Trans academic Lexie Matheson on her community’s complex relationship with the police.
It seems cop cars seem have always played a part in my life, and, since my coming out, even more so. As a young, middle class, white male professional, I seemed to be treated quite well – even though I was a criminal. Now, having transitioned gender and no longer a law-breaker, not so much.
After I got the bash from a couple of cops my son, then aged five, was terrified every time he saw a police car. He would hide down behind the seat in case the cops in the car were the ones who had beat up his mum. It was heartbreaking.
It was, in fact, a rough time for all of us.
As you can imagine, I’ve had a few trips in cop cars, both marked and unmarked. I’ve sat in the back bleeding, handcuffed, abused, ranted at by officers about how ‘we’ve got each other’s backs’ and ‘we look after each other’. I remember thinking to myself ‘I know how that loyalty feels. I spent eight years of my young life, my past life, in the army. I have the medals to prove it. We looked after each other, too.’ I wondered, also, just how at risk these fit, young, 22 year olds actually felt from this overweight, partially crippled, partially deaf, sixty-three year old transgender academic?
I’ve sat in the front too, most notably chatting amiably with a youth aid officer I knew on the way south to start a six month period of court imposed incarceration in the notorious Lake Alice Mental Hospital. I’d been naughty with drugs and stupid with a gun and I’d got off lightly thanks to the intervention of this young officer who I’d worked with trying to support at-risk kids and who generously thought I could be rehabilitated. A period of cold turkey later and he proved to be right. I owe him my career.
So you see, I do have experiences with cop cars, some good, some bad, and all memorable.
The announcement that NZ Police have decorated a car with rainbow stripes to further improve their engagement with both the Auckland and Wellington Pride Parades and to show off their commitment to institutional diversity was clearly of interest to me, for a multitude of reasons. Since my first involvement with Pride Parades and the like here in Tāmaki Makaurau, the police have always played a significant role, either providing security for the public and guaranteeing their safety, or by participating with their own gay cops taking the lead. Mostly it’s worked a treat, but not always.
While I love the idea of the car and support the ongoing involvement of NZ Police in Pride activities, I’m not blind to the fact that there is another, darker side that occurs often in the late hours of the evening and the early hours of the morning where the relationship with gender-diverse people like me is not quite so candy-striped. In fact, the relationship between the queer community and law enforcement has always been vexed. Police harassment, and worse, of homosexuals and transgender women seems to go back to time immemorial and a number of older queers have told me they think there should be a formal apology.
In August 1966, transgender women living and partying in the red light Tenderloin district of San Francisco decided they had finally had enough of the raids and the abuse and fought back. Gene Compton’s notorious cafe was a hang out for drag queens and transgender women back in the ’60s and we were a stroppy bunch. Most of us survived through street work and only the crossdressers held down serious jobs. The cafe was raided regularly, the girls bundled into the backs of paddy wagons and what happened next doesn’t warrant description. Suffice to say it often wasn’t pleasant. It is often said that the Compton’s Café Riot was the beginning of the gay liberation movement in the US and it’s superbly recorded by Professor Susan Stryker of the University of Arizona in her film Screaming Queens.
Three years later, in New York City’s East Village, a riot centred on the Stonewall Inn in Christopher Street was to become a thing of legend. Once again the police raided the bar, a hang out for ‘notorious homosexuals’, but, in this case, instead of passive acceptance, the whole of New York erupted in support. History tells us that the Stonewall riots finally gave birth to New York’s Gay Liberation Movement and a sea change in society’s attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ communities followed. Just as in San Francisco, those in the front line were transgender women Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson. These women have become icons in my community, but have largely been whitewashed out of the male-dominated history of queer struggle.
Logic suggests that this should have been the end of the fraught relationship between law enforcement and the queer community, but this was not the case. Legalisation was a long time coming and recent reports from the US make it clear that the Trump administration is having a great time pushing back against our hard-won human rights – all in the name of religious freedom, of course.
Obama’s ground-breaking laws around transgenders in the military, the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and federal laws allowing transgender women to use the bathrooms they most identify with have all been dismantled by Trump – and the police in the US are naturally more responsive to governments, local and central, than they are to communities. Just ask Black Lives Matter!
The 1970s and 80s were a raw and ugly time to be queer in Aotearoa New Zealand as well. Who can forget, in 1976, Marilyn Waring being outed by the Truth newspaper, Sir Robert Muldoon using the parliament to question Colin Moyle about his alleged after dark homosexual activities. Then, horror of all horrors, our friends started to get sick and die.
All of this is, of course, historically well-documented with the police casting an ever-present shadow over our still illegal behaviour. I well recall my cottaging mates living in constant fear of discovery and certain prosecution. Over whether I felt the same, I’ll draw a veil.
It took until 1986 for homosexual acts between consenting adults to be legalised and that was no easy path either. Marches, banners, arguments in church halls, and fiery debates in parliament were supported on the street by a police force that had no seeming love for the queer community. Nor did police hesitate to break the laws they were sworn to uphold when it came to beatings and assaults. 1981 had equipped them well.
By 1986 I was active as an ally of my queer brothers and sisters but my own gender dysphoria remained hidden even from me – but my closet was becoming increasingly claustrophobic. During my crossdressing phase I spent most of my life in terror of being caught by police and charged with impersonating a woman which, of course, is the exact opposite of what I was actually doing.
This fear remained for me and my sisters even after I came out. The police, despite progress made in relating to the LGBs, has never been seen by my community as a friend. Many of our girls – in particular our women of colour – have had to engage in street work and prostitution to keep body and soul together and, despite the liberalising of the laws relating to solicitation in 2003, in the 1990s police would still regularly arrest and harass girls working on the street. It has always seemed incongruous to me that, while it was illegal for our girls to solicit for customers, the Johns got away scot-free.
For the last 20 years it’s been a somewhat fraught and complex relationship particularly between police and transgender women. The unavoidable intersection between NZ Police and the Department of Corrections has further complicated issues. One feeds the other, and this isn’t always healthy a healthy diet. At street level the response of cops to my community has always been a challenge with petty violence and assaults commonplace.
Further up the chain of command there has been a notable change in attitude and culture but this, as it often does, takes a long time to filter down to street level – but it is happening.
Back in 2007, only a decade ago, I had a traumatic experience at the hands of two street-level cops and their buddies. As a transgender woman the experience was hideous. As a human being it was even worse because we transpeople are fairly used to being treated less well than others and have learned to grimace and bear it. I got a beating simply because I was transgender and an easy target, but this was followed by a full raft of indignities based around the fact that the cops considered me to be legally male – or said they did.
I was arrested for two crimes that were fabricated to cover the fact that I had been beaten up, and it took a year on bail and many court appearances before the charges were dismissed by a judge who had no other choice. Why not? Because the arresting officer failed to ever appear as a witness against me. I still grieve that I never got my day in court to tell my story.
Huge changes have taken place during the last decade. In 2013 uniformed staff asked permission to march in the first Pride Parade. They were granted permission to march but not in uniform. That was a disappointment, but I can remember the Pride Board cheering with delight that the Commissioner had allowed them to participate at all. The board of the time saw this as a significant step forward.
In 2014 another breakthrough was made and staff were allowed to march in uniform, to be proud of the organization they work for, and of who they are. It was a great experience for them and for us and some considerable healing occurred. Behind the scenes there were still issues around members of our communities reporting domestic abuse, assaults and relationship rape due to antiquated reporting processes being exclusively directed towards heterosexual relationships. This is still a work in progress
The following year larger numbers of police participated with greater numbers of police allies participating but by this time I had dropped off the Pride Board. My personal concerns shifted to the behaviours my sisters experienced when incarcerated in men’s prisons and my involvement, and my commitment, became more focused on the kaupapa of the No Pride in Prisons activist group.
Anyone who was there will remember the debacle of the 2015 Parade. Just as in ‘66, ‘69 and the subsequent years that saw the evolution of the Gay Liberation Movement in New York, protest became a focus of community Pride-related activity. Looking back, there wasn’t a lot of community support for the small group of young, gender-diverse Māori activists who invaded the parade to protest the involvement of Department of Corrections. Despite protest being at the heart of our historical kaupapa, it seemed we’d forgotten where we came from.
One protester had her arm broken and there was a significant amount of violence that should have been avoided. It wasn’t, and health and safety regulations were breached left, right and centre. NZ Police were engaged in the parade but, to my knowledge, took little or no part in terminating the protest activity.
Lessons were learned on both sides and the following year No Pride in Prisons held a rally at the same time as the Pride Parade. I spoke at that rally, and over 500 people attended. Police watched the rally but took no action, as the protest was peaceful and well organised. A small number of No Pride in Prisons activists then proceeded to disrupt the parade, to sit on the road and hold up proceedings for some considerable period of time. This failed to please everybody and again there was an altercation of sorts which included some Corrections staff who were bystanders.
The primary difference in 2016 was that there had been a sea change of opinion in the Auckland queer communities. No Pride in Prisons and associated activists had done a tireless job of educating the public, and in particular queer critics, about the shortcomings of the Department of Corrections and its policies and practices around the housing of transgender women in men’s prisons. Informal meetings with the Department of Corrections saw a far more productive relationship develop and these meetings took place, privately, during much of 2016. The sticking point was always around Corrections producing an acceptable Transgender Prisoner Policy, which was promised, but the Department again failed to deliver. The upshot was that the Auckland Pride Festival Board chose to reject Corrections application to participate in the 2017 Pride Parade.
On this occasion there was almost universal support for the NZ Police and the changes they had made – but it must always be remembered that what is presented by way of ‘visible community engagement’ – whether by corporate sponsors, NZ Police or the Department of Corrections – tends always to be on the flashy side and what happens in the workplace and on the street is often a quite different story. Eternal vigilance is what keeps us safe and, hopefully, free of any Trumpian push-backs
It would be easy to claim that being denied permission to participate in the 2017 Pride Parade was a wakeup call for the Department of Corrections, but I have no doubt that internal circumstances within the Department changed as well. It’s a huge and cumbersome, slow moving and conservative organisation and, like the NZ Police, is slow to change. Change at a senior management level in terms of policy can take years to develop and to filter down to the grassroots and in the case of these two organisations they also have ‘clients’ to care for as well as staff and these clients are often left with no serious options because they are incarcerated, on bail, on probation or just simply in trouble. Choice is less of an option for them.
Most of our sponsors have clients who can simply walk away if they’re unhappy. This isn’t always the case with those engaged with NZ Police, and never the case with clients of the Department of Corrections. For this reason alone the relationship between NZ Police, the Department of Corrections and Auckland Pride is different from the relationships that exist with other stakeholders, and we have often been encouraged to cut Police and Corrections some slack. This isn’t always possible, or necessarily a good idea – but it seems to me that the most critical thing is to keep talking, to keep listening and to do whatever we possibly can to take steps, hand-in-hand, in the right direction. This has always been the Pride Board’s intention and, overall, it has been achieved.
Hand-in-hand isn’t always a model that overtly macho organisations like to adopt and herein lies a much more complex issue. Masculinity is perceived to be challenged, especially by transgender women, and this is a deep-rooted concern for many men. What often seems odd, if you identify as a member of one of our communities, is the open animosity that uniformed men often have towards us as individuals. This korero has certainly improved over recent years and I believe we now get a very fair hearing from the senior leadership team at NZ Police and increasingly from the people at the Department of Corrections.
We need to ensure that the relationships we have forged are authentic, honest, open, and forward-looking. For this to happen both parties need to have a vision of what the future might look like and be able to recommend intersectional models to enable this to occur. What happens in a parade is gloss – nice gloss – but it’s what happens over time that tests whether that gloss is authentic or merely wallpapering.
For decades we have been separated by a gulf of cultural difference and power. This is slowly being whittled away and the parties are currently closer than they have ever been before.
This does not necessarily mean that excellent workplace policies have comfortably become shop-floor practice and everybody is happy. Happiness, if you’re a transgender woman in a men’s prison, looks markedly different to virtually anybody else’s idea of what this might be. It’s not sufficient to pretend that if it’s left alone it will right itself. We’re not there yet – but were a hell of a lot closer than we were ten years ago.
With the support and assistance of an enlightened NZ Police diversity team, the Department of Corrections has itself made major steps forward in the past 12 months, progress that I could not have predicted when the Pride Board made the difficult decision to reject it from the 2017 Pride Parade. They have developed a Transgender Prisoner Policy that is, in my opinion, second to none in the world. A policy that will, in time and with courage, change the often toxic culture that has traditionally existed within the Department of Corrections. If you find the word ‘toxic’ to be challenging I’d direct you towards the 2016 Ombudsmen’s Report on the department and in particular to the section that discusses, pragmatically, torture. Yes, torture. It’s bloody scary, and things certainly had to change. If Pride has been part of motivating that change, then I know most of us would be proud to own up to that.
I believe that the safety of at-risk prisoners has at last worked its way to the forefront of the department’s thinking and behaviour, and that is a huge step in itself. While Pride, No Pride in Prisons (now PAPA), and the Auckland Council Rainbow Communities Advisory Panel can certainly take some credit for this sea change, the bulk of the credit goes to the department itself.
Recently I was speaking with NZ Police diversity team leader Inspector Tracy Phillips about the rainbow car. While some in our community disagree, I have no problem with the rainbow-decorated police car. I support the idea and the intention behind it. I have, however, had quite a lot to say about it, on social media and elsewhere, some of which has been wildly misinterpreted.
The problem is that the PR around the project makes it seem like nothing more than a two week stunt, one which implies the importance of diversity rather than being an authentic statement to that effect. I have never doubted that the intention of NZ Police in creating the rainbow car was to show the world how far they have moved and how much they care. But to show an authentic intention the car should patrol our streets keeping us safe every day of the year while promoting the police’s ongoing commitment to rainbow policies.
I’d also like the officers who use the car to be those who have a greater degree of empathy towards our communities than most. They don’t have to be gay cops – just officers with empathy and a concern to keep us safe.
One Stuff article suggested I was outraged about the car. Nothing could be further from the truth; I’m actually excited about the idea. I’ve been contacted by hundreds of people as a result of the media coverage and once the initial anger at my ‘outrage’ subsides and people realise what I am actually asking for the remainder of the comments have been uniformly positive. I am especially encouraged by the fact that so many gay officers totally agree with me.
Heartening though this support is, it’s not going to get the idea over the line. If Police Commissioner Mike Bush is sending a message to us queers about diversity within NZ Police then he’ll see the value in keeping the car. But if the car is simply designed to send a message to mainstream New Zealand that the police are doing nice things then I’m clearly wasting my time.
The transgender community continues to encourage the government to add ‘gender identity’ to the protections listed in the Human Rights Act and, in my more than 20 years of queer activism, we haven’t made much progress.
Now, at last, we have a government whose own party policy supports this and we will continue to pressure Justice Minister Andrew Little and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to make this a reality because, without it, nothing can really happen to improve healthcare, housing, homelessness, suicide rates and education for my community. Every social issue in Aotearoa, and heaven knows we have enough of them, is exacerbated when you talk about my community. It’s the same with a simple thing like a police car with rainbow livery becoming a permanent fixture here in Tamaki Makaurau. The decision has to be made at the top and I encourage Commissioner Bush to make it. We’re not asking him to ‘jump the fence’ or anything like that, just to sign off the car 24/7 and to authenticate his otherwise already fine gesture.
I haven’t discussed it with him yet but I hope this will happen soon. Perhaps the best place for this conversation to take place is in the back of the NZ Police rainbow liveried car while it travels down Ponsonby Road in the 2018 Auckland Pride Parade. I know he plans to participate – how good is that?
So, I’m up for it. I hope he will be too.
Twenty minutes after finishing this essay I received the following email:
Kia ora Lexie
Due to the popularity and positive feedback about the Rainbow Police car the commissioner has decided to leave the rainbow livery on the car. Just thought that you would like to know.
District Commander (and Rainbow supporter) Karyn Malthus spoke to, and confirmed this today, with Commissioner Bush.
I’m ecstatic – and thank you for all your advocacy!