Rainbow community and allies protest Posie Parker’s event in Auckland in 2023 (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
Rainbow community and allies protest Posie Parker’s event in Auckland in 2023 (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

OPINIONSocietyJuly 2, 2024

Rainbow communities need protecting – and police are failing them

Rainbow community and allies protest Posie Parker’s event in Auckland in 2023 (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
Rainbow community and allies protest Posie Parker’s event in Auckland in 2023 (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

After a spate of rainbow event cancellations, Jennifer Shields asks for a little more security for her communities.

It’s been a rough few years for rainbow communities across Aotearoa – we’re now 10 years on from the “transgender tipping point” of May 2014, when Time magazine, with Laverne Cox on its cover, declared a paradigm shift in the inclusion and acceptance of trans people in society. As many trans people detailed on the anniversary of the “tipping point” cover, it feels like if we’ve tipped any way, it’s backwards.

We’ve seen our fair share of this paradigm shift here in Aotearoa, too. Despite some important wins – the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Registration Act 2021 allowing easier access to correct identification; the Conversion Practices Prohibition Act 2022 outlawing attempts to change someone’s sexuality or gender identity; and the hard work of many advocates in Aotearoa creating significant shifts in areas like healthcare and education that have tangibly improved things for our rainbow whānau – we’re also seeing things get harder.

The safety of our communities is more and more on my mind lately, as I watch far right supremacists crash libraries, community events get cancelled because of threats, and religious leaders preach “time to kill” in totally normal, absolutely rhetorical ways that surely no one could take seriously, right?

There’s been a growing pattern of this behaviour over the last three years in particular. In June 2022, Gloria of Greymouth, the most gorgeous church you’ll ever see, a bright pink beacon of inclusion, was vandalised with homophobic and anti-semitic slurs. Just a week later, in Tauranga, a community building used by RainbowYOUTH and Gender Dynamix was burnt down, and later ruled an arson. A year later, anti-transgender activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull visited Aotearoa, and in the weeks following anti-transgender rhetoric reached “unprecedented” levels. Weeks later, in my home town, a women’s swimming event at a community pool required a significant police response when a known far-right actor made a tangible threat of violence towards transgender people who had been coming along.

The pattern has continued, and escalated. In March this year, two events featuring transgender artist Sophie Labelle in Hamilton and Christchurch were “stormed” by protesters affiliated with white supremacist group Action Zealandia. In May, Destiny Church, after successfully cancelling a string of rainbow events and defacing rainbow crossings around the country, advertised a sermon with the tagline “time to kill” and an image of David carrying Goliath’s severed head. The next day, Brian Tamaki took credit for the defacing of Gisborne’s rainbow crossing. Days after, Tamaki took to the stage alongside a number of anti-transgender speakers – including a sitting MP – in which he made the “time to kill” analogy explicit, comparing trans people to Goliath. And, just last week, an Upper Hutt drag king storytime was cancelled when Tamaki warned “if the Mayor and his councillors do not shut this event down, I have instructed our Destiny Church members and ManUp men to shut it down.”

All of this has a significant impact on our communities and their wellbeing. We know that our communities are seeing hugely negative comments in the media and online, in many cases on a daily basis, because it’s so hard to get away from. Many of us working to further the wellbeing of trans people in Aotearoa have had to take significant steps to protect our own safety – removing our names from electoral rolls, ensuring workplaces are registered as priority locations with police call centres, and investing in security cameras.

Brian Tamaki in Wellington (Photo by Lynn Grieveson/Getty Images)

Through all of this, we’ve been meeting with police to better understand what we can do to keep ourselves safe, and what they’re doing to keep our communities safe. Despite assurances to “let us know if there’s anything we can do,” my questions about how police respond – or don’t – to threats at community events were sent to the OIA department. When I got responses, they were disappointing.

I asked about the numbers of officers deployed to rainbow community events at Tūranga, Christchurch’s central library. There was one officer deployed when Action Zealandia stormed the library, four the week following when Destiny Church protested a drag storytime. I was curious about the decision-making processes that led to these numbers, when the Schools Strike for Climate March that ended in a peaceful occupation of Christchurch City Council drew 18 uniformed and gloved officers. All but one email was withheld under section 6(c) of the OIA, as “the release of information would be likely to prejudice the maintenance of law”.

I also asked about a cancelled storytime in Rotorua, where council weren’t able to “secure additional policing” according to an internal review. The response I got was one page: due to short timeframes and “other operational matters”, the situation “created some resourcing challenges”.

It’s this lack of consistent and appropriate police response when our community events draw threats that make it hard for organisers to keep them running. If you can’t rely on police to turn up when literal neo-Nazis storm your event, it’s difficult to ensure your attendees and performers are safe.

The question I keep coming back to is this: how are we allowing this to keep happening? How is it that a church can simply force events to close by threatening to “shut it down” without repercussions? When will we see action from this government on this group preaching “time to kill”? Will it only be when one of Tamaki’s followers takes his words literally, as he knows they will?

That’s the worry that I – and many other community members – have. I’ve sat across tables with members of my community here in Ōtautahi, people who are also members of the Muslim community, who see the same pattern they saw in the leadup to the attack on March 15th. And the same lack of response from those who ostensibly keep us safe. I’ve been out for 10 years now and have had a pretty lucky and privileged time – this is the most I’ve been concerned for my own personal safety in all that time, and the most worried I’ve been for my communities in the past decade. I don’t want to wait until the worst happens before we see a response. Our communities are in need of protection now.

Keep going!