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When the vice squad came calling

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When the vice squad came calling

From the 70s through the 90s, Auckland’s inner-city streets hosted a population of trans sex workers who were not only outside the protection of the law, but often at the mercy of those who enforce it. Those who survived that era tell Julie Hill about the sexual acts demanded by police, and how they made it through.

Content warning: This feature contains distressing descriptions of a sexual and emotional nature, which may be triggering to survivors.

Some names have been changed.

When she was 13, on a trip down to Auckland from Whangarei with her mates, Shannon Anahera White saw her destiny arrive through a bedroom window.

She and about eight friends were sleeping in one room at her friend Percy’s place when someone named Tina climbed in looking for Percy’s brother. “He wasn’t there so she climbed back out. Percy said to me, ‘She’s a he. She was born a man and now she’s going to be a woman.’ I said, ‘She’s not a he, she’s got tits.’ And he said, ‘Yeah they grow them, it’s called hormone treatment.’

“When I got home I said to my nan, I know what I’m going to be when I grow up, I’m going to be a transsexual, and she said, ‘He aha te kupu Māori [What’s the Māori word]?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to be a woman.’ And she said, ‘Oh, lovely.’”

The doctor warned the treatment might kill her, but White’s nan gave her blessing. “She said, ‘Well, if that’s what Shan wants, to be a woman, then I’m 100 percent [behind it].” The rest of her family turned against her but her grandmother was the matriarch, so the others had to lump it. “She said: ‘I’m never going to disown my moko just because you don’t like what she does.’”

In the mid-1970s, when she was 15, White began working on Customs Street in downtown Auckland alongside female sex workers, all runaways like her, she says, and aged from about 14 to 18. Their clients were the sailors coming on and off the ships. She also sold dresses to the parlour girls and ship girls.

Many times, she would be picked up by the Wharf Police and taken to the cells.

“The cops were brutal towards us – punching and kicking your head in. There was nothing spared for transsexual or transgender back in those days. You were born a man so you should be treated like a man, and they beat the shit out of you.”

White considers herself lucky compared with some of her “sisters”, who ended up in borstal in the King Country’s Waikeria Prison. But on several occasions she did time for theft. It’s from White I learn the term “boobhead”: one who has done many lags in prison.

Shanon Anahera White, pictured in 2016 with a copy of Takatāpui – A Place of Standing, a book about Māori sexual and cultural identity, on which she adorns the cover. (Photo: RNZ Video)

In the mid-1970s, Auckland Central Police Station took over from the Wharf Police, and a vice squad was formed to deal with criminal sexual activity and pornography. “Squad” is perhaps an exaggeration: for much of its existence it was thought to be informal and amorphous in its makeup – sometimes a duo, sometimes a trio, and regularly enlisting back-up from Central. Officially, it now seems to have vanished – despite multiple officers spoken to for this story acknowledging they had been members, police said they had no record of a vice squad ever existing at all.

This story has been over a year in the making. I was interviewing a former sex worker on another topic for a separate story, when she mentioned in passing that the kind of incidents Shannon described were a regular occurrence for both trans and straight workers during her time on the streets. I set out to find out if others had had the same experiences.

The sad fact, however, is that relatively few sex workers from the 70s, 80s and 90s are still around today; of those that are, many are understandably reluctant to revisit painful memories. Researching the story nevertheless led to dozens of interviews in Auckland and around the North Island. We reviewed diaries and collected affidavits. There were Official Information Act requests and lawyers’ letters. The story began with one outlet and migrated to another. On more than one occasion I suspected it may never be published at all.

Those brave women who did come forward had never told their stories publicly, in many cases not even to friends or family. They shared their awful secrets exclusively with each other.

For White, there was no doubt that the vice squad was real. “If you’re standing on the corner they’d say, get in. And you know you’re not going to the Auckland Central Police Station, you were going to suck his dick, so you can get off whatever charges he can lay on you.

“So that’s what we did.”

At one point, White says, there was even a man driving around posing as a policeman so that he could get in on the sexual favours. One night after the fake cop got a blow job, a real cop drove up and asked for another one. “And we said, ‘but we just sucked his dick!’ and they said, ‘What’s his number plate?’ and they went out to hunt him down.”

According to White, the practice of demanding sexual favours in exchange for being allowed to continue working had become commonplace. “There was a whole lot of us girls so they had a whole lot of choice and they did it to everybody… Some of them did it for a joke. Others did it because they couldn’t get their rocks off with their missus.” And it wasn’t just blow jobs. “It was sex, everything. Some situations I heard of girls being batoned.”

Why didn’t she complain? “The mentality back then is police were looked upon as being friends of the public. So who’s going to listen to a hooker, let alone a drag queen hooker?”

Sex workers, especially trans ones, White says, were almost literally treated like rubbish. She recalls a visit from the mayor of Auckland Colin Kay in the early ’80s. “He came up to K Road and said, ‘get this filth off the road’, so we had to succumb to sucking these men’s cocks off just so we could stay out.”

In 1989, at the age of 13 and then a boy, Stacey Kerapa started travelling to Auckland from her hometown Hamilton, telling her parents she was going to play netball. In fact she was dressing as a woman and working the streets.

When she was 16, she finally confessed to her mother what she was up to. “My mother and I were pretty tight. I told her I was off to Auckland to be a woman. And, ‘Oh, by the way, I’ve also been working on K Road and I’m a hooker.’ Well, she just carried on chopping up the potatoes.”

There had been a history of sexual abuse in Kerapa’s family so her mother made her promise that what she was doing was her choice. “And I said I was quite aware of what I was doing: whatever I was doing in that car with that fulla, Mum, he’s giving me money, and it usually starts at $100.”

Because the workers on K Road were mainly trans, Kerapa says, it was the only red light district in the world where you didn’t have a pimp. “You just needed a good right hook and a fast pair of legs if you can’t fight.”

‘Who’s going to listen to a hooker, let alone a drag queen hooker?’ Still from Peter Wells’ 1985 TV drama Jewel’s Darl

The queens were a tight lot, Kerapa says, their “generations” defined not by age but when they came out and/or started working the streets. “You forged some intense friendships and sisterhoods and bonds. You ended up living with each other, living from one another: if you couldn’t crack it that night your sister had your back.”

But by the early 1990s, things were getting ugly. Black Power and the Mongrel Mob had shifted in. The sex workers lost their access to prescription drugs so many turned to heroin. They stole from each other and fought. They would get into scraps with clients, Kerapa says, and inevitably emerge the victors. “Then the police would come up and arrest you, and you had no way out of it because a) you were soliciting and b) if you wanted to behave and act like a woman, then you’d just blown your cover.”

She managed to build friendships with a couple of the cops, who would warn her to get off the streets if she had any outstanding warrants and they were about to do a sting. “We knew how to work with the cops, even though they were a pack of mongrels.

“If you got the really young ones or the idiot cops, you’d be humiliated to the full strip search, bend and squat, put your hands up in the air. That kind of degradation happened but it was always the new ones, not the old ones that were quite aware of queens and trannies, and just doing the job. It seemed like in the earlier days they’d send all the rookies into K Road, only because it was easy for them to get their arrests.”

But by this time, the workers had acquainted themselves with the rule of entrapment. If they were being compelled into having sex with a cop, “we’d physically leave marks on their body, so if they arrested us I could say to the judge, have a look under his tie, you’ll find my teeth marks”.

She remembers one member of the vice squad demanding sexual favours. “He was involved in it all and he also had his little group, a group of his boys that were subordinate to him, and we’d all be sent up at one stage or another, and they all knew who to pick off. You just did what you need to get by.” Among those who did, she guesses from their insignia that “a couple” were junior constables and “a couple” were senior sergeants or senior constables.

Initially Kerapa tells me, “I was never actually coerced”, but later I point out that if officers threatened her with a fine if she did not give them sexual favours, this would constitute coercion – in which case, “yes, I was coerced,” she says.

On K Road, it became understood that for certain officers, sexual favours were the price of being left alone, says Kerapa. “It was a normal part of life. You don’t ask questions. It was just, ‘here we go again, righto sis, you’re up this time, I’ll go home and cook tea, just gizza yell when you’re ready’.”

In those days, Kerapa worked with the queens near Edinburgh Street, the boys were over the bridge on Beresford Street and the young girls were near the top of Queen Street. Outside Rendells on K Road was the stomping ground of three teenage girls: Jayne Furlong and Natacha “Twiggy” Hogan, both of whom were later murdered, and Amanda Watt (now Wolfe).

Wolfe says the police demanded sexual favours of them, too. She herself never complied, but she recalls Furlong complaining about it on three occasions. “The police were very dodgy. There were times where Twiggy and Jayne were bribed by the police. They would pick them up and pretend to be a client. They’d go to wherever and they’d pull out their badge and say I’m a policeman and this is your choice: you either do this or I arrest you for solicitation. So there were a lot of times when girls had to give out free sexual favours to the police if you wanted to stop getting arrested.” She recalls a time when the police pulled her and Jayne over and “asked if we wanted to do a job, a double. I wasn’t really interested in doing a double but Jayne said yes”.

K Road today. (Photo: José Barbosa)

Two years after Furlong went missing, when Kerapa was 19, an officer turned up to her patch in an unmarked car. “He was going around checking IDs, as we were used to, and making sure you were the person you said you were. A lot of us looked similar so we used each other’s names.

“I was told that I was going to be put under arrest and shoved in the back of the car, and he basically threw himself on me and had his way, then told me to get out, and that’s the end of the night. I was OK with that… I didn’t consider it normal and I knew it wasn’t right, but at the end of the day I felt helpless. I thought: what the hell can I do about it?

“If I stab this hua I’m just going to get arrested and go to prison, and it’s just going to make things worse.”

Kerapa says she didn’t let the incident “screw me up in the head or anything like that. I was too proud and stubborn for that. I’d rather be staunch than a basket case.”

According to one former Auckland policeman, the vice squad began in the mid-1970s after a prostitute was murdered outside the YWCA on Vincent Street near K Road. The squad’s focus was not to protect sex workers but simply to rid them from the streets. “As a result of that investigation it became clear that prostitution was pretty rife in Upper Queen Street. A lot of it was male transvestites [transgender], and there were robberies and that happening around it where they weren’t being reported.

“So our first job was to try and clean up the prostitution problem, particularly the transvestites.”

Thanks to a legal case involving a trans sex worker named Daphne, defended by young lawyer David Lange, so-called “queens” couldn’t be charged with prostitution because, under the 1972 act, only women were deemed to be prostitutes. Instead they were picked up on “frequenting with felonious intent”.

“We could arrest a female for approaching a car and selling her wares whereas we couldn’t arrest a male,” says the man. “We decided dealing with the problem was too hard, so we approached transvestites when they were approaching cars and we basically said to them, ‘look, you’ve got a choice between getting arrested or getting out of town, because we’re not putting up with this.’”

For a time, it worked, and a lot of the queens went down to Wellington, but the Wellington police kicked them out and they ended up back on K Road. “So then what we had to do was carry out some surveillance and follow them to some place, wait till they had their pants down and arrest them that way, which was very unbecoming and time-wasting.”

The person climbing through her boyfriend’s bedroom window who inspired Shannon to cross over to the other side was Tina (she asked for her last name not to be used).

Tina started working during the heyday of famous madam Flora MacKenzie. The daughter of Sir Hugh, chairman of the Auckland Harbour Board, MacKenzie operated from her home on Ring Terrace in Herne Bay. Between 1962 and 1976 she appeared in court six times on brothel-keeping charges. Once she was fined $1000: she turned up to court with one of her girls dressed in a bra and knickers constructed out of ten dollar bills. The city’s most famous trans sex worker at the time was Carmen Rupe, who had worked in Sydney as Australia’s first Māori drag queen.

Carmen Rupe (Photo: Public Domain)

Back then, sex work had not yet washed up from the wharf, where it began, to Karangahape ridge, but was based near Myers Park. “I was 15 when I started,” says Tina. “I got given $5 in 1971 for my first trick. That was lot of money back then. I rented an apartment in Parnell for $30 a week.”

When she was 15, Tina had been sent to a mental institution and forced to endure shock treatment for wearing women’s clothes. She’d always dreamed of being a vet, but as it was, her job prospects were slim. “Who was going to employ us? Prostitution was the only outlet for most transsexuals and transgender people in those days.”

By the time sex work made it to K Road, she says, there were a lot of queens and the scene was competitive. They tried to outdo each other with new wigs and new outfits, to be the best, to make the most money. Tina had plenty of clients, many of them high profile. She ticks off a list of ’70s and ’80s identities. “You never knew what you were going to encounter; every night was a different adventure.”

The workers got pills on prescription and popped them like mad, “because some of the things that were requested of you to perform, you couldn’t do it straight. Then you’d wake up and have to face up to the reality of what you did the night before, so you’d pop pop pop to get rid of that ugly buzz.”

Along with prostitution, Tina had a side business in rolling clients. “I’d wait for the pants to come off then I’d take them and run away. They’re not going to chase me through the Domain with no pants on.”

For thieving, drugs and solicitation, sex workers, queen, female and male alike, were constantly in and out of court, and in a constant battle with the police. The vice squad, says Tina, had a little blue book detailing every queen on K Road. “They had a couple of pages for every queen because you would change your look so often with wigs and so on.”

If you were taken to Central to be charged, you were “abused, humiliated, degraded. And when you got locked up, every time you’d go to get your stuff you’d always have no money. All the money’s gone. And you knew darn well you had a lot of money in your purse.”

Some cops were worse than others, she says, so when they came up to K Road to do a raid, one of the workers would note down their licence plates and badge numbers. Other times the vice squad would come up to K Road to “have a clean-up”. This involved being told to leave the streets or be arrested, or picked up for offences such as stealing. “They used to drive up Queen St and down K Road in this big wagon to have a clean-up. We’d be all running through Myers Park to get away from that bloody vice squad,” Tina says.

Some officers, she says, would offer a deal. “It was give him a blow job, either that or get arrested for frequenting, your choice.

None of the sex workers laid a complaint about these transactions, she says, because they assumed they would not be believed. “If it came to the crunch and you did get to court, who’s the jury going to sway with? And then you’d have to leave town because every cop in town would come out hunting for you.”

They also didn’t tell because it was a deal, and there was something in it for them, namely that they could keep working that night or their fines would disappear. “It was a good way out if you were working: oh I’ll give him a blow job so I don’t have to go to Central for the night. You’d probably end up doing a lag [a spell in jail] – so oh well, give him a blow job.”

‘It was give him a blow job, either that or get arrested’. (Photo: Getty)

Those members of the vice squad spoken to for this story insist that the women’s description of events is wrong. “Totally, totally disagree,” says the former Auckland policeman. “One of the greatest things about the New Zealand police is that if police officers did that, it would come out at some stage. New Zealand’s too small. We have one police force and I believe we vigorously investigate our police officers more so than any other western country.

“And I’m proud of the fact that you see cops up before the court for doing things wrong, and I’m proud of the reputation we have because we actually investigate our officers as well as we do the criminal… If that happened someone would hear about it, someone would have complained at the time.”

A lot has changed for sex workers since those days. Undoubtedly, decriminalising prostitution has improved the lives of street sex workers. Before the Prostitution Reform Bill was passed Georgina Beyer, the world’s first openly transsexual MP, spoke about being raped at knife point then being unable to report it to the police. Now, if sex workers are attacked they can report it, and they can no longer get booted off the streets.

But almost a decade after Dame Margaret Bazley’s commission of inquiry into police conduct following Louise Nicholas’ claims of sexual assault by police offers, few of her 60 recommendations have been implemented.

Last year, graduate student Natalie Thorburn interviewed teenage sex workers for her Masters of Social Work at the University of Auckland. Out of seven girls and one boy aged from 11 to 17 who had worked as prostitutes in Auckland, two girls said they had sex with uniformed police officers in exchange for money or not being reported to authorities.

“One participant regularly absconded from her residential placement while in the care of Child Youth and Family, who would report it to the police,” Thorburn writes. “On several occasions this was followed by two uniformed male police officers having sex with her in exchange for money after learning that she had absconded.

“Another described a situation where a police officer had agreed to disregard her underage status as a sex worker in exchange for oral sex. A third disclosed a sexual assault by a Child Youth and Family caseworker while being driven by him. Each of these incidents was described in the context of other sexual encounters between participants and clients, and two were subsequently alluded to when discussing deterrents to help-seeking.”

After a two-year stint in Tongariro Prison, White decided to get her life in order. She went up to Whangarei and stayed with her nan, and nursed her as she was dying, in doing so gaining the long wished-for respect of her whānau.

Shannon White at a Pride Parade on Ponsonby Road. Image: supplied

She studied social work at Te Whānau o Waipareira, where she was told she was too kind-hearted and would make a “useless social worker” because she kept bringing in food for her clients. She then worked as a receptionist for seven years, but on a work trip on a yacht one Christmas, while playing Truth or Dare, she admitted the prostitution, the jail time, the fact she was born a man – only to get a chilly reception from her colleagues.

Later she worked as a counsellor at Wintec and served on the cultural advisory committee of the Aids Foundation. “I realised everything is created through policies and if you want to make a change then that’s where you start.”

Last year White and Tina reunited at an exhibition on K Road’s Artspace called The Bill, which marked the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill, and featured photos and videos by Fiona Clark of many of their old acquaintances. They reflect that they are among the few queens from their era still standing, since so many committed suicide or overdosed. They speak about an old friend who is dying in poverty, and the fact that even in death, there is nowhere for them to fit in; no old folks’ home for takatāpui (queer Maori). They call each other “kare” and have a palpable bond.

When White was in her twenties and still working on K Road, she gained a different view of the police. One night she was taken under the Gilles Ave bridge, she says, and raped by four men, one with a broken bottle. When the police came to the hospital to interview her, she feared the worst. “They said, we can take you home. I couldn’t trust them – I thought, ‘I’ve just been raped and now you want me to suck your fucking cock? Oh please’.”

But they didn’t. They interviewed her at the hospital then took her home. One of them stood outside her shower holding shampoo, because she couldn’t bend over to reach it. Later they drove her to the railway station and put her on the bus to see her nan.

“They supported me. They paid for everything. I was really grateful. I saw another side to the police. So that was a side to them that I wasn’t used to.”

“A story like mine should never be told. For my world is as forbidden as it is fragile; without its mysteries it cannot survive.” These are the opening lines of the film Memoirs of a Geisha, which Stacey Kerapa says could also describe her teenage years. As Māori and Pacific Island trans sex workers, she and her sisters were keenly aware that they were on the very lowest rung of society.

“As trans people we’ve always lived as a minority within a minority. And we’ve always been used to having no rights, so what rights we did have we exacted on the street corner. And that’s how we survived and that’s how we lived.

“Our world was quite dark and secluded, and only those who came into it really knew what was going on.”


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