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Saturday 11 April 2015

Comment: Pride

Posted in: Our Communities
By Michael Stevens - 27th February 2015

Like a lot of people, I’ve been thinking about the protest at the Pride Parade last week, and observed the various exchanges on social media. It has all left a nasty taste that’s for sure.

One thing is clear to me from it, and I’ve said it before – we really have no Rainbow community, no Queer community – it doesn’t exist. We have lots of different groups and networks, that connect in places but not in others, but we’re not one big family.


The protest was about how badly Corrections treat transgender prisoners, and that because of this they shouldn’t be allowed in the Pride parade. At least I think that is what it was about – they were such a badly organised protest group the message never came through clearly. I think one of them later on stated that Police harassment of gay men in the 60s, 70s and 80s was also an issue. They seemed inchoate, but passionate.

Let’s be frank – Corrections has a long and vile record when it comes to how it treats transgender prisoners. Its treatment of trans people has been unequivocally demeaning, inhumane and cruel. There is some movement now to change this, and Jan Logie MP has been part of this. But they still have a long way to go by all accounts.

If I had been on the Pride board I think I would have told Corrections we’d love to include them in the Parade one day, but not till they’d got their house in order when it comes to how they treat trans people.

That would have required some political understanding and empathy from Pride with one part of what we are told is our “community”. And I have to say that while Pride has done some things well, being in touch with the community it’s charged with celebrating is not one of them.

While the few board members I’ve met seem like genuinely sincere and nice people, the Pride Board as a whole seems out of touch, is almost invisible, and has displayed zero understanding of PR. Apparently they have a co-Chair tucked away somewhere, but you’d never know it.

Back to the protest and the lack of any real community.

The protest happened right in front of me – I saw the whole thing. I felt sorry for them, they seemed like kids in a panic, not really knowing what they were doing, but full of righteous fire and anger.

They were booed by a lot of people on the day, and later on social media the reaction was generally negative. By contrast many were appalled at how the protesters were treated, and it is disgraceful that one ended up with a broken arm. For some of the trans people I know this showed that Pride is not a safe place for them. But some trans friends of mine were scathing about the protestors. So much for unity based on being trans. Some other friends kept invoking the spirit of Stonewall – but we’re not living in the Stonewall era anymore.

What used to bind us together was all of us, the whole LGBTQI bundle being rejected by mainstream society, and being illegal. That gave a reason to band together. We lived in the margins. We were outsiders, and we were actively persecuted.

We’re all legal now. We’re not protesting to change laws any more. Two men or two women can have a state recognised marriage and raise children. You can be a trans-woman and stay married to your wife and keep your family. That makes the people in Destiny Church and other places heads explode, but it’s all fine and legal. Trans people face difficulties in terms of expense of the transition and a real lack of social understanding in what they need, but there are no laws saying you can’t transition gender.

I’m not saying the world is perfect, but we’re not fighting the same battles we had to in the past. We are not in a Stonewall Riots situation. We’re not fighting for decriminalisation. We don’t have the stupid fights they have in the USA with lawmakers trying to decide who can take a piss in which toilet in a blatant transphobic push.

We do need to continue our struggle for better recognition of the difficulties we face especially when young. You should be able to safely walk down any street in the country holding your lover’s hand, I think that’s a real test, but that’s not a legal fight, and this type of change is going to be incremental, not revolutionary. It will take time and patience and repetition of the message. Changing people’s attitudes is entirely different to changing a law.

But the truth is an awful lot of us are no longer in the margins, we’re mainstream. A successful Herne Bay lesbian lawyer is going to have way more in common with her straight neighbours than with a young dyke in Otara. You can be an out gay man, married to man, with your kids going to Kings and be a business leader and your straight colleagues now don’t blink an eye. It’s still not so easy for a camp 16 year old gay guy in Gore though. And it’s exponentially harder for many trans people. I’d argue that the reactions to the protest show that what defines us most clearly now is class, not sexuality or gender identity. Pride is a comfortable middle class event that isn’t designed to deal with dissent.

And here’s what I mean by we aren’t a community.

Identifying as someone who loves people of the same sex is not the basis for a shared ideals and joint action in today’s world that it once was, nor is transitioning gender enough to guarantee comradeship and community. People are floating back to their natural class position. Now the legal obstacles have been removed, there is little to bind us, and class position and material concerns override that old sense of being part of an outsider community.

I know lesbians and gay men in the Police Force who marched in uniform in the Pride parade, and they love their jobs. Trans and gay people in the Defence Force marched proudly as well – if you had told me that the New Zealand military would welcome transgender people when I was 20 I would have thought you insane. The fact is things have really changed.

Many people of my generation and older mourn that change, but many young people are very happy to have grown up in a different world. I sometimes envy young gay men I meet who told their parents when they were 15, received unconditional love and support, could bring their high-school boyfriends home and never really had any issues, and nor do they have a strong connection to the public world of gay men. I wonder what it would be like to grow up feeling part of the mainstream?

If Pride actively engages with the most marginalised groups of our supposed community, and stops being just an uncritical celebration but something that can also embrace politics, debate and protest, then it will be stronger, more relevant and grow across the whole city. Imagine a Pride parade in Manukau!

- Michael Stevens is a social commentator and contributor.

Michael Stevens - 27th February 2015

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