay New Zealand

Why you should read 'Mates & Lovers'

by David Herkt
29 June 2008

In Oamaru's Public Gardens, 120 years ago, in 1888, 40-year-old Joseph Fletcher said to 20-year-old Jacob Crawford "All right, you young bugger, we'll have a fuck too'. Crawford said 'Alright, put it up my bloody arse, Joe."

A year later, in 1889, Robert Gant, a photographer resident in the Wairarapa, was taking photographs of himself and his friends dressed in drag enacting women's tea-parties, the Chinese porcelain tea pot forever poised, unpouring, above the cup.

In 1923, a 17-year-old Eric McCormick confided to his diary that he'd slept with a 'sexual maniac' - a man who shared his room after a party. The man had undressed in front of McCormick who had begun to shiver uncontrollably. "God," he wrote, "I nearly went mad with my suppressed feeling."

In the late 1930s, 15-year-old Simon Sydney began going to the Ward Baths in Rotorua four times a week. "I had four years of utter sexual pleasure with hundreds of randy men," he said later.

In 1941 a shop assistant, Victor Andrews picked up a soldier, Terence Moore, caught the ferry across a blacked-out wartime Auckland Harbour to Devonport, went to the Devonport Domain where they drank beer, kissed, and had sex and talked until 3 o'clock in the morning.

In 1971, the Silver Star overnight express train had an Auckland gay service crew who changed over with the Wellington gay service crew at Ohakune. They'd exchange information about passengers whose cabin doors were open for those 'similarly inclined'. 'Every mile was a smile on that train,' Rangi Woon, a train steward recalled.

These are just a few of the many people and glimpses of human lives from the past that that stud Chris Brickell's ground-breaking Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand.

The book is the first real telling of the story of New Zealand's gay men from the colonial era to liberation, law-reform and after. It is a history which opens up hidden lives and experiences to scrutiny. For any gay male, it reveals more than we have ever been privileged to know about what happened before us. It enables us to see our individual stories as part of a greater cultural, legal and social narrative.

The 432 glossy-paged book is also copiously and sumptuously illustrated with around 500 photographs. Brickell's searches through public and private archives have brought to light for the first time innumerable glimpses of past gay lives. It is a breath-taking achievement.

These images form a rich, readable narrative of their own. They are vivid, sharp revelations of a history that we did not know existed. They range from depictions of masculine intimacy and gestures that seem to be interpretable in a gay context – men photographed knee-to-knee in studios, arms around each others shoulders or sprawled against each other in more candid shots – to more explicit images – erotic poses, drag parties, male holiday-makers camping in more senses than one, and men kissing.

Brickell's revelation of New Zealand's gay history in these selected images is paralleled by the style of his writing. Flashes and snapshotted incidents gleaned from court-files, newspaper reports, diaries, letters, interviews, and oral history testimonies form the basis of Brickell's construction of the New Zealand gay story – a story that has largely been hidden.

The status of same-sex desire for much of New Zealand's history – illegal and socially proscribed – has always meant that its stories were seldom public. When they were recorded it was often in the context of a court-case. Brickell's research-skills has unearthed and selected a multitude of other layers and brought them to our attention.

In the Mates and Lovers gay men struggle with their desires, stand up for their existence as sexual beings in the most brave and unexpected ways, and experienced fulfillments that we previously considered impossible.

For many gay men, the time prior to Homosexual Law Reform in 1986 seems a dark era. It seemed gay men were forced to live closeted and unsatisfied lives. Brickell's compelling narrative demonstrates otherwise. None of us can ever escape from our time and our situation in the context of our society will always shape our lives. But Brickell amply shows that the world of men and same-sex desire in New Zealand's past was not the grim, despairing, bleak world it is so often presumed to be.

Mates and Lovers chronicles the indomitable spirit of human beings in a world whose apparently arbitrary restrictions might shape behaviours and emotions but cannot destroy them.

The book's broad overview can sometimes feel unsatisfying simply because Brickell's necessary selection of incidents from human lives inevitably leaves us wanting more. What happened then? What did they do afterwards? But the book is groundbreaking because it opens up the field to future study.

Brickell's revelation of the extent of the archive is almost mouthwatering in its richness. Caches of diaries are becoming available in libraries. Photographic collections are previewed. Brickell's work in this book is the equivalent of a first explorer. He maps and outlines a new bright territory that will be our pleasurable future to experience in greater detail.

The book's faults are few. Occasionally Brickell will stray into an arid academic discourse. The photographic captions could often be enlarged. Brickell is not good on how gay culture from the rest of the world reached and impacted upon New Zealand's gay men. And Brickell's recounting of the last twenty or thirty years of gay life suffers by comparison to his earlier researches.

But ultimately, Chris Brickell's Mates and Lovers is that rare thing. It is a book against which all subsequent work on the subject of New Zealand gay lives will be measured. It is a significant achievement. It is a pleasure for viewer or reader. It is a necessary book whose images and words will enrich contemporary gay lives, linking them to their precursors, in the unending story of same-sex desire and its manifestations.

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