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August 4, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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Mates & Lovers

Chris Brickell, Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand
(Godwit, 2008)

When does a homosocial relationship – ie a close relationship between two members of the same sex – become homosexual? This depends upon the definition of ‘sex’, and has far-reaching consequences for how we look at mateship in New Zealand’s history. Otago University lecturer Chris Brickell pours light onto this issue in his book Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand.

It’s important to remember, before we try to draw a line between homosexual and homosocial, that the concept of homosexuality as know it only arose after the trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency in 1895. At this time, all men were considered to be straight, although some committed homosexual acts out of sickness. The idea that people could be inherently homosexual only developed once Wilde’s trial thrust issues of sexuality into the open.

Chris Brickell decided that Mates & Lovers needed to be written because although homosexuality is involved in pretty much every aspect of our history, it is also written out of pretty much every aspect of history. Except maybe the theatre. Much of Brickell’s work revolves around examining what the records similar trials in New Zealand tell us about our own homosexuality. Brickell’s evidence suggests that the police rarely ran surveillance to catch gay men, but rather apprehended only those who came to their attention. A number of photographs further illuminate New Zealand’s homosexuality, presenting a side often at odds with the shady criminality of public toilets shown through court records. Brickell also looks at how men defined themselves in personal papers and autobiographies. The book is structured around personal narratives, but strives to teach us so much more.

So how did New Zealand’s gay identity evolve? How did men create lives for themselves in which they could indulge in same-sex desire? Brickell argues that in the 19th Century, rural work areas, being almost exclusively a male domain, provided better opportunities than the cities for budding homosexuality, for example in miners’ camps. At this time it was common for otherwise heterosexual men to share a bed – hence the allegations that Abraham Lincoln must have been gay because he shared his bed with other men while in the army. But in 1893 the Criminal Code cracked down on homosexual sex acts, and this combined with the Wilde trial led to a greater fear of THE GAYS. Subsequently, homosexuality became confined to areas such as the theatre and specific coffee shops. Then the liberation movement came along in the 1970s, bringing with it terms like ‘coming out’ and the word ‘gay’ itself. Around this time, Salient also began running an annual queer special.

During law reform in the 80s, conservative law reformers and more out-there marchers often clashed over how best to pursue liberation. Fortunately they succeeded via the 1986 Homosexual Law Reform Bill, and we can now celebrate ourselves in the open. If you want to take a peek at how men’s homosexuality has evolved towards this point in our nation, give Chris’ book a read.

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