I Love My Gay Red Top

20 November 2012

Prime Minister John Key’s thoughtless “gay red top” gaffe demonstrates the persistence of homophobia in New Zealand’s green and pleasant land.

I’m tripping the light fantastic today – after a solid Sunday afternoon’s writing and a slightly extended lunch break yesterday, I blazed past my NaNoWriMo word target for the first time in weeks. At last check, I’m sitting on 34,749, with another 8,000 or so I plan to recycle from a previous draft into something over the next week or so, so I’m feeling securely on course to land at the final target of 50,000 words before 30 November.

As I reflected in my blog post last week, doing lots of writing usually inspires me to want to write even more. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been busting to write something about New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s tasteless “gay red top” comment on a public radio show, and his misguided and arrogant refusal afterwards to acknowledge his poor judgement. I’m feeling sufficiently bouyed by my NaNoWriMo progress to take another break from my novel – to cheat on it, if you will – and spend an hour or so in a clandestine relationship with another piece of writing. It’s an issue that’s very close to my heart, not the least because my novel is partially about growing up gay in New Zealand in the 1990s, and the damaging effects of living in a society that treats homosexuality with a mixture of indifference and contempt.

The facts of the case are fairly simple. Prime Minister key, in the middle of a “comedy” interview with a schlocky-sounding DJ on a local radio station, described his interviewer as wearing “a gay red top”. The New Zealand media picked up on the comment and a minor furore arose. At a press conference later in the week, Key was asked about his choice of words. The conference was filmed, and made for an excruciating piece of television – Key was awkward, defensive and practically illiterate, his response showing his lack of awareness of the significance of his words and his apparent lack of interest in the issues expressed. Key’s “excuse”, for lack of a better expression, was that he was using the word “gay” in that context to mean “weird”, explaining that he had picked up this terminology from his children.

Key then faced a barrage of criticism from press commentators and the general public, and later made an apology for any offence he’s caused. Like most politicians caught with their trousers down, Key’s apology felt less like genuine remorse and more like strategic backtracking at the behest of his nervous public relations team. To date, he hasn’t (as far as I’m aware), made any public statement in which he’s shown any understanding of why his use of “gay” as “weird” might have been offensive, or any acknowledgement that as leader of the country, his choice of words in a publically broadcast interview might actually be important.

The criticism came to a head when some wag mounted a “Wear Your Gay Red Shirt Day” campaign (at some stage, the word “top” got replaced by “shirt”), encouraging New Zealanders everywhere to show their disapproval of Key by wearing a red shirt on 9 November and post a photo of their big gay redness somewhere online. Judging from the number of photos posted onto the Facebook site online, the response was enormous, and newspapers including the New Zealand Herald published pieces and photo galleries on the event.

I’ve been hugely encouraged by the backlash against Key, which demonstrates how far New Zealand has come in recent years in terms of recognising the importance of language, the problems of homophobia, and the difficult time faced by bullied gay teens. It’s the kind of critical mass that seemed unimaginable twenty years ago, and makes me feel proud of New Zealanders, as well as slightly resentful that this support wasn’t in the ether when I was growing up gay.

The most stylish dressing down of Mr Key came from Lord of the Rings actor and celebrity gay Sir Ian McKellen, who posted a typically elegant response on his website. It’s so good that I’ve reproduced it in its entireity:

New Zealand has an undeserved reputation (amongst those who have never visited) as living a little in the past, not quite up-to-date with the world elsewhere.  As a regular visitor, I’ve often pointed out how, on social issues, the Kiwis have lead the world – first country to give women the vote, a nuclear-free stronghold and in the vanguard of civil rights for gay people.

Which brings me to John Key, the prime minister of New Zealand.  Recently in a light-hearted radio interview (see below) he referred to his host wearing a “gay red top,” by which he meant, apparently, “a weird red shirt.”  Defending himself later, he said he was using the word in the sense that his children used it and not in any way to disparage gay people.  Anyway, he said, the word was in the dictionary.  So of course are many other words that can give offence.

Nevertheless, Mr Key should watch his language.  I’m currently touring secondary schools in UK, attacking homophobia in the playground and discouraging kids from the careless use of “gay” which might make their gay friends (and teachers) feel less about themselves.  So even as he supports the proposal to introduce same-gender marriages in New Zealand, I do hope John Key listens to his critics and appreciates their concern.  Careless talk damages lives.

When Gandalf sends you to the naughty step, you know your battle is lost.

Though part of me can’t quite believe that we still have to express outrage about these kinds of issues, Key’s gaffe has been a useful corrective and reminder that not all is always gay (in either sense of the word) in Kiwiana. Apart from the more obvious idiocy of Key’s statement, and his pathetic excuse that he was just trying to get down with the kids by using some hip slang, the incident has thrown into sharp focus just how extensive the use of “gay” still is as an insult.

Like every gay man in New Zealand, I have my own private arsenal of memories of homophobic abuse, both verbal and physical, which for most of my adolescence was so prevalent and all-emcompassing that it would have been easier psychologically to accept it as my lot. I’m not sure it ever became my default setting – each insult landed like a pin prick, or an arrow fired from a crossbow, depending on the severity of the abuse, and each one leaves a memory, like a line of scar tissue. I’m not sure that this kind of abuse is ever really forgotten. What changes, if anything, is the levels of resistence you develop as a defence, either by turning the radio dial of other people down to a hum, or (as I did) retaliating with my own bitchy commentary and hyper-critical ways of seeing and judging the world. This is, according to psychologists like Alan Downs, author of the much-quoted The Velvet Rage, the legacy that gay men have inherited from a disapproving and virulently homophobic society.

As an adult, it’s much easier to deal with imbecilic comments like Key’s, and again the shift in critical awareness towards homophobia as a form of abuse just as damaging as sexism or racism provides increasing support for causes like Gay Red Shirt Day. But the sting I feel when I hear the word “gay” used as Key used it is still there, though, and probably won’t ever go away. In my darker moments, I’ve sometimes wondered whether I’m so battle scarred from surviving homophobia that I’ll ever be able to lead a fully functional life or trust other people to be anything other than prejudiced bullies. On reflection, though, I’m pleased that I still feel the sting and an associating surge of anger. It’s evidence that in some elemental part of my being, I know that this is abuse, and wrong, and shouldn’t have to be tolerated. It’s enormously encouraging to see through campaigns like Gay Red Shirt Day that I’m no longer alone in that feeling.

As history has proven, consistent social engagement with the use of language can lead to the use of once-commonly used words being widely accepted as being offensive. It certainly worked for “nigger” and many of the other appalling terms once used to describe racial minorities. It’s my hope that in time, use of the word “gay” as an insult can also be laid to rest, and (the harder task) that insulting someone on the basis of their being or suspected of being gay will no longer be acceptable.

It would be nice if our elder statesmen recognised the importance of this work, especially given New Zealand’s shamefully high statistics in teen suicide, much of which has been linked to anxieties over gay or lesbian sexuality. While I’ve never recognised John Key as an appropriate person to be New Zealand’s political leader, and I’ve never expected that he’d be able to advocate for my interests, this comment truly has demonstrated his unsuitability for political office. Kiwis are renowned for and vocally fond of their jokey, relaxed and unaffected mannerisms and speaking styles, which supposedly suggests egalitarian ideals and a lack of pretension. Throughout his political career, Key has played relentlessly to this national trope – reminding voters that he’s just an ordinary boy from a single-parent family who grew up in a State house, and downplaying his adult life as a millionaire businessman and shrewd power player. In his “apology”, he defaulted to the this laconic Everyman persona – even my kids use this word, he seemed to say, so how harmful can it be?

In addition to showing the coarseness and insensitivity that lies beneath this persona, Key’s comments have also revealed a degree of indifference to those who don’t think like he does, which seems to me to be a fatal quality in a political leader. I’m trying to imagine Barack Obama or even the oleaginous but generally diplomatic David Cameron making a similar comment, and find that it’s unimaginable.

Finally, Key and his advisors should take note that his words and subsequent response, as well as his statement to a group of school children that David Beckham was “as thick as pigshit”, has only served to make him, and the rest of New Zealand by implication, look like a load of stupid toothless yokels. This is, I’m sorry to say, the default setting of the British and American press in any case: New Zealand or Australia seldom makes it into the news unless it’s a fluffy bunny human interest story about a koala getting its penis caught in the exhaust pipe of a jeep. Key has simply fed that stereotype by showing his ignorance, his stupidity and his lack of self-awareness.

Compare this gaffe to the marvellous speech made by Australian PM Julia Gillard, who gunned down the sexism of the Neanderthalic leader of Australia’s opposition party, and there really is no comparison. As a New Zealander, even one living in exile, I want New Zealand to have political leader who’s like Gillard and not like Key – someone who advances the cause of human rights and argues in favour of sensitivity towards difference and diversity and doesn’t sound like he’s just fallen off the last turnip wagon.

Key should hang his head in shame for this one – or maybe spend some time with bullied gay teenagers, to get the full measure of just how damaging “gay” as “weird” can be. And in the meantime, a big gay wolf whistle to all the Kiwis who got behind the Big Gay Shirt campaign – I’m proud of y’all.


  1. Great piece. I’ve been scanning the media for editorials that express this kind of opinion as fluently as you do so was stoked to discover this. I join you in boo’ing John Key. Boooooo!
    My only criticism of your writing is the use of ‘toothless yokel’. This is a prime example of the kind of careless language that you’re promoting we stamp out. The term yokel is generally accepted to be a derogatory term used in reference to Appalachian people. Just goes to show, you have to be careful huh?
    Still, nice one…
    Sincerely, a fellow gay kiwi (who also grew up circa the 90’s)

  2. Hi Dave – thanks very much for reading the post and for your feedback. It’s always great to get new readers!
    My use of “toothless yokel” was more an attempt to summarise what the British and American press think of New Zealanders. As I grew up near Invercargill, which is to New Zealand what Appalachia is to the States, I feel a particular kinship with toothless yokels, possibly because I’m related to so many of them. But point taken. If you’re going to finger-wag about use of language and name-calling, you need to set an example.
    Please, please sign up for my blog updates (I’m desperate for approval/a fan club), and have yourself a big red gay day.

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