Like many other Gen X New Zealanders, I grew up with a social conscience, but in a climate of political lethargy. So it was not until my mid twenties that I became an activist. Before then, I would volunteer or collect for charities on and off, whilst struggling to make sense of the world and my responsibilities within it. My undergraduate studies at university only left me more confused: while my best friend was buying fair trade groceries and second hand clothes, my lecturers introduced me to the concepts of postmodernism and cultural relativism. It seemed that the world was infinitely complex, and making any moral judgments about it that weren’t (or were) consumer-driven would position me as a “white saviour”.
2011 was the year the penny really dropped for me. The global financial crisis had hit in 2008, when I had finished my Masters degree and was looking for a serious entry level position in the arts sector to no avail. After two years of cobbling part time and casual jobs together, I decided to enrol in teacher education – and that is when I lost the last vestiges of trust in public institutions, and started rebuilding my backbone.
Before becoming a student teacher, I must have still believed that social crises remained embedded because they were genuinely difficult to resolve. I enrolled in teacher education expecting to be equipped with the best educational tools available to help close the literacy gap – at least in my own classrooms. That sense of responsibility collided head on with what I found at the university: complicity, and a stale and cumbersome programme bound to perpetuate problems in education. When student complaints were brushed off and ignored, this marked the end of my state of paralysed confusion. I protested, I wrote, and by the end of the year, attended the first annual Festival for the Future conference in Wellington.
It was the 2011 Festival for the Future, held at the Film Archive, that took me from being an independent fledgling activist to one who was part of a wider community. Though the other people I met were lagely involved in social enterprise, which wasn’t my thing; it was refreshing to meet so many people who were actively and vocally concerned about addressing inequality, wanting to talk and willing to work. In hindsight, in my excitement and though I was shy, I trusted too many of them too quickly.
In the beginning of 2013 I met Pala Molisa, who was working on his PhD called Accounting for Apocalypse, which looks at the role that accounting plays in perpetuating social crises. Inspired by his mother, freedom fighter Grace Molisa, Pala’s analysis drew heavily on feminist literature. Until I met Pala, my understanding of feminism involved being angry about beauty industry advertising and a kind of Rousseau-esque understanding that looking after women means looking after future generations – but I had never thought to position feminism at the centre of my thinking. I began reading, starting with bell hooks’ Feminist theory: From margin to centre. I read a lot of material on prostitution and on gender, because these topics are central to feminist analysis.
A lifetime of fog began to lift. Things started to make sense to me, and naturally, I wanted to talk about what I was reading and learning, and what it might mean for activists.
By this time I was also getting more involved with activism. I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of the campaign Show Us Ya Text, to protest the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, and was arrested with the group. I did a small amount of work with Poneke Palestine, and participated in Peace Action Wellington’s 2015 blockade of the weapons conference. It is no longer possible for me to work with these groups, and my illusions about the left are now in as many tatters as my old illusions about universities are.
I began speaking on the issues of prostitution and gender with people I knew, face to face. I distinctly remember one conversation in particular with a friend who became very upset when I uttered the line “but – men can’t get pregnant.” She told me those words constituted violence, and was adamant enough to grind all conversation to a halt. I felt I had no choice but to leave her at the café we were drinking coffee at – I got out of my chair and told my friend that if she felt I was being violent, I had better go. We hugged, and I gave her a kiss on the cheek and said I’d see her soon, and I left.
That was one of the experiences that committed me to voicing myself on record, so that my arguments could be fully expressed, retrievable, and made without interruption for people to process while comfortably at home. I had limited options: I’d published writing before, in several outlets, but I was not a journalist, and when I became feminist, more doors began closing. I’ve had critical articles on gender identity rejected by Stuff Nation (“Unfortunately it’s not something that Stuff Nation is interested in publishing on our site at this time”); the Herald (“I don’t have room for this one, sorry”), and the Wireless (“the format you’re suggesting isn’t… strong for getting a broader audience to pay attention”). The urgency and lack of coverage of critical perspectives simply doesn’t matter. I’ve only ever had automated responses and social media censorship from the Spinoff. Scoop is the only outlet in New Zealand that will publish my critical writing on prostitution – but on gender identity, the evasiveness is simply too convoluted and nonsensical to summarise.
Student media is complacent in prostitution promotion to the extent that both Salient and Massive have been subjected to Press Council complaints about it (one of them my own). These were of course unsuccessful, since the Press Council is an industry body run by media representatives from outlets like The Herald, who are hardly going to stand against the “sex sells” status quo – The Herald has its own investments in trafficking and prostitution. A producer at Radio New Zealand managed to inform me, after we spoke, about a podcast proposal he put forward on gender identity before it was rejected – and when I did an interview on Access Radio this year, the station manager sent a warning e-mail to the person who invited me as a guest onto his show. “Some of Renée Gerlich’s views could be seen as an attack on minority groups or as hate speech,” she wrote.
Having no access to either mainstream or “alternative” media, I initially blogged and made my own zines. A policy advisor to Women’s Refuge has suggested “swarming” my blog on social media, to shut me down even there. Then in 2016, I registered for a stall at the Wellington Zinefest, to share three zines – one on peace struggle since the peasant revolts, one on West Papua, and one on feminism from the time of Sojourner Truth. Yet even the Zinefest does censorship, now: I was banned from attending. When I went along anyway and put a picnic blanket on the grass outside the venue (Wellington High School), the committee considered calling security to have my picnic blanket removed. Three activists also came to heckle me for several hours, including an Amnesty International and a UniQ spokesperson – they seemed to want to “occupy” my picnic blanket. The UniQ spokesperson justified medical experimentation on children to my face.
They didn’t stop there. The Zinefest committee, along with RainbowYouth, InsideOut, Gender Minorities Aotearoa, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) – and members of Peace Action Wellington (PAW), who I had worked with, and been arrested with – then helped lobby me out of a job. A 120-signature strong online pact, launched by NZPC’s community liaison, helped them along. People like Richard Bartlett, a Loomio founder who I had met in my naïve days at Festival for the Future, endorsed the pact. I have since written about the ideas of leftist “troubadours” like Bartlett who count among the smug beneficiaries of this whole backlash against women.
It’s hard to summarise all the harrassment that took place, and has taken place, since. I have been accused of facilitating murder by the activist the Non Plastic Maori, because I hold that women are female. She believes that me writing articles with that bottom line lead directly to the murder of a trans-identifying person in Wellington by a man he had met on Tinder. I had to block the coordinator of Poneke Palestine on Facebook after she would not stop messaging me, saying things like “you are harming people” and “I am trying to get you to stop doing really dangerous unnecessary things which will cause death poverty pain violence by the state”. This was in response to me expressing my belief that prostitution is exploitative.
A couple of months earlier, a member of Peace Action Wellington tried to instruct Pala not to raise the issue of prostitution at the Social Movements, Resistance and Social Change conference he was scheduled to speak at, at Victoria University. In November, he was then invited to present at Parihaka Peace Festival, and then uninvited, because of his critical views on prostitution. He has since been no-platformed from events regardless of his planned topics of discussion – simply because he is gender critical and considers prostitution exploitation and an instrument of colonisation. Attempts have been made to stop him from speaking at Waitangi Alert, and UniQ has gone after his university job on the basis of him sharing gender critical articles on Twitter. Most recently, Gender Minorities Aotearoa wrote an open letter calling to have Pala fired, by somehow accusing him of holocaust denial since he is gender critical.
This is the guy who wrote the open letter. He has tweeted cropped photos of my face and updates about seeing me outside a supermarket. He is not being outed as a creepy, lily white men’s rights activist, but defended and rallied around as someone being “oppressed” by nasty feminists. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
By December 2016, when I was being driven out of work, Dunedin activist Tim Leadbeater, who had been following the issues of gender and prostitution, spoke up about it on his blog. As a result, he was made unwelcome in the International Socialist Organisation, a group he used to be involved with (an associated group, Fightback, has also written defamatory statements about me online). Tim has since also written an article about intimidation and attempted silencing he has experienced at the hands of Peace Action Auckland.
The more time goes by, the freakier things look. It is crazy that neither prostitution nor the redefinition of sex can be critically discussed on the left, when these things are so critical to resisting the oppression of women as a class. There seems to be no acceptable way to raise either issue among leftists: not in person, not in media, not in written conversation. Every value the left collectively prides itself on – questioning, dialogue, comradeship, understanding power, following the money – all goes out the window when it comes to women’s oppression. On the left, speaking out on women’s oppression in any substantive way is sacrilege – anyone who does so is labelled an infidel, cast out, and shamelessly demonised.
Feeling alarmed, I tried to reach out to organisations and spokespeople I thought might be more “diplomatic”, to see if I could spark any kind of critical reflection or discussion. I tried ActionStation and Ace Lady Network, and found both organisations to be extremely evasive and condescending.
In 2017, Metiria Turei stood down as Green Party leader. Many liberals were calling it sexist and racist, since she was stood down for historic benefit fraud while National Party leader Bill English ran the country as a known financial scammer. I raised the issue of another hypocrisy with an ActionStation organiser: that the very same double standard sees Maori women incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group, but the left does not call this sexism, because it is too busy proritising the rehousing of male inmates who identify as transgender into women’s prisons on the basis of biological sex being immaterial. She deleted my comment and wrote to me privately. “I have made it clear that I think trans-women are women,” she said, adding: “I find you very difficult to deal with.”
Before you call me a keyboard warrior, consider the conversation I relayed earlier, the fact I was driven out of the city I lived in, and the situation that leftists have put feminists in despite the validity and urgency of our concerns. Feminists are not flush with options when it comes to trying to talk – people prefer to ignore us. New Zealand Project author Max Harris, who I met at the Festival for the Future, also wrote to me just before I left Wellington, saying “I’ve wanted to chat for a while about trans people”. I have never wanted to talk about “trans people”, but gender identity ideology. I did engage in several long and very tedious private conversations with Harris after this though – but will do so no more. I have spoken to few people who are more wilfully blind than Harris has transpired to be.
I sent Ace Lady Network the occasional article over about a year – maybe four or five articles, in good faith. One was a podcast called The trouble with transing kids; one was a piece on the failure of New Zealand’s model of prostitution full decriminalisation. These were met with pats on the head. Then, Ace Lady Network advertised event called “The Patriarchy Isn’t Going To Smash Itself”, which mimicked the consciousness raising groups of the second wave, but at a cost – and invited “woman-identifying people”. So I asked them what the phrase “woman-identifying” meant, and it got me such a long winded, whitewashed and incomprehensible response that it seems like Ace Lady Network don’t care to understand patriarchy, let alone “smash” it. To them, endometriosis is a “woman’s issue” one minute, while being a woman has nothing to do with biology the next. I gave up.
In the lead up to the last elections, I signed up for a six day intensive Women’s Refuge training course, when my local women’s centre called for registrations. I lasted about four and a half days. Women’s Refuge is in the process of being liberalised, so my group were given both the original radical training documents, and new updated versions. The language jarred, clashed, and didn’t make sense – so I had questions. It was too hard to stomach having to talk about male privilege and lesbian visibility whilst having to swallow that males should be allowed to use Refuge as women, but I was as tactful as possible in the circumstances about seeking clarification. The day I was told that I couldn’t ask any more questions because I had already asked two, I excused myself and walked home.
I almost did not vote. The Green Party, who I have always voted for, are steeped in this kind of hypocritical misogyny. I voted for them only after promising myself a stiff drink after the ballot. Their policies on women are extremely fickle, and since the elections they have tried to oust a lesbian feminist from the party for holding a banner at a Pride parade saying “Stop giving kids sex hormones / Protect lesbian youth”. Mana convenor Max Tweedie has not been afraid to (along with Aych McCardle of RainbowYouth) gaslight me and fabricate lies from thin air, then publish them on the internet – like that I published an article on GayNZ saying I wanted RainbowYouth defunded. McCardle asserted the same, and that I was kicked out of Pride Parade. Neither of those things ever happened, at all.
The Labour Party is no better – they too have ousted a lesbian feminist from a key role within Rainbow Labour, because she openly objected to the cotton ceiling on her own Facebook page. The “cotton ceiling”, for those who do not know, is like a glass ceiling for men who want to be accepted as lesbians – they can only get so far before they hit a ceiling they need to bust through. The “cotton” refers to women’s underwear. This was Ted Greensmith’s response to a lesbian objecting to, what is in fact, rape culture by another name.
Not only could I barely vote, and not complete Women’s Refuge training; I do not attend pro-choice protests at the hospital where I have had an abortion. I know that the liberals who organise these gatherings would make my life a misery if I attended – one woman who does organise pro-choice demonstrations actually took my job after helping to lobby me out of it, only to initiate online harrassment against me using the business name a full year after I had left. I have never met her.
To be a leftist activist, these days, it seems that you need to be a men’s rights activist, too – or else a very quiet and uncomfortable woman dealing with a lot of cognitive dissonance. This is not to say that transactivism is exclusive to the “left”. Want to do your university PhD in “how people construct their online gender”? Go for it. Universities, all political parties, corporate sponsors like ANZ Bank, Air New Zealand and Fletcher Building are all behind this stuff. The head of the Human Rights Commission, David Rutherford, intentionally misrepresented legislation recently, that makes special exceptions to anti-discrimination law to allow for sports sex-segregation, in order to defend Gavin Hubbard’s “right” to compete in women’s weightlifting at the Commonwealth Games. Churches like St Andrews on the Terrace, as well as Community Law, and the Law Society, are all in on this “cultural revolution”.
And in spite of this culture-wide saturation, proponents of “sex work” and gender identity still claim to hold marginalised views. While women with no platforms to speak on are supposedly responsible for mass violence and death.
This culture is saturated with sexism, no matter where you look. Left, right, private, public, establishment or activist groups. If you are female and you are fed up – speak out. It’s time to.