In which I reply to Andrew's post in reply to Phil's post about Grant Robertson... I wrote this at the start of the week but have discovered a glitch that mean it never published!

I think I'll start at the end. Andrew ended his recent post like this:

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?

Lots of good questions there and I'm writing this because I think there are some important answers. So why are we talking about Robertson's sexuality?

Well, we're not terribly much. There have been a few mentions in reports about it and even comments from the odd voter who say they wouldn't vote for him for just that reason. But true, it's certainly been part of the discussion about his candidacy, and for good reason.

People who want to be Prime Minister become representatives of the country at a certain time in history, and so are a lightning rod for social issues at the time. We all know Helen Clark married contrary to her preference (to simply live together) to avoid such questions, for example. We all know Barack Obama faced all sorts of questions and analysis over his quest to become the first black President of the US. Julia Gillard? Well she was truly mistreated as Australia's first woman Prime Minister and no-one's trying anything equivalent to the 'ditch the witch' campaign on Robertson.

'Firsts' are by definition new and news is, well, all about new things. That's why Key's sexuality is of little import, but Robertson's has an element of public interest about it. Remember Georgina Beyer's political rise and what it signified to many.

Political news in particular is, in part, about who might win elections and why. Like it or not, Robertson's sexuality is a factor in some people voting for him, especially in a party that has a strong base in conservative Pacific Island communities.

So Grant's efforts to become the first openly gay Prime Minister are of course worthy of questions and his getting the job would be seen by all New Zealanders (and the gay community in particular) as of historical note. Does it make him better or worse at running the country? I don't think so. But that doesn't mean it's an invalid discussion, for the reasons noted.

As a journalist who has, through a host, asked that question, I of course think it's a legitimate one. Suffice to say I'm sure such questions are asked carefully and given a decent amount of thought. But it matters to some voters and is potentially a moment in history; and to not discuss it would create an elephant in the room.

Just as it would have been bizarre to not talk about Obama's ethnicity and what it means for that country, so surely Robertson's sexuality becomes something of a public issue because it would be a breaking down of barriers and statement of social inclusion.

Then there's the "rugby and beer meme".

I'd note that while Andrew points to one particular interview, I can think of at least one other in which Robertson gave much the same reply to similar questions.

So it seems Robertson's considered decision is to reply to questions about his sexuality by mentioning rugby and beer. Insomuch as there is a meme around this, it's one that Robertson has created himself. And prior to this campaign, his answers about it in the past have been a bit defensive; it seems like he's been reluctant to talk about his sexuality in the past (not unreasonably) and has been trying to figure out how to talk it in public without compromising himself and his public appeal. That's politics.

Now it's not an unreasonable response and, as Andrew points out, is entirely authentic. Robertson is not pretending to like beer or rugby and is not being anything other than he is. He's doing nothing wrong. But he also seems to think that the best way to defuse the sexuality question in the minds of some who may doubt, is to mention two of New Zealand's favourite hobbies.

In doing so he's challenging lazy gay stereotypes, which is a good thing and may surprise some of the more conservative bent.

So Robertson is doing nothing wrong. But he is, just by standing and being who he is, confronting some old perspectives and trying to carve out a piece of history for himself. That's of note and worthy of some discussion.

Comments (6)

by Andrew Geddis on October 23, 2014
Andrew Geddis

So why are we talking about Robertson's sexuality?

Well, we're not terribly much.

Except that this is the third post on the issue on Pundit in a week. And, as I noted in a reply to Phil Quin on my post, "Virtually every interview with Grant opens with 'the gay thing'. Check out this. Or this." To which I might add this, this, this and even this pearler from The Nation:

Lisa Owen: Selwyn, who's the alternative? Is it Grant Robertson? His name is thrown around a lot, but he's very Wellington — people don't know him, and he would be the first openly gay leader of a major political party.

(Interesting how its one of only two things mentioned about him - talk about being defined by one aspect of your being!)

So, I guess reasonable minds may differ on what "terribly much" means ... but I'd differ in my interpretation of the facts here.

by Paulette Benton-Greig on October 23, 2014
Paulette Benton-Greig

It seems to me that the significant point here is that rugby and beer are deeply associated with heteronormative masculinity in NZ. And regardless of whether Grant Roberston does indeed love rugby and beer more than most people, his reference to them in response to questions about his sexuality is a message to the polity that - "I may not share your heterosexual desires (a la Shane Jones) but I am a red-blooded kiwi male nonetheless - just like you". And this is particularly significant at a time when the Labour Party is looked upon by 'middle New Zealand' as riven by grandstanders for identity politics and therefore unelectable.  In order to get the leadership and to have a chance of winning an election as leader Grant Robertson has to distance himself from activist campaigners and make like John Key: 'I can support gay marriage precisely because I am sooooo middle NZ'. Whilst i doubt Grant could ever embody paternalism quite the way John does, he does have to assure voters he's not a fairy. Because whilst it shouldnt matter that Grant is gay at a personal level, it still matters deeply at the social level how he does masculinity.         

by Charlie on October 23, 2014

The beautiful irony in all of this is that typical centre-right voters (ie all those to the right except Craig's crazy lot) don't really give a damn if he's gay. The world has moved on and it's a non-issue for most today.

It's a faction of core Labour voters who would most likely 'spit the dummy' over Grant.

Marvellously funny!  :-)



by Nick Gibbs on October 23, 2014
Nick Gibbs


(Interesting how its one of only two things mentioned about him - talk about being defined by one aspect of your being!)

True but people are often defined by one event or aspect of their lives, especially in media news bites. It wasn't Ed Hilary- bee keeper, mountaineer, father, Kiwi, philanthrophist and first man up Everest. It was just Ed Hilary- first man up Everest. Grant Robertson hasn't done that much of note so is his sexuality is still a defining issue. If he ever becomes PM, then I'm sure that will be the event that defines him in the public mind for the rest of his days, not his sexulaity.

by Tim Watkin on October 23, 2014
Tim Watkin

It's interesting that it's being discussed more than his last run – but I've seen many more articles/stories not mentioning it than those that do.

And I agree entirely with what Paulette says, even more so because of Labour's perceived problem of being driven by minority groups and out of touch with 'middle NZ'. That's his cross to bear at this moment in history.

And Nick has a point too. Any public figure has one or three talking points associated with them, usually the things that make them least like anyone else. Parker's associated with capital gains tax, the retirement age and (for some) Chris Knox. Little with the unions. And so on.

So until Robertson has more of a political track record and we get to know him better, 'who he is' matters more.

by Katharine Moody on October 24, 2014
Katharine Moody

If you ask me, Winston's love of whisky, racing and fishing are far more character building pursuits .. rugby and beer are just so stereotypical (and JK's politicisation of the ABs has put me right off that brand, but not rugby per se).  I always admired Helen's mountain climbing and skiing - a much more 'vote winning' activity for me than golfing, for sure. Point being - what our politicians do/like as leisure activites does say something to us about them ... and, whether we admit it or not, lots of us do vote for a person more so than for policies.

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