One Question Quiz
Brian Tamaki speaking at the Unsilenced Summit
Brian Tamaki speaking at the Unsilenced Summit

PoliticsMay 22, 2024

Fear, hate and a putrid stench: Inside the Unsilenced anti-trans event

Brian Tamaki speaking at the Unsilenced Summit
Brian Tamaki speaking at the Unsilenced Summit

Joel MacManus endures five hours of fear and hatred as some of New Zealand’s most controversial figures – and a sitting MP – gather to fight against trans rights.

Note: This article contains quotes that may offend. They have been included to present an accurate report of what was said by public figures, including a sitting MP. Please take care. The names of individual attendees have been changed.

The first thing I notice is the smell. A toxic, putrid stench, the kind that stays with you for ever, buried deep into the part of your brain that connects to your nostrils. 

On Saturday, Wellington’s Tākina convention centre hosted Unsilenced: Middle New Zealand on Ideology, a conference organised by Inflection Point, “a group for middle NZ that has become ‘the oppressed majority’”. The event was met with a large counter-protest, which was supported by the mayor and several councillors. Speakers at the Inflection Point event included a current MP and a recent former MP, a host of controversial activists, and Destiny Church founder Brian Tamaki. The summit wasn’t just a rally; it was a discussion of political tactics to influence legislative and social change in New Zealand. 

I paid the standard $20 for my ticket, which I booked under my middle name. I introduced myself to everyone I met as Jack, a public servant frustrated about wokeness. I chose not to identify myself as a journalist, partly because it wasn’t exactly a friendly environment for the media, and more importantly because I wanted to get an unfiltered view. What do these people want, and how did they plan to get it? And if some speakers had spouted vitriol on public platforms, what would they possibly say behind closed doors?

As I arrive at the convention centre, there are large brown stains on the pavement and streaks running down the windows, evidently the cause of the rancid odour. The door is guarded by a rugby team’s worth of large men wearing caps blazoned with the logo for Man Up, the Destiny Church-affiliated “rehabilitation programme”. 

A bored-looking security guard slouching at the back fills me in on the smell. A few minutes earlier, two protesters tried to throw bottles of foul-smelling liquid at Brian Tamaki. It’s not clear what the liquid is (probably some kind of garden fertiliser), but a rumour quickly spreads through the conference that it was a mixture of the protesters’ own shit and piss. 

The smell is strongest outside the doors, but it quickly infests the entire building. Throughout the lobby, the first floor, even inside the conference room itself. It lingers all day, never seeming to dissipate. 

Protestors outside the Unsilenced summit in Wellington. Photo: Joel MacManus

As the crowd finds their seats, I chat with Caleb*, a 20-year-old law student at Victoria University. He tells me his high school was “indoctrinated” by trans-inclusive sex education, “and then a year later everyone in the class started transitioning”. At his university hall, the dining room was adorned with LGBTQ+ flags, which made him feel uncomfortable. Other students “shunned” and “ostracised” him for his views. He now lives with his mum, who is attending the conference with him. 

MC and organiser Rhys Williams kicks things off. “We are finally winning. This is the inflection point,” he says, triumphantly. This is the thesis behind the event. The group believes the tide of public opinion is shifting against policies that support trans and genderfluid identities. Among the leading evidence they offer for this is the UK government’s Cass Review and leaked files from the World Professional Association of Transgender Health, two stories that have taken conservative media by storm, but have been criticised as misleading by some experts

On the whole, the mood is confident, bordering on cocky. They’re convinced they have the silent majority behind them, and the right government in place to push through the legislative changes they want. That confidence isn’t exactly reflected in the turnout. The room has a capacity of 315 people and looks about three-quarters full. The protesters outside outnumber them at least threefold. 

The audience is a motley coalition of different groups. There’s the Destiny Church faithful, white rural conservatives, some highly passionate trans-exclusionary radical feminists (terfs), a hodge-podge of conspiracy theorists, and a couple of young men like Caleb, who would best be described as alt-right. Some attendees are intensely religious, others have taken a more academic approach, reading deeply into fringe reports. Some are homophobic, some are gay. Williams is well aware of how divided the crowd is. Over the course of the day, he and other speakers repeatedly remind them to focus on the one thing that unites them: opposition to gender ideology (as they put it). 

Bob McCoskrie, the director of socially conservative lobby group Family First, is among the first speakers. “Gay marriage was the start of all this, because it removed the gender requirements from the law,” he says. According to his theory, the legalisation of gay marriage started a slippery-slope effect. He supports this with a handful of news clips: schools allowing uniforms that aren’t gender-defined, a trans girl attending an all-girls school, and school libraries carrying the John Boyne novel My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The audience eats this up with gasps, boos and laughs at every revelation. 

A foul-smelling mystery liquid was thrown at the front and back entrances of Tākina (Photo: Joel MacManus)

For his main act, he mockingly reads song lyrics by Totally Knuts, a small-time California-based children’s musician who performs as a “non-binary wizard”. Totally Knuts has fewer than 100 monthly streams on Spotify and has nothing to do with New Zealand school curriculums, but McCoskrie doesn’t feel the need to mention that. As far as the crowd is concerned, this is a level of humour previously unknown to science. Two women at the table next to me are literally doubled over in their chairs, gasping with laughter. McCoskrie basks in the adulation. “I live with a wife and two daughters. This is the only time I get to speak uninterrupted,” he quips, earning another eruption of laughs. 

Family First has been paying Curia to carry out polls on issues including gender-neutral toilets, sex education in schools, and puberty blockers. McCoskrie says they show the public has moved towards a more socially conservative position on trans issues, based on a comparison of results from 2018 and 2024. (The poll questions are worded differently each year, which makes the comparison somewhat less reliable.) He is disciplined in his political strategy, and is careful to avoid language that could appear bigoted (exempting his gay marriage remark). “We’re not against people, we’re against ideology,” he reminds the crowd. 

That message is undermined just a few minutes later by Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, also known as Posie Parker. In her video address, she rails against trans women: “These men are fetishists, perverts, manipulators. They are horrible people. They are dangerous, predatory men,” and describes protesters from her Let Women Speak event in Auckland last year as “vile trans rights activists who want to put their penises into women’s-only spaces”. 

Back at the podium, Williams says he invited every political party to attend the event, and only one MP showed up: New Zealand First’s Tanya Unkovich. She is an emerging star of this crowd for her recently introduced bill that would ban people from using public bathrooms that don’t match their designated sex. “For a politician to come to these contentious, hateful types of events, it really takes some courage,” Williams says, sarcastically.  

Unkovich wasn’t originally on the speaker’s list, but takes the stage with some notes scribbled on the back of a boarding pass. “My journey into politics was very quick. I saw the country going in a direction that I found really distressing, and I said to God: ‘If you want me in politics, you will show me and you will open the doors’,” she says. “And the doors all flung open for me. Now that I am here, everyday I say: ‘Now you show me why’. Today, hearing these stories is why. I truly believe we will be taken care of on this path. I have no doubt in my mind about that.”

As a weight loss coach and the author of a book titled Fuck the food: The ladies’ guide to letting go, Unkovich says she relates to trans kids because she had problems with her weight and body dysmorphia. “I too was like those little girls who didn’t want to have boobs or show their arms… Now, I see why God put me through that journey, because I’m standing here today to do what I believe has to be done.”

Before breaking for afternoon tea, Williams spends a few minutes berating Wellington City Council and Tākina. His chief concern is that Zephyr Cafe in the lobby is closed. This is “horrible treatment” and “an absolute disgrace”, he says. (A council spokesperson says the cafe operator decided not to open on Sunday, and the council was comfortable with the decision.) 

The doors open, and everyone spills outside. It still stinks. In the two hours since the conference began, most of the protesters have dissipated. One is still standing silently, waving a trans flag. I follow the crowd to the McDonald’s next door. On the way back, I meet Martin, a middle-aged man from Whanganui wearing a pair of glasses and a sensible shirt. He’s heard most of the speeches before, but makes a point of travelling around the country to these events to show his support. 

We stand around in the foyer. It smells like a blocked-up public toilet that has been left to fester for two weeks. I struggle through a sad-looking McChicken. He nibbles some nuggets. “It’s disgusting, it’s disgusting,” he mutters. No, he’s not talking about the smell. He’s still offended about the cafe being closed. 

I ask what he thought of McCoskrie’s speech: “I don’t like his gay marriage stuff,” he says. Martin doesn’t have a problem with gay marriage and doesn’t think it’s useful to tie it to trans issues. “That’s their Christian perspective, but I don’t buy that.”

Peter, a tall, scruffy man in a pair of stubbies, joins us. He disagrees slightly with Martin’s take on gay marriage. “I think they are related,” he says. They quickly pivot to avoid an argument. Peter starts complaining about the Green Party. He wants his wife to switch allegiances; she agrees with him on gender ideology issues, but is concerned about climate change. Martin snorts dismissively. He’s not a climate change believer. “You’ve got to get her to watch The Cold Truth. It proves it’s all nonsense.” Peter sucks his teeth, hesitant to go down this path. “Weeeell, they were a bit naughty with the facts in that one.” 

As we return to the conference room, the two do find some common ground discussing their mutual distaste for Winston Peters, despite his own proclamations against trans women. After the 30-minute break, the smell hasn’t aired out of the room at all. If anything, it’s worse. It has tracked back in on the soles of people’s shoes. 

It’s time for the big show. Brian Tamaki. MC Rhys Williams has been hyping this moment up all day. “We were told if you have Brian speak, you’ll get cancelled. I said that’s the point!” I expect his speech to be inflammatory, but magnetic. Purely on a performance basis, I’m disappointed. 

Tamaki doesn’t seem particularly well prepared. He starts out on a similar line to McCoskrie – except in his telling, it’s the 2004 Civil Unions Act that’s to blame for trans rights – but keeps getting distracted. In no apparent order, he jumps from civil unions, to vaccines, to Helen Clark, to a self-aggrandising story about his rugby days. Then, a plug for his Man Up programme, some more about vaccines, Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark again. 

Brian Tamaki addresses the Unsilenced summit (Photo: Joel MacManus)

His sermon is centred around an extended metaphor about David and Goliath, where David represents the various anti-trans groups present at the conference. Goliath, he says, is “a 10-foot-tall trans distortion”. Tamaki inaccurately describes Goliath as Palestinian, before correcting himself (he was a Philistine). 

Perhaps sensing his speech is falling flat, Tamaki falls back on some good old-fashioned shock value. “Transgenderism is a serious, satanic sickness,” he says. “Let’s get rid of transgenderism, let’s cut its head off.” (He says he means this figuratively.)

His big idea for social change is the same idea he always has: a series of rallies in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, followed by a bigger protest at parliament. His theory is if 3.5% of the population (180,000 people) show up to the protests, it will trigger a tipping point in the wider society. 

“I think this is a time where we should take extreme measures,” he tells the crowd. “It’s going to take drastic action. You have to do something big now, something that changes the course of history in this country.” A couple of minutes later, he gets more direct: “Like it says in Ecclesiastes, first you’ve got to kill, then you’ve got to heal.” (Again, he insists this is figurative.)

The security guards from the entrance are now patrolling the back of the room. One of them sits next to me, despite plenty of other empty chairs around. He doesn’t say anything, but keeps glancing at my notes suspiciously. Luckily, my handwriting is unintelligible. 

Former New Zealand Herald columnist Rachel Stewart uses her speech to relitigate the time she got “cancelled”. She reads, word-for-word, a tweet she posted about a trans rights supporter: “Is it wrong that the country girl in me wants to invite my gun-toting sisters over, strip this wee fucker naked, let him loose in my back paddock, jump on the tray of the ute, and hunt him down with spotlights while whooping & hollering & drinking?” This gets huge laughs from the crowd. “I thought it was pretty funny,” Rachel says, raising arms to another, even louder eruption. 

Jan Rivers, a self-described independent researcher, gives the most technical presentation, critiquing the policies of various transgender health agencies and research groups. “I want to give New Zealand’s rainbow organisations a bit of a bash,” she says. A voice from the crowd yells “they’re scum”. Like many of the speakers, she complains she has been silenced. “There’s an accompanying strategy of suppressing voices that are seen as transphobic or anti-trans. Expressing an informed view is being identified as a hostile act, in a way I believe is a knowing attempt to shut down a range of points of view.” Rivers has lodged a number of Media Council and BSA complaints (against a variety of outlets, including The Spinoff) regarding opinion articles in support of trans people and trans-inclusive language, and news items that acknowledge trans people’s right to healthcare. 

Former National MP Simon O’Connor calls the idea that trans people exist, and have a right to, “an infection” and “cultural Marxism”. “It’s a cultural revolution that revolts against all we hold dear and all we know, and the revolution ends in violence,” he says.

Another speaker, Di Landy, says Māori culture never had a concept of gender fluidity (see here) until “Māori elites sold us out for rainbow blankets and 30 pieces of silver”. She claims Te Pāti Māori’s support for trans rights issues is “creating a genocide by severing the gene pool.”

Eventually, someone with some lived experience of gender struggle gets up to speak. Mel Jefferies begins by ripping off her shirt, revealing she had her breasts removed. “This is stunning and brave,” yells Landy. Australian Jefferies is a de-transitioner. Born female, she lived as a man named Mason from age 18. At age 26, she had a double mastectomy, which she later regretted. In hindsight, she says she was experiencing body dysmorphia, which was misdiagnosed as gender dysphoria. Her story was the subject of a 7News Spotlight documentary and has been well-covered in Australian media. 

She sobs as she speaks. “I will never be normal. My pursuit to be normal has driven me further to the outskirts of abnormality.” She still has the surgery scars, but says “my emotional scars remain the deepest”. It is a genuinely heartwrenching moment from someone who has been through more turmoil than likely anyone in the room – and she is clearly still experiencing it. I can’t help but wonder if speaking to rooms full of angry conspiracy theorists is helping. 

When she finishes speaking, Brian Tamaki and Bob McCoskrie both jump on stage. With a hand on each of her shoulders, they say a public prayer. A few people join in, standing with their arms raised. The Man Up security guards congregate in the centre of the room and perform a haka.

Bob McCoskrie and Brian Tamaki praying for Mel Jeffries (Photo: Joel MacManus)

I get up to snap a picture on my phone. When I turn around, two of the event’s security guards are blocking my path back to my seat. “Are you a reporter? Why are you taking so many notes?” I insist I’m just learning a lot. Once the event finally ends, I grab my bag and beat a hasty exit. Another security guard looks me up and down. “Watch out,” is all he says.

After five hours inside a dark room listening to intense, fearful and hateful speakers, my eyes and brain need a moment to adjust to the outside world. As I walk away, the smell fades into the distance. The protestors have moved on. In their place is a procession of Wellington Phoenix fans making their way to Sky Stadium. They’re waving yellow flags and singing songs. They seem happy.

Keep going!