Michael Stevens has been to more than a few Pride parades and parties in his time. The well-regarded blogger and educator, 57, doesn't spare his words when asked what the fallout has been behind the recent acrimony that has seen many of the Pride organisation events cancelled or downscaled.

"It's left a gaping wound in our communities, destroyed goodwill, trashed the thousands and thousands of hours that volunteers have put in over the years - and all for what? Ideological purity?"

Events began midway through 2018.

"We are living in a divided world. Communities have been split by increasing inequality, partisan politics, and culture wars," announced an early version of the parade and festival annual theme. For 2019, it called for dialogue, community and corporate co-operation, and bridges between generations.

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But by Christmas, Auckland's gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer and intersex (GLBTQI+) communities would be locked in a destructive conflict over the issue of uniformed GLBTQI+ police officers marching in the parade.

Online arguments were bitter and vicious. Long-time friends would discover themselves on opposite sides of violent debate. Physical battles would erupt at public meetings.

"We left when the old gay amputee tried to punch the young trans [person]," remarked Campbell Parker, 41, after the Grey Lynn Pride General Meeting in November last year. "It obviously wasn't going to get much better."

So what really happened? Why did Pride so spectacularly disintegrate? Was it a case of a board at loggerheads with the wishes of its community? Or did it involve something deeper, something which goes to the heart of what it means to be a GLBTQI+ person in Aotearoa today?

AUCKLAND PRIDE had its origins with the first Hero Party in 1991. HIV/Aids was then claiming more than one death a week. "Large chunks of the gay community have been wiped out," Wayne Otter, then-manager of Auckland's Burnett Centre, was reported saying at the time. "The only comparison is with people who live and lose through war."

"Hero was created to give a face and self-esteem to gay men so they could look after each other and be proud of each other," says Bruce Kilmister, 67, a member of the Hero Trust Board that oversaw the first Hero parties and parades.

"At that time of course, we were reflecting on the casualties of Aids. We had floats from the New Zealand Aids Foundation and memorial floats to honour those who had died."
The first Hero events were legendary. They were a spectacular celebration of community as well as a tribute to lost lives.

Auckland's deputy-mayor, David Hay, a conservative Christian businessman who once declared Mt Roskill a pornography-free zone, attempted to ban the parade. "If it was the Girl Guides behaving like that, well, I'd object," he said. "I just think there are certain standards to keep up."

By the mid-1990s, breakthrough medications to treat HIV/Aids meant the disease lost its fatal urgency. Men who thought they'd been given a death sentence survived. Hero, itself, would change, becoming a festival of GLBTQI+ lifestyle and culture.

Hero went into hiatus in 2001 after a budgetary overspend. It returned as Auckland Pride in 2013, this time with council funding from Auckland Tourism, Events, and Economic Development (Ateed), along with a variety of supportive corporates and its own profits from previous years. Diversity was now seen as a key concept.

Ponsonby Rd hosted the parade again, with an estimated audience of 30,000 people that grew year on year. The Pride Festival featured art exhibitions, theatre performances, a dog show, a writer's festival, and the well-attended Big Gay Out at Coyle Park in Point Chevalier.

GLBTQI+ police officers had been marching in the parade since 2013 and wearing uniform with the support of their superiors from 2015. Their presence was greeted with cheers by the crowds and treated as a sign of changing times.

Police march in uniform for the first time during the Auckland Pride Parade, in February 2015. Photo / Steven McNicholl.
Police march in uniform for the first time during the Auckland Pride Parade, in February 2015. Photo / Steven McNicholl.

Then activists from a group then known as No Pride in Prisons (NPIP), now Pride Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA), began attending the parade as protestors, not participants.
They were focused on the "treatment and sexual violence that some trans women experience when they are placed in male prisons". However, the very presence of the GLBTQI+ members of the police as a uniformed group marching in the parade was problematic for the group.

"We set out into the parade route holding a banner that said 'No Pride in Prisons' and held it up for cameras, the grandstand, for Police, to demonstrate that Auckland's queer community actually isn't 100 per cent behind the police," says Emilie Rākete, 25, the PAPA media officer. "In fact, many, many of them are opposed to police brutality and opposed to the police presence in Pride."

"I was assaulted by a security guard and thrown out of the parade route - and when it happened it shattered my humerus into three pieces," she says.

Organiser Emilie Rākete speaks at a No Pride in Prisons protest in Aotea Square. Photo / Doug Sherring.
Organiser Emilie Rākete speaks at a No Pride in Prisons protest in Aotea Square. Photo / Doug Sherring.

THE ELECTION of a new Pride board in 2018 meant a fresh strategy. The new chairperson, Cissy Rock, was an organisational developer with a 20-year history of working on strategic solutions for community and government groups.

Board members, a mix of old and new, included Michael Lett, the gallerist and now board secretary, Ta'i Paitai, an event organiser, Zakk d'Larte, a graphic designer, and Phylesha Brown-Acton, who negotiates services for Pacifica transgendered people. Two others, including the board treasurer, would shortly choose to resign.

Over a month, there were four community hui, including one online, held by Auckland Pride, to consult about the shape of the events.

"People really did want Pride to be more queer, more political, less corporate, and more balanced - with a grass-roots community feel," says Rock.

"And there was also a question about State institutions - not just the Police, but Corrections – their participation and what it meant."

While issues of race and age were the most prominent subjects in the subsequent summary produced by the board, the only "hot topic hui" that followed was focused on police.

"That seemed to be the one that needed a more 360 degree look at it," said Rock. "I facilitated that hui … I was upfront … We are here to hear each other, we are not representing organisations, we are here to really get a sense of what the broader community is thinking and feeling around this … There was some raw stuff said."

Subsequently, in early November 2018, the board announced that while they "welcomed" GLBTQI+ police officers marching in the parade in 2019, they would not be welcome to march in uniform as they had done since 2015.

It was suggested they could march in T-shirts.

Pride stated that while there was "goodwill" towards the police, the organisation did not "currently meet the degree of safety and awareness of intersectionality required by our Rainbow Communities".

To judge by online discussion and questions, "intersectionality" was not a familiar concept to most of the board's constituency. It is defined as a framework that examines how systems of power impact upon society's most marginalised people.

No compromise could be negotiated. GLBTQI+ police withdrew from the event - while allowing for a future engagement. Almost immediately, the New Zealand Defence Force said it would follow suit. Private companies began reassessing their involvement.
"I was surprised by the police's reaction because it was very cut and dry," said Rock. "It was either they march in uniform or it was nothing."

Two Pride board members, Matty Jackson and Verity George, resigned following the decision. "I can't honestly support the decisions that were made," Jackson tweeted. "My values and that of Auckland Pride are no longer aligned and this is not a decision I have made lightly."

Tension and emotion ran high.

"I think that the board had totally underestimated how much community interest there was," said Michael Stevens as he described the Grey Lynn public meeting that followed on Sunday, November 12. "I'd guess there were around 250 to 300 people there by the end. The atmosphere was tense and rancorous."

The board's chosen independent facilitator, Tim Foote, who had flown in from Wellington for the job, seemed unaware of the strength of emotion in Auckland. He started the meeting with a poem but the audience was restive. A number of PAPA members were present, including Rākete, and they had placed themselves centre-stage.

Rākete described herself to the meeting as "a Marxist-Leninist criminologist". She would go on to hold up a photograph and read out the names of each of the 15people killed In New Zealand as a result of an interaction with police in the previous 10 years, no matter the circumstances.

"Our goal is to call attention to the crisis and contradictions inherent in the New Zealand justice system," Rākete said. "We want to call attention to the ways it doesn't solve social problems, how the criminal justice system has worsened inequality and how it is fundamentally pointless and dysfunctional and needs to be replaced with community justice, something which can work and help people."

Many of PAPA's statements were focused on the subject of race, rather than GLBTQI+ people. It was a blurring of issues that would confuse many.

Rākete cited the annual Police Tactical Options Research Report, which examines all incidents in which police have used pepper-spray, closed fist-blows, tasering, use of attack dogs or shooting.

"In 2014, the first year that police officers marched in the parade, Māori were 7.1 times more likely to be victims of one of these forms of police violence," Rākete said. "The most recent Tactical Options Report has data from 2017 that shows Māori were nearly 7.7 times more likely than Pākehā to be made victims of one of these forms of police violence."

"That trend has continued every year that the police have marched in the Pride Parade."
PAPA's view was that police have no place in the parade "until those statistics don't reflect a massive disproportionate racist use of violence by police". PAPA, however, offered to support the proposal that the police continue to march in the parade – but not in uniform.

The Grey Lynn meeting erupted. Individual and group walk-outs began. A scuffle ensued. Emotions ran high.

"It was a mess. A painful, angry mess, and showed just how deeply divided the GLBTQI+ communities are," Stevens says. "The board has been inept in how it dealt with the entire process from the start."

"Suddenly deciding to reverse the right of the police to march in uniform as they had for the previous three years, with no meaningful consultation, showed a complete lack of foresight as to the consequences."

STACEY KERAPA, a Māori trans woman and a former K Rd sex-worker is now a graduate student doing an MA, after specialising in psychology, social work and community development.

She is adamantly supportive of uniformed police marching in the parade, despite vividly remembering the past.

The early 1990s were "a quite horrific time for the trans community", she says. "The Homosexual Law Reform Act didn't include trans people in any way, shape or form. We became very easy targets for police, mainly the younger police officers, those who had just graduated from the Police College and had just become constables."

She describes what she calls "hunting exercises", where officers needing to make an arrest quota would go up to K Rd and "find a tranny". Resisting arrest, refusal to obey a police order, the Misuse of Drugs Act and any number of other charges could often be arbitrarily applied.

"We would fight back and they would get us into the back of the car and down to the police station and they would use what we would call 'the old phonebook tactic'. Rather than physically harm you and leave a mark or anything like that, they would stick the phonebook up your dress and hit it with a baton, so you would feel the full impact of the hit but it wouldn't leave any bruises or marks."

Since then, Kerapa says, there has been a "360 degree turn-around".

"The police are actually really quite approachable now. They don't use the 'hunting tactic' anymore. The only time you ever get harassed by a police officer is when you are obviously breaking the law."

When a member of the GLBTQI+ communities works openly in the police, Kerapa says, "they have to have a high level and standard of belief in themselves and their work. The removal of their ability to wear their uniform in Pride is a totally demoralising thing."
Kerapa believes that the board's decision has destroyed "nearly 35 years of progress with Police and Corrections".

"I think what it has done to the community has shoved a wedge between all of us. We come from a community that has survived huge fragmentation. It has taken us decades to bridge those gaps. In the space of less than three months an arbitrary decision made by the board as a result of an incomplete consultation process has totally demoralised and destroyed that unity."

Kerapa's statements have been echoed by a number of other well-known trans women and former sex-workers, including Georgina Beyer, the former MP for Wairarapa.

A SPECIAL General Meeting was called by Pride to vote on the motion of no confidence in the board in early December.

Accusations of membership-stacking began to be made.

"I know for a fact there were campaigns from people who supported the vote of no confidence to encourage people to become members and an organised campaign to collect their proxy votes," says Rock. "Probably you could say there were equal opportunities for those against the motion to drum up membership ... But it is true we had a huge influx of membership."

In a national email, PAPA called for its members to join Pride and utilise their ability to make a proxy vote.

The story was now being followed by mainstream media. Television crews, photographers, and print reporters clustered outside the Pitt St Methodist Church. The story was making local news as well as the international gay press.

Some 600 members cast a vote – with the tally showing 273 for the vote of no confidence, 325 against. The result supported the board's decision to exclude police marching in uniform.

But the fallout continued. Pride sponsors including SkyCity, Westpac, the BNZ, the ANZ, Vodafone, NZME and Fletcher Building withdrew. Tens of thousands of dollars that could have been used towards the cost of Pride events went with them.

The Auckland Bears, one of the city's more prominent groupings of gay men, confirmed they would no longer participate. The Rainbow Charitable Trust's chairperson, Gresham Bradley, announced that the group could not support Pride.

Finally, Ateed withdrew their sponsorship, then valued at $45,000.

By Christmas 2018, Auckland Pride was in ruins. The contracted festival and parade co-ordinators no longer had jobs. There would be no print magazine programme, Dawn Ceremony, Ponsonby Rd Parade nor party - and no means to earn money for future events.

In mid-January, a bare few weeks before Pride, the board announced that there would be a "walk" instead of a parade. It would begin in Albert Park and cross Queen St to finish in Myers Park. It was explained that many Pride members had felt "alienated" from the affluent suburb of Ponsonby.

There would still be a festival, which would act as an umbrella for a lesser number of events organised by others.

"The saddest thing for me - and I feel very tearful as I say this - is the friendships I have lost," says Rock. "I didn't expect there to be a division cutting so deep – it has cut through friendships and I find it distressing."

"I have been called a c*** and a slut and a bitch. Very anti-women, very women-hating stuff … We have scratched the surface of our community and found misogyny and transphobia are very alive."

For Stevens, it has meant many people no longer want any engagement with Pride. "Auckland Pride has basically said you're only welcome if you subscribe to our politics. They have no room for dissent or an intellectual framework for dealing with difference. One must conform or leave."

Rākete sees it differently. "I think what this argument has done is bring out a deeper contradiction that already exists in our community between people who were happy to sit and leave things where they are and who thought that Gay Liberation was fulfilled, and those students of Gay Liberation who thought we still have many battles we need to fight and that conflict should happen," she comments. "Nothing can stop that conflict. Nothing can hold it back."

The dividing lines remain.

"I don't think we will ever be able to reclaim and ever be able to fix what we once had," says Kerapa. "I think we need to go back to our true beginning. It was a moment in time and place when we could celebrate our freedom, our rights, and who we truly were."

Auckland Pride runs from February 1-17. All information about events can be found at aucklandpride.org.nz
David Herkt is a writer, journalist, and former TV director. He was a member of Auckland Gay Liberation in 1973, has worked for HIV/Aids organisations in Australia, edited Auckland's gay newspaper express, and was a researcher for TVNZ's Queer Nation series. He has co-edited Jack magazine, as well as the annual Hero and Pride magazines.