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11 years ago we were basking under a big gay rainbow, now we’re dicussing toilets. (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell
11 years ago we were basking under a big gay rainbow, now we’re dicussing toilets. (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell

OPINIONPoliticsMay 15, 2024

NZ First’s toilet bill is designed to outrage but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it

11 years ago we were basking under a big gay rainbow, now we’re dicussing toilets. (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell
11 years ago we were basking under a big gay rainbow, now we’re dicussing toilets. (Image: Anna Rawhiti-Connell

The bill opens the door to hate. It’s our collective job to shut it, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell.

Just over 11 years ago, most of the country was basking in the refracted light of a big gay rainbow. National MP Maurice Williamson’s speech in support of the Marriage Equality Bill, and a Pakuranga rainbow, went viral. The bill passed and the moment slotted nicely into the national canon alongside being the first country to give women the right to vote. 

Amid the joy of that night, Williamson did several important things with nothing but his words and an understanding of the weight they might carry. Perhaps unfairly for the many who had invested far more, and for whom the stakes were far higher, Williamson’s speech had the kind of crossover appeal that dots i’s and crosses t’s on matters of social change and progress. His common sense oratorical stylings chipped some veneer off the public acceptability of viewing gay people as less equal or less deserving of the same rights and protections as everyone else. 

Williamson weighted power and consequence correctly. He’d heard the arguments of those warning of hellfire and brimstone and decided that those asking to marry the person they loved were in the right. As an MP, he used his vote and platform power in favour of those who had more to lose in the fight.

He also handed out a free pass for those with any lingering personal discomfort but little at stake, describing the bill as “fantastic for the people it affects” while assuring the rest of us that “life will go on”. With the bill passed and the debate settled, the personal lives of others could reassuringly be “none of your business”.

On matters of social change, words and signals matter. To the public at large, they provide a broad judgment about what is acceptable, at least as far as socially sanctioned behaviour goes. For those directly impacted by the behaviour of others because they’re the ones whose existence and identity is fodder for public debate, ridicule and attack, they provide some shelter against prevailing winds. 

Politicians seldom choose their words, nor the signal they wish to send, by accident. Maurice Williamson didn’t in 2013, and our current crop aren’t in 2024.  

On Friday afternoon, New Zealand’s deputy prime minister Winston Peters tweeted:

It’s not difficult.
Men’s toilets for men.
Woman’s toilets for woman.
If you want to use a unisex toilet you can. 

PS .

Mr Hipkins,

Woman = Adult. Human. Female. 

The tweet was in support of a private members bill called the Fair Access to Bathrooms Bill, introduced by NZ First MP Tanya Unkovich. The bill would create an offence for any person caught using a toilet who “is not of the sex for which that toilet has been designated” and a requirement that public buildings have three types of toilets – male, female and unisex. The bill was flagged by Peters during last year’s election campaign. At the time, prime minister Christopher Luxon said, “you are on another planet if you want to have a conversation about bathrooms and make that an election issue.” It is not in the coalition agreement. It is not top of mind for most people. It is not inflation, the cost of living, education, health or tax. 

So why bother talking about it? Why highlight a bill that most of the country is rolling their eyes at and god-willing, based on the prime minister’s comments, won’t get very far? 

If you’re not familiar, this functionally impossible bill, and the debate it throws up, is common fodder for those railing against anything other than biological sex at birth as a determinant of gender. Peters’ sign off, “Woman = Adult. Human. Female.” has appeared on billboards paid for by Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (otherwise known as Posie Parker) and used by groups like Speak Up for Women. The toilet bill is, as Stuff and others report, “likely to target the transgender community, restricting which toilets they could use”. 

Deputy prime minister, Winston Peters. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Just like Williamson’s carefully chosen words, the words in Peters’ tweet are carefully chosen. Among the “‘atta boy, common sense, I remember when men were men and women were women” framing is a signal that amplifies a fringe concern. It sanctions that concern and all the division it causes on a platform where it will get enough unregulated airtime to satiate and encourage those who want it to be a mainstream concern. If people are looking for cues to dress up their prejudice against an already marginalised group of people as socially acceptable behaviour, there they are, sanctioned by no less than the deputy prime minister of our country.

The debate and the bill is based on specious concerns about protecting cis women from trans women, whose gender identity is being constantly questioned by those who can not stomach leaving other people’s gender determination to the individual whom it solely impacts, and believe it to be a matter of public concern. Research consistently points to trans people disproportionately being the victims of exclusionary bathroom policies like those being introduced in some American states. The debate is frequently given oxygen on social media and is a direct import of tactics deployed by politicians in the fanning of culture war flames around the world. 

Culture war rhetoric is easily dismissed. We can turn a blind eye to it as long as we maintain it’s a ridiculous distraction. Conventional analysis and wisdom tells us that the current incarnation of “the culture wars” exists partially because the media observes what happens on social media like it’s studying a petri dish and goes on to talk about what’s happening there like it’s another planet. Most people have bigger things to worry about. 

The problem is that Peters is not on another planet. He’s the deputy prime minister and the second most politically powerful person in the same country and on the same planet as the rest of us. That includes those most at risk of being hit by ammunition solely deployed to satiate a small but loud base.

Some people don’t have bigger things to worry about because they’re 13 and feel confused, isolated, vulnerable, exposed and in danger as they try and work out who they are and who they might be. Some people don’t have bigger things to  worry about because they’re the parents, friends and whānau of kids they’re trying to protect, aid and understand. 

I think it’s perfectly fine for people to be asking questions about gender and our evolving understanding of it. It’s fine to be confused. It’s fine not to have all the answers and to not know the right thing to say. The toilet bill and the toilet debate, happening as it is on the worst possible platform for encouraging thoughtful conversation, is not a genuine exercise in advancing our collective knowledge and understanding, it’s a Trojan horse for people’s prejudice. It is a tail flicking at us from interests that don’t represent the majority and we, in the absence of leadership, are a dog being wagged.

The country that celebrated the Big Gay Rainbow deserves better. We owe it to ourselves and each other not to look away when certain craven signals are being sent by the very powerful at the expense of those who so easily become collateral damage in a war in which most of us would rather not be fighting.

Keep going!