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Gay role models: Tim Barnett

Tim Barnett with Aaron and Andy

ANDY BOREHAM introduces us to some of his gay role models in a weekly series. This week we meet Tim Barnett.

I first met then-Labour MP Tim Barnett in 2001 when Aaron and I were trying to drum up support for our soon-to-be-launched gay newspaper, UP.

We contacted Tim, who was one of the first out-gay MPs, and were surprised to get an invitation to breakfast and a “chat” at Parliament Buildings.

Aaron and I were quite nervous — Parliament was such a big, new world for two teenagers trying to launch their pet project.

Tim gave us his all from the very beginning, pledging his time and energy which helped us immensely in our effort to garner further support from the community and get UP Newspaper off the ground.

He also came on board as our Political Editor (sounds flash, eh!) and wrote relevant, important stories aimed at GLBT youth in New Zealand. Despite his huge workload, Tim was never late, and never absent. Any time we called or needed to meet he was more than happy to accommodate us, even showing up to many of our events, often held late and night at Pound Nightclub.

Tim is a driven, often quiet, always thinking man with a massive drive to make the world right. There isn’t an ounce of selfish thought from this humble man, who puts aside his own needs in his drive to better the world around him. He was a key figure in seeing the Civil Union Act come into law, letting GLBT couples all over New Zealand legalise their relationships.

After the last election, Tim made a career change and left Parliament to work for the World AIDS Campaign, which aims to fight the HIV/AIDS problem at a governmental level.

Tim was one of the first successful out-and-proud gay men I met, helping the teenage version of me realise that sexuality is not a barrier. He is a definitely role model material, and I’m proud to say he’s one of mine.

ANDY: Tell us about yourself.
TIM: I’m Tim Barnett, now the Global Programme Manager for the World AIDS Campaign based in Cape Town, South Africa; between 1996 and 2008 I was a Labour Member of Parliament representing Christchurch Central. For the first three years there I was Parliament’s only openly queer member. I live with my partner of nine years (our civil union was three years ago), Ramon Maniapoto.

What do you do now?
I manage staff in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe who train and advise civil society on how to pressure their governments to improve their performance in handling the various aspects of HIV – prevention, treatment, care and support. The scale of the challenge is awesome.

What is your history in the GLBT community (please don’t be shy/modest)?
In the UK – where I was born – I was the first paid staff member of Stonewall, a lobby organisation for legal equality for lesbians and gay men – “Britain’s first professional homosexual” as the gay media labelled me. In the New Zealand Parliament, I tried to represent the LBGT community in my city and nationwide, through taking on individual casework, attending events and speaking with groups, and championing key law reform, such as the Civil Union Act. When Labour was in government I was a Parliamentary Secretary (a sort of mini minister) and included in my responsibilities was the Rainbow Desk (staff in the Ministry of Social Development responsible for LGBTIQ issues).

How important are GLBT role-models for young, queer people who are coming out and/or new to the GLBT world?
Obviously vital, and now – with more people “out” than ever before, and with the internet so available – more accessible than ever. Realising that I was not alone, and that in spite of what my family and much of the media told me gay people were pretty ordinary and not in the least threatening, was a key moment in my coming out.

Are visible, successful role-models utilised enough in the well-being of our community?
Probably not, although one persons’ role model can be another’s nightmare. I think personal knowledge of someone is vital – thinking one knows a role model purely on the basis of their media image can set one up for a great disappointment when the bubble bursts, as it nearly always does.

Do we look up to our role-models enough?
I think looking to ourselves, setting our own standards for how we want to behave and how we want to be judged, is ultimately the key thing. If some of that can be learnt from others then that’s great. I am not sure we are in the age of “look up to” any more; but certainly in the age of “look, see and learn”.

Are there any GLBT role-models in the media (NZ, internationally, movies/media, etc) that you think are valuable? Who are they? And why?
I think that anyone who is GLBT and open about it is of value to someone. Personally, I have taken inspiration from Ian McKellen (for being progressive and gay at the same time, and being at the very top of his art); Witi Ihimaera (for the same reasons); Martina Navratilova (the same reasons again I guess!).

Who do you look up to?
Living in South Africa I have to mention Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, not only because they have been great leaders of people through personally and politically tough times, but also because they managed it with such grace, and also championed the cause of LBGT people along the way. The South African constitution, which mentions our communities and guarantees equality, is a model of what can be done when LGBT people are part of a wider struggle for freedom and see our own humanity recognised in return. I still above all look up to LGBTQ people who are born and raised in environments hostile to who and what they are, yet shine through and lead a life which is true to themselves. That is the true inspiration for me.

Next week we’ll meet another of Andy’s gay role models, and welcome you to discuss the issue here. Who are your gay role models? Do you think they are important?


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