A new support group aims to give young people in the Far North's Rainbow community a place they feel safe and celebrated.
Rainbow Rangatahi, an initiative by Kerikeri-based charity Bald Angels, offers weekly get-togethers and initiatives to boost visibility and inclusion such as the "rainbow seats" that have popped up around the town in recent months.
The group also plans a rainbow crossing and pop-up meeting spaces around the district, but right now they'd just like to get more youth involved.
Bald Angels founder Therese Wickbom said the impetus for the group came last year when a Mid North family asked her to put them in touch with a social group for their transgender son.
"I thought it would be easy. I thought I'd just make a few calls to my contacts, but no one could point me to a local group. Then I went around New Zealand contacting groups dedicated to the Rainbow community. I found groups everywhere but not in the Far North. It blew my mind that there was nothing."
Wickbom said it was hard enough for teenagers to deal with the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the extra stresses faced by many young Northlanders caused by poverty and lack of transport.
"How do you cope with that if you're also navigating with identifying yourself in the Rainbow community? That adds a whole lot more stress."
Wickbom decided she needed to do something to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and other rainbow rangatahi (youth) feel safe and included.
She contacted friends and members of the Rainbow community, as well as the local hapū and people with backgrounds in youth mental health and education.
The group's first initiative was to paint two benches in rainbow colours, one next to Kerikeri's Procter Library and the other outside the Sound Lounge music shop.
The idea was to place symbols around town to show members of the Rainbow community they were included, welcomed and celebrated, she said.
"Plus the rainbow is a symbol of hope and new beginnings. Everyone loves a rainbow but to those in the Rainbow community it's a really welcoming symbol."
They had also started a support group that met every Thursday from 3.30-5pm at the Black Box Theatre on Sammaree Place, with a pick-up from Kerikeri High School at 3.15pm.
"We've been watching short films, we do trivia, we share stories. We've started some theatre games. Everybody is welcome to just hang out as they want," she said.
Frankie Jago of Kerikeri is one of the group's volunteer facilitators.
"When you're young you have enough trouble trying to find yourself without the added element of being part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the mistreatment, misunderstanding and bullying that comes with that," she said.
"Hopefully we can ease some of that, or at least give youth a space where they are safe, supported and celebrated."
Jago said the mistreatment of people who didn't fit society's norms was "a tale as old as time".
"We often have histories that aren't too pretty but we want to make it better for the next generation. That's why I show up every week."
Tipene Pownceby, from South Hokianga, wished support groups existed when they were growing up.
"I hope the group allows rangatahi to be themselves in a safe and supportive environment. I know it's hard out there for our young ones."
Pownceby, who also offers counselling for the Rainbow community through Mid North Family Support, said being non-binary — not identifying as strictly male or female — was part of traditional Māori beliefs.
"My ancestors didn't have the heteronormative beliefs we have today. I like to live the way they did, by looking at the person rather than their binary identity."
Wickbom said the group planned more rainbow benches around the Far North and was keen to create a rainbow pedestrian crossing, though that involved a lot more red tape.
The Bay of Islands-Whangaroa Community Board had already committed funding for rainbow seats and mobile hangout spaces.
However, the group's main aim for now was to encourage more young people to join the weekly Rainbow Rangatahi sessions.
"We know some youth live out of town so transport is difficult. Others haven't yet come out to friends and family so they feel a bit whakamā (shy), but we want to make it as comfortable and safe as possible."
"The adults who facilitate the group are all police checked, they're experienced and they really care. What we want is a whole lot more youth and we'd love to see them running the sessions. We want it to be a youth-led support group," she said.
Wickbom said the initiative tied in with the other work of Bald Angels because the charity was dedicated to the well-being of young people and giving every child a chance to thrive.
"Statistics show that rangatahi who identify as queer have a 40 per cent higher risk of suicide and much greater risk of bullying, sexual harm, homelessness and mental health issues. That's what drives Bald Angels to jump into this space and say, as a community, we must pull together to awhi, support and celebrate these amazing young people," she said.
• You can get in touch via the rainbow_rangatahi Instagram page or by emailing email@example.com.
Where to get help:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1-11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it's an emergency and you or someone else is at risk, call 111.