Auckland's inaugural LGBTIQ* Literary Festival, Same Same But Different, offers another way to explore how people live in a world full of difference, says the festival's director, well-known writer and film-maker Peter Wells.
"It's not a party, parade or protest march; it's not in a bar or sauna. It's just relaxing to live in a LGBT world for a day or two. We're surrounded by heterosexual values to a large degree," says Wells, who co-founded The Auckland Writers Festival in the late 1990s.
"There's also something really exciting about gathering together for a live, unscripted event. It's great to break out of our lonely digital cells and hear the human voice."
The Book That Turned The Light On is the festival's scene-setting opening night event, looking at the sometimes seditious role of books in a past of illegality and stigma. High-profile panellists including Victor Rodger, Paula Boock, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Paul Diamond, Susannah Walker, Michael Stevens and Jeremy Hansen will discuss the books that mattered to them as young LGBTIQ people.
"Books have an extra something," says Wells. "They're like a long daydream. An orchestral gathering of thought carried out to its conclusion. Most of the information we get online is like tiny bits of glittering mosaic, momentarily attractive but distracting."
Saturday's events include a range of author talks, starting with Larger than Life Stories, chaired by Carole Beu, owner of The Women's Bookshop. Alison Mau will speak about First Lady, her biography of Liz Roberts, the first New Zealander to undergo full sex change surgery.
Its 2015 release was perfectly timed. First Lady hit the shelves just two months after Caitlyn Jenner unveiled her name change in Vanity Fair magazine.
"We were fortunate gender issues had become globally topical," says Mau. "The only shocking thing was realising what an appalling time Liz had [she was beaten by her father and spent time in male and female prisons] and it's still ongoing for a lot of transgender people, largely due to lack of understanding."
Mau is one of three authors talking about Larger Than Life Stories, along with Joanne Drayton, author of the New York Times' best-selling biography of teenage murderer-turned-author Anne Perry, and Julie Glamuzina, who tells the story of a woman arrested for marrying another woman in 1945.
Mau says being a journalist helped when editing more than 60 hours of interviews with Roberts, who approached her to ghost-write her story. Some great anecdotes had to be left out because they didn't fit the structure, she says. "It's a matter of sifting through the material over and over again until you get a sense of the wider story and what parts are going to fit. One of the most important chapters is told through excerpts from the letters Liz saved between her surgeon, psychologist and GP.
"It's the story in their own words. Liz was extra-ordinarily persuasive and somehow convinced a general surgeon to undertake the first sex change surgery in New Zealand, having only read about it in a medical journal."
Although Roberts had some concerns about how the book would be received, Mau says there's been "no trouble at all" since its September launch. "When you've lived a life like Liz, with all its difficulties, there's bound to be some controversy. Some names have been changed but it's all true." Film and television companies are showing interest in the story she says is made for the screen.
Later comes a session on self-publishing - Paddling Your Own Waka - and a glimpse into the future with teens talking about what books and writing mean to them.
Wells says he is particularly looking forward to Witi Ihimaera's talk about how tikanga Maori can inhibit or empower a contemporary gay Maori man writing his memoir. He's also keen to hear playwright Victor Rodger's panel of fresh theatrical talent, including playwrights Aroha Awarau and Sam Brooks, discussing whether being LGBT is a "worn-out trope" or whether it lends a particular intensity of vision to their works.
Wells expects a wide range of views: "We're all different and approach our identity in individual ways. For example, we've added the letters Q and I to LGBT, because some members of our community identify only with the words 'queer' or 'intersex'. Anyone is welcome to come. This festival is about celebrating difference."
Although her own experience of coming out on Facebook at age 15 was positive, 18-year-old Chrys Jones says there's still a need for LGBT festivals.
"It's a safe space to be and to share. A lot of LGBT subject matter can be really personal and intense. You're more comfortable saying it to people who understand," says the Glenfield College student.
Jones, a spoken-word poet, will perform at the Teenage Years forum of Same Same But Different. Her poem tells of rejecting the advances of a straight guy who refuses to accept she's lesbian - a piece she says is probably too "raw and brutal" to perform at school.
Jones was saddened to read a recent NZ Herald story about Auckland Grammar School's former head boy and dux who said they were afraid to come out at school because of a culture where the word "gay" was constantly used in a derogatory manner.
"I'm really lucky that my school is very accepting. We have plenty of openly gay and trans students. I can't imagine trying to survive high school without the support I had from the PSSP team (Peer Sexuality Support Programme) and Rainbow Youth," she says.
She says the odd student who uses the word "gay" as a form of derision is treated as an "idiot" by others.
Same Same But Different LGBTIQ Writers Festival, February 12-14, AUT. For programme and bookings, see samesamebutdifferent.co.nz
* Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersexual, queer.