Not just good friends, Bill Hastings

Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand
Chris Brickell 
Godwit, $49.99,
ISBN 9781869621346

This review comes to you from the backwoods of Ontario. It is a crisp autumn evening. I write this in front of a fire in the old family cabin on the shore of a lake. Magazines from the 1960s are stacked on end tables, collections of shells and bleached crayfish claws sit on bookshelves in front of cheap old paperback novels and crime stories, old family photographs hang on the walls. I am cocooned in warmth, familiarity, and the family I know so well. Or am I? Having read Chris Brickell’s Mates and Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, I am beginning to look at some of these old family photographs with new eyes and wonder exactly how well I know these people, my grandfather in particular. But first, the book, this beautiful book.

This is not the first book to chronicle “gay New Zealand”. Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Nigel Gearing, Justin McNab, Peter Wells, Rex Pilgrim and many others have traversed this ground, and Brickell acknowledges them. Brickell’s book ups the ante by virtue of its broader appeal. Some of this appeal lies in the time and place of its publication: such a book is much less likely to threaten an inadvertent but interested browser’s heterosexuality than it would have 20 years ago.  Most of the book’s appeal though derives from the satisfaction readers will take from its thesis, and from the quality of its reproduction of more than 300 images.

Brickell’s thesis is that men (the “gay” in the subtitle excludes lesbians) combine wider social trends with “insider knowledge” to create vibrant homoerotic cultures.  How New Zealand men did this in public and in private is demonstrated chronologically and thoroughly from the 19th century until the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act (there is some coverage of subsequent years but, as Brickell acknowledges, “in a few years, there will be another history to be written”). What sets this book apart from others, however, is that readers are able to challenge or confirm what Brickell writes because we are actually shown many of the varied original sources on which he bases his conclusions: the photographs of men, judges’ notes of trials, and excerpts from correspondence. We are able to share with Brickell something of the joy of discovering long lost (or until now perhaps just misinterpreted) history, and to meet and hold the gaze of these men who unashamedly used the camera to transmit their messages to us a century later.

Brickell writes for the most part in a quiet, observational tone about how individual men attracted to one another resolved their desire (although occasionally he less quietly has the Truth newspaper “mumble through pursed lips” about depravity instead of just reporting it). This quiet tone masks to some extent the book’s revisionism. In A Man’s Country?, Jock Phillips argued that the army’s prohibition against homosexuality in WWI meant that soldiers could only express feelings for one another in “acceptably virile” boisterous rough-ups. Brickell says this is “almost certainly too restrictive a view” and makes his point with diary entries and photos of soldiers holding hands or in bed.

Brickell also takes issue with Michael King’s account in Frank Sargeson: A Life of Sargeson’s trial, based on an interview with Sargeson’s elderly sister. Having read judges’ notes in this and other trial files, Brickell disputes King’s conclusion that “the risks involved in active homosexuality were high.” He argues that what has been interpreted as evidence of a concerted policing effort directed at homosexual offending has been skewed by too much emphasis on the sexual orientation of the defendants instead of examining what they were actually doing. A more accurate reading of court files from this era reveals that police investigated complaints of coercion, underage sex and sex in public places, some of which involved only men: “It seems as though … persistence was often the problem, rather than the approach itself.” In other words, the police, with a few exceptions, by and large engaged in sexual orientation-neutral policing.

This raises the only real concern I have with the book, and it is not as much with the book as with my perspective as a lawyer. An historian’s skill is to draw the soundest conclusions that can be drawn from varying quantities and qualities of evidence and artefact. Generally, the earlier the period, the skimpier the evidence: “Unfortunately we know little about how” or even whether “these [19th century] men named their sexual desires. They may have concluded that there were others like them, and possibly they identified one another by their mannerisms and sartorial codes, but the surviving records say virtually nothing about this.” Nevertheless, Brickell adroitly marshalls what evidence there is of 19th and early 20th century men’s desire for each other. His discussion of the photos and other evidence he shows us gives readers a code-breaker that can be used to decipher (or create) ambiguity and camouflage. Much of what, as a lawyer, I would consider to be anecdotal evidence and, certainly not legal proof, is here taken to represent what is unseen or lost, but I think this is more a lawyer’s problem than an historian’s. Why shouldn’t surviving photos of men touching knees or holding hands, and many more similar photos that have been accidentally or deliberately destroyed, represent homosexual desire? Sometimes it is necessary to draw a long bow to reach older truths.

When discussing early 20th century newspaper reports, letters and diary entries, Brickell firmly establishes himself as a social constructionist:

Words did more than name what was already there, though; they helped to create new understandings about love and sex between men.  As “inverts”, “homosexualists” and “queens” replaced “low life characters” and the committers of “unnatural” acts, new and complex distinctions emerged.

 

By the end of the book, however, I would call him a wavering social constructionist. The very act of writing a history spanning 150 years must lend a certain credibility to a cultural unitarian’s belief in the constancy of sexuality over time. Brickell concedes that “the past is not completely divorced from the present.” The two schools of thought are not necessarily in conflict either because each operates at its own level: cultural unitarians merely acknowledge that throughout time, men have obtained erections from desiring other men; social constructionists examine how changes in naming that desire change how that desire is expressed. I would argue that the former concerns conception, the latter perception.

Which brings me back to the photos of my grandfather taken when he was a teenager in the early 1920s. One sequence shows him boisterously fooling around with his mates in an acceptably virile manner in front of what I would call a gangster’s getaway car. They’re not holding hands, but the six are certainly comfortable with each other. One, and only one, his arm over my teenaged grandfather’s shoulders, is not looking at the camera but at my grandfather. A second sequence has these same friends on the beach. There is a surprising degree of nudity as they strip off their clothes, put on their bathing costumes, form a human pyramid, and collapse.

What exactly is going on here? Who is the photographer? Was he friend or stranger? What was his interest in photographing lithe, muscled, good-looking lads in varying degrees of undress? Why did my grandfather and his friends consent to this photography? To show off? Were they paid? Merely flattered? How did they end up with the photos?  The beach photos have a professionally finished border. Were they perhaps replicated and sold? Have the walls of my old family’s cabin been hiding in plain view a history unknown to me? Carefully framed ambiguity-in-frames now hangs on these walls. Perhaps I should invite Brickell to my cabin.

Until I do, every New Zealander who claims to know and love the history of this country will have Brickell’s book prominently displayed on his or her coffee table.

 

Bill Hastings is the Chief Censor.

 

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Posted in Gender, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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