Honour Thy Queer Ancestors: On Queer Progress
Rainbow crossings and Pride Parades signal queer progress. But Will Hansen argues Aotearoa still has a long way to go for queer folk to feel safe.
When businesses throughout the Wellington CBD are covered head to toe in rainbow flags, why would we complain? When Wellington City Council commissions rainbow crossings, rainbow runways, rainbow precincts, to make us feel welcome and safe, why would we criticise them? When even some of our communities’ most long-standing opponents, the police and defence forces, see fit to march in our Pride Parades with rainbow flags decorating their cop cars and LAVs (Light Armoured Vehicles), how could we possibly not be proud of our progress?
As an openly trans and queer person, I do understand why this feels like progress. Who wouldn’t want to see rainbow flags everywhere? I came out only five years ago, and I can hardly imagine how I would have felt when I was 17 and frightened beyond words, seeing all these shops flying rainbow flags. It would have made me feel seen. Sometimes it still does, and it makes so many others feel happy.
Our queer ancestors fought so hard for us to feel this happiness. People fought tooth and nail for me, and because of that I am able to enjoy the wonder of walking through a city decked out in rainbow flags, celebrating the thing about myself which before now was openly shunned and hated by society. Why would I complain?
When I critique these things as ‘pinkwashing’ and as ‘homonormative’, I have been told by some of my queer elders that I just don’t understand how lucky I am, how different it was back then. That my generation needs to become resilient. Certainly, the resilience of my trans elders has been one of the defining qualities shining through the interviews that I have conducted as part of my MA in history that explores the politics of trans communities in Aotearoa during the 1970s and 1980s. Time and again, my elders related to me how they didn’t complain, they held their heads high, they didn’t change for anybody, they ignored what bigots said and they got on with life. Besides, they often said, if they had complained, who would have listened? I marvel at their strength and pride.
Some of those same people who did so much to advance lesbian and gay rights in the past now seek out public platforms to spread misinformation about trans lives.
I have listened to many of my elders express profound hurt at being dismissed by younger generations. Not feeling heard, understood, or appreciated. Doing all of this work in order to get us to where we are today, only to have it warped and changed by the new generations, often in ways that appear to be the antithesis to their original desires. My own work has been targeted by such criticisms. This feeling of disconnect has been one almost all trans elders I’ve talked to have experienced, and it breaks my heart. But I have also heard other queer elders express certain views, particularly anti-trans views, which have a damaging effect on our communities and hurt myself and my friends. Some of those same people who did so much to advance lesbian and gay rights in the past now seek out public platforms to spread misinformation about trans lives.
It is incredibly difficult to understand how to create a thoughtful dialogue about this queer path of progress. A dialogue that appreciates fully what our elders have done for us, while still giving us the space to critique what work still needs to be done. Especially because, really, my queer elders are right: part of the problem is that I will never be able to fully appreciate what they have done for me, because I was never there. I was never there, and no matter how much I study it, no matter how obsessed I am with our queer history, with chasing this intergenerational connection and community, I will still never ever really truly understand the sacrifices that were made, what it really meant to be there. So, all I can do is speak to my own experiences.
I consider myself lucky. I am Pākehā and read as male, and this means I have many privileges. Compared to most of my trans siblings, especially those who are transfeminine and of colour, I am not often made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. I moved to Wellington on the promise that Wellington was a queer city where I would feel at home, and for the most part I do. When Wellington City Council announced their plans for a Rainbow Crossing on Cuba Street I was thrilled, thinking it was going to be a great way to pay homage to Wellington’s queer history. At the opening, I was pleased to hear Grant Robertson honour not only Carmen, but also Chrissy Witoko, and highlight our long history of the leadership of trans women of colour in our communities.
I remember the smile of the man who wouldn’t stop beating me, and how he and his friends laughed with each other while their boots crushed into my back. The crossing has just become, for me, another site of anti-queer violence.
But it wasn’t long before the crossing – both intentionally and through normal road use – was covered in black skid marks. And so this crossing, which was designed to make people like me feel happy and safe, very quickly became just another reminder of how much people hate me. I see it, and I I remember all the times people have yelled slurs at me from cars. I remember how terrified I felt when a transphobic ex-co-worker threatened me from the other side of the road. I remember my friend showing me the broken glass on the footpath outside their flat, where men had thrown bottles at them the night before, because they couldn’t tell if they were a boy or a girl. I remember the smile of the man who wouldn’t stop beating me, and how he and his friends laughed with each other while their boots crushed into my back. The crossing has just become, for me, another site of anti-queer violence. Another reminder of how much people hate us.
Anti-queer violence still happens. Does this fit our narrative of “progress”?
Only three years ago Destiny Church was blaming queers for causing earthquakes. Only last year the Dominion Movement (a neo-Nazi group based around Wellington that shut down in fears of exposure after the Christchurch Mosque attacks) listed on their website, in the midst of their white supremacist prattle, that trans people were also a cause of society’s downfall. Only in February this year anti-trans hate group Speak Up For Women (SUFW) succeeded in lobbying for the deferment of the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Bill, which would have simply made it easier for us to affirm and legally document our correct gender. The anti-queer, and in particular, the anti-trans voices of people like Ani O’Brien and Karl du Fresne find a platform on some of New Zealand’s most popular media channels. Du Fresne most recently argued against the inclusion of trans people in sport by incorrectly defining trans as a new phenomenon, alleging that “what civilisation has regarded for millennia as immutable truths are now up for redefinition in the light of personal preference.”
Trans lives and rights have been turned by anti-trans hate groups into a subject for debate, which is unquestionably dehumanising and violent. transfeminine people face the brunt of their attacks. SUFW’s particular brand of transphobia is also known as trans-exclusionary radical feminism. They propagate a warped ‘feminism’, arguing that giving trans women rights means that cis (non-trans) women will have fewer rights. This is despite the fact that there is no evidence in countries where trans rights legislation has been passed that this is the case, and despite international and local research overwhelmingly confirming that transgender women experience far higher rates of discrimination and violence than cisgender women. Trans women are women, and they are women who face a particularly harsh matrix of oppressions. Uplifting trans women should be at the centre of feminist and queer liberation; the truly incredible trans advocacy organisation Gender Minorities Aotearoa argues that “lifting up the mana of trans women benefits all women, as every woman deserves equality”. Daphne Lawless does a fantastic job of unpacking trans-exclusionary radical so-called feminist ideology further in the Fightback blog.
Homophobia and transphobia are constructed as a memory of unresolved pain for queer people, one that threatens to hinder the possibility of developing positive rainbow-police relations. The onus is placed on queer people to put this violence behind us, so that we can move forward.
Much of the violence and oppression we face today is not overt, but hidden behind a rainbow mask. The police, for example, are keenly aware of the power of history, and already actively use a queer narrative of progress against us. They engage in what is known as “image work”, which is defined by academic Emma K Russell as activities that police forces engage in to project positive meanings of policing, which counteract the negative press resulting from police abuse of power or excessive use of force. Police involvement at Pride is part of this image work, an attempt to reinforce the idea that police are welcoming and inclusive1. Police participation in Pride today is contrasted with past practices of anti-queer violence, and thereby constructed as being modern, adaptive and tolerant. Yes, we the police were once violent, but we have come so far, we aren’t like that anymore! Homophobia and transphobia are constructed as a memory of unresolved pain for queer people, one that threatens to hinder the possibility of developing positive rainbow-police relations. The onus is placed on queer people to put this violence behind us, so that we can move forward. The task becomes to “‘get over it,’ as if when you are over it, it is gone”.2
But how do you get over something that is still happening? Some queer people are more likely than others to be the target of this continued violence. Those people are most often people of colour, and/or transfeminine. By their own admission, the police have work to do, continuing to use disproportionate levels of physical force against Māori: as of 2017, Māori are 7.7 times more likely than Pākehā to be victims of police brutality. Despite claiming allegiance, with their rainbow-painted cop cars, in 2016 the police decided to drop their compulsory sexual-orientation and gender-identity training for staff. And in 2018, when asked by the Auckland Pride board not to wear their uniforms, as a gesture of solidarity towards those for whom the uniform represented violence and trauma, they refused, and dropped out of Auckland’s parade. They marched in Wellington. And in marching, the police once more asserted themselves as queer allies – but the statistics and the lived experiences simply do not back this up.
This kind of image work is also known as ‘pinkwashing’, masking negative behaviour with a gay-friendly image without actually implementing meaningful change. Corporations and states also engage in this behaviour. One such corporation, Fletcher Construction, was, like the police, also at the Wellington Pride parade. They wore cute pink hard-hats. However, Fletcher and other corporations, like Coca-Cola, Russell McVeagh, Vodafone, Westpac and SkyCity, have recently been scrutinised for their use of the Rainbow Tick as nothing more than a marketing scheme and mask, behind which severe queerphobic bullying occurs.
It is absolutely true that in many ways we queer millennials have never had it so good. We aren’t criminalised anymore, and we continue to push for more legal protections. As Anthony Byrt explains, we are the generation who will see HIV eradicated, who have to worry far less about getting beaten up just for walking down the street, who have gained visibility and have the opportunity to even have conversations similar to this one on the front pages of our national media. And we owe it all to the generations who came before us: people like Ngāhuia Te Awekōtuku, Carmen Rupe, Phil Parkinson, Linda Evans, Julie Glamuzina, Georgina Beyer, Neil Costello, Peri Te Wao, Alison Laurie, Chrissy Witoko, Robin Duff, Gavin Young, Pat Rosier, Bill Logan, Porleen Simmons, Dana de Milo, David Hindley, Chanel Hati, and countless others.
We are told to be patient, that the police and the corporates are trying, that they’ll stop trying if we ‘exclude’ them, that they have a right to march too. We are told that we have come so far that if we push any further, we’ll push people away.
But anti-queer violence still happens. And we are criticised by our fellow community members when we call for change. We feel we are only allowed to ‘celebrate diversity’. We are told to be patient, that the police and the corporates are trying, that they’ll stop trying if we ‘exclude’ them, that they have a right to march too. We are told that we have come so far that if we push any further, we’ll push people away. But we are not given access to resources or to education about queer issues, we are given ‘representation’, the illusion of equality. It is most important for us to remain critical and concerned. To pretend that queer violence is nothing but a memory, punctuated only occasionally by the odd dreg of queerphobic hatred, is irresponsible and uninformed. Indeed, it seems that homonormative institutions and corporations want us to remain complacent and apathetic, in order to cash in on our pink dollar.
To name our vulnerability and our oppression is not to lack resilience.
There are as many different forms of resistance as there are of oppression. For many of our elders, resistance looked like resilience; but now that the challenges have changed (though their root cause remains), our generation must look to new forms of resistance. I don’t see ‘complaining’, naming our oppression, as equivalent to caving to it. This is our, the younger queer generation’s, privilege – to be able to feel that we can complain and have hope that people might actually listen, that we might change things. The only reason we are able to feel this hope and make our critiques is because of all the work our elders have done to lift us up to this place, and it can be disheartening when our critiques are misinterpreted by those very same elders as ungrateful or ill informed. There is little I care more about than making my queer elders proud. The thought of disappointing those who have done so much for us, and so much for me personally, fills me with distress. But surely there is no better way for us younger queers to honour all that older generations have achieved for our benefit than by continuing to fight for what is right.
This is our, the younger queer generation’s, privilege – to be able to feel that we can complain and have hope that people might actually listen, that we might change things.
I recently interviewed a trans elder who told me that when she was involved in gay liberation in the early 1970s the generation before hers thought they were doing “too much, too fast”. Later on in our conversation, she described the current trans liberation movement as doing much the same – “too much, too fast”. When I pointed out this discrepancy, she laughed and admitted her contradiction, though still stood steadfastly by her beliefs.
How can we break this cycle of intergenerational disconnectedness?
In my opinion, we can lessen this gap by looking back on our history. Forging connections between queer youth and queer elders. Telling each other our stories. I feel profoundly lucky to have had so many opportunities to listen to and work with my wonderful and generous queer elders. That they have have given me their time, uplifted my work, and trusted me with telling their stories is the most incredible honour. Researching the queer generations past has given me a sense of community and mitigated feelings of alienation, and I feel an endless gratitude for those who came before me, making my path easier. I see my transness as intimately bound to trans history, and I am humbled by the work of my friends and colleagues who have dedicated themselves to this same cause. Folks like Elizabeth Kerekere, who cares so deeply about takatāpui youth and goes above and beyond to preserve and share their histories with them. And Jadwiga Green, whose recent theatre production Summer Camps, about the lesbian summer camps of the 1970s and 80s, showed me how to manage even the most difficult of histories and conversations with boundless empathy and care.
Through the course of my studies, it was not uncommon for those I told about my thesis to reply, “But, there’s no such thing as trans history.” In their history of queer liberation in the United States, Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown write that this denial of our history is “a fundemental part of the oppression queer people experience at the hands of the dominant culture.”3 For a group of people so often isolated, history has particular power; lesbian historian Joan Nestle identifies that “to live with history is to have a memory not just of our own lives but of the lives of others, people we have never met but whose voices and actions connect us to our collective selves”. 4
As queer youth, we must stand strong by our own identities and values; do not let anyone, queer elder or otherwise, make you feel that being non-binary is attention-seeking, or that firmly denying transphobes a platform is unjust.
Forging intergenerational queer solidarity can be done, I believe, through working out a way “by which we can honour both the old and the new”. In Nestle’s words, by looking for “connections rather than judgements”.5 As queer youth, we must stand strong by our own identities and values; do not let anyone, queer elder or otherwise, make you feel that being non-binary is attention-seeking, or that firmly denying transphobes a platform is unjust. But equally, we need to afford our elders the same patience and empathy we would like them to afford us. Recognising that much of the time, though they may use different words or express it in a different way, our elders fought the same fight that we are, and their histories deserve our respect. Working together to find our queer history must be a part of our queer liberation.
1 Emma K Russell, “A ‘Fair Cop’: Queer Histories, Affect and Police Image Work in Pride March,” Crime, Media, Culture 13, no. 3 (December 1, 2017): 277–293, https://doi.org/10.1177/1741659016631134.
2 Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 143, quoted in Emma K Russell, “A ‘Fair Cop’,” p. 283.
3 Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown, We are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride In the History of Queer Liberation (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2019), p. 16
4 Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country (New York: Firebrand Books, 1987), p. 105.
5 Nestle, p. 111.
Editorial note: The previous version of this article made an mistaken claim that SUFW attempted to have Rainbow Youth and InsideOut defunded. We have amended the article accordingly, and apologise for the error.