We’ve got lots of queer people in parliament, but what about local body politics? Sam Brooks talks to two councillors and one local board hopeful about the importance of representation.
Queer political representation in politics in Aotearoa is, at first glance, at an all-time high. With 11 MPs, we currently boast, according to media reports, the queerest parliament in the world. But when you drill down further, to a local level, it’s not so clear that the queer community is being represented. While two high profile councillors – Richard Hills in the North Shore and Rohan O’Neill-Stevens in Nelson – are openly queer, it seems undeniable that this year’s slate of local election candidates are overwhelmingly heterosexual.
So why is it important to have queer representation in local politics? I talked to councillors Hills and O’Neill-Stevens, along with Waitematā board candidate Rosemary Peppermint, about how being queer has impacted the way they see their role in local government.
When he was first elected in 2016, Richard Hills didn’t think much about the importance of being, at the time, the only queer councillor in Auckland. It was only when he began being asked about it in interviews that he started thinking of himself as a representative not just of the North Shore, but of the queer community as well. “Councils are synonymous with not having a good cross section of society,” he says. “Being younger than most elected members and being in the rainbow community helps bring a little bit of diversity into those rooms, but obviously I don’t claim to represent the wide spectrum of the rainbow community.”
Hills says his sexuality helps him see things from a different perspective. “Not all people in the rainbow community think or feel the way I do, but at least I am listening or advocating in their corner,” he says. “I understand queer issues when they pop up and can advocate through the council for that.”
It’s not necessarily just queer people contacting Hills about queer issues either – he’s often the port of call for the community on all issues, be they climate change, public transport, or infrastructure. “They might feel more comfortable coming to me because they know I’m not going to be close minded, homophobic, or transphobic,” he says. “The more people you have from different parts of the community in elected positions helps open the door to parts of the community who maybe had not been heard enough, or were treated pretty badly by councillors in the past.”
While other councillors attend events like Big Gay Out and get involved with Pride, there’s obviously a greater expectation that Hills attends events and be relevant in those spaces. He brings up the Auckland Pride debate of 2019, when a schism appeared in the community over letting police march in uniform during the Pride Parade. “I was definitely getting pressure from people to have positions and be really clear about who was ‘good’ and who was not,” he says. “I was doing my best to just try and listen, to support the whole community in what areas they thought were important.”
Hills says it’s important that non LGBTQ+ candidates remember that the community cares about more than just lightning-rod issues like gender neutral toilets. “It’s important to keep reminding our colleagues that it’s not just talking to one gay person and thinking that’s the checkbox for everything. We’re all individuals who have different wants and needs for the city.”
This year Rosemary Peppermint, who is non-binary and trans, is running for the first time in Auckland’s Waitematā ward. They got involved in politics after volunteering on Chlöe Swarbrick’s successful Auckland Central campaign in 2020, and says it was a real light bulb moment in their life: “I was working full-time in a retail job and feeling really disconnected from it and wanted to be doing something that made a difference.” The Swarbrick campaign showed them that politics could be the way to make that difference.
The community aspect was what really appealed to them about local boards, and what motivated them to run. It’s the most grassroots, community-connected area of politics, they say. “I didn’t want to be an MP. I saw local government as something you do collectively with people. I really shine best in a team.”
Where they were running also played a factor – in the inner-Auckland area of Waitematā, six of the seven board members are aligned with City Vision, the broadly progressive left wing collective. They knew it would be “a bit of a safer space” in which to run. “Of course, there’s still a lot that people need to learn, but that was something that was more encouraging.”
One of the things that Peppermint is especially passionate about is accessibility in both Auckland Council spaces and the city in general. “When you talk about accessibility, I think people imagine a wheelchair-accessible bathroom or streets that are well paved. But it also means how easy it is for anybody to engage with what’s going on,” they say. “Council spaces don’t feel comfortable for queer people, because they’re not built for us.”
While they say they’ve sometimes found campaigning for election frustrating, it’s also been a motivating experience. “It’s so much easier for me to have my privilege in this pocket of space, in a space that’s built for whiteness and for people who already hold privilege. The ways I feel pushed down by it as a non-binary trans person, as a queer person, make me want to wedge into that space and make it easier for people further down the line to run as a candidate.”
When Rohan O’Neill-Stevens ran for Nelson Council in 2019 he, like Peppermint, made the decision out of both idealism and frustration. He had returned to his home town after studying and seen that very little had been done to address pressing issues like housing and climate change in the years he’d been away. “It quite viscerally pissed me off. None of the candidates that were coming forward at the time were that inspiring, and weren’t representing the communities that I intersect with.
“So I thought, fuck it. I’ll chuck my name in the ring and see where it goes.”
O’Neill-Stevens won his election, and was thrown into a whole new world. In council meetings, he’ll often be the youngest person in the room by a good 30 years at his estimate. He’s often also the only person who is queer, and who whakapapas Māori. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to spend three years actually putting in work for those communities”, he says. “But there’s also been some pretty uncomfortable and challenging moments where I’ll be the only voice raising those issues and I’ll come up against people going, ‘Give it a rest.’”
Since O’Neill-Stevens has been elected, he’s pushed for diversity training for councillors (it took two years for it to happen) and has worked on increasing queer visibility and access to funding. “It’s been a challenge to put these issues on the agenda, because there’s a perception that they don’t matter or it’s not worth the time. But what often happens is that the changes needed are relatively small, and you spend more time debating whether or not you should discuss them than the time it would take to just implement them.”
O’Neill-Stevens, who is running for mayor in this year’s election, sees an increasing number of diverse candidates not just standing for election but also attracting votes. “It shows that it’s not necessarily a lack of communities wanting this representation, but [about them] not having been given the chance to have it,” he says. “I’m so thankful for all of those candidates putting themselves in what can be a super challenging space.
“Without them, nothing’s going to get better.”