Public attitudes towards sexuality have dramatically improved in Douglas MacDiarmid‘s lifetime. Although pockets of homophobia persist, gay folk are now visible, involved, heard and legally protected in the community. Even Australia belatedly got over its fear to give same sex couples the right to marry little over a year ago. How things change in the course of a long lifetime. It was radically different in the 1940s when Douglas MacDiarmid was a conflicted young man, sure of his own impulses but painfully aware that homosexuality was illegal – a crime punishable by life imprisonment in ‘progressive’ places like New Zealand, and carrying the death penalty in many other countries. It is sobering to reflect on the tenuous passage of legislation towards sexual freedom in New Zealand history.
In pre-colonial days, same sex relationships and activities were generally accepted in Māori society. However, male homosexuality was automatically deemed illegal when the country became part of the British Empire in 1840, thanks to an ancient statute, the Buggery Act of 1533, which first outlawed sodomy (and bestiality) as sinful. In 1867, the penalty changed from execution to life imprisonment in New Zealand. The law broadened in 1893 to class sexual acts between men as ‘sexual assaults’ – with those unlucky enough to be caught committed to life, hard labour, flogging. Sex between women, incidentally, has never been a crime in Britain or Australasia. So it remained until 1961 when penalties were reduced but it was another 25 years before the government bowed to growing public pressure to decriminalise homosexuality by passing the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986. However, the second part of that landmark bill, to provide anti-discrimination protection to lesbians and gay men, languished until 1993 before being accepted under the New Zealand Human Rights Act. The pattern of change has been similar on the other side of the Tasman, on a much slower, more conservative trajectory through various states and territories. In 1973, the Australian Medical Association removed homosexuality from its list of illnesses and disorders. New Zealand gave its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people marriage equality in 2013, more than four years before the law changed in Australia.
As a bisexual man, Douglas knows only too well what it is like to live on the fringe. From a very young age he created a disciplined veneer to avoid drawing attention to himself. This enabled him to survive growing up in a small central North Island town while meeting the expectations of strait-laced New Zealand and its narrow sensibilities. He had the great good fortune to be part of a very nurturing and sympathetic circle in Christchurch during World War II, when the Garden City was the stunning creative heart of the country. This gave him the courage to dedicate his life to art, choosing to be a painter rather than a concert pianist or writer. But it wasn’t enough, especially after experiencing the greater freedom of life in Europe for a couple of years. Back home he saw the debilitating psychological and emotional toll on older, like-minded friends. The dread of constantly looking over one’s shoulder, recoiling at unexpected knocks at the door. The lies and subterfuge of acting ‘normal’ in a climate of prejudice and whispering campaigns. Douglas chose not to be shamed into hiding personal relationships or living a half-life for love. Instead he left New Zealand permanently for France in 1951, to find a place where he would be free to embrace the call of the senses.
He was the one who got away, while some others of his generation led bitter, unfulfilled lives. Some married to keep up appearances, others escaped by suicide. Through hard work, the occasional brilliant stroke of luck and great resolve, MacDiarmid carved out a career as an internationally respected painter in Paris, sought-out in his adopted country, largely ignored in his home land. Such is the price of being free. Being a chameleon in both life and work, he has until recently maintained two selfs – on one hand, the cultured, urbane European, driven by sensuality and beauty. On the other, a blanket of silence about his private life as far as family and friends in New Zealand were concerned. Self-preservation is a tenacious habit to break. “In my case there has been a certain duality. The language barrier among other considerations has led me to maintain a complete separation between New Zealand family and French extensions. Not an ideal state of affairs but one instinctively avoids tangles involving loved ones.”
Douglas MacDiarmid is now 96, and happily living in Montmartre, Paris with Patrick (87), his partner of more than 50 years. His closest family were completely unaware of the existence of a life partner until one of the younger generation met Patrick when visiting Douglas at home in Paris 2009. It was a sort of blessed coming out. The pair had quietly sealed their relationship with a civil union in December 1999, as soon as French law changed to give same-sex couples equal legal rights. They had been a committed couple together since 1968, spending all their free time and holidays together, but did not share the same house for almost 20 years. In Douglas’ 2018 biography Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, he tells gay friends in Auckland: “I have been surprised at the depth of subconscious effect produced – one significant strand of peace that was lacking in what we have constructed together anyway. We shan’t be advertising it in any way whatever – old, ignorant currents of hostility are not going to waft away for any number of signatures on any sized paper and till some weird transformation raises the level of human society and its inherent sickness, discretion is still going to be a prime element of liberty. In the meantime, it’s heart-warming to be able to talk about it with you.” What better way to cast off a century, than to leave old injustices behind…but still keep mum.
That civil union remained a private matter until the letter turned up in a correspondence archive in New Zealand while biographer Anna Cahill was researching his life in 2015. It was only then that references in personal letters received over the years finally fell into place. In 2006, French legislation was revised to formally recognise partners with registered Civil Solidarity Pacts as married, and their birth records were automatically amended to reflect their true status. Douglas has been a loyal friend and mentor to many people struggling with their sexuality over the decades, in New Zealand and elsewhere. Acceptance is his reward. He believes his bisexuality has served him well in understanding and expressing the vagaries of the ‘human condition’ in paint…All sorts of things appear to be a disadvantage. The fact of being born bisexual is a marvellous way of having, whether you want to or not, your imagination infinitely increased! And without imagination, really you’re dished.”
Long live the difference!
Read more about Douglas MacDiarmid in his the recently released biography Colours of Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, written by his niece Anna Cahill.
The book is available to purchase here and at selected galleries or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand