The New Zealand Listener reviews 30 Queer Lives


Andrew Paul Wood has reviewed 30 Queer Lives: Conversations with LGBTQIA+ New Zealanders for the New Zealand Listener. You can read the full review below.


‘Matt McEvoy teaches piano, manages property and has previously written a book about Grey Lynn. Between 2018 and 2021, right through Covid, he put together 30 Queer Lives, which gives New Zealanders of various ethnic backgrounds and gender and sexuality expressions the space to talk about their lives: politicians, Olympians, doctors, soldiers, farmers, musicians, academics, business leaders and authors.

Aotearoa being a goldfish bowl, I know some, some are friends and some I’d gnaw through my ankle like a trapped fox to escape.

It’s inaccurate to call them “conversations”, as that implies a back and forth. These are personal essays bordering on monologues. Some are utterly fascinating, such as Zimbabwe-born performance poet Takunda Muzondiwa, Invercargill doctor and activist David Sar-Shalom Abadi and Aotearoa’s first transgender pro wrestler, Leilani Tominiko. Others are educational, too. Taupuruariki “Ariki” Brightwell’s personal insights of being takatāpui will help put things in a much clearer context for many, especially Pākehā, readers.

Photographers Ann Shelton comes as a pleasant revelation because she is almost never put into a queer context, despite the subtext of a lot of her photography. Others, such as Grant Robertson and Chlöe Swarbrick, feel more like PR exercises that tell me nothing a dozen previous vetted and airbrushed profiles haven’t already.

Unless you’re less keenly allergic to the smell of bulldust than a jobbing critic, the most interesting essays tend to be those by people who don’t self promote for a living. Tom Sainsbury, celebrated for his myriad personae, surprised me with his authenticity.

On the whole, I find the book delightful and full of treasures, but what lets 30 Queer Lives down from being the total package is that while McEvoy has prioritised an image of queer diversity for Aotearoa, it’s diversity of a ring-fenced, gate-kept and heavily policed type: it’s a post-social-media sort of a book. It feels like McEvoy interviewed his Twitter bubble and padded it out with a few celebrities and ring-ins.

Everyone included here has a worthy public profile of some kind. Everyone is “woke” and left-leaning — some aggressively, humourlessly so. Alas, having a prominent Twitter presence is, in a few cases, what these people are primarily known for, so another reiteration of their self-documented lives seems redundant.

It’s a glorious rainbow, to be sure, but at times a paint-by-numbers one, and if that’s your zeitgeist, you are going to eat this up like a pineapple lump. However, middle-of-the-road, live-and-let-live centrist liberal that I am, I found myself wanting a wild card to shake up the smug in-groupness of it all, to surprise or shock me. Something salty or sour to cut the cloying sweetness. A Marilyn Waring or Chris Finlayson, who are definitely interesting and yet whom I’m almost certainly not going to be able to anticipate or agree with.

Queer is not a monolith — indeed the term is not universally accepted by all LGBT+ people — nor is it any one particular political ideology, as witnessed by the 2019 battle over what Pride should look like. We are not the Borg. That said, 30 Queer Lives is a wonderfully encouraging book that I’m sure many of us wish we had when we were young, and it is the perfect gift for young allies, the recently out, family and anyone else just seeking to understand. It gets better — I leave it up to the readers to decide whether that applies to being queer or the book.’


The book also received the Listener's Letter of the Week Prize: the reader wrote, ‘The 30 New Zealanders in this book, by Matt McEvoy, are remarkable individuals. They each speak with candour and honesty about their challenges and successes, and together they show how LGBTQIA+ people strengthen the rich culture of Aotearoa.’