Novel explores 'erased' gay history

By Kawe Roes

A new novel is out which examines the challenges faced by gay Māori men during World War One and later in rural communities.

Tane's War follows the fictional story of a Māori soldier who has an affair with a British officer during the war.

At the time the penalty for homosexuality was imprisonment.

The book follows Tane, a Māori man who served in the trenches and who became aware of his own homosexuality when he had a passionate and brief affair with a British officer.

There were only five recorded accounts of homosexuality in WWI in the New Zealand National Archive.

Tane’s War author, Brendan Weir says “There were five references that I could find...only five to homosexuality and three of them denying that it existed or took place in any way, shape or form- certainly for soldiers- and the other two referring to it as a frightful vice of the Turks.”

After the serviceman's return from war, he eventually ends up as a foreman on a training farm in Manawatū, where a new boy from the city arrives and forms a relationship with another young man.

Weir says, “His arrival sparked feeling in one of his fellow shearers and a relationship starts blooming between the two of them and Tane recognises that spark for what it is because of his own background and that leaves him in awkward position. 

"Firstly, it brings his own past back to him.  He starts reliving his old past through the emotional connection these boys are having to bring back things he has forgotten or just put aside and could never be part of his life that he never had an opportunity to explore.”

The relationship between the two men in the 1950's is imagined at a time when New Zealand was extremely conservative about sexual relations between men.

“The 1950s timeframe was particularly interesting.  It was a time of extreme conservatism in a way.  Ironically we would assume as time went by things became easier and easier for gay men, for marginalised groups in general," says Weir. 

"The 1950s was almost like a great step backwards. Ironically it may have been easier for gay men to connect with one another at the very beginning of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries- around about the time of WWI- simply because there was no social recognition, no cultural recognition of the fact that two men together meant anything other than friendship.” 

In writing the book, Weir has found a fresh interpretation of the history of gay men in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

“History has been altered and sometimes erased for gay men, particularly those involved in the war [and] those involved in the military,” says Weir.

Tane's War is now on sale around the country.