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Monday 08 November 2010

LGBT Life: Then and Now

Posted in: True Stories
By Jacqui Stanford - 24th May 2010

An intergenerational meet-up has brought together people from all ages and across all sectors of the community at the Charlotte Museum in Auckland.

Around 60 people braved the weather to attend the LGBT Life: Then and Now forum on Sunday. The joint initiative the museum and Rainbow Youth featured six speakers – an older lesbian and a younger lesbian, an older gay man and a younger gay man and an older transwoman and a younger transwoman.

The panelists shared stories of their personal experiences of coming out and any discrimination they faced.

The first speaker was Jenny Rankine, from the Charlotte Museum, who told those gathered that she came out in 1979 “because she was a feminist”. She says she ‘chose' to be a lesbian, something which led to a debate about whether sexuality is something you choose, or whether it is innate.

She was followed by a Rainbow Youth member who spoke of coming out and starting a gay-straight alliance at school.

Douglas Jenkin then discussed being a gay man in Wellington in the 1970s, when the entire community – whether gay, lesbian or trans – drank together in one bar, recalling being protected by lesbians when fights started at the bar. Jenkin spoke of having the question ‘are you a homosexual?' on a job application form and going to a gay dance which was advertised on the radio – and finding men waiting outside to beat attendees up.

Jenkin spoke about how gay men were criminals before the Homosexual Law Reform, but believed the law was irrelevant, because they knew it was wrong. He says they were very aware of the cops, but cleverly hid from them, citing the example of being robbed and making sure all the 'pot and porn' was out of the house before calling the police to report the crime.

Jenkin shared a picture which is the only known photo of someone arrested at Stonewall, which he said could be any young man today. This led to shock from many gathered that some of the younger people hadn't actually heard of Stonewall.

An audience member brought up the concern that although society has become much more tolerant and accepting of difference, she fears that in her lifetime there will be another conservative period –and the younger queer generation may experience persecution and not know how to deal with it.

Jenkin had the instant response "if you have to go underground again, we can teach you how".

Another Rainbow Youth member created some chuckles when he admitted first realising he was attracted to men while watching American Pie. He spoke of coming out at university, after he found a gay support group, then his struggles with acceptance when he told his parents.

Mama Tere then spoke, capturing the audience with her story of growing up in a house in Otara, where her life as a young boy was akin to something from Once Were Warriors. She spoke of running away from home at the age of 11 and beginning a life on the streets. It was a hard life – and Mama Tere only found peace with her family again many years later when she returned as a woman and asked her grandmother 'what do you think of me?' Her nanny replied "you are still my mokopuna" and she was accepted on her marae.

Mama Tere talked about how she has used her life experience to help others, saying she has a "PHD in crisis" and is always ready to do what she can for anyone who identifies as someone different.

Young transwoman Caitlyn then pointed out the clear differences between the experiences of the older speakers and the younger – saying "we have it a lot easier than in the past". She gave the example of the pure fact police are no longer hounding queer people – but in fact there are many diversity liaison officers and openly gay men and women in the force.

Many seemed to agree that for many it is easier to come out today, although the queer world has lost its unity and is now a series of small communities, rather than one group.

An audience member summed up the mood when he said it was great to have a sense of unity with people from across the different groups.

“Being at this event and hearing these stories – I'm honoured – these are amazing stories,” he said.

The older and younger attendees all seemed enthusiastic about finding more ways to work together.

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Jacqui Stanford - 24th May 2010