Auckland Pride Festival was one of the few major cultural festivals that made it to the stage in 2020 – and one year on, it's among the first to return to Auckland, bigger than ever and leading the way on Covid-19 preparedness.
While many festivals have downsized as a result of lockdown, Auckland Pride is going to a full month for the first time, and expanding across the city with 203 events celebrating the city's rainbow community.
Festival director Max Tweedie said he never imagined they would beat 2020's record of 154 events – but registrations came in thick and fast from a community ready to celebrate again.
"Especially after 2020 in Auckland, it was incredibly important for people that they can come together," he said.
"When we shared the theme last year, it just drove some real height that despite Covid we were back, we were stronger than ever, and ready to deliver a festival for our community."
That theme – Karanga Atu, Karanga Mai – has centred the festival on responding to calls of celebration, inclusivity, representation and activism.
That's seen in a diverse range of events, with festival staples Big Gay Out and the Pride March back again, alongside theatre in the central city, pride celebrations in local communities, and three vogue balls spread across Auckland.
The festival begins today with Tuwheratanga, an opening dawn blessing, before the Pride Gala tomorrow night showcases the best of the festival over the next four weeks.
And despite expanding the festival to spread those events out more, Tweedie said it's basically had the opposite effect.
"At peak, there are 37 things you can go to on one of the Saturdays."
The decision to double the length of the festival came in the middle of last year, before the city was rocked from its "complacency lull", as Tweedie calls it, in August with the second lockdown.
The lockdown shored up his decision to put Covid-19 at the heart of planning. Organisers mapped the festival backwards, using previous alert levels to work out what they would do if the country returned to lockdown any time in the months before show time.
All events were urged to come up with Covid contingency plans so the shows could still go ahead under the different alert levels, while all free events – which make up the majority of the festival – required pre-registrations to help with contact tracing.
While the decision was to protect the health of audience members and event planners, Tweedie said that they wanted to avoid a homophobic blowback if a Pride event was linked to an outbreak.
"I always remember South Korea, where that positive Covid case went to four gay bars which caused an outpouring of homophobia, and that's our worst case scenario," Tweedie said.
"There are higher standards expected of minority communities because we then bear the brunt of that stuff online, in the comments section, on talkback radio."
Auckland Pride also holds the distinction of being one of the only festivals of its kind on the calendar anywhere in the world this year.
Tweedie said that it's heart-breaking that rainbow communities overseas can't come together like Auckland can, but having the world watching isn't affecting their plans.
"I don't feel any extra pressure cause we're delivering a festival to service Tamaki Makaurau, but it feels a great privilege and we're very lucky."
Details about events can be found at aucklandpride.org.nz. The festival runs until February 28