Ahead of a new exhibition marking the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Act, David Herkt reveals what it was like to grow up gay in the 1970s, while Sam Brooks explains what it’s like today.
THENMy parents were told that I was gay in a letter from my school that arrived unexpectedly in the mail one morning in 1972. It flatly explained to them, in a couple of sentences, that their son was a "passive, non-practising homosexual". I was just 17. Donny Osmond's Puppy Love and Don McLean's American Pie were the year's big radio hits. People drove Holden Kingswood cars. Men wore shorts and knee-length walk socks in summer. Sex acts between males had been illegal in New Zealand since 1866 and all of them, since 1893, were punishable by two years of imprisonment. I'd grown up in a world with no mention of homosexuality. It wasn't even a primary school joke. But by the age of 10 I somehow figured out that having sexual thoughts about other boys, as I did, was a problem in the larger world. I had the usual adolescent mopey "ugly duckling" stage, with the self-preoccupied fights you have with yourself when you are different - "Am I? Aren't I?" Eventually, at 15, I came to the conclusion that I was me, I was going to be me, and that was it. At school, I was relatively open about it. I don't recall any problem with other teenagers. There was no name-calling or sense of threat. Among my teachers, most with the best of intentions, it would be a matter of concern. But with my ex-All Black school principal, with his mean-minded prejudice and sense of sour, bitter power, it would be a completely different story. An art teacher, trying to be helpful, worked with the school's guidance counsellor and I was sent to a psychologist. He was a man with a red beard, who often appeared on television. "Nothing you say between these four walls will go any further," he said, gesturing. I told him my story, not that there was much to tell. But the psychologist was lying. He communicated his "diagnosis" to my school. The consequences were subtle at first. I was banned from representing the school in anything in the exterior world - sport, drama, or any competition. I was told the headmaster personally crossed me from lists.
I hadn't even thought that 'not-accepting me' was an option, but as I'd later learn from many others, it was. In the 1970s, some gay teenagers would even end up in psychiatric hospitals like Kingseat and Lake Ellis.I must have been one of the few teenagers of the era who fought to stay in school. Over the course of a week I marshalled my few resources, and somehow, with a lot of behind-the-scenes moves by some teachers, the expulsion was rescinded. After all, I hadn't really done anything. As a consequence of the school's letter, though, things had to be discussed at home. This wasn't quite so easy. My father, an honourable man, came into my room one night and sat down in that "I've-got-something-to-say" way that only fathers can manage. I wasn't good at talking about it. He wondered briefly about "treatments" he'd read about. Then he said that he and my mother would "accept me". I hadn't even thought that "not-accepting me" was an option, but as I'd later learn from many others, it was. In the 1970s, some gay teenagers would even end up in psychiatric hospitals like Kingseat and Lake Ellis. But somehow, as a family, we all got through. It's a tribute to my parents, but I have never forgiven my headmaster and the letter that put them through it in this way. Still love-struck, I was barely noticing. There was a whole new world of emotions and experiences opening up. It was summer. I'm smiling in a photograph, sitting next to the boy I liked. It would be another 12 years before laws against homosexuality were repealed in 1986, but I've never let myself forget that even then a third of the New Zealand population signed a petition to keep them enforced. Years later, a teacher from my school made an effort to phone me and apologise for things. I appreciated the gesture, but I really didn't deserve it. There were gay teenagers who hadn't had things as easy and, even now, they still don't. It is them I worry about.
NOWI'm gay, I have a stutter, I'm into Tori Amos. I like the same gender, I don't talk like other people and I like a singer-songwriter who is dreadfully out of fashion. I know I am different. At no point in my life have I ever been made to feel bad - or allowed to feel that way - about any point of difference between me and any other person. Nobody is normal, everybody is different, and that should be celebrated rather than hidden away. This is a credit to the way I was raised. I grew up in Papakura in the 90s, raised by a single mother who only ever supported and encouraged what I was into. If that was watching Absolutely Fabulous at the age of 5, that was fine. If it was joining a rugby team and proceeding to just pick flowers on the field every Saturday morning, that was also fine. There was no shame, no admonishment and no trying to get me to be "one of the boys". I didn't even have to come out to my mother. It was tacitly understood that I was gay, that it was not an issue and would never be an issue. My mother accepted me even when I played Tori's Little Earthquakes on repeat for three weeks. Her love was unconditional. As a result, my sexuality was never a source of angst for me. I am endlessly grateful for whatever confluence of nature, nurture and fortunate circumstances made that possible.
Over the last few decades, especially in New Zealand, the narrative has changed. Gay people aren't only gay people, we're people who happen to be gay.Thirty years ago, I wouldn't have been that lucky. Over the last few decades, especially in New Zealand, the narrative has changed. Gay people aren't only gay people, we're people who happen to be gay. I look at the label "LGBTQI" and I see so many different kinds of people grouped into one acronym, people who fought not so that I could live my specific story, but so that I could live a story that was different from theirs. I've never had to fight and struggle against a world that thinks I shouldn't exist. Thanks to them, I can exist as a gay person, without the battle that has historically attended that. I've always known that I was gay and I've also always known that it wasn't all that I am. And I'm thankful, every day, to have that privilege. The Bill is at Artspace, 300 K Rd, Newton from March 12-April 16. Presented by aucklandfestival.co.nz.