Meeting the ancestors, Peter Wells

A new history of homosexuality prompts Peter Wells to look back on his early life as a gay New Zealander.  

It’s probably a reflection on the heft of a book that it makes you question your own sense of the past. I had this experience reading Chris Brickell’s Mates and Lovers (Godwit Press; reviewed on p15 of this issue).

I first met Chris Brickell when I was Waikato University’s writer-in-residence. Initially I felt a burst of pleasure. He, along with another young historian, appeared to have taken up a quest that had shaped an earlier part of my life. In 1973 I had gone to Professor Sorrensen in Auckland University’s history department and said I wanted to study the history of homosexuality in New Zealand. This was given very short shrift. How would I do it? this veteran of empirical historical research enquired. What would be the basis of my research?

I spent the next few years, perhaps as many as five, trying to resolve this conundrum. Remember, queer studies did not exist. Translations of Foucault’s pioneering works on sexuality were many years into the future. In the end I studied the ideas of a British writer, Edward Carpenter. Carpenter had written the first published work in Britain asserting homosexual men and women should be treated as human beings. My interest in Carpenter was framed by my own experiences at Auckland University. I had coincided with the explosion of gay liberation, one of the concatenations of the time alongside women’s liberation and the emergence of Nga Tamatoa. I had been led to study Carpenter by a sense of urgency. I was intent upon discovering some kind of ancestry.When it came time to choose a British university at which to do doctoral studies, I chose the Centre for Social History at the University of Warwick. This was on the slightly erratic basis that Germaine Greer had taught there. But when I tried to further my studies on Carpenter, I faltered. All the way through I struggled against an academic environment that was never less than slightly disbelieving.

When I finally delivered a paper on the gender and social implications of the Boulten and Park transvestite scandal of 1870, I was told by a senior male colleague that “everyone was looking forward to having a good laugh.”

In the end I gave up my academic studies. Partly it was because it was simply too hard: the time was not right. But also I decided I really wanted to be a writer of works of the imagination. My path bifurcated at this point and to a degree I never looked back.Yet in my own way I had kept a point of view that was first enunciated in 1972 at Auckland University. This brought with it, as Brickell writes, a “new language, a new social analysis, and a new vision for individuals and their communities”. And it’s true, at the time, it seemed a radical break with the past. Nowhere more so than in its insistence on public space – on visibility. An essential part of this was being “out”. This deepened during the HIV-Aids crisis, a time in which “speaking out” had become critical, a way of survival.

Fast forward to 2008 and Mates and Lovers. This marvellously fluent work posits a startlingly revisionist view. It places my immediate past into a much broader context and as such calls into question the uniqueness, even the importance, of the libertarian moment. “We need to approach triumphal accounts of the gay and lesbian movement with some caution,” Robert Reynolds, an Australian historian claims. “Sometimes the glow of triumph is partially dependant upon an overly bleak representation of the past and other ways of being homosexual.”   Brickell asserts that an awful lot of male-to-male sexuality was happening in colonial times, partly because people didn’t conceive of this sexuality as “homosexual”. In such a gender-imbalanced society, Brickell says men had sex with each other without caring too much about it so long as it was consensual. It was casual, rife and spread throughout society. This continued until the 1940s, at which point a “homosexual identity” was both perceived and attacked.

For me the surprising, even devastating, thing was the discovery that I had had New Zealand ancestors around me all the time. I had just not seen them. How was this so? It gave me pause for thought. I began to think through my own past, sieving it for inconsistencies, questioning my own sense of truth. In the end I came to a surprising conclusion. The stories of our elders were withheld from us, because we – and I talk generically here of a liberationist generation – were seen as dangerous, volatile. The fact is, we were “out”. We were all of an age, in our early 20s. We were experiencing drugs and sex and time itself as a brilliantly new thing. And what we wanted frightened the old generation dreadfully.  I can recall my own conversations with Frank Sargeson when he said that it was the unreasonable antics of the “gay libbers”, as he called them, that had destroyed the possibility of Parliament passing a law decriminalising homosexuality in 1974. (We “gay libbers” wanted the same age of consent as heterosexuals, a dreamtime that seemed fantastical to the older generation.)

But to go back to the historic moment of the early 70s. As openly gay men who advocated social and sexual change, we were not allowed into the only existing gay pub in Auckland. Or perhaps I should rephrase that. We were not allowed in wearing badges that proclaimed the need for social change. Now I am so much older, lined and bowed by understandings, I see how critical the badge-wearing was. Why not remove the badge? Because, I suppose, the badge was our uniform, our identity. It was as much a sign as a moko. We could not scrape the badge off our skin without losing our identity. It seems naive now, from this highwater mark of legal acceptance.

And so perhaps we were locked off from these older stories, of a continued sexual connection between “straight” men and their “friends”. One of the brilliant things Mates and Lovers does is break this century-long silence, filling it with a babble of voices and stories. It provides a context we couldn’t have in the early 70s, when we did the most frightening of all things: speak up in public and demand “rights”.    Times change, and attitudes go out of date.

Reading this book made me ask myself the question: did we misrepresent the past too bleakly as a way of making our own breakthrough more significant? Hard to say. For behind most of us in our 20s was our experience of a kind of darkness: the 1950s, the constriction of the Cold War, a time, incidentally, when many older homosexual people like Freda Stark dipped their toes in the camouflage of marriage. (Brickell’s graph of arrests for male-male sexual activity peaks in the period of my childhood.) Our own parents had tamped down whatever sexual lives happened during the anarchy of war. So the silence we seemed to exist in was also one of constricted throats, silenced stories.

I cannot explain how vast is the difference between now and a world in which people could not articulate – be it in a casual or official way – a key aspect of their character or domestic arrangements. It is as difficult to comprehend now for young contemporaries as the stifled lives of people under communism.

Was our struggle all a ruse, or even worse, was it all a delusion, a mistake? I ask myself this when children use the word “gay” to signify something naff or stupid. Should we have kept quiet, kept our heads down? Would it all have happened, in the same way, leading to the acceptance of today? Should we have accepted the life of our elders with their picnics so long as nobody made any sexual remarks – or clubs with locked doors, friends with women’s names, covert relationships with married men? Alongside it went beatings up, arrests, humiliations, compulsory feminisation. Perhaps we would have been better to just pick someone up in the street and have rollicking sex rather than bothered with the tedium of marches, meetings, petitions, letters.

Yet change comes through risk and adventure; it also comes through attrition, familiarity itself. And change in the end may not deliver all one hopes. There is damage, fatuity, failure, remorse. Not everybody survives. The vast tithing of HIV-Aids lay ahead. Even the achievement itself tends to slide away in unforeseen ways.

So, did we make our own history seem more important? Probably. Maybe in the larger picture it is no more than a bump, a pimple exploding, a cry of anger and outrage in a long dark night as it changes bit by bit into dawn. But the pimple did explode; the cry was heard and registered. Along with the swell tide of a whole raft range of social changes in which character itself seemed to change, this happened.

Mates and Lovers puts the libertarian moment in a longer perspective and points to the continuity of the harsher, deeper, more desperate need for the sweet oblivion of sex.

Yet one of the remorses of growing older is that there is no way back. But memory. And memory at times, such as when it sits alongside the experiences annunciated in this book, can itself lead to questions. It doesn’t only provide a single gilded thread to the past: the past itself suddenly changes shape and offers itself in the elegiac form of a question.


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