Grant Robertson is gay. And he likes rugby. And he drinks beer. All of these things are true - so can we now get on with it?

Phil Quin put a post up yesterday chiding Grant Robertson for what he sees as an overly cautious approach to political messaging and urging him to be more warlike in his phraseology because New Zealanders clearly have a deep, deep aversion to politicians who present as pleasant and relaxed individuals who are competent at their job and won't pursue any policies that are too radical because at the end of the day most New Zealanders actually are pretty sensible about these sorts of things. Or something.

Now, I'm not a member of the Labour Party, so ultimately it's not my choice as to who they select to lead them. And I am a bit of a Grant fanboi going back some two-and-a-half decades now, which does somewhat bias my views on the topic. However, there's one bit of Quin's post that seems downright wrong to me:

This [risk-aversion] is consistent with Robertson’s highly defensive approach towards the sexuality question since last year’s leadership contest, including the bizarre contention that people should be less bothered by his gayness because he watches rugby and drinks beer (Toby Manhire’s skewering on that point is superb).

I have a bit of an issue with how this whole "rugby and beer" meme has been developed. Here's the actual bit from the interview that Quin is referring to:

Labour leadership hopeful Grant Robertson is relaxed about David Cunliffe supporters raising the issue of him being gay but he does not believe it will be a factor in their vote.

"There may well be some people who raise that. That's fine. But that's not where I think I'll be judged.

"I'll be judged, I'm sure, on my ability to reflect Labour values," he said last night.

He said he was not defined by his sexuality.

"It's an aspect of who I am just as I like rugby and drink beer and a few other things."

Was this, in Quin's words, "muddled pandering on the gay question"? I think not, for two reasons.

The first is that Grant really likes rugby. And when I say he really likes rugby, I mean he really likes rugby. He played it (with more enthusiasm than natural talent, but there you are) for years. He's watched it in the rain and the cold winds of Carisbrook, then in the rain and the cold winds of the Caketin, for even more years. Check out his twitter feed, for crying out loud - he's not "pandering" there, he's writing about something he genuinely enjoys.

The second is that Grant really can drink beer. And when I say he really can drink beer, I mean he really can drink beer. I won't tarnish the reputation of the University of Otago by revealing the basis for my knowledge on this subject, but let's just say that in an inter-flat keg race he provided roughly the equivalent team advantage to Jonah Lomu at the '95 World Cup. And while his appetites have mellowed with time, with craft beers replacing the dreck that we used to get from McDuff's, every time we meet up it will be over a pint of something or other.

These are a part of who Grant is and the life that he leads. So I'm not quite sure what Quinn thinks Grant did wrong in this interview. Should he have denied the fact that he likes things like rugby and drinking beer because to mention them would appear to be just appealing to what he thinks others might think he thinks others might like about him? Or should he have played to some stereotype of what "proper" gay people are like - because that would somehow be more honest than saying what he really is? Or should he have stood up straight and proud and said "yes - I am a gay man and that is what really matters here, so ignore the rest of my personality, interests and ambitions"?

Well, I guess that would escape Quin's "risk-averse" tag. But why on earth should Grant have to do so? Because as Quin says:

There is no valid reason to believe New Zealanders would block an otherwise qualified and compelling contender from becoming Prime Minister on the basis of his or her sexual orientation.

In which case, why are we talking about his sexuality at all? After all, is anyone asking John Key whether his being straight makes him a better Prime Minister, or more suitable to lead the country, or the like? What would we even make of a journalist who thought to ask such a thing? And if we can accept that John Key's sexuality is just an aspect of who he is, just as is the fact that Johnny English is his favourite movie and Adele his favourite band, then why can't we do the same for Grant Robertson?

Comments (28)

by Phil Quin on October 20, 2014
Phil Quin

I did not express myself clearly.  I do not believe Grant Robertson is affecting his love of rugby or his taste for beer, but that the conflation of those things with his sexual orientation is muddled pandering. Sexual identity doesn't equate to mundane likes and dislikes. My perspective is shaped by being a gay man who likes rugby and gave up a love affair with beer eight years ago. As for your characterisation of my broader argument, Andrew, let's just say I admire your rhetorical reach.  

by Alan Johnstone on October 21, 2014
Alan Johnstone

"There is no valid reason to believe New Zealanders would block an otherwise qualified and compelling contender from becoming Prime Minister on the basis of his or her sexual orientation."

I think they may, there is still a level of anti gay feeling in his country; esp in certain ethinic, relgious and age groupings such as older voters. 

Not saying it's correct and it wouldn't matter to me, but given two otherwise qualified and compelling candidates the straight one would get more votes. Politics are all about identity and the "people like me" factor.

Of course Labour don't have any other qualified and compelling candidates.........

 

 

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

Sexual identity doesn't equate to mundane likes and dislikes.

Fully accepted. But I would argue that sexual identity is as meaningful to the question of whether a person is suited to be the Labour Party leader (and maybe PM) as is his mundane likes and dislikes. So the issue isn't generally "is being gay equivalent to your sports preferences or choice of alcoholic beverage?" Rather, it's "why is being gay an issue at all in this discussion ... and if it isn't, then why talk about it rather than things like your sports preferences or choice of alcoholic beverage?" Because, as I noted, no one asks John Key about his straightness - he either gets policy questions or "let us see the real Key" personal ones.

Further, I'd note that Grant is in the early days of what is effectively his introduction to the NZ public (beyond the Labour Party itself). That public knows he's gay ... OK ... nothing wrong with that ... but what else? How "relateable" is he? Can they see him as the sort of bloke who shares their sorts of interests and likes? So - yeah, of course Grant's going to emphasise those character traits that resonate with whatever "middle New Zealand" is thought to be interested in. Isn't that what every politician does? But at least when doing so, he's not doing anything as transparently "pandering" as this!

As for rhetorical reach - yes ... I like to overstretch!

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

I think they may, there is still a level of anti gay feeling in his country; esp in certain ethinic, relgious and age groupings such as older voters.

And yet Georgina Byers was elected as MP by the farming families of the Wairarapa, while the predominantly Maori and Pacifica people of Manurewa just re-elected Louisa Wall with twice as many votes as her nearest rival.

by Ross on October 21, 2014
Ross
"I do not believe Grant Robertson is affecting his love of rugby or his taste for beer, but that the conflation of those things with his sexual orientation is muddled pandering." I am not sure if pandering is the right word. As Andrew says, rugby and drinking beer are things Grant happens to like. Of course there may have been a subtle reference to the archetypal male who may or may not like rugby, beer and racing - now if Grant had said he likes going to the races I would have been very suspicious! So yeah maybe he was trying to imply that he really is just an average guy. But I find it hard to see that as a crime. Let's not forget he made his comments in the context of a discussion about his sexuality. If he'd mentioned his fondness for beer and rugby in another context, I am sure this would not have rated a mention.
by Ross on October 21, 2014
Ross
"Adele his favourite band" Lest you get ridiculed by your students, you might like to change the word "band" to "singer". :)
by Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere on October 21, 2014
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere

 the dreck that we used to get from McDuff's

For shame, Andrew, for shame.

why are we talking about his sexuality at all?

+ 1 on this. But are "we" (the electorate) actually talking about this? Or is this simply attempt by some media outlets to manufacture controversy out of nothing? As your comments about Louisa Wall and Georgina Beyer point out, "we" don't really seem to care.

Johnny English is his favourite movie

Seriously!?

 

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Ross,

Salient asked the question "what is your favourite band?" Key answered it with "I really really like Adele." He's the one deserving of ridicule, not me!

@Marcelo,

Seriously - but note, he did change his answer from "22 Jump St." Is that better or worse?

by Phil Quin on October 21, 2014
Phil Quin

Andrew, a good deal of your post is dedicated to attacking me for accusing Robertson of faking his love of beer and rugby. I said no such thing, nor do I believe it. Why would I? I had thought perhaps the language was ambiguous and this gave rise to your mistaken inference. No such ambiguity. You came up with that argument of mine all on your own.

Without wanting to get all Queer Studies about this, forgive me for not considering it progress when a gay New Zealander becomes Prime Minsiter by telling everyone that sexuality isn't important. Sexual orientation is irrelevant to how he or she does the job, sure, but it is an integral part of who they are – and voters tend to want to have a good sense of a person running for high office.

I am more than happy to retract when I put my foot in it, as I did recently by misusing the term 'Orwellian'.  In this case, I won't budge.  Pivoting from questions about sexuality to expressing love for rugby and beer is exactly what I said it is: muddled pandering.  

by Lee Churchman on October 21, 2014
Lee Churchman

As the son of an immigrant family who never had much time for rugby (my things are boxing, football and the NHL) I could never understand why the NZ rugby identity was so often homophobic, or why gay men were presumed not to like the sport. After all, it's a bunch of fit, muscular men engaging in the male equivalent of mud wrestling.

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Phil,

I think you are misunderstanding me. My post was not intended to state/imply you "accus[ed] Robertson of faking his love of beer and rugby". Rather, you said that he has a "highly defensive approach towards the sexuality question" that led to "muddled pandering on the gay question", as evidenced by his "bizarre contention that people should be less bothered by his gayness because he watches rugby and drinks beer". I dispute that analysis of Grant's comments, as well as your reading of his attitude towards his sexual orientation - this is just a case of disagreement over how the facts should be interpreted, not a case of saying that anyone has acted in bad faith/dishonestly. So you see muddled pandering on Grant's part, I see a context-specific dismissal of the issue as one that is largely irrelevant to the question at hand. Tomato/Tomatoe. 

Having said that, you haven't answered the question of how you think Grant should be addressing his sexuality in the leadership contest and beyond. He's hardly denying it, or saying it's a private matter that he won't acknowledge at all. So if, as we all seem to be agreeing, it doesn't actually matter in terms of his ability to do the job, and if New Zealanders aren't that bothered by it (as you say, they'll vote for the right guy or girl, irrespective of sexual orientation), what exactly do you want him to do differently?

by Lee Churchman on October 21, 2014
Lee Churchman

Having said that, you haven't answered the question of how you think Grant shouldbe addressing his sexuality in the leadership contest and beyond.

He doesn't have to, any more than he should have to justify his religion. It's not the public's business. This isn't the United States. One of the more pleasant things about living in NZ is that we have a more enlightened attitude towards sexual orientation and religion than most places (something I did not realise until I lived overseas). 

by Phil Quin on October 21, 2014
Phil Quin

I don't know how I can make myself any clearer:

Robertson was not pandering by fabricating or exaggerating his love for rugby and beer, but by his pivoting to those subjects when the question of sexuality was raised. If you clearly understood this was my argument, why on earth would you dedicate two lengthy paragraphs to how much Robertson really, really likes rugby and beer when I never brought those facts into contention?

As for how he handles it? I loathe punditry that puts hypothetical words in politicians' mouths, but I would place my sexuality in a proper context: an important part of who I am; something I struggled with but learned to accept: integral to my hard won sense of self; ultimately, New Zealanders will take my measure as a political leader based on the things that are important in their lives, and I doubt very much that my sexual orientation will play a decisive part.

 

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Phil,

You don't need to make yourself any clearer, because I understand you fine. I just don't agree with you, is all. 

At core, I think we disagree on what it means "to pander" - or, at least, we disagree on whether Grant's approach falls within the bounds of that derogatory term. You see his pivoting to these things (rugby and beer) as purely a diversion or distraction from the more important issue of his sexuality. Now, I agree that sexuality is more important than these things in the abstract. But we're not talking "in the abstract". We're talking about in the context of wanting to be the leader of the main opposition party and possible future PM. And Grant's position - as expressed in his maiden speech in the House - is:

I am proud and comfortable with who I am. Being gay is part of who I am, just as is being a former diplomat, a fan of the mighty Ranfurly Shield - holding Wellington Lions, and a fan of New Zealand music and New Zealand literature. My political view is defined by my sexuality only inasmuch as it has given me an insight into how people can be marginalised and discriminated against, and how much I abhor that. I am lucky that I have largely grown up in a generation that is not fixated on issues such as sexual orientation. I am not—and neither should others be.

So it seems to me that Grant's had a pretty consistent approach throughout his political career. He's a gay man who isn't just a gay man and wants to be seen complete with his other interests/passtimes/passions - which are just as relevant (or irrelevant) to the job that he is pursuing as the question of his sexual orientation.  

(BTW - my reason for "dedicat[ing] two lengthy paragraphs to how much Robertson really, really likes rugby and beer" was to show off that I know Grant quite well - never underestimate the role that personal ego and the need to feel important play in my posts/comments!)

As for your suggestions about how he could better front the issue of his sexuality in the media, I'll just say this. Virtually every interview with Grant opens with "the gay thing". Check out this. Or this. If he were to take your path and lay out his personal journey of what "being gay" meant for him (although why he has to I don't know - when was John Key ever asked about how he knew he was straight?), then that is all he would ever get to talk about, and all that would ever be reported about him. And I don't think it is "pandering" or "defensive" on his part to insist that this not be the case. 

That's my reckon, anyway. I appreciate it isn't yours. But that's OK.

by Darel Hall on October 21, 2014
Darel Hall

And so it continues with Grant being defined by his sexuality in today's Herald with a  sub-headline displaying an aversion to wit that defines the antithesis of Oscar Wilde: "There’s just one obvious candidate for the next party leader, but will the zealots be allowed to queer the pitch?". I see what you did there Herald. 

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11345507

by Phil Quin on October 21, 2014
Phil Quin

No point going around in circles since you seem unwilling to acknowledge that you mischaracterised my argument in order to make yours. 

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

Phil,

Point to one place - one place - where I "attack [you] for accusing Robertson of faking his love of beer and rugby" or claim that you say Robertson "fabricat[ed] or exaggerat[ed] his love for rugby and beer." Go on. One place.

Because I dispute utterly the charge that I've "mischaracterised" your argument. You instead seem unable to accept that people can agree on the facts (that Grant Robertson likes rugby and drinks beer and said so in an interview) yet still disagree about what it means. I'm sorry that this is so, but as it is, I agree there's little point continuing.

by Phil Quin on October 21, 2014
Phil Quin

It's not hard. You cite me saying Robertson is pandering, you then dedicate two paragraphs explicitly to rebut that notion. Those paragraphs concern themselves with the fact Robertson actually does actually like beer and rugby. Without first reading my article, it would be impossible for any reasonable reader of yours not to conclude that my accusation of pandering concerned Robertson's dishonestly claiming to enjoy those things. 

by Ross on October 21, 2014
Ross

Salient asked the question "what is your favourite band?" Key answered it with "I really really like Adele." He's the one deserving of ridicule, not me!

I take your point...just as long as you realise Adele is not a band.

by Ross on October 21, 2014
Ross

Pivoting from questions about sexuality to expressing love for rugby and beer is exactly what I said it is: muddled pandering.  

I think you are missing the point, Phil - Grant shouldn't be asked questions about his sexuality. We know what his sexuality is and it's irrelevant anyway.

by Andrew Geddis on October 21, 2014
Andrew Geddis

Oh, I see. It wasn't so much what I said as what you think I meant by how I said what I said. Well, I'm sorry that you took it that way. Three points, and then I really am going to stop.

(1) I genuinely meant it when I said in an earlier comment that "my reason for "dedicat[ing] two lengthy paragraphs to how much Robertson really, really likes rugby and beer" was to show off that I know Grant quite well" ... the mention of "beer" and "rugby" in connection with "Grant" was an excuse to go down memory lane - and I don't need asked twice. That's a personal tic: I don't write these blog posts (just) as a commentary on public events, but also as a chance to put whatever the hell I want onto the interweb.

(2) The more serious point (insofar as there is one) was not to imply you were accusing Grant of lying about liking rugby and drinking beer. However, the word "pander" (your term) means "to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable". So the question of whether rugby and beer is something that plays a significant role in Grant's life is very relevant to the fairness of your characterisation of his comments (i.e. is it "reasonable" for him to raise it as an aspect of his personality that the public should know about, or is he just serving up the public rugby and beer because that's what a good keen man likes?). I know something about this (more, I suggest, than you do) - so I shared it. 

(3) The nature of blogging and replying to blogs is that I can assume a reader knows the background context (i.e. had read your post before reading my reply to your post). Or, if they don't, there's the hyper-link to follow in order to learn about it. I don't write for the uniformed reader - if they don't get the background, that's their problem and not mine.

So, once again, for the record, I did not intend to state/imply you "accus[ed] Robertson of faking his love of beer and rugby". If that was an interpretation placed on my post by you or anyone else, it was not what was meant by it. 

Can I also make one (hopefully) final comment. My point in all of this simply is that I don't agree Grant's handling of the question of his sexuality is evidence of what you see to be an overly cautious/risk-averse approach on his part. You'll notice I haven't said anything much about your other claims in your post about a certain blandness to his campaign for leader. That's because (depsite my admittedly snarky intro) I think I probably agree with them.

by Phil Quin on October 21, 2014
Phil Quin

Thanks for the Blogging 101. 

I surrender. 

by Emily-Kate Robertson on October 21, 2014
Emily-Kate Robertson

Very well said, Andrew! I think Grant is absolutely the one for the job. He would make an incredible opposition leader and (hopefully, come 2017) Prime Minister. 

by Charlie on October 21, 2014
Charlie

Emily - don't you think his lack of experience outside of the confines of Wellington and the civil service rather limits his appeal to the general public?

 

 

 

by Julian Ang on October 21, 2014
Julian Ang

Phil, I think arguing with a Professor of Law about "Tomato/Tomatoe" matters is a no-win type of situation. You made your point, he made his - both are well argued. At least Mr Robertson is not an out gay catholic politician who has taken the vow of celibacy - some fine role modelling that person provides!

by Alan Johnstone on October 22, 2014
Alan Johnstone

"while the predominantly Maori and Pacifica people of Manurewa just re-elected Louisa Wall with twice as many votes as her nearest rival."

But, here's the thing, in an election where Labour electorate MPs consistantly outperformed the party vote, in Manurewa the Labour party obtained more list votes than it's local candidate. 

A situation which I think is unique in the non maori seats.


by Andrew Geddis on October 22, 2014
Andrew Geddis

@Alan,

A situation which I think is unique in the non maori seats.

Well - not quite. There's at least a half-dozen general electorates where this happened (the Labour Party got more than the local candidate) ... Coromandel and East Coast Bays are two examples. Further, I'm not sure why you discount the Maori seats in your argument - why isn't the fact that some 700 more voters chose Labour than chose Meka Whaitira in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti evidence that the New Zealand public are not prepared to vote for a person who played Netball and Softball

Furthermore, you have to compare apples with apples. Take Sua William Sio in Mangere, next door to Manurewa and broadly similar in terms of electorate profile. He won 18,908 electorate votes - about 500 more than Labour's Party Vote, which compares to Louisa Wall's 14,038 - about 500 less than Labour's Party Vote. But he also faced two fewer competitors - the Maori Party and NZ First didn't run candidates in Mangere, as they did in Manurewa (where they took 2250 electorate votes between them). So if you look at the split vote statistics for Mangere and Manurewa, the difference between Sio and Wall's personal result is almost entirely due to the fact that a much higher proportion of NZ First supporters voted for him than voted for her (because they had a NZ First candidate to support instead).

Now, of course, we can't walk the cat all the way back. Did NZ First run a candidate in Manurewa because they thought there might be a catchment of disaffected Labour voters unhappy with Wall being a lesbian? Don't know - but what it does mean is that we need to be cautious in saying that the difference between the vote for Sio and Wall (compared to the vote for the Labour Party in their electorates) is only explicable by the sexuality of each candidate.

by Mark Murphy on October 22, 2014
Mark Murphy

This debate seems to centre around whether Grant Robertson is a Panda or not; subsequently, whether pandas can be legitimately said to enjoy alcohol and sport. Regardless, Grant's ace is that he's not Andrew Little, who currently shows no sign of embodiment. In a recent email to party members, on his approach to reforming the Labour party, Andrew said: "We can fix the machine." I know this guy used to be former president of the EPU, but can he be anymore mechanical?! 

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