Ghosts and disclosures, Charmaine Pountney

Lesbian Studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand
ed Alison Laurie
Harrington Park Press, $79.95,
ISBN 1560232528

Academic publications are often daunting to lay readers obscure, dense, and obfuscatory. But Lesbian Studies in Aotearoa/New Zealand, a paperback for general readers (co-published simultaneously as Volume 5, Numbers1/2, 2001 of the Journal of Lesbian Studies for academics) is a heartening exception. From its distinctive summery coastal view on the cover, and context-setting foreword by Alison Laurie, to its crisp author biographies and index, it is both scholarly and readable, informative and interesting.

The first seven chapters of Lesbians in Aotearoa/New Zealand are about lesbian writers, artists and characters in New Zealand history and literature and the ways in which they have been made invisible, or demonised.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, in the book’s first chapter, “Hinemoa: Re-telling a Famous Romance”, comments on the sentimentalising of the story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai to satisfy English Victorian ethics. She re-tells the story, movingly, in English, from the original Te Rangikaheke manuscript in Maori, and portrays the sexual ambiguity of both protagonists. This is no simple labelling of Hinemoa as lesbian and Tutanekai as gay, but a more complex, subtle and truthful-feeling account than the usual tourist’s tale.

In “Frances Mary Hodgkins: Journeys into the Hearts of Women”, Alison Laurie explores Frances Hodgkins’ life and work, showing how her loving relationships with women and her network of support from lesbian and gay friends contributed to her success as an artist. She also provides very useful critical commentary on ways in which lesbian identity has been defined and denied, especially in the world of the arts, during the 20th century, and on why many lesbians from Aotearoa/New Zealand have worked mainly as expatriates.

A wryly entertaining chapter by Aorewa McLeod, “New Zealand’s Lost Lesbian Writers and Artists”, demonstrates the “self-ghosting” and “ghosting” of prominent lesbians. By this, she means the ways in which they have felt obliged to hide their emotional and sexual lives from public view, and the ways in which biographers have ignored or denied their passion and its expression. Novelists Jane Mander, Ngaio Marsh and Margaret Escott, poet Ursula Bethell, and painter Frances Hodgkins are the examples she uses. Sadly, this denial of significant aspects of the emotional identity of our artists still continues in much critical commentary, in spite of a supposedly greater social openness towards gay and lesbian people.

“Lesbian Plays and their Players” by Judith Dale explores “how contradictory the category ‘lesbian’ is, and how political its usage” – themes also running through the chapters mentioned so far. Judith Dale comments explicitly on the vitality of drama by and about lesbians, as well as the gender ambiguity inherent in specific scripts and plays – mentioning particularly the work of Lorae Parry, Renée, Cathy Downes and Michelanne Forster.

Toni McCallum’s chapter, “Introducing Annemarie Jagose: Writer”, is a thoughtful exploration both of Jagose’s work and of her challenges to conventional notions of gender and reality. This chapter is a useful reminder that lesbian fiction (whatever that might mean) is as diverse as heterosexual fiction. Indeed, what “gay fiction” might be is, Toni McCallum suggests, well defined by Peter Wells as “fiction in which a homosexual presence is not consciously or subconsciously excluded.”

Carefully placed among the five literary chapters are two chapters on gender identity in New Zealand history: “Unsettled Women: Deviant Genders in Late Nineteenth – and Early Twentieth – Century New Zealand”, by Jenny Coleman, and “An Astounding Masquerade” by Julie Glamuzina. Both chapters deal with women who disguised themselves as men. The case of Amy Bock (alias Percy Redwood) made headlines in 1909, and in 1945 daily newspapers featured the “ten year deception” and “astounding masquerade” of a woman named only as “Mr X”. Several similar instances are mentioned.

Both chapters are important social history. They give insight into the gender stereotypes and hypocrisies, the economic and social oppression of women, and the homophobia and downright cruelty to lesbians that have prevented many women in this colony’s history from being themselves.

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Economist Prue Hyman critiques the effects of globalisation on women, and lesbians in particular, and makes important points about the links between heterosexism and economic oppression. She also mentions the difficulty in gathering comprehensive statistics while lesbians are still ignored in census statistics. Her chapter “Lesbians and Economic/Social Change: Impacts of Globalisation on Our Community(ies) and Politics” is a wonderfully clear account of the interweaving of the economic and the cultural, the personal and the political, in Aotearoa today and globally. This chapter also marks the transition between the literary and historical content of the first half of the book, and the sociological research and reports of the second half. These later chapters remind us that although New Zealand society may be more liberal now than 20 or 50 years ago, this does not necessarily translate into equal opportunity for lesbians in New Zealand.

In “The Great, Late Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Discrimination Survey”, Jenny Rankine reports on a 1992 survey of the experience of 261 women in a range of settings. Anthea Karen Raven’s 1991 study (described in “Dangerous Territories”) reveals the discrimination experienced by 23 lesbian social workers in the former Department of Child, Youth and Family Services. Both surveys were relatively small and the authors do not claim their samples to be representative. And both surveys were done before human rights legislation was changed. However, the writers both provide useful comments on later research as well. These chapters are important because they offer some basis of comparison for further studies, as well as demonstrating clearly that many women in Aotearoa/New Zealand have indeed suffered discrimination because of being lesbian or bisexual.

Elisabeth McDonald examines “Lesbian Access to Justice: Toward Lesbian Survival Under the Rule of Law” by analysing the 1999 NZ Law Commission study, Women’s Access to Legal Services. She contends that the report of the study includes “very limited discussion of the impact of law on lesbian relationships, violence against lesbians, or the economic position of lesbians.”

All three of these studies demonstrate amply that there is much work still to be done before the place of lesbians in New Zealand society is clearly visible and fully understood; some of the obstacles (financial, academic and attitudinal) to such research are explored as well.

Miriam Saphira and Marewa Glover report on their much larger and more recent survey (795 returns, analysed during 1999-2000) on The Effects of Coming Out on Relationships and Health. Their findings are disturbing: more than half their lesbian respondents were not open about their sexual orientation to professionals, significant family members and workmates. There is a strong likelihood that this lack of openness is associated with health problems such as high levels of anxiety and substance abuse among lesbians. In spite of the 1993 human rights legislation, many lesbians are still afraid of covert discrimination and outright hostility in their immediate worlds.

The last two chapters identify particular groups of lesbians and the matters of concern to them. Jill Chrisp studies lesbians who are mothers of sons (“That Four Letter Word – Sons: Lesbian Mothers and Adolescent Sons”), while Alison M Kirkman explores in “Ties That Bind: Recognising the Spiritual” the ways in which a group of Pakeha lesbian women have tried to develop appropriate ways of being Christian within or beyond the patriarchal and homophobic structures of Christian denominations.

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All the chapters in this book are carefully researched and documented, as one would expect in a volume of an accredited international journal. Thus they present a wealth of material, in a convenient context, for subsequent researchers. Because most chapters are also clearly and interestingly written, the book provides important information for lesbians and non-lesbians outside the academy as well. (I confess to a powerful prejudice against sentences such as this: “Critical reading does not simply valorise ‘lesbian’ but recognises and explains how lesbian sexuality is constituted through discourse, in meaning-producing systems privileging heterosexuality.” But, fortunately, they are rare.)

As a lesbian who grew up during the 1940s and ’50s, when lesbians were either invisible or occasionally publicised as perverts, I am profoundly grateful for this book. It enables women like me to place our experience in a social context we did not understand when we were young – to make better sense of our experience then, and now. Alison Laurie and her colleagues have all been actively involved in working for the safety and sanity of lesbians in Aotearoa over the years, and have strong teaching and/or research credentials. They have produced a volume that is thought-provoking, intelligent, challenging and lively reading for anyone concerned with human rights, especially the rights and responsibilities of women in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

And that should be everyone in this country, shouldn’t it?

 

Charmaine Pountney is the author of Learning Our Living, former Principal of Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, founding Dean and Principal of the School of Education at the University of Waikato, and an organic grower of Awhitu.