Palmy People

The people of Palmerston North rub shoulders every day as they go about their daily lives. Some come from around the world to make this their home, embrace a new life in this far-off country and enhance this Manawatū city with their culture. Then there are those who've always been here, and others who have created their own special communities within the wider community. So who are the people who make up this diverse city of 88,700 residents? Today, the Manawatū Guardian launches a new series looking at and talking with the Palmy People who call this place home.

Back in the day, says Andi Leipst, they were known as gay, lesbian or homosexual.

Today, they are known as the rainbow community.

"Rainbow community covers everyone," he says, gesticulating.

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"The whole spectrum."

Andi is the president of Malgra, the Manawatū Lesbian and Gay Rights Association, New Zealand's longest-running LGBT group, now in its 42nd year.

Andi Leipst is the chair of Malgra, the Manawatū Lesbian and Gay Rights Association.

Malgra serves the regional Glittfab family which encompasses the whole spectrum of the Rainbow community: gay, lesbian, intersex, transgender, Takatāpui, Fa'afafine, asexual and bisexual people.

Andi uses his hands a lot when he speaks.

His fingers are long, his gesticulating theatrical.

"I talk with my hands; I work in hospitality."

Although, when he is taking dinner orders, he reminds those hands to be, well, less theatrical.

Andi also has an alter ego, Ruby Dax.

Ruby Dax, aka Palmerston North's Andi Leipst. Photo / Merania Karauria
Ruby Dax, aka Palmerston North's Andi Leipst. Photo / Merania Karauria

Over the course of an hour talking with the Manawatū Guardian, Ruby emerges. The transformation starts with her eyebrows.

"I use a glue stick, " says Andi, demonstrating how he sticks his eyebrows down.

It can be hot work performing, and a stray eyebrow could be the undoing of perfection.

Andi or Ruby, they sit comfortably with each other.

They also flat together; Ruby has her own room, there's no space for anyone else.

Ruby's room contains her performance clothes, make-up and jewellery.

We sit in the Boom Boom Room in the garden of Square Edge, a studio owned by another rainbow community friend, Ian Harman, also known as Lola Illusion.

"Lola rehearses here with her troupe of classy burlesque dancers."

Andi Leipst of the Palmerston North Rainbow community is one of our Palmy People.

Andi underscores classy and points to the poster of the dancers with Lola.

They look classy and professional.

So when did Andi come out?

"I tested the waters and came out with some friends."

Stoked to be working with the amazing Lola Illusion this weekend for Dragtastic!

Posted by RubyDax on Tuesday, 16 April 2019

The high school friends hung out together, bonded by their common interest in musicals.

Andi's coming out was followed by other friends, some who had an inkling he was just like them.

His parent's reactions were understandably mixed.

"Mum said, 'Who told you?' Dad was, 'It's just a phase. Don't decide just yet.' His reaction was more from the protective stance."

Then Ruby Dax made her appearance.

"We are coping with gay, we're a bit awkward with drag," his parents said.

Andi is close to his parents and, because he does not hold a driver's licence, his mother drives him to his gigs.

The first time he performed as Ruby, Andi's mother could not come to pick him up.

"Dad came. He looked at me, then looked straight ahead. It was a bit uncomfortable.

"He asked me, 'how was the night, did everything go well?'"

Andi's family moved to Palmerston North from Levin in the early 80s.

His schooling was at Our Lady of Lourdes, Normal Intermediate and Awatapu College.

"Mum and Dad picked Awatapu for me, but my older brother went to another high school."

He says his parents are okay with his sexuality, and they're getting better with Ruby.

"Dad now chats about Ruby like it's another job."

Andi says coming out is different for everyone.

"Palmy is quite an accepting place and seems to be more accepting as time goes on.

"But there will always be people with opinions about sexualities and lifestyles.

"We are quite lucky here in New Zealand. We live in an accepting country when you compare to other countries like Russia, that has LGBTQ bans, and stonings in Brunei."

•Andi Leipst of the Palmerston North Rainbow community is the first local we're talking to as part of our new series Palmy People: Our Diverse City. Over the coming weeks and months we'll meet members of our community from a variety of backgrounds, from near and far.

The long road to acceptance

• After several attempts, the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986 was passed, decriminalising sexual activity between men over the age of 16.

• In 1993, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was outlawed.

• In 2004, the Civil Union Act was passed, giving same-sex couples an equivalent to marriage.

• LGBT rights are protected by the New Zealand Human Rights Act, and same-sex couples were able to marry as of 2013.

• The 2016 New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study recorded that 2.6 per cent identified as gay or lesbian, 1.8 per cent bisexual, 0.6 per cent bicurious, 0.5 per cent pansexual and 0.3 per cent asexual.

• Over the years, New Zealand has had several LGBT people in Parliament. Marilyn Waring, a National Party MP in the 1970s and 1980s, was also outed as a lesbian during her term and subsequently re-elected. She refused to comment at the time but "came out" in 1985, one year after her political career had ended.

Professor Marilyn Waring pictured in 2014. Photo / File
Professor Marilyn Waring pictured in 2014. Photo / File

• The then Minister of Conservation for Labour, Chris Carter, became New Zealand's first openly gay MP when he outed himself shortly after being elected in 1993.

• Tim Barnett (Labour) was openly gay before being elected in 1996.

• The world's and New Zealand's first openly gay Attorney-General was the National Party's Chris Finlayson.

• New Zealand also elected the world's first out transgender MP, Georgina Beyer. Beyer held the Wairarapa seat and was elected to Parliament in the 1999 election and left Parliament in 2007. Beyer was the world's first out transgender mayor of Carterton before entering parliament.

The world's first out transgender MP Georgina Beyer. Photo / File
The world's first out transgender MP Georgina Beyer. Photo / File

• New Zealand is also home to Eliana Rubashkyn, an internationally known former LGBTI refugee, who became stateless after a severe case of discrimination due to her intersex variation. Rubashkyn was the first birth-assigned male person legally recognised as a woman with a UN resolution under the international refugee statute, making her case a first in the world.