9 Aug 2015

Challenges persist for queer community

From Insight, 8:12 am on 9 August 2015

Many in the queer community fear same-sex marriage is being used as a universal solution for the challenges still confronting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Advocates argue two years of marriage equality have had little impact on alarming youth suicide rates and ongoing prejudice and has swept more pressing issues out of the limelight.

Wives Sue Lytollis and Liz Dutton in their Wellington home.

Wives Sue Lytollis and Liz Dutton swapped their civil union for a legal marriage Photo: ( RNZ / Alex Ashton )

Listen to Insight: Gay Rights Beyond Marriage

The passing of Labour MP Louisa Wall's Marriage Amendment Bill, in April 2013, marked a societal turning point for many.

The 77 - 44 vote was greeted by rapturous applause and a rousing rendition of the waiata Po Karekare Ana.  There was an air of celebration among the politicians and the packed public gallery.

The first same-sex marriages were held three months later.  In the next two years, nearly 1800 same-sex couples tied the knot in New Zealand.

However, some, such as Wellington gay, lesbian, bisexual  and transgender youth worker, Kassie Hartendorp, believe the legislation has changed little on the ground.

"All in all, I don't think marriage equality would have any impact in their day to day lives.  There's a reason why we still run support groups.

"I'm definitely not making the argument that we shouldn't have marriage and it's all bad - but it's really important to note that it was the most symbolic, easiest thing to do, and was treated as a final frontier, whereas there are still a lot of things we need to be addressing in more depth."

She said queer people still battled discrimination, abuse and disproportionate levels of mental illness.

Youth worker, Kassie Hartendorp, sits on black couch at drop in centre

Youth worker, Kassie Hartendorp, at drop- in centre Photo: ( RNZ / Alex Ashton )

And, in regards to mental health, research indicated queer youth were having a much harder time than their straight counterparts.

A study published by University of Auckland researchers last year found one in five same-sex and both sexl attracted youth had attempted suicide in the past year - a rate five times higher than their straight counterparts.  Nearly half had thought about killing themselves, and just short of 60% had self harmed.    

Miss Harterndorp said the figures showed New Zealand was far from an all-inclusive society.

Those who agree with her include Broden Packer, a 19-year-old Wellington university student.  

He said he had been attacked three times and was bullied by his peers over his sexuality.

"One time it was me and my two female friends...  We were all targetted by a group of straight males in their 20s, just shouting 'faggot'."

On another occasion, he had his jaw broken after being punched in the face.  The perpetrator was given community service.

However, Broden Packer said today's environment was still a far cry from that faced by queer people 40 years ago.

Back in 1973, when Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was denied entry to the United States for being a lesbian - or 'known sexual deviant' -  she was frustrated.

She took to a microphone at the University of Auckland, and asked her peers if they were comfortable with her treatment.  She told them if they were not, to meet her afterwards.  About 11 did, and about 40 came to the second meeting the following week.

That was the birth of gay liberation in this country.

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku  with moko and wearing black hat

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku Photo: (RNZ / Alex Ashton )

Back then it was illegal for men to have sex with one another, and there were no laws preventing discrimination based on sexuality.

Same-sex marriage seemed a far-fetched idea, and it was not something activists aspired to, either.

"Marriage - the actual notion of marriage - has its history in heterosexual economics and church sacrimentalism," said Ms Te Awekotuku.

"We sat around in the early days and talked a lot about the notion of marriage, and most of us thought, well it's what a man and a woman does.  It's not what we want to do, because why would we want parity with them?"

Ms Te Awekotuku said same-sex marriage was a triumph for those who had fought for it, but it had not created a landslide change in public opinion towards queer people.

"What concerns me is that in the rugby clubs, in the league clubs, in the rural communities, the kitchen, out the back, on the marae, down at the beach - within those parts of my world, which are traditional, and conservative, it's okay if you're like 'that', but you shouldn't flaunt it.

"Getting married is flaunting it."

Ms Te Awekotuku said for queer Maori - or takatapui - in particular, it would be another 40 years before any significant change happened.

Her concerns were echoed by Elizabeth Kerekere, the founder and chair of Tiwhanawhana, a takatapui community group in Wellington.

Elizabeth Kerekere, stands with poi in centre flanked by other group members

Elizabeth Kerekere, centre, the founder of Tiwhanawhana. Photo: ( RNZ / Alex Ashton )

"For some, [marriage equality] is really significant, it was something they had fought hard for, that they wanted in their lives, so I think that is a great thing that they are able to have that and all of the legal protections, and the status that comes with being a married person in this country.

"But for our young people getting bullied in schools, and schools not knowing how to deal with homophobic and transphobic bullying and just pretending it's not happening - same-sex marriage? Not an impact at all."

Shelley Howard, a transgender woman living in the Hutt Valley north of Wellington presented for much of her life as a male. She joined the military, married, and had three sons. "The whole routine," as she called it.

She said same-sex marriage was a win for gays and lesbians, but did little to advance the rights of other queer people, namely those not on the standard gender spectrum.

"We're the forgotten minority."

Shelley Howard outside her home holding hand made signs

Shelley Howard campaigns for recognition for transgender people. Photo: ( RNZ / Alex Ashton )

"It's understandable in some ways, because lesbianism and homosexuality are about sexuality.  It's problematic for transgender, because our issue is not sexuality.  Sexuality becomes another issue later on.  But recognising us first for our gender dysphoric condition is our first major step."

Ms Howard is another who worries about the mental health outcomes for queer youth, especially for young transgender people, who, she argues, still face a huge amount of discrimination.

"The people who should be supporting them and assisting and aiding them, the people in responsibility - parents, counsellors, therapists, teachers - all of these people should be reliable, informed sources of advice and help to the transgendered.

"But when you end up with the principal in a prestigious school making statements that he has no homosexuals in his college, then you really have to wonder how much more we have to do.

"Things have not changed at the coal face, particularly for transgender, and legislation will never do that."

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