Auckland Pride has quietly become one of the most culturally and economically important festivals in the country. Jade Winterburn writes about what it means to her as a queer Aucklander and her hopes for its future.
It took some encouragement from a friend to get me out to see my first Pride Parade in 2018. I still wasn’t sure I was allowed. My friend did my makeup for me. It was unexpectedly intimate. I was scared to even wear it. I didn’t look good. It didn’t matter. We walked all the way from her Carlaw Park student flat to Ponsonby road to watch.
I felt like I’d made a mistake – it felt straighter than my conservative high school. Boots and bagpipes in rows marching lock-step. Mediocre cheers from throngs of spectators that felt like they crowded out the actual parade. Had people paid for seating? (Were we animals in a zoo? And yet queer organisations had to pay to be part of the spectacle.) An entire university contingent wearing shirts that said “Ally” put a bow on it. In its final year, this style of Pride cost roughly $150,000, so the whole festival had to be structured around fundraising to meet this cost.
It hurt on several levels. Firstly, straightforwardly, “this isn’t for me.” Not my vibe, not my scene. Where were the punks, the weirdos, the provocative outfits? Secondly, interestingly, “this isn’t for me.” It was for the spectators. For the brands and the marching bands and the prettied-up concrete mixer that brought in straight money.
I needed no convincing to jump into the middle of the debates that would later be had within the community about what we wanted Pride to be. We voted in late 2018, and decided by a pretty narrow margin that Pride was about making space for the most vulnerable and marginalised above all else. While we’re not always as successful at this as we’d like to be, at least we’re clear about the direction we need to be moving in, and have been committed to this.
At the end of 2019, I wrote about how successful that year’s festival had been. How much it meant that we’d changed the orientation of Pride towards being something by and for the community on a grassroots level. With no budget whatsoever we’d made time and space work in our favour.
The festival in 2020 was an explosion of light. An overwhelming number of free, independently run small events brought us together in so many ways and places.
The 2020 Auckland Pride was more of a revelation than even I anticipated. It wasn’t just the fun of being part of an amazing crowd at the big events or the person-to-person intimacy of the small ones, it was the combination of top-down organisation and bottom-up leadership that worked so well. Auckland Pride’s structure and material support provide the stake and rich soil that help grow a healthy community. Around this structure we networked. Energy flowed through us like new connections between synapses. It was invigorating, fearless and joyful.
Come 2021 we realised just how good we’d had it. After a couple of lockdowns and a dozen scares, we were all just glad to see each other. I recognised fewer people, but I knew people who’d moved out of Auckland, or were simply being cautious – a stance both respected and uncontroversial. That said, the crowds in 2021 were the biggest I’d seen, meaning that more people were embracing the opportunities for self-expression that Pride presents.
Then, in the middle of Big Gay Out, all of our phones went off, and it was crushing. Lockdown as of midnight. My friends and I, being generally sensible, took that as a sign to go home there and then. So did most people – staggering their goodbyes and farewells to create a continuous stream of separating bodies rather than a single pressed-in mass. When the same thing happened right after the end of that year’s Pride march, I felt more of a bleak and bitter resignation to isolation. A loneliness crept in that would only become more pervasive with time.
As it turned out, there wasn’t a Pride festival last year. Lockdowns felt like they’d only barely ended. The new tension was not “will we be allowed to run or attend these events” but rather “is having these events going to get everybody in our community horrifically sick?” It was an understandable decision to cancel the festival, but it left a huge hole in me.
Even at the best of times, it can be hard to meet people in Auckland. The cost of living is so high. It can be a struggle to maintain a dignified life. Without extra resources, time, money, transportation, physical space, it’s hard to connect with and support one another.
I have been burnt out, the same as almost everybody else. I had to abandon activism and community-building in favour of just trying to get by. I’m largely succeeding, but I deeply, deeply miss the sense of community I used to feel. Most of my friends have left Auckland to pursue better, easier living. The spaces I used to be a part of as a connected queer in Tāmaki Makaurau barely seem to exist anymore.
In this environment, Auckland Pride is desperately needed. We need the artistry of our queer creatives to inspire and provoke us to reflect on our experiences. We need to see each other, face to face. We need to spend time together. We need to get to know one another better in a good time, a queer space, so that we’ll be there for eachother to call upon in our time of need. We need to rebuild our community – so that we can support each other, through sickness, through flood, through trauma and desperation.
Max Tweedie, director of Auckland Pride, sees the same need and opportunity as I do. Under his leadership, every possible metric you could judge the success of a community festival on has improved exponentially, even as the festival perseveres through crisis after crisis. This year almost $100,000 is being injected into the community by the festival, enabling events and supporting artists. Although this is Max’s last festival as director, he believes that he’s leaving the organisation in a really good place, and looks forward to the fresh energy a successor will bring.
Let Pride 2023 be the start of new growth. Let us see the value of our connections to one another and recommit ourselves to fostering relationships big and small, to individuals and the communities we’re a part of.
See you there.