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Friday 19 December 2014


Tracking down Mates and Lovers - Pt1

Posted in: Books
By Jay Bennie - 28th June 2008

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Chris Brickell
Historian and author Chris Brickell, whose epic book
Mates and Lovers, A History of Gay New Zealand, will be officially launched this Friday after three and a half years of research, was initially a shy Hutt Valley kid, “and a pretty nerdy one!”

Nerdy... meaning academic rather than sporting? “Yeah, that's what it's code for, not at all sporting!” he laughs.


Secondary education at Hutt Valley High (“perfectly pleasant really”) was followed by geography, French and “a little bit of sociology” at Victoria University. “I originally wanted to be a town planner, but as time went on, I got more interested in the study of society.”

It’s clear from his written descriptions of environments such as early hostelries and prisons that spaces still fascinate him. Whilst at Vic., Brickell spent summers working for the Historic Places Trust. “I was doing research into various historic places and buildings in the Wellington area. And through that work I got more and more interested in history.”

“Later on, as sociology in New Zealand developed, you could study gender and sexuality. I got really interested in that for personal reasons of my sexuality, and partly just because I found it interesting.”

His early experience of homosexuality was largely provided by TV. “We grew up with the Mr. Humphries character on Are You Being Served? and I've since fallen in love with him all over again. And Hudson & Halls of course! I had a suspicion about them, I wasn't sure if they were gay or not, but I thought they probably were. So there was that kind of quite camp stereotype. Some of the AIDS Foundation publicity materials had quite spunky young men kissing on them and stuff like that. That was actually quite enticing.”

When Brickell, now 36, came out at age 22, his first contact with the gay community was Wellington's Icebreakers group. “It was a fantastic thing. Some of the friends I still have now are guys I met there.” Initially he didn’t know what to expect of the gay community he was making first contact with. “It was just before the Human Rights Act went through, but several years after Law Reform. There still weren’t many gay characters on TV and in the media and so on, so I wasn't quite sure what it was going to be like. I remember going into the room and meeting all the other guys and thinking how completely nice they were.”

Although he came out at a time of immense social change for NZ’s gays and lesbians, Brickell had no awareness of our past and how homosexuality had shaped gay men in earlier times. “People were discussing Law Reform at school, because I was in the fourth form, I think, when that went through. There were people who though it was all a bit disgusting and shouldn't happen, and other people who thought that it was actually about time that it did. That was very much my earliest kind of memory and I didn't have an idea really of what went before that.”


The project that grew and grew and grew

So where did his interest in gay history spring from? “I'd done some academic research on sex education, focusing on homosexuality and sex education, and I'd done a bit of work on 19th century mental health stuff. People suggested to me that I could actually broaden it out.”

At first, such a project sounded like an immense amount of work, even when Brickell initially envisaged a much smaller work than the hefty volume being launched next week. “But I kept turning up material, talking to guys who would then pass me on to friends I could talk to, and they'd show me photos, and it just kind of snow-balled, bigger and bigger. Then there was a point when I thought, ‘well if I'm going to do it, I may as well do a decent big job of it, rather than do some little thing that won’t be very satisfying to anyone.’” He remembers saying to the publisher, “there'll be 150 pictures,” and later “220 pictures,” and eventually had to confess to the designer that there were 290 pictures.

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The subtitle of Mates and Lovers is ‘A History of Gay New Zealand' and not 'The History of Gay New Zealand', “because there are lots of different ways I could have done it. I could [have done] a book of oral histories like James Allen did. Laurie Guy’s book is a very solid piece of work about the political debates. I was more interested in people's lives, in a social history than a political history.”


A few pages into Mates and Lovers it becomes obvious that “Gay” means gay men only, lesbians do not figure in this history. “Someone else is working on a lesbian history, so that narrowed down the parameters to focus on gay men. In a way that suited me quite well, because I was interested in focusing on masculinity in particular, and therefore fitting the book into that kind of international literature on sexuality and masculinity.”

And towards the end of this book it is also obvious that anything that happened after the 1970s gets short shrift. “The main part of the book comes to an end pre-Law Reform because I'd always seen it as being in a large part about the development of an identity. Rather than a history that went up to the present time... I think that post-Law Reform period is going to need its own fairly substantial treatment some way into the future.”


In the dock, Robert Gant and William Yate

One of the strongest sections of Mates and Lovers is the chapter dealing with colonial times, an era of gold mining camps, bush clearing gangs, isolated blokes in tiny settlements, from which little evidence of homosexuality survives, if it even existed in the first place. Brickell laughs, thinking about how difficult it would have been to do that chapter without the Otago Court records. “A friend who’d done some research work said: 'I suspect there was a certain nonchalance around sex between men, particularly in those all-male settings, but I can't prove it'. I used that as a starting point. The court records do suggest that the nonchalance is there.”

“And in terms of romantic relationships between men, the material from the Robert Gant albums,” a photographic resource which Mates and Lovers repeatedly draws on, “is really crucial to that. I guess the third part of that chapter really is the Yate material.” William Yate was a missionary whose dalliances with young Maori men seemed to raise few eyebrows until he became too obvious and prim apoplexy resulted, with diaries, letters and official communications forming a remarkable record of the affair. “We're so lucky in New Zealand, because most gay histories can't go back that far, they don't have the richness of material that we've got with the Yate affair.”

But is it valid to use just three bodies of material to create a sense of what gay life was like back then? “That's why there’s a certain tentativeness to it, but they are three sources that fairly well span the breadth of what is used as historical evidence of that period... diaries, photographs and official records. It would be nice if what I've done inspires people to do a bit more digging,” Brickell says, “and if they do dig up other material, just to see how it does compare.”


The silence of wartime

If there’s a glaring gap in Mates and Lovers it’s around World War II, a time of social upheaval when young men were uprooted from their communities and thrown together here and overseas in all male environments, a time that changed the outlooks of nearly everyone who experienced it. “It's been really hard to find material covering that wartime period,” Brickell admits. “I would have thought that there would be more there, and there isn't. The guys I've talked to, and the interviews that other people have done, only touch quite lightly on that period.” Brickell notes that the Allan Bérubé book Coming Out Under Fire “does the job so well for the USA, giving a really strong sense of the formative aspects of the war. But there's been a complete silence, I think, in New Zealand's war histography, about that aspect of the war. It's almost as if the national story about New Zealand and the war doesn't really allow for that to be told. There's more work to be done there, certainly.”

As Brickell’s researches moved into the 1960s and beyond, the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand came into their own, “because they have the records of Wellington’s Dorian Society; and an extraordinary documentation of the gay liberation Movements from the 1970's, and photographs to go with them. But there's virtually nothing in there from prior to 1960. There’s a lot of National Library material in my book, but most of it hasn't come from LAGANZ, it's come from the general manuscripts and general collections.”

Brickell spent a good deal of time outside libraries and archives, talking to men with stories to tell and memories to gently unlock. “I approached people who would approach other people on my behalf, worked through networks, in a sense. I didn't want to cold approach people, particularly given the nature of the topic. Some were willing, some weren't willing. I did have one quite aggressive refusal. The oldest man I interviewed, who was 90, who's since died unfortunately, he could remember the names of his friends from the 1930s, which I just thought was absolutely astounding.”


In Part two of this discussion, online this Wednesday,
Chris Brickell talks about the changing gay culture in New Zealand, which overseas gay communities we drew on, the things he learned while researching Mates and Lovers, and the ways in which different versions of gay history can conflict.

Mates and Lovers - A gay history of New Zealand
By Chris Brickell
Random House
$49.99

Jay Bennie - 28th June 2008

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