In a new book, Auckland Central and Green MP Chloe Swarbrick is among 30 New Zealanders who have shared their experiences about being queer in New Zealand. Here is an abridged extract.
I remember being attracted to girls at Epsom Girls', but I was also attracted to boys. Katy Perry's song I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It was out at the time, so that performative bisexuality was very high profile, but it wasn't seen as a realistic sexuality; it was just what girls would act out to get boys to like them. The openly lesbian girls I knew at school were presenting in a more butch way, which I didn't identify with either. I pushed those feelings away assuming it must just be an admiration that I have for women, so I never properly considered that side of myself.
High school wasn't a happy time — being a curious person with no space to challenge ideas or try to achieve a depth of understanding is frustrating. I was always left with more questions than answers, always wondering why, wanting to know more; memorising enough information to pass an exam was never enough for me. The only environment that gave some respite from anxiety and depression was Year 12 drama. Mrs Druit was my brilliant teacher in that class; she encouraged us to think creatively and critically, gave us space to explore ideas. That one class really got me through high school. I went back recently to thank her. Dad was my rock growing up, but we did drift apart for a period. There are certain things you don't want to talk about with your parents: worries about not reaching standards, about how I fit in. I dated a few boys I wasn't super attracted to; it was just about having someone as there was pressure to be in a relationship. I've been vegetarian since I was 14. That decision was founded on utilitarian principals, rather than animal rights; if I didn't have to kill something to survive, then I wouldn't. I'm sure it sounds like annoying, precocious teenage posturing. I was also interested in Nietzsche and nihilism — such a perfect manifestation of how dark and depressed I was.
Drinking was an escape. It did get very bleak, and I was suicidal for a while and thought I was a psychopath. Two simple options emerged: either I was going to die or I was going to completely change my life. At the time I didn't know what changing my life would look like, but the awful depressing backstop was, if it didn't work out I could always just end it. That's a terribly dark motivation: that the worst thing that could happen couldn't be any worse than how life already was. I had no real support.
So, first I changed my surroundings. I had no desire to continue high school, and so I dropped out, enrolled at Auckland University, left home, and moved into a flat. Actually, my first flat wasn't the best choice because it was quite a party house, but on my first day at uni, I met Alex in philosophy class. We started dating and he was my partner for six years. Drinking hasn't been a problem since high school; having taken away the things I wanted to escape from, I replaced them with a better environment and better people, and so there became no need to block things out with alcohol. I'm the first person in our family to get a university degree, in law and philosophy.
My supposed coming out happened when a TV journalist was doing a profile piece. Not long before, I'd been in England speaking with Mhairi Black, a British member of Parliament whom I hugely respect and with whom I have a few things in common. She is the youngest member in the House of Commons, is tired of hearing about her age rather than the issues, and was outed about her same-sex partner by the media. Her response at the time was brilliant. She said, 'I don't have to come out of the closet because I've never been in it'. The New Zealand media are nothing like the rabid press. Mhairi's family was harassed, she was accused of corruption and it was all far more traumatic. I wasn't hiding my sexuality or my partner, I was just reluctant to put more of my life out there for the public to chew on. I already had my age and mental health issues on a platter, which tend to create simplistic, pigeonhole caricatures that I've struggled to break away from. We're all far more complex than a couple of things that frame you.
There's a real tension between wanting to be open and being wary of the backlash which occurred when I talked about my mental health issues. I got loads of emails and messages saying I was just playing for attention, trying to get sympathy votes. But I do feel a responsibility to young people to be visible. If I had known someone who was open about the fluidity of sexuality when I was younger, perhaps I wouldn't have thought it was weird and dismissed those feelings of being attracted to women as well as men. I sought Mhairi's advice because I expected that sooner or later the question would come up for me, and she said that I should do it my way. She said we don't have to be anyone's hero. It was reassuring to have her share that experience.
And, of course, a couple of months later, it did come up. I was asked to do an interview on camera. The journalist said one of his questions would be about my sexuality, so when asked, I said, 'Yes, I am in a relationship with a woman'. That was just before Christmas, so over the holiday break I was waiting for it to be released. By January, the piece still hadn't been published. I think they were waiting for everyone to return from holiday for maximum exposure. The whole thing was becoming very stressful, and I was worrying about when it would be published and how it would be portrayed. I found out from my communications team that the planned headline was 'Chloe Swarbrick is gay'. That was annoying because I was led to believe that the interview was a general profile piece; this so-called breaking story wasn't actually news to anyone who knew me anyway.
I realised that I'd become a passive bystander in the telling of my own story and needed to regain control. I wrote a post to Instagram and Facebook saying I'd been asked the sexuality question, that I didn't think that it deserved news coverage but that it's important young people know they're not the only ones who feel different. It is okay and they are accepted. It punctured the intensity of the story; a week later the story was on the front page of the Herald, but on my terms and with the quote I'd borrowed from Mhairi Black: 'I don't have to come out of the closet because I've never been in it'.
Sometimes when I'm out in public holding my partner's hand I become conscious of people looking at us and I let go of her hand. It's about not wanting to be stared at, perhaps it's internalised homophobia as well, so we self-police our behaviour. The action of letting go of her hand does reinforce the problem — I get that — but it's really tiring to fight all the time. No matter how strong you are, judgment wears you down. It pervades not just your mental health but also your small freedoms. Love should be a positive thing, a celebration of our humanity. Unfortunately in our Anglo-Saxon Christian culture, love, and particularly sex, have been used to shame and control people. We still live with the remnants of those archaic, arbitrary rules about which types of love are sanctioned and which are persecuted.
Before I was an MP, I tried lots of different things. With my previous partner Alex, I ran a cafe — well, it was really an art gallery with coffee and doughnuts. We had a menswear line called The Lucid Collective, and I was a journalist at bFM. They're all projects woven into communities. I suppose if there's a theme to what I do, it's a search for a deeper sense of meaning by bringing people together; perhaps it's a response to having a fragmented family life. Money isn't a motivation — I've always just seen it as a tool that can solve problems. I hate that people become attached to it. Money makes people miserable at both ends of the spectrum, and I've seen that people who have the least are often the most generous.
In Parliament there's that pampered, leather-bound, wood-panelled environment. I don't need that, or the chauffeur-driven famous side of being a public person. Every time I walk into Parliament, I think to myself, is this the day we blow it up? Not literally, of course.
Being in the public eye has been a struggle. I grew up in the Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan era, when these extremely famous people were flying off the rails, getting into all sorts of trouble; it always seemed to be from confusion about their real identity, fame messing with their heads. When people come up and say, 'You're great, thank you for doing this and that', I try to tell them I'm not special, I'm the same as you, I'm just someone who fell down a rabbit hole and ended up doing this. Then there's the nasty people, often sitting at home behind a computer.
I've also noticed a tension on Twitter if I talk about my experiences as a queer person. Some people perceive this as trying to get attention rather than me discussing a perspective that differs from the mainstream hetero experience of the world. So, I can see why some people might prefer not to come out publicly. A public persona is an illusion of a person — it's reductive, static, informed by far fewer things than the complexity of a real life. People tend to engage with that concept of a person, whether they want to put them on a pedestal or tear them down. I try to reality-check people and break down that disconnect. I say I'm just a person — I don't know what the f*** I'm doing, and neither does anyone else, and that's OK.
What might the future hold? Well, I don't want to be in politics forever, but I worry my place could be filled by someone who is happy with the status quo, someone who
won't speak up for people who need a voice. I've discussed having kids in the future and I think I should definitely be allowed to have children with my same-sex partner. James Shaw, our Green co-leader, was raised by two mums. I think the best way for kids to be raised is collectively, within a community, whether they have two mums, or a mum and a dad — it doesn't matter if they have stability and love.
We can extend our understanding of what a family or whānau is beyond traditional, narrow, European definitions. Even the notion of a non-traditional family is probably frightening to some people, but we should challenge ourselves and consider new ideas of what whānau can mean. Humans and society are not concrete entities, we're in constant motion like a river. Whānau can be difficult for queer and rainbow Kiwis when they come out. If you're not feeling loved or if you feel like no one is listening, remember that love and understanding does exist for you, you just haven't found it yet.
We still have a way to go as a society, but just know that there are people fighting for you, fighting to make the world better; not just for the favoured few but better for everybody.
30 Queer Lives by Matt McEvoy
Massey University Press
This story is based on interviews conducted with Swarbrick. It has been condensed and edited together from the responses she gave to questions on a range of topics.
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