Wellington Pride Festival: Rainbow shines brighter over New Zealand, but bigots still out there

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OPINION By Laura O'Connell Rapira, director of campaigning organisation ActionStation
"All you homosexuals, go back to the sewers where you came from." These words were uttered in 1985, just three years before I was born.

Then National MP Norman Jones stood in a community hall full of hundreds of New Zealanders, and he was far from a lone voice expressing vitriolic hatred amid the debate surrounding 'homosexual law reform'.

It was still illegal for gay men to have sex at the time. Statutory punishments could include flogging (until 1941) and hard labour (until 1954). Homosexuality was still illegal until August 1986 – 32 years ago. The archaic discriminatory laws were imported from England – and it's worth noting that, before colonisation and missionary visits, sexuality and gender in Aotearoa were a lot more fluid.

Fast forward a few decades of rainbow-coloured activism from inside and outside Parliament, and it's no longer illegal for gay people to have consensual sex. We can even get married.

Wellington Drag Queen 'Kelly Fornia' from the Gag Drag Collective performs on stage at Out in the Park 2018.
Wellington Drag Queen 'Kelly Fornia' from the Gag Drag Collective performs on stage at Out in the Park 2018.

Laws changed because activists agitated until they did. But many of the attitudes and behaviours that stalled progress then still remain stubbornly.

Ask any queer person, and they'll tell you they've heard the word 'gay' or 'homo' used as an insult around them. It's so common, advocacy organisation RainbowYOUTH had to make a slick public awareness ad featuring a quintessential Kiwi pie to convince us to stop.

Gay as an insult is not something that starts and stops at school. Take many golf clubs, construction sites, or other cisgender male-dominated space, and I guarantee you'll hear the term thrown around carelessly.

Laura O'Connell Rapira says there is still a long way to go for true rainbow equality.
Laura O'Connell Rapira says there is still a long way to go for true rainbow equality.

For us gays/bis/queers/lesbians, something as innocuously middle-class as an Airbnb booking for a weekend getaway with your lover can leave you stress-sweating about whether or not your host is LGBTQ-friendly, or a bigot.

Earlier this year, Sean Plunket admitted he was wrong in his earlier assertions that there was no need for Pride or Big Gay Out anymore, after his colleague Aziz Al-Sa'afin from The AM Show revealed he had been beaten up just for being gay.

It's a shame it takes someone being beaten up for people with platforms to listen, but it's better late than never.

Pride is our platform. It's a space for us to claim our political power and assert our right to exist without prejudice, discrimination and hate.

Hula Hoop performer Niamh Campbell-Ward on stage at Out in the Park in 2018.
Hula Hoop performer Niamh Campbell-Ward on stage at Out in the Park in 2018.

Done right, it can make us feel safer about coming out in a world where some people still think we belong in a sewer.

The power of seeing people who love like us living content, happy and free lives is good for our well-being and mental health.

In a globally connected world, images of triumphant and diverse queers marching freely down the streets mean a lot.

Gay relationships are still considered criminal in 72 countries. There are eight countries in which homosexuality can result in being sentenced to death.

Out in the Park 2018 drew thousands of people to Waitangi Park.
Out in the Park 2018 drew thousands of people to Waitangi Park.

Mainstream entertainment repeatedly portrays every kind of straight, white, cisgender man as upwardly mobile in the world, while lesbian characters are either hyper-feminine or (pretty) tomboys. There's rarely any in-between. Meanwhile, in Pride, we can see queer people in all their diverse forms. Seeing that matters.

That's why it was so important for Auckland Pride to make sure their signature event was one that felt safe for everyone, especially those who don't have state-sanctioned power over others, or who can shed their brown skin as easily as a blue uniform.

In 2018, the LGBTQ media watchdog GLAAD released their 22nd annual report, which tracks the proliferation of queer characters across primetime television and streaming services.

2018 saw record growth in LGBTQ roles on television and for the first time ever, LGBTQ people of colour outnumbered white LGBTQ characters on-screen by 50 to 49 percent.

Some say Pride needs to be more inclusive of minority voices, such as transgender women's.
Some say Pride needs to be more inclusive of minority voices, such as transgender women's.

When you consider that European colonists brought legalised hatred and discrimination of gay people to entire countries and continents of indigenous folk and people of colour who prior to that did gender and sexuality differently, this increased representation of queer people of colour on our screens matters.

Rainbow communities and people currently experience higher rates of hate speech, poor mental health and addiction issues, depression and anxiety, eating disorders, and isolation due to our experiences of social exclusion and discrimination.

Pride is one part of the antidote to this injustice. It's one of the many ways we can reclaim our political power, build colourful and enduring social movements for change and make our collective voices heard.

It is by us, for us, about us but the beautiful thing is you don't have to be queer to join in on the celebrations and protestations. You just have to have an open mind, an open heart and a desire for things to be better so everyone regardless of our differences can live happy, safe and free.

Ahi Wi-Hongi is the national coordinator of Gender Minorities Aotearoa.
Ahi Wi-Hongi is the national coordinator of Gender Minorities Aotearoa.

By Ahi Wi-Hongi, national coordinator of Gender Minorities Aotearoa 

This week I was going through recipes for handmade ice blocks, trying to find the best flavours for Gender Minorities Aotearoa's new social enterprise.

I narrowed it down to about 20, including some which I just dreamed up in my heart. Honey Lavender, Ginger Pineapple and Coconut, Mango Chamomile. Would a soy chai ice-block be delicious? There's only one way to find out.

After researching all I could, I decided to wait for a quiet weekend, make up 10 of those flavours as prototypes in mini ice block form, and invite local queer and rainbow people to taste and review them.

After all, how we know what our communities want, unless we ask them? Especially when it comes to something new which they haven't had before.

The pride themed Police car on display at the Pride Fair in 2018. Wellington Pride drew controversy when it said uniformed police would be allowed in its parade.
The pride themed Police car on display at the Pride Fair in 2018. Wellington Pride drew controversy when it said uniformed police would be allowed in its parade.

This year has so far rung in three main themes for me, two of which are communication, and community. Communicating within communities, what our communities communicate to the wider public, and what different communities under the rainbow communicate to each other, both through the things we say and do, and the things we don't speak up about. The things we don't take action on. Or, the things we may speak or take action against.

Auckland Pride created a nationwide conversation when it ran several community consultations to support rainbow people to communicate their thoughts for Pride. Some of those consultations were held in low income areas, which are largely Maori and Pasifika, who are often under-represented in rainbow community events if they are living below the poverty line.

The transgender pride flag.
The transgender pride flag.

Those consultations turned up some common themes, most were based around racism, and a perceived elitism among the more affluent under the rainbow. Different treatment by Police was one theme, and another, corporate takeover of Pride.

Everyone in Aotearoa seemed to be talking about it after Police decided they would not attend the 2019 parade, following being asked to come in plain clothes. As I think about what happened next, those themes of community and communication are more relevant than ever.

The wake of those actions, and what they communicated, was swift, and surprised even the most cynical old hats in rainbow activism. Business networks were utilised by those affluent enough to be part of them. A boycott of the Pride parade was quickly organised, and sponsors dropped faster than moves on Pride dancefloor.

The parameters of community quickly became clear: one side believed that everyone under the rainbow should have a say, and people like themselves had never had much voice in the rainbow. They felt heard for the first time. The other side believed that people like themselves, who had always felt happy with Pride and included, must surely outnumber the opposition – it seemed unfair to them, it must have been a setup.

The public watched wide-eyed as a takeover was attempted, failed, and Pride went from being a parade of businesses and political parties and hundreds of Police on Ponsonby Rd, to a scaled down March for equality, where all the rainbow people were in the march and not behind barriers watching.

It was incredible. It felt like a rainbow community parade, free from the overwhelming presence of businesses and their enormous expensive advertising floats. It was something I had never experienced until that day.

The overwhelming sense was that we were there for each other. That we didn't need $50,000 to close a street, we didn't need an entry fee of $3,000 or even $300. We walked proud, we walked together, and we walked for each other. To all those who have been excluded by fees and glitzy champaign drinking floats and "exclusive" as a marketing tool, we communicated that they deserve Pride as much as anyone else under the rainbow, that we are proud to be part of the same rainbow communities.

So back in my kitchen, I choose 20 mouth-watering flavours of ice blocks for our taste testing party. I think of the upcoming Wellington Pride Festival, which now has 2 separate events – one Pride hīkoi, or march, which has been around for yonkers, and the new Wellington International Pride Parade, born of disagreements about corporate sponsorship. I understand both sides of these tensions, I know it costs money to run an event, and that no capital city can kick overseas embassies out of their Pride Parade, but I know that I want my local Pride events to feel like my Wellington community, not like an advertising pageant for the well-to-do and the politically connected.

I wonder, 20 years from now, what will we look back on and feel pride about? What will the choices we make today, as communities, communicate to our children and the rainbow rangatahi of the future?

* The Dominion Post's special masthead is to welcome all to the Wellington International Pride Festival, which runs until March 24, and the 2019 International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association conference, at the Michael Fowler Centre from March 18-22.

photos by  Robert Kitchin from stuff, Cameron Burnell & Torbakhopper