10 Questions with Mark Beehre


Q1: What prompted you to begin this project?

I did the first few interviews and photographs as part of the studio component of a Master of Fine Arts at Elam in 2012 and 2013. I was building on my earlier book, Men AloneMen Together, which explores the lives and relationships of a group of mostly older gay men born in the pre-Law Reform era. Historically, in Aotearoa New Zealand the social changes that were associated with the passage of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in 1986 (decriminalising sex between men), as well as subsequent legislation including the Human Rights Act of 1993 (making discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal), created an environment in which a generation of gay men grew up in a society whose attitudes towards homosexuality were significantly different from those of previous eras. Moreover, even though similar shifts in social attitudes were taking place around the western world, the timing of our legislative changes in comparison with other countries (not to mention the dramatic upsurge in queer visibility associated with the Law Reform campaign) gave the New Zealand experience a distinct edge. I noticed that, while many books had been written in the past about the lives of gay men here and overseas, none had drawn on the unique set of circumstances that shaped the lives of the generation of gay men growing up in Aotearoa New Zealand in the years following Law Reform. I thought it important to document their experiences.


Q2: How did you find the process of meeting and interviewing these 27 young men?

At first, I guess, the prospect of finding enough people willing to share their personal stories for publication was a bit daunting. I worked primarily by word of mouth, asking everyone I knew to suggest possible participants, and things snowballed from there. I already had experience in doing this sort of interviewing from working on Men Alone—Men Together, and in addition I think my background in medicine had helped make me comfortable with moving quickly into a space where I was talking with someone about what were often quite intimate aspects of their lives. My focus was on drawing out the person’s individual experience. I wanted to allow them to tell their story without any sense of evaluation or judgement, but rather to honour them in their own unique journey, and I found that at the end of each interview I liked and respected the person I’d been talking to.


Q3: They have all been remarkably candid and generous in sharing their lives. What drove that response do you think?

I often felt both moved and privileged by how open people were in sharing their stories and I think there were probably many different factors that encouraged them to talk so openly. For some, being seen, heard and affirmed was hugely important. Despite the remarkable social changes in the years since Law Reform, many of the guys I talked to still felt that, for significant periods of their lives, being gay was something less than desirable that they couldn’t talk about openly, whereas the theme of this project was exactly the opposite. As one man said, ‘Repression, silencing and invalidation have been replaced by the opportunity to be heard, normalised and valued.’

Beyond that, I think that for anyone, from any background, the sense that their story is a taonga, something to be honoured and treasured — which is what we are doing when we take that story and craft it into words that are printed and bound and shared and preserved —  will be meaningful. One person commented that the interview was the first time that anyone had sat down and simply listened to what he had to tell, over a period of four or more hours. In a few instances, the process seemed to be cathartic and healing in its own right, although I need to be very clear that nowhere in my mind was there even the hint of the idea that I was offering any form of therapy.

Finally, it’s important in doing this sort of work to create the kind of environment that facilitates this degree of sharing. Being open and non-judgemental, having oneself sometimes lived through somewhat similar experiences, and above all allowing plenty of time to develop a rapport and allow the stories to unfold, are all important. I’ve mentioned that some interviews lasted four hours, and on a few occasions we scheduled a second session as well. It’s a bit like sourdough baking, where I’ve read that time is one of the ingredients, in addition to flour, water, salt and leaven: there are some things that can’t be rushed. The same goes for the photographs: most of my photoshoots lasted at least an hour.


Q4: Did you envy them their freer lives? 

Yes and no. There was a period where I did wish that my own life had evolved in a freer and more accepting environment, but I’ve got to the stage where I can embrace the fullness of my past — which at times was extremely difficult — as contributing to the richness and complexity of the person I am now. I wouldn’t be who I am today if my life had followed a different script.


Q5: But did you also feel that they sometimes face complications that an older generation of gay men did not?

Many of those complications are not specific to gay or queer men but are common to everyone growing up in this late-capitalist, neoliberal, globalised and digitised world. The dissolution of homogenous, stable, geographically localised communities has certainly facilitated a greater freedom of individual expression, but I believe it has also contributed to a sense of alienation and disconnection that is evidenced, for example, by appallingly high rates of anxiety, depression and the prescription of pharmaceuticals in an attempt to alleviate those symptoms. It’s difficult to compare different generations: although for many, being gay is still not easy, in certain ways it is unequivocally easier than it was in the past (no-one now need worry about being evicted by a landlord or fired from a job because they are found to be ‘homosexual’); but on the other hand, life now presents many other sorts of hurdles.


Q6: Some of them have been through harrowing times, especially those from deeply religious families. Coming out is still not easy is it?

It’s important to keep in mind that the people I interviewed and photographed represent just a small sample of the hundreds or perhaps even thousands that could have been part of a project like this, and everyone’s story is unique. I didn’t select the participants on the basis of the content of their stories, but rather because I was able to make contact with them and they were willing to take part. My view is that everyone’s story is worth telling. That said, I was perhaps surprised at how many did find coming out so difficult. Despite all the social changes we have witnessed in the past 35 years, for so many it is still a hurdle. It pains me to say that, amongst the guys I spoke to, the single greatest difficulty in growing up and coming to a place of confidence and self-acceptance, was a strongly religious family background. Faith can be a hugely sustaining and meaningful part of one’s life, but religious dogma that denies the lived realities of personal experience and the world around us easily becomes damaging and destructive.


Q7: Some also dealt with real prejudice at school while others had an immediately accepting peer group. Did it surprise you that so many of their straight peers were driven by homophobia?

You’re right, I don’t think I was expecting to find the degree of overt homophobia amongst school students (particularly at secondary school) that was described by a significant number of the participants in this project, and it can be seen as an unanticipated consequence of the dramatic rise in queer visibility that we’ve seen over the past 35 years. The most egregious examples occurred in boys-only schools (one potential participant who was badly beaten up for being gay at school decided not to continue to publication), although the problem wasn’t limited to them. It relates, I think, not only to a general intolerance of difference amongst school students, but also to the constructs of masculinity that continue to prevail in parts of New Zealand society, and the insecurity in their own masculine identities experienced by many potentially straight young men. I believe that homophobia overlaps with the demeaning and objectification of women that I also heard described as part of teenage boy culture. There is a real need for heterosexual men to present models of masculinity that are confident enough in their own identities and sexual attractions to be able to be respectful of women and unthreatened by the possibility they might feel emotionally or sexually attracted to another man. Teachers and leaders of boys-only schools have a particular and pressing moral responsibility to ensure that the culture they create is one in which all their students are supported to grow, flourish and express themselves regardless of their sexuality and without the need to conform to rigid and constricting gender norms.


Q8: Almost all the portraits were taken on a Rolleiflex camera from the 1970s. What drove that decision?

The Rolleiflex is a medium-format twin-lens reflex film camera that produces square images. I started shooting in that format when I was working on Men Alone—Men Together (years before Instagram!), and one of my inspirations at that time was Glenn Busch’s Working Men, which was published in 1984 and featured photographs taken using a similar camera. The square format works well for portraiture and gives the subject more room to ‘breathe’ than a vertically oriented rectangular image. The Rolleiflex is a beautiful and elegantly engineered piece of equipment, and handling it is an aesthetic pleasure in its own right. The fact that I am using a camera that is uncommonly seen nowadays, and the associated ‘business’ of setting it up on a tripod, taking light readings, and changing the roll of film every 12 shots, creates a sense of occasion and gives the photoshoot a cadence that contributes to the quality of ‘absorption’ that I am trying to evince in the sitter. For pragmatic reasons, the last two images in the book were shot digitally, and despite the formal similarity with the ones taken on the Rollei, to me they have a subtly different quality.


Q9: What do you hope readers will take away from reading A Queer Existence?

My hope is that readers will approach the stories with the same intention that I brought to doing the interviews, which was to try as far as possible to ‘get inside’ the lived reality of each person’s experience. I wanted to understand what it was like to be growing up in their world, feeling the things they were feeling and striving to make sense of who they were. I hope my readers will do likewise and recognise the real integrity that each person brought to the task of coming into their identity as a gay or queer man in the early twenty-first century. I hope that there will be people whose ideas about what it is to be gay shift or expand as a result of reading the book, and finally I hope that there will be future generations for whom it is a useful record of one aspect of life in Aotearoa New Zealand in the early twenty-first century.


Q10: Proud of it?

It’s been a huge amount of work spread over nearly ten years, and I’m very pleased to see it in its final form. Bringing the project to completion does feel like a significant accomplishment.