Spurred to action by recent political posturing, gay National MP Paul Foster-Bell wants to ensure LGBT people get a fairer go.
It wasn’t really a case of an MP “coming out” – “It was hardly any great secret, I don’t think,” Foster-Bell says – but of a public figure having the option of acknowledging his sexuality without drama or advance whispering, and completely on his own terms.
Is he making political capital out of it? Absolutely. That’s been the whole point. “I could see that for me it wasn’t going to be an easy thing to talk about, but I really felt I had a duty to speak up. Things were being said here, and implied from some of what has been happening overseas, that were doing terrible damage to the confidence and self-worth of a lot of people. And I had the ability that many others don’t have to speak against it, because I’m in Parliament.”
It’s almost been a toss-up as to which aspect of this exercise has been the hardest for him: coming out or courting publicity. Foster-Bell is very much of the Keith Holyoake “breathe through your nose”political ethos. He has preserved a modest profile, even while succeeding with a popular member’s bill to relegalise alcohol in Returned and Services clubs on Anzac Day, which another MP might have parlayed into endless personal publicity.
The genial second-termer finally pushed through his comfort zone in December because of his mounting concern that recent decades’ gains in equality for gay, bisexual and transgender people are at risk, the last straw being the Donald Trump presidency.
The list MP is this year gearing up for a public crusade on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. He had been pursuing such issues in a low-key fashion, including via Parliament’s cross-party rainbow group.
Conditioned to an understated and formal working style during his years as a Foreign Affairs official, Foster-Bell faced an extra stricture. Senior postings in the Middle East meant his ability to be outwardly relaxed about his sexuality was for some years emphatically proscribed.
“I would have been deported, but worse, anyone I was involved with, or thought to have been involved with, could have been executed.”
Thus his discretion was hardly voluntary, but by the time he became a list MP in 2013, then ran unsuccessfully as National’s Wellington Central candidate in 2014, it had become a habit – the more sustainable because, in this highly liberal electorate especially, a candidate’s personal orientation simply wasn’t an issue.
“No one ever asked me about it. And I never felt the need to make it an issue.” Nor, equally, had he ever felt the pressure to deny or obfuscate it – and this in itself was reassuring evidence of progress.
Until quite recent years, rumours have buzzed around a number of MPs, in the “funny he/she never married” vein. Nowadays, such speculation is a non-starter. But as with other LGBT people in his and older age groups, Foster-Bell remembers when things were otherwise. At last year’s celebrations to mark the Homosexual Law Reform Act’s 30th anniversary, it was striking to reflect that not a single gay or even possibly secretly gay MP existed who could speak personally about the legislation at the time. Marilyn Waring only came out after her time as a National MP in the 1970s and 80s. Not until 1993 did we have our first openly gay MP, Labour’s Chris Carter.
But 24 years on, Foster-Bell is National’s first avowedly non-heterosexual MP. He agrees it’s possible there have been others, but that’s for them to say.
He sees his mission as working to counter some of last year’s socially retrograde developments, not least the rise to prominence of some vehemently anti-gay kingpins in the Trump administration, notably Steve Bannon, and the fulminations of Destiny Church’s Brian Tamaki.
Foster-Bell says although Tamaki’s assertion that “sins” such as homosexuality were the cause of earthquakes is patently ridiculous, the fact that a public figure says such things has a corrosive effect on the LGBT community.
“It’s more important than ever that they see public figures standing up against that sort of comment. It can’t just be laughed off. Because over time, young people in particular take that sort of message [from Tamaki] on board and feel that they’re not quite valid; they’re not as normal or valued as everyone else.”
The significantly higher suicide rate for young non-heterosexuals underscores the problem, he says. That America’s new President, while seemingly not homophobic, is happy to rely on others with darkly homophobic views is a massive blow to the psychological health of the rainbow community. “The danger is that LGBT people get the message that the political Establishment is turning against them.”
An earlier goad to take a stand was Labour’s “Chinese-sounding names” controversy of 2015. That Labour’s Phil Twyford had singled out Asian immigrants as culpable for Auckland’s housing-affordability problems struck Foster-Bell as cruel. Given some newcomers to New Zealand have left places with poor human rights records, such talk could be frightening. “This shouldn’t be a country where people live in fear, yet we had this discussion being conducted in the mainstream of politics.”
Already working on ideas for better mental healthcare for LGBT children and teens, Foster-Bell also plans a public crusade to get a better deal for HIV and Aids sufferers from Pharmac. Though a firm supporter of the Pharmac model, he says it is lagging in best practice for HIV treatment. In other countries, notably the US and Britain, HIV patients are put on the most-effective treatment course immediately, he says. Here, they must wait until the condition progresses considerably to have this treatment fully funded.
“This is not a political decision [of Pharmac’s] and I’m not suggesting it is in any way setting out to discriminate against people. We have Pharmac in charge of making these clinical cost-benefit decisions based on how to do the most good with the money available. But I think in this case it has become out of step with best practice in other jurisdictions and I’ll be lobbying to get it to update its data on HIV treatment.”
He won’t, however, pursue gender-neutral honorifics such as “Mx”.
“I’m not a PC person. When someone comes to my office, we ask them what they’d like to be called. Is that really hard? It’s a matter of courtesy. But I think to distort the English language to the extent of these new honorifics is a step too far.”
While well meant, he believes such micro-corrections risk exasperating too many people and inviting unhelpful pushback. He cites a social practice in Scandinavia whereby some parents raise children as genderless, refusing to identify them or to let them self-identify as either boys or girls for fear of skewing their innate selves. “It goes way beyond just not giving girls only dolls and boys only trucks and cars.” He worries that’s a sign of people looking for problems where none are likely to exist – at the expense of urgent problems, such as LGBT youngsters’ mental-health vulnerability.
“LGBT people grow up, to varying degrees, with that undermining sense that they’re … well, not quite what their families had hoped for. Even though you know you’re loved, there’s always that knowledge that there’s maybe a little disappointment there, too. ” He says that has abated considerably in his lifetime, to the point where schoolchildren are able to have their sexuality acknowledged at school without necessarily being bullied.
“We can’t change these things quickly. It will come with generational change.” But to relax now and become complacent about the vestiges of prejudice because LGBT acceptance is so much better than it was would be a mistake, Foster-Bell says.
“When you think about Alan Turing, the father of computing, who took his own life because he was persecuted over his sexuality, and then you think about all the other brilliant people there have been, who didn’t even get to make their contribution – all those gay men and women who might have done so much for the world, whose lives were made intolerable. It’s just a tragic loss of human potential.
“That’s what motivates me: the people out there, especially the younger ones, who have so much potential and ability to contribute and live great lives, but who have this continual doubt in their minds because of hurtful remarks by people like Brian Tamaki.”
On the subject of Turing, in whose honour Britain has legislated to pardon those convicted under former laws outlawing homosexuality, Foster-Bell says Government MPs are already down the track towards a conviction strike-out system for this country. It will probably have to be on application rather than automatic because of the risk of including convictions for non-consensual acts. Among such charges as “gross indecency”, which badly affected the lives and careers of gay men, there will be genuine cases of assault and rape, he says. So although the ideal would be for Parliament to expunge all the wrongs against gay people at a sweep, that would inadvertently deny the wrongs done to some victims.
Foster-Bell lucked into auspicious timing to crank up his profile – just as Key’s departure touched off an unprecedented round of backbench outspokenness. Junior MPs are now in active competition for promotion, and are starting to challenge Cabinet decisions – Foster-Bell was among those asking searching questions about our Security Council stance to curtail Israeli settlements.
All the same, he’s unlikely to be among the noisier upstarts. He’s not at ease talking about himself. He has a partner, but one who wishes to keep well out of camera range. “He’s not at all interested in politics, either,” Foster-Bell adds, in the self-deprecating tone of one who thinks this an admirable quality.
He will chat happily about why he is a National loyalist, and why he enthusiastically supports the monarchy and the Commonwealth – the latter well positioned in the wake of Brexit and Trump protectionism. “You can enjoy a trading premium if you’re dealing with a Commonwealth country, simply because there is the rule of law, a reliable legal system based on common law codes and you have an ethical framework.” He led our parliamentary delegation to the last Commonwealth conference before Christmas.
But most of all, he wants to use the access he has to decision-makers and senior bureaucrats to accelerate social climate change for the LGBT community.
“Where we’ve got to is that LGBT people are increasingly accepted and less often discriminated against. But what I’m working for is that they’re also equally valued.”
As more of an upgrade than an afterthought, he adds, “And cherished!”