11/29/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Kiwis, Gandalf, and Gay Red Tops

New Zealand, that bucolic land at the bottom of the world, populated by rugby players, sheep and hobbits, has blazed a trail for LGBT rights in recent years. Although homosexuality wasn't legalized until 1986, since then, the country has undergone a remarkable cultural transformation, passing pro-LGBT legislation with a speed and efficiency that its larger neighbors (especially Australia) can only envy. Anti-discrimination laws were extended to cover sexual orientation in 1993, partnership rights for same-sex couples were effected in 2001, and civil unions for same sex-couples, giving the equivalent rights and obligations of civil marriage, have been available since 2004. In November, the Parliament approved the first stage of law reform to extend full rights of civil marriage to same-sex couples.

Cutting a swathe through this reassuring wave of tolerance and understanding is New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, whose recent insensitive use of the word "gay" on a public radio show has raised the ire of celebrity wizards, and reminded Kiwis that homophobic attitudes in their apparently tolerant society are never more than a stone's throw away.

The furor started in early November, when Key, currently in his second term as leader, joked on radio that his interviewer was wearing a "gay red top." The national press media were quick to pick up on the comment, and Key was later asked at a press conference to explain his choice of words. The conference made for an excruciating piece of television. Defensive and visibly awkward, Key seemed disbelieving that anyone would query his words, let alone find them offensive. Things got worse when he tried to explain himself: he'd used "gay" in the interview to mean "weird," claiming that he'd picked up this usage from his children, who said it all the time. "Gay" meaning "weird" was in common parlance, and was even in the dictionary, he said. What, he seemed to be saying, was all the fuss about?

While the initial comment may have been thoughtless, his "excuse" was significantly worse, and became a public relations embarrassment that won't go away. Facing a barrage of criticism from press commentators, gay rights leaders and the public, Key later made an apology for any offense caused by his use of the word "gay." Keen to not appear to be a homophobe, he pointed out that he voted in favor of the same-sex marriage bill, unlike many members of his cabinet (including the openly gay MP and Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, who is opposed to gay marriage and voted against the bill).

The criticism came to a head when some justifiably outraged Kiwis mounted a "Wear Your Gay Red Shirt Day" campaign (at some stage, the word "top" got replaced by "shirt"). New Zealanders at home and abroad were encouraged to show their disapproval of Key by wearing a red shirt on November 9, and posting a photo online. The Facebook response was significant, and many newspapers, including the New Zealand Herald, published pieces and photo galleries to "celebrate" Gay Red Shirt Day.

The most stylish dressing down of Mr. Key came from actor and celebrity gay Sir Ian McKellen, who's been in New Zealand for most of the year reprising his role as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. McKellen posted a typically elegant response on his website:

I'm currently touring secondary schools in [the] UK, attacking homophobia in the playground and discouraging kids from the careless use of "gay" which might make their gay friends (and teachers) feel less about themselves. So even as he supports the proposal to introduce same-gender marriages in New Zealand, I do hope John Key listens to his critics and appreciates their concern. Careless talk damages lives.

When Gandalf sends you to the naughty step, you know that your battle is lost. (Here's McKellen in his very gay red shirt, which I'm sure you'll agree looks very dashing.)

I'm with McKellen. Words can be abusive.

Like almost every gay I know, I have my own private arsenal of memories of homophobic abuse, both verbal and physical, which for most of my adolescence was so prevalent and all-encompassing that for a while it became customary to expect it as a grim fact of life. For most of my childhood and adolescence, the word "gay" meant something bad (unless it was being used in its older, Lerner & Lowell-esque context to mean "happy" or "jolly"). Add to that the words "faggot," "poof," "queer," "bender," "homo," "nancy boy," "cocksucker," "arse bandit," "lezzo," "dyke," or just the more utilitarian "freak," "weirdo" and "pervert," and you've pretty much got the measure of school playground conversation for most gay kids.

The interesting thing about homophobic abuse, no matter how regularly it's visited on you, is that it never truly becomes your default setting. Each insult lands like a pin prick, or an arrow fired from a crossbow (depending on the severity of the abuse), and each leaves a memory, like a line of scar tissue. I'm not sure that this kind of abuse is ever really forgotten. What changes, if anything, is the levels of resistance you develop as a defense.

As an adult, it's much easier to deal with thoughtless comments like Key's. But the sting I feel when I hear the word "gay" used as Key used it is still there, and probably won't ever go away. I'm pleased that I still feel the sting and an associating surge of anger whenever the Keys of the world use language in this way, whether jokingly or malevolently. It's evidence that in some elemental part of my being, I know that this is abuse, and wrong, and shouldn't have to be tolerated. Campaigns like Gay Red Shirt Day show that I'm no longer alone in that feeling.

As a New Zealander living abroad, I've followed the Key debacle and the backlash against his words with interest. I've been hugely encouraged by the criticism directed against Key, which demonstrates how far New Zealand has come in recent years in terms of recognising the importance of language, the problems of homophobia, and the difficult time faced by bullied gay teens.

That being said, it would be nice if our elder statesmen and stateswomen recognized the importance of working to stamp out homophobia.

This has special significance for New Zealand, which has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world, much of which has been linked to teenagers' (and particularly young men's) anxieties over their sexuality.

Key should hang his head in shame for this one -- or maybe spend some time with bullied gay teenagers, to get the full measure of just how damaging "gay" as "weird" can be. And in the
meantime, a big gay wolf whistle to all the Kiwis who got behind the Gay Red Shirt campaign
-- I'm proud of y'all.

Meanwhile, public consultation on the marriage equality bill is underway. National Party MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, who is on the select committee hearing public submissions, raised
heckles last week
when he asked a gay couple, "If you get married, who will be identified as husband, and who will be identified as wife?" and later asked a gay rights advocate, "How are [same-sex couples] going to produce the child? They need male and female for that." When asked for comment, Mr Key, who is currently on a trade mission in Myanmar, said that Bakshi was "just doing his job." Oh, Mr. Key -- you do have a long way to go.