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Observations on the ambivalent past

Thu 12 Aug 2004 In: Comment

Should we stop thinking about lesbian and gay issues in terms of "repression" and "liberation?" This may seem an odd question when Annemarie Jagose has just won this year's Montana Fiction Award for her exploration of William Yates' life, Slow Water. However, let's think about it. Jagose's book deals with some ambivalent aspects of the whole Yates affair. She highlights the possibility that Yates' Maori sexual partners back at Waimate were exposed to selective censorship of their account of gay sex and desire when they were active, desiring subjects themselves. Paradoxically, they seem freer than Yates, although Yates' own clerical career was not irreparably harmed by the scandal either. In this respect, it's rather similar in tone to Peter Wells' "Iridescence," also nominated for this years Montana fiction award, and a runner-up. Wells extrapolates what might have happened if one of the defendants in the pre-Wildean Barton drag sex work scandal of the 1870s had slipped the knot of primitive surveillance and diagnostic techniques, and escaped to Victorian era Napier. Again, repression fails to achieve its objectives, and New Zealand offers a prospect of relative liberation as the story ends. It seems to be the year for historical reconstructions. Recently, I watched UK feminist playwright Caryl Churchill's "Cloud Nine" (1979), a feminist celebration of relative sexual freedom which compared the heady rush of feminism and women's new sexual options with a straight-laced and button-downed Victorian colonial era simmering with all manner of gender, sexual and indigenous rebellion, performed in transvestite guise. But was the seventies really like that, especially for gay men? Not in the United Kingdom, and not here, either. While one generation may have experienced spaces of liberation, lesbian and gay teenagers probably have quite different memories of New Zealand's seventies- Muldoon's political repression, depoliticised gay male communities, abortion access restrictions and delayed decriminalisation of male homosexuality. It is odd to note that some sociologists of the eighties viewed the eighties as a period of "new sobriety," although that decade, and those following, have marked new social and political opportunities for lesbians and gay men. So, is "Cloud Nine" a narrative of heterosexual female liberation that mistakes that for a general account of greater freedom? Or do generational perspectives differ about what constitutes liberation or not? As I've noted in an earlier column, there is still a profound absence of lesbian and gay social history in New Zealand. When it is written, one hopes it will be as nuanced and ambivalent about 'repression' and 'liberation' both, as "Slow Water and "Iridescence" have been able to point out to us. Recommended Reading Caryl Churchill: Plays One: London: Methuen: 1985. Stevan Eldred-Grigg: Passions of the Flesh: Sex and Drugs in Colonial New Zealand: 1835-1915: Wellington: Reed: 1984. Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality: An Introduction: London: Penguin: 1979. Annemarie Jagose: Slow Water: Wellington: Victoria University Press: 2003. Peter Wells: Iridscence: Auckland: Viking: 2003. Craig Young - 12th August 2004    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Thursday, 12th August 2004 - 12:00pm

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