Caiaimage/Chris Ryan

‘This thing is weird’: Get ready for New Zealand’s Gay Oscars

David Farrier loves a good awards ceremony, especially one for which he’s nominated. But what are the New Zealand LGBTI Awards?

On April 30, I was nominated for an LGBTI award. I learned this via a tweet from The New Zealand LGBTI Awards’ Twitter account, which described the awards as “Rewarding those who make a real difference to the lives of LGBTI people across New Zealand.”

“An award!” was my initial, reaction. Something about being told I was nominated for an award made a part of me (my ego) get excited. My ego was about to retweet the announcement, when I noticed a message in my DMs:

I had to send them a headshot and write a bio. Something about this seemed odd to me: “Accepting” a nomination made me feel like I was signing up to something. I hate signing up to anything. Also, I think it was a busy day, and I didn’t really want extra tasks to do like finding photos and updating a bio. So I ignored it.

Then another message appeared:

They seemed eager. Then on May 8, I got another message:

What? I’d been nominated alongside Mercer, a heath consultancy firm, and Simpson Grierson, a commercial law firm? It seemed a little strange.

And they weren’t giving up yet. On May 15, an email arrived from Silke Bader, the director of the awards. “Please get in contact so I can email you more info,” she said.

I was beginning to feel like I’d signed up for some spam, or worse, was back on LinkedIn. I started to wonder what the hell was going on with these awards. And going off their twitter, I wasn’t the only one being spammed:

At least I was in good company, I suppose – Jemaine and Taika – but I did start to wonder what any of these people had to do with the “LGBTI community” these brand new awards were supposedly for.

So I decided to reply to all those twitter DMs – asking what was going on, and why organisations like Facebook had turned up on the nominees list.

Bader replied:

“Hi David, if you like we can explain the process. The Awards are part of an international program  – we are launching in New Zealand. Its based on public nominations. we received over 1200 nominations New Zealand wide and the shortlist will be announced on 1st July . The Gala dinner is in Auckland on 29th Nov where the winners will be announced. However today is our last possible deadline to sent in your submission if you accept the nomination.”

Shit, she was still trying to recruit me – and today was deadline day! I declined. I’d recently become quite cynical of festivals and awards after writing about the antics of the Auckland International Film Festival here, here and here – so I started to sniff around.

I discovered that these awards did indeed exist in Australia (so it was an international programme), and appeared to be a sort of glitzy social event that awarded “members” and “allies” of the community. They don’t have any association with the similarly-named British LGBT Awards.

I started reaching out to other New Zealand nominees to find out if my experience was unique. It wasn’t. Those I talked to had all been messaged relentlessly about the awards, one nominee telling me, “I figured something was up when I got nominated – not even shortlisted and got asked to pay $200 for a ticket to the event.” I saw the email, and tickets for the evening were $200 a head:

Charging for awards tickets isn’t particularly new – I’ve missed various boozy media awards over the years because I was too cheap to pay the fee. The fee covers the event, and that’s just the way it works. But some of those I talked to expressed concern that some members of the community nominated weren’t exactly in strong financial positions to attend something like this. And for an awards that wanted to champion the community… it all felt a little off.

So, four days ago, I decided to email Silke Bader with some more specific questions – including whether the money would go back into the community, how the nomination process worked, and why the awards were being established in New Zealand in the first place.

She didn’t reply, so I emailed her again the next day and then got this:

Bader must have finally tired of messaging me, so had fobbed me off to someone called Suran Dickson.

Dickson emailed me, explaining that “I’d be very happy to chat to you about this but the timing isn’t great”. Heading “off site” she wouldn’t be able to talk until next week.

So I did what I tend to do when I hit a wall, and I tweeted about what I’d found so far. The 12,000 nominations (including the NZ Police, Corrections and Facebook), the $200 cover charge, their manic-tweeting, and their lack of a response to my queries.

It worked – they got back to me. Well, sort of. They tweeted at me:

I’d been outed. Shots fired. This was Twitter after all, where people turn into argumentative maniacs in a matter of seconds. I was going to answer their question, but someone did on my behalf, so I just replied saying it wasn’t the most mature way to handle their PR.

Then they (Bader, maybe? She was the one who appeared to operate the account, signing off on their DMs) wanted an apology from me:

The awards didn’t seem to know how many nominations they had. The link they provided indicated 1,200 submissions, each with five nominations, which would make 6,000 nominees. Then there was the email they’d sent out, saying they’d actually had 12,000 nominations:

I replied with this information, and they deleted all their tweets to me.

They also deleted their numerous “Congratulations! You’ve been nominated!” images they’d tweeted out – including nominees like Facebook, the NZ Police and Verizon – a company which as far as I can tell has absolutely no presence in New Zealand at all.

Mine was also deleted. It looked like my nomination had been revoked.

So who are Silke Bader and Suran Dickson? Based in Australia, Bader describes herself as a “publisher, activist and entrepreneur”. She is the owner of Curve, “America’s best-selling lesbian magazine”, and Australian-based Lesbians on the Loose. Both appear to be published four times a year, and have a similar vibe, but for different countries:

Curve vs LOTL (Lesbians on the Loose)

She also has DIVA, “The leading monthly mag for lesbians and bisexual women”.

On the awards front, she is also behind the Australian Diversity In Sports Awards and the Australian LGBTI Awards. They attract big sponsors: In 2017 they gave an award to the the Dow Chemical, an American multinational chemical business located in Michigan, USA. This year saw Dow Chemical sponsoring the event, along with Coca-Cola and Holden.

Suran Dickson is based in Christchurch and, like Bader, is involved in initiatives outside of New Zealand, founding the UK based Diversity Role Models. Trustees there include someone from Coca-Cola and someone from the Royal Navy.

Bader and Dickson appear to be very good at getting big money involved, and now they appear to have set their sights on setting up a sparking awards in New Zealand. In Australia, the media have called the event “The Gay Oscars”.

Could this be New Zealand’s Gay Oscars?

Artist’s rendition of the Gay Oscars

With no answers yet from Bader or Dickson about why they’d decided to set up an awards in Aotearoa, I talked with a number of people who took meetings with Bader this year, and in 2017, as she tried to get various people and groups involved in the awards.

They all raised similar concerns to mine. Such as Aych McArdle telling me, “A group of community organisations and activists wrote to the organisers outlining some concerns about profit motive and the lack of community consultation/input. We met with the organisers to see if we could get somewhere but their feedback was less than satisfactory.”

Others questioned the nomination process and who was doing the nominating (their website claims that “anyone from the public can nominate”).

“They claim all the nominations come from ‘the community’ but I am utterly convinced they have nominated a lot of companies and individuals themselves after gleaning stuff from our social media”, I was told by someone who had met with both Bader and Dickson.

“I say this because at least one person was nominated who had left their position two years ago – but if you weren’t in the company you wouldn’t know that. I know they have nominated companies for one category, and then had the company come back and say, ‘We don’t really do work in that area’ and then offered to re-nominate them in a category that suits them better.”

Their approach certainly is reaping some success. I reached out to Countdown, Chorus, Ricoh and Meridian who were all listed as Category Sponsors, who all replied with comments like, “They approached us a few months back and we happily agreed!”

“Supporting Partner” Cordis haven’t gotten back to me, and I didn’t bother with Lotl, the aforementioned magazine run by Bader.

According to the Awards’ website, they also have another heavy-hitter on board: “We are very excited to have Lucy Lawless as our Ambassador for the inaugural LGBTI Awards 2018. She is supportive of our mission to create positive role models for our community.”

Gay icon Lucy Lawless (aka Xena) is on board according to the NZ LGBTI Awards’ website

Gay Oscars here we come.

And then Suran Dickson replied to my email. Her offsite was complete and she’d had time to respond.

“I apologise once more for the highly unprofessional tweet response that an intern directed your way,” she said, before explaining why the awards needed to happen in New Zealand.

“My belief, having observed the growth and impact of the awards in the UK, is that they can affect cultural change within the corporate world – companies become keen to showcase their LGBTI equality work and it influences and demonstrates best practice to those companies who are still at the beginning of their journey. Additionally, because of the positive media attention they usually attract, the Awards create role models for young people who might be struggling with their sexuality or gender identity”.

Dickson said they had been having “conversations” with the community, “most of whom now support the kaupapa of the event.” She indicated they will barely break even, and that any money made on the night will go back to a New Zealand charity – which is still being decided on.

In regards to their social media doggedness, she said: “The approach on social media does need work, I agree – there is a small operations team who try to track down nominees and then ask them for their evidence.” She blamed some of the strange nominations on the fact she’s been working with school groups recently, who have been nominating people and organisations as part of “research projects”.

In regards to the $200 ticket prices, Dickson says: “I don’t know of any awards that nominees go to for free, as it’s not really a financial model that stands up unfortunately”, but added that they’re looking at offering free tickets for “community nominees”.

“The reality is, it’s not about money, this event. It’s about creating role models for young people by celebrating the great work of many within the LGBTI community here in NZ and bringing the positive actions of straight allies to the attention of the general public.”

She also linked me to a glowing Seven Sharp report. At the end there’s a plug for the awards.

What does it all mean? Well, all awards shows have to get off the ground somehow. We all start somewhere. And perhaps the New Zealand LGBTI Awards can be a beautiful celebration of diversity and community. Dickson certainly seems to be genuinely trying to create something wonderful.

It’s not like anything illegal is going on. They’re welcome to charge whatever they want for the event, and the way their nomination process works – however ramshackle – is entirely up to them.

The cynical view is that awards like this aren’t at all unique: “There’s a whole industry based on flattering people and companies into parting with sponsorship money,” someone tweeted at me.

And while Dickson seems satisfied with the feedback from the community, I spent a week talking to a variety of individuals and groups who seemed let down by their interactions with the organisers, feeling like their concerns weren’t being properly addressed. That the awards would barge on ahead, with or without them.

They felt as I did, I suppose – frustrated that answers were a long time coming.

All awards play on ego: they make us retweet our nominations, pay the entry fee, and turn up on the night. But perhaps an awards for historically (and currently) marginalised people need to catch their breath and reassess their approach. To balance a corporate event with remembering they’re dealing with real humans who are finding this whole thing a bit … weird.

“Hey so got a new email from the LGBTI awards,” a nominee just wrote to me. “Apparently I’m either a finalist for the destination category (according to the email subject) or the hero category – a category I wasn’t nominated for. This thing is weird.”

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