Twelve Questions with Steven Oates

By Jennifer Dann

Gay broadcaster and MC Steven Oates is hosting three events at this month's Auckland Pride Festival: the annual Dog Show, the Great Debate and a panel discussion on how smart phone apps are changing the LGBTI community.
Steven Oates is overseeing a dog show at this year's Pride Festival. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Steven Oates is overseeing a dog show at this year's Pride Festival. Photo / Jason Oxenham

1 Why are you holding a dog show at a gay festival?

I love the fact that it's a little bit outside the square. When the Pride Festival began five years ago I thought, "What can I contribute?" I love dogs, so I decided to organise a dog show. It's a child-friendly, picnicky day in the park which is great because Rainbow families are a growing part of the LGBTI community. All dogs are welcome. We have prizes for the biggest dog, the smallest dog. Kids love the owner-dog lookalike competition where people dress up in the same costume as their dog. We get bumblebees, ballerinas, firemen and road workers. But it's important to remember that it's just for fun because we've had some serious competition dogs enter in the past.

2 How did you manage those situations?

I've seen them arrive with all the bells and whistles; the brushes and bows and hairdryers and sprays, so I've gone up and said, "You know it's all just for fun right?" because they take it very seriously and they expect to win.

I'm not really into preening pets. My favourite dogs are the mongrels, the rescue dogs, the runt of the litter, the underdogs. I find dogs easier to work with than people. Dogs aren't bitchy; they love you unconditionally.

3 In this year's Great Pride Debate will Team Jacinda Ardern face Team Nikki Kaye again?

Nikki's having a year out, so this year we're having a battle of the sexes. Team Jacinda, with comedian Urzila Carlson and Green MP Jan Logie, will argue "Girls do it better" against an all-male team of Auckland City Councillor Richard Hills, Labour MP Grant Robertson and comedian Eli Matthewson. This year's adjudicator is Gilda Kirkpatrick, the Real Housewife of Auckland. She's fierce and doesn't put up with any nonsense which is exactly what we need in the role. Gilda's a gay icon. She loves to sit at SPQR with gaggle of young gay boys who flock to her like she's their queen bee.

4 You're also hosting a panel discussion called Outspoken. Why do you think it's timely to examine the effect of technology on the LGBTI community?

The internet and smartphone apps have changed everything. Before hook-up apps like Grindr existed you had to go out to bars and clubs to meet people. Young people would come out into a community where there was a sense of connection and solidarity. In the 90s, K' Rd was packed every weekend. The Staircase nightclub held 1000 people and Legends across the road had 300 at the same time. These clubs are closing all over the world now because people don't have to go out. With the internet you can meet partners of whatever description without leaving home. Young people are growing up in a world where people send you a ''dick pic'' before they even say hello. I'm not opposed to casual sex but there has to be some human connection.

5 But surely the internet can connect people in ways they couldn't before?

There are pros and cons. If you're transgender and living in Invercargill you can connect with others like you anywhere in the world. The internet has a group for everything. You can be into having sex wrapped in Glad-wrap in strawberry jelly and there'll be a group for it somewhere.

6 What was it like growing up gay in Taupo in the late 80s?

It wasn't ideal but on the whole I had a great childhood, a very supportive family. Dad owned a local menswear store. I gravitated towards repertory theatre early on. It's a welcoming environment that celebrates a range of personalities. In seventh form our family moved to Auckland. Lynfield College was a lot more cosmopolitan.

7 Your broadcasting career began in student radio hosting bFM's Around The Bend show. Where did that lead?

I had my own show on Alt TV for a few years. I also worked on TVNZ's Queer Nation, art show Front Seat and a Maori TV show called Takatapui - the Maori word for an intimate partner of the same sex. It's as old as the legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, in which Tutanekai also had a male lover, but nowadays encompasses anyone who is LGBTIQ. It's different to the Samoan term fa'afafine which means ''in the manner of a woman''.

Steven Oates, with his dogs Ruby, left, and Murphy. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Steven Oates, with his dogs Ruby, left, and Murphy. Photo / Jason Oxenham

8 Can you speak te reo?

No. My segment of the show was about safe sex so I'd have dolls and act out different things with subtitles. Humour's a great way to get information across. My Maori ancestry is from Te Aroha. Our family actually donated the hot springs and domain to the Crown. The language was lost when my grandmother left for the bright lights of the big city. She was very social. We had a special relationship.

9 You also write opinion pieces for Gay Express magazine. Which has made you most proud?

An article I wrote about a trend in gay hook-up apps to stipulate ''no fems or queens''. It pisses me off because it implies that femininity is bad. I also find the term ''straight-acting'' ridiculous. It basically means masculine which is fine but it also means acting as or aspiring to be straight, as if that's better. What these men forget is that many of the rights they enjoy were won by queens forced to be political because they don't have the luxury of being able to live undercover.

10 You came out in the early 90s in what you've described as the pinnacle of gay culture in Auckland. What happened?

People stopped dying of AIDS in such large numbers. HIV had really galvanised the community. It drove the Hero movement and Homosexual Law Reform because people needed to come out of the shadows and get medical care. Then Hero got too big for itself and imploded. And we just became more accepted. We moved to the suburbs and got mortgages and picket fences. You don't need that solidarity when you're not going into battle every day. Of course, not everyone is that lucky.

11 Who didn't get accepted?

Transphobia is still rampant. Maori and Pacific kids are still struggling which is a shame because they were accepted in those cultures traditionally before religion came along. Asian kids are struggling because of the strong focus on family in Asian culture. It's about having children who can look after you when you're old. LGTBI kids are much more prone to self-harm and suicide so it's important to have the Pride Festival where people can come and express themselves through events, theatre, music, exhibitions and discussions.

12 What's next for you, career-wise?

At the moment I'm helping mum in the family business and emceeing corporate events. I love the instant gratification of the live audience. Theatre's the same. I'd love to do radio again, there's something comfy about it. TV has more glamour but it's really hard work. I'm always surprised that I keep getting offered gigs because at 41, I thought I'd be on the shelf. But so long as the phone keeps ringing I'll keep answering.

The Auckland Pride Dog Show, Sunday, February 19, 1pm, Western Park, Ponsonby.
The Great Auckland Pride Debate, Monday, February 20, 7.30pm, Galatos Live.
Outspoken: The Digital Rainbow, Wednesday, February 22, 7pm, Ika Seafood Bar and Grill
www.aucklandpridefestival.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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