In our latest batch of features, we’re telling stories – stories of people young and old who have overcome adversity and achieved great success. Chris Banks from the Mental Health Foundation has been collecting stories recently and these stories make up new feature-length documentary, Men Like Us.
The film explores the lives of nine gay New Zealand men spanning several generations and aims to highlight the common threads in our continuing struggle for everyday happiness in a straight man’s world.
“Gay men continue to be one of the highest risk groups for depression and suicide in the world,” says director Christopher Banks. “In New Zealand, there’s very little discussion happening about why this is and next to no resources that speak directly to our life experiences, that give us context or hope about what we go through.”
The nine men’s stories build a tapestry of uplifting and challenging tales of overcoming life’s obstacles, including body image and masculinity, bullying and bereavement, migration and aging, HIV, cultural identity and spirituality.
Produced through the Mental Health Foundation, the film premieres in Auckland at Rialto Cinemas on Wednesday 15 August at 6.30pm. For further details please visit the website www.menlikeus.co.nz.
James Hope, 26 – The runaway
“They’d call me a homo, they’d call me gay, and as soon as the teacher walked out everything started flying my way. At one point there was even a pair of scissors and a compass. I just took off, walked out of class, and didn’t go back.”
James was 15 when he ran away from home in New Plymouth to Wellington to work at McDonalds. Bullying at his Catholic high school had reached such a level that he felt suicidal, and played truant out of fear.
That decision coloured his life for the next ten years. With an incomplete education hindering his employment prospects, he felt displaced, alone and empty.
While supported by his mother, the crippling anxiety amplified by the bullying made it difficult for him to find friends. Moving all round the North Island, he attempted to find a new home for himself but fell in with bad crowds and felt his life was running adrift.
Eventually he moved to Auckland and found an employer who believed in him.
“I feel like I know where I’m going in life. My mother has always been a pillar of support and accepted me for who I am, and now I find that my workmates and friends do the same. I’ve never really had that before.”
Michael Bancroft, 65 – The priest
“I would have men, young and old, come and sit face-to-face with me and tell me all about their sinfulness and myself thinking – if only they knew.”
Michael entered the priesthood with a genuine desire to help people in the community, behaviour he had seen modelled by the religious brothers he grew up with at his Catholic school.
He spent several decades as a Marist brother before being ordained as a priest in the 1980s.
While he enjoyed the positive aspects of community work, hearing confessions of perceived sinfulness began to eat away at him as he struggled with his own sexuality.
He put that to one side during the 1990s when he was asked by the Bishop of Auckland to become part of the Interfaith AIDS Ministry Network. He conducted funerals for dozens of gay men, supporting their families and partners through the grieving process.
He eventually left the priesthood and now works for St John’s Ambulance coordinating teams of volunteers who visit hospitals.
“I am a strong person, I have a positive spirituality. Despite all the trials and traumas of people’s lives, I always think there are people who can assist me or I can assist to walk the journey with them.”
Blake Skjellerup, 25 – The sportsman
“I have a friend who is in sport and is gay; he is out to two people. The perception in his mind was, because he was gay he couldn’t be in his sport. He was very depressed.”
Blake knew this story all too well. Bullied at school because of his unorthodox choice of sport (short-track speed skating), Blake ignored the taunts and concentrated on being the best sportsman he could possibly be.
While realising he had feelings for other men, he didn’t see a future for himself there because he wanted marriage and children.
After winning several New Zealand championships, Blake decided to try for the Winter Olympics in 2006, by which time he had entered a “secret” relationship with another man.
An accident during the qualifying rounds ended his chances. His relationship crumbled and he spent the next year spiralling downward, feeling a failure in both his sexuality and as a sportsman.
By 2010’s Olympics, he’d regained his strength in both areas and decided to come out while competing. He has since been an outspoken advocate for gay youth in schools.
“I want to empower kids to accept who they are and embrace who they are, especially earlier on in life, because your adolescence is something you never get back.”
Raymond Wilson, 30 – The bear
“I had been in Australia for a matter of days. I was standing at a nightclub with a friend, dancing away, and had a man walk up to me on the dancefloor and tell me if I lost ten kilos I’d look really good.”
Raymond grew up in Tokoroa with little angst around his sexuality, but after hitting the gay scene he realised that as a bigger boy he didn’t fit into the stereotype of the clubgoer who slipped easily into the tight singlets.
Throughout his twenties, he tried desperately to be something he wasn’t, with each attempt at weight loss failing and making him feel worse about himself.
Comments like the showstopper he had thrown at him in the Sydney nightclub reinforced the idea that to be found attractive he would have to look a certain way and he often found himself gripped with the terror that he’d always be alone.
He discovered the bear community through his partner Hamish in his late twenties and entered a new phase of self-acceptance, learning to exercise and be healthy not to be attractive to others, but for himself.
“I don’t think enough of us are prepared to sit down with someone we care about and say, you need to start loving yourself.”
Todd Karehana, 24 – The small town boy
“I used to do things to look more masculine. I’d pull out my eyelashes before I’d go to school sometimes. I got one of those serrated knives and would scratch my face up a little bit so it looked more rough.”
Hailing from Kawerau, a town with one of the highest youth suicide rates in New Zealand, Todd’s school life was punctuated by taunts of being “a girl”.
Force-feeding himself with Weetbix and butter, he blew himself up from a slender 68kg to over 100kg in less than six months.
His whole demeanour changed, taking on an aggressive masculine posture, retreating to his bedroom for entire weekends and thumping on the wall demanding his dinner be brought to him. This still didn’t stop the bullying – it only made it worse, with Todd now known as the “fat faggot”.
It was an escape to live with one of his brothers in Sydney that gave him a taste of a world outside the town he grew up in, giving him the strength to set goals for his education, be comfortable with his cultural identity and eventually to come out after returning to New Zealand. “I’m gay and I’m Maori – you can have it all together at once.”
Ivan Yeo, 39 – The migrant
“If you are white, young, blond – then you’ll be the top line of meat. Being Asian is kind of down in the food chain.”
Originally from Malaysia, Ivan’s cultural ideas around being a man were fixed and rigid: you had to be heterosexual and you had to fulfill a traditional masculine role as being a provider for your family.
He felt so out of place that he once asked his mother why she’d given birth to him, as he was not able to live up to what was expected of him by society.
Moving to New Zealand opened up a “wonderland” of possibilities where he realised that not only could you have sex with other men and not be ashamed, there was the possibility of building a life together with one as well.
Mixed in with this euphoria were some hard lessons about the racism that lurked under the surface in a community that he desperately longed to be a part of.
“Going to another world and having all these negative messages just reinforced that I wasn’t good enough. I’m not good enough because I’m gay, because I’m Asian, I’m not good enough anywhere I turn to.”
Karl Moser, 45 – The DJ
“I found myself at one o’clock in the morning, in the middle of a gay nightclub, disclosing my HIV status. I’ve been told, by some people I wouldn’t call friends, that pretty much you get what you deserve.”
Karl shed his upbringing in the homophobic Salvation Army to embrace an open gay life just as Homosexual Law Reform was passed in the mid-1980s.
He formed strong friendships and enjoyed the freedom of free sex and partying as HIV began to emerge and decimate legions of gay men. Yet it was not this initial wave of infection that caught him. A self-described “AIDS warrior” in his twenties, he reached his thirties and hit the skids when a long-term relationship ended.
By this stage well-known as a DJ on the gay scene, he had easy access to men, alcohol and drugs and as failed affair followed failed affair, his self-esteem sunk lower and he began to self-destruct.
He was diagnosed HIV positive and slowly shrank from public life, terrified by his perception of the “angry monster” inside him that could kill people.
“The reality of HIV from where I stand is that there is no pill you can give people to treat you the same as they would if you were negative.”
Rob Calder, 78 – The elder
“It’s quite hard as you get older to get intimacy. More being closer to somebody, than being sexual.”
From a generation where it was common for gay men to enter heterosexual married life, Rob did so with his eyes wide open – he even told his wife he had sex with men.
Nevertheless, a family followed and being a father was one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life. He separated from his wife in the early 1980s and after he felt his youngest son was “what I thought was old enough to cope with having a gay father”, he came out and embraced the second phase of his life.
Now single in the later stages of life, Rob has set up his life to ensure he remains connected to other people and activities that challenge and inspire him.
He’s a phone counsellor for OUTLine, volunteers for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, is a member of several men’s social groups (where members are straight and gay) and at the request of artist friends, has become a life model.
“The good thing about being older is that you’ve been through crap times and you’ve got through them. When I was 20 I was just a hopeless student. Everything’s better now, thank you,” he smiles.
Stephen Rainbow, 51 – The husband
“In the airport, I saw some graffiti which said GAY SEX EQUALS DEATH. And that was what I felt I grew up with in terms of my sexual awakening.”
By the time Stephen entered into his first serious relationship with another man, he had also been married and had children.
His fears linking AIDS, homosexuality and death did nothing to brace him for the shock of his partner of over a decade, Greg, being diagnosed with cancer.
Greg was fully accepted by Stephen’s family and was a second father to his children, but the pain of watching the love of his life deteriorate before his eyes is still with him today.
He alienated and confused many friends by entering another relationship almost immediately after Greg’s death, but the feelings of loss were so intense that he couldn’t face being alone. Few knew what they should say to him, if anything.
Despite these difficulties, his grief journey eventually led him to some of the most meaningful and intense conversations he’s ever had, with others seeking him out to discuss similar experiences.
“I wish that the way we lived our ordinary daily lives reflected that richness and that level of support and not just at times of great trauma.”
| Chris Banks
Men Like us premieres Wednesday 15 August. Visit www.menlikeus.co.nz for more information.