Researching a social history of homosexuality in New Zealand has taken Dr Chris Brickell (Gender Studies) on a journey from the muddy streets of early Dunedin to the flamboyant parties of the "Queen City", all the more fascinating because this "love that dared not speak its name" was largely kept hidden.

As a result, court records and personal memories became the main sources for his book, Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand.

Beginning in the 1830s, Brickell found there was no overt concept of sexual identity. "There was a sense of physical intimacy between all men in a way that is not there today. Romantic friendship was socially acceptable and men openly expressed affection for each other. Some relationships were platonic, some were carnal, some were in-between."

Social attitudes gradually changed in the 20th century. Same-sex love began to be regarded as a disease - as well as a sin and a crime. The war years changed relationships again; men were forced back into male-only company and concert parties provided a legitimate venue for men to enjoy themselves in a camp kind of way. A world of "queer" friendship networks grew in the 1930s and '40s as men became more covert in their activities and, by the 1950s, there was a clear public distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The Gay Liberation Movement took hold in the 1970s and, in 1986, homosexuality in New Zealand was decriminalised.

Brickell says changes in men's relationships and attitudes to homosexuality have been closely linked to social and economic change. "As the distinction between male- and female-only spaces broke down, as men became more involved in family life, as more men were employed in whitecollar work instead of physical labour, they had to identify themselves in new contexts. They had to redefine what was masculine and what was not." As a result, he believes, some of the subtleties of male relationships were lost.

"As the distinction between male- and female-only spaces broke down ... as more men were employed in white-collar work instead of physical labour, ... they had to redefine what was masculine and what was not."

Brickell looked to photographs to illustrate how these attitudes changed. In sports photos of the early 1900s men sat close together in relatively intimate poses; by the 1930s they sat separate and staunch.

He also looked at language used. While "sodomite" was used in the UK in the 19th century, Brickell never found evidence of it here. Even in the mid-20th century homosexuality was referred to in oblique ways such as "that way" or "like that". The word "gay" was slow to be accepted and did not really take hold until the 1970s.

This three-year project has taken Brickell into the lives of men from all sections of society - "I wanted to find how these men understood their desires and activities, how they saw themselves" - and he found both change and continuity.

"These men lived in different worlds from our own, and saw themselves differently too, but the past is not completely divorced from the present." And, whether sexual identity becomes more fragmented or entrenched, Brickell believes it will, as in the past, be propelled by broader social and economic change.