Review:Mates and Lovers

In advance of Ronald Trifero Nelson’s theatrical adaptation of Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, Spark correspondent Ian Anderson reviews the original book.

The Spark November 2010

Chris Brickell’s Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand is an essential book for anyone interested in local social history. The first book of its kind focused on New Zealand, the book draws on court records, personal collections, press coverage and various other sources to map out the changing social formation of “homosexuality,” as it was dubbed in Europe over the late 19th Century.

As Brickell explains, that very word “homosexuality” did not reach popular discourse in New Zealand until the mid 20th Century. With that in mind, the book covers the shifting roles that men who have sex with men have played in society, and the shifting language to describe these roles.

The book relies on research by lesbian feminist Ngahuia te Awekotoku for its picture of pre-colonisation Maori society, which had no written records of its own, only carvings and oral history. These offer some indication that same-sex relationships of some kind existed in Maori society prior to European settlement; for example, a Maori bargeboard depicting two men caressing each other’s phalluses, which unfortunately has been split up and is now housed in separate European museums. There is no indication that these men were oppressed within Maori society, contrary to recent claims by Brian Tamaki. Maori have taken the word takataapui, from the myth of Hinemoa, to describe Maori queerness.

Unsurprisingly, the dual introductions of European capitalism and Christianity changed the conception of same-sex relationships. While we have a much more detailed record of same-sex activity during colonisation, much of this comes in the form of court records, as colonial authorities policed sexuality. Brickell discusses how working-class men were often caught cruising each-other in public spaces, whereas middle-class men had more discretion.

With the introduction of photography over the turn of the century, records of male activity in the colonies get a little more interesting. In particular, the photographs of one Robert Gant, a pharmacist with some discretionary income to pursue his interests, offer a picture of colonial life that court records cannot really capture. Ranging from an enigmatic picture of two men kissing entitled ‘Goodbye,’ to apparently homoerotic pictures drawing on European paintings and oddly fetishistic photographs of bondage and leather shoes. It’s hard to figure out how much a 21st century reader is projecting onto these images, and Brickell cheekily plays on this ambiguity by including pictures that are probably platonic in their original context.

Urbanisation was another huge shift in the formation of a homosexual identity. As John D’Emilio explains in his seminal essay Capitalism and Gay Identity, the independence from a heterosexual household economy offered by urbanisation allows greater sexual freedom. This holds true for New Zealand, as men take a step beyond one-night stands towards drag balls, queer-friendly bars, and ultimately organizations specifically for homosexuals such as the Dorian Society.

The gay liberation movement was another major shift, moving from private parties to public protests, and a cry for emancipation from rigid gender roles. A wider 60s protest movement spurred this; however the relationship between gay liberation groups and broader left groups is inconsistent at best. Brickell does acknowledge the consistently pro-gay stance of groups such as the Socialist Action League, who had some crossover with gay liberation groups in 70s NZ.

The coverage of the following decades is not so comprehensive, being largely confined to the epilogue entitled Gay At Last. However Brickell does look at the tensions that have accompanied Homosexual Law Reform and the growth of the pink dollar. In particular, Brickell discusses the shift from the gay liberation view that homosexuality “was a universal and liberatory human potential,” towards a medicalised view of individual identity.

While Mates and Lovers may have shortcomings, no-one seeking to understand our social history can do without it. By charting social shifts among men who have sex with men, Brickell ultimately charts out shifts in society overall. And if you get bored with the social analysis, you can always look at the pictures.

The theatrical adaptation of Mates and Lovers will play at Auckland theatre The Basement from 17-28 November.

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