To say the least, there are echoes of the Emperor’s new clothes in our annual Pride Parades. Since 2013, Auckland’s Pride board has received significant state and corporate support to run an annual festival famed for extravagance and exhibitionism in the heart of New Zealand’s biggest city. Meanwhile, the public is supposed to accept a story about how the spirit of Pride is anti-establishment: Pride is not just a lavish street party, we’re told. It’s a march in which otherwise marginalized groups demand visibility and ‘stick it’ to the man.

This tension between Pride’s state and corporate sponsorship, and its political roots, helps explain why the planning for next year’s Auckland event is currently in such dire straits.

Activists – specifically, prison abolitionists People Against Prisons Aotearoa (PAPA) – have been protesting police participation at Pride since 2015. This agitation has finally culminated in a Board announcement, made in November, that police uniforms are now barred. The decision, made despite a lack of consensus from Pride members, caused a corporate exodus: three big banks, a phone company, and New Zealand Media and Entertainment have withdrawn sponsorship, among others. The Board has been left with an ambitious crowdfunding project, a treasurer to replace, and a president (Cissy Rock) who is dancing “on the head of a pin,” in the words of Radio New Zealand interviewer Kim Hill. Intriguingly, Labour politician Louisa Wall has responded to the debacle by renewing her commitment to having no “fucking TERFs at the Pride Parade.”

Wall’s exclamation, and its enthusiastic reception at a November 18 meeting, reveals something deeper about the palaver currently taking place in New Zealand. To all appearances, Pride, PAPA and the police are in agreement about ‘rainbow’ visibility – the police recently won a Diversity Award for this reason. So let’s be honest: the biggest threat to Pride goers is not state authorities or any kind of “triggering” outfit. It is the presence of people who have the grounds, the motivation and the power to resist or restrict the male sexual license that clearly characterizes the parade.

Police first marched in uniform in Auckland Pride in 2014. The following year, three members of PAPA (then No Pride in Prisons) confronted police and security at the parade. The leader of the protest was Emmy Rākete, a 22-year-old man who identifies as lesbian. Rākete was hospitalized with a broken arm after protesting, and later said, “I wish I’d heard that Corrections were marching sooner.” PAPA have been better prepared this time around.

Police sent through their application to join next year’s event presumably in September. A meeting of Pride members followed on October 2, and PAPA reported back from the meeting the following day. “Last night many of our members attended the Auckland Pride Hui to share our experiences working with survivors of violence in NZ prisons, and of violence we have experienced at the hands of Police,” they tweeted. “We oppose these institutions participating in the Auckland Pride Parade.” The board announced its decision to honour PAPA’s activism by banning police uniforms on November 9.

Considering the consequences of this decision, it is important to understand its motivations. Is PAPA really driven by a desire to reinvigorate “queer outrage at the forces which destroy us,” as they say – and does this motivation make sense in today’s context? If not, what other drivers might there be?

PAPA is right that the grassroots origins of Pride are less glittery than today’s Mardi Gras style festivals, and in the beginning, nobody invited the police. Before the homosexual law reforms of the 1980s, homosexuality was criminalized and police raids on gay bars were common. The roots of Pride go back to an uprising that followed one such raid in 1969: New York police invaded the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich village in the early hours of June 28. An African-American lesbian woman named Stormé DeLarverie, “guardian of lesbians in the Village,” is often credited with sparking the uprising against police repression and the demonstrations that followed.

In 1989, the U.K. organization Stonewall was founded, taking its name from the ‘69 rebellion. Yet as Julie Bindel writes in Straight Expectations, Stonewall now “snuggles up to the Tories, the House of Lords and any number of corporate sponsors.” The organization drafted the “Trans Tool Kit” recently released by U.K. police – a project that was probably not what lesbian rebel DeLarverie had in mind. According to Bindel, Stonewall’s aims, like those of other organizations that continue to operate in the name of ‘gay pride,’

“are evidently conservative, aiming to ensure gay men and lesbians can join society as it is, but with an absence of bigotry. It does not appear to be interested in dismantling a patriarchal and oppressively capitalist society, but rather merely wants to join in with it.”

It is fair for PAPA to be disillusioned about Pride’s depoliticization, and about “pinkwashing” – the tokenistic use of a ‘Rainbow Tick,’ for instance, to enhance corporate branding. But PAPA’s protests are far removed from those at Stonewall, which responded out of necessity to the violent criminalization of homosexuality. PAPA’s positions have, in fact, nothing to do with homosexuality.

PAPA objects to “the treatment and sexual violence that some trans women experience when they are placed in male prisons.” The same year as Rākete had his arm broken at Pride, PAPA campaigned to move Jade Follett, a male who identifies as transgender, into a women’s prison. Follett had been sentenced to 21 months for stabbing and was raped in a men’s facility. Corrections complied with PAPA’s request within hours, suggesting that their relationship is cooperative.

The campaign to rehouse Follett, which included threats to hunger strike, was in keeping with PAPA’s fifty “abolitionist demands.” These provide some helpful context to PAPA’s Pride activism and the current folderol. PAPA requests that the Department of Corrections “allow for the immediate placement of all trans prisoners in a prison of their choosing,” and is irritated about limitations in place. The thing is, as blogger “GC Kiwi” points out, at present “the primary limitation on transgender women transferring to women’s prisons is if they have committed a serious sexual offense.” There are a number of male sex offenders in New Zealand who identify as women and belong to this demographic – Malcolm Platt, Rory Francis, and Pierre Parsons, to name a few. It is their interests that are best represented by PAPA.

PAPA demands that Corrections provide “trans prisoners” with “high-quality access” to gender affirmation surgery and hormone replacement therapy, as well as “LGBTIQ-affirming literature,” and “the underwear, other clothing, and makeup of their choice.” Prisoners should also be supplied “condoms and Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).” Right at the top of PAPA’s list of abolitionist demands, at number 2, is the request that Corrections “prevent the implementation of any public sex offender register in New Zealand.” Isn’t this what feminists call ‘men’s rights activism?’

To PAPA, the strip searching of men like Follett constitutes an inexcusable violation of rights that Corrections must cease, if they are to be welcome at Pride. It is interesting that the group is troubled by strip searching, but not the risk men like Follett might pose to women in women’s prisons. Karen White (formerly Stephen Terence Wood) attacked four women in September last year within days of being relocated to a women’s facility in the UK. In New Zealand, Corrections have admitted that at least six assaults have been perpetrated by trans-identified prisoners in women’s prisons since January last year. PAPA’s prioritization of men’s wishes over women’s safety is remarkable, and just as incompatible with the anti-violence objectives of prison abolitionism as it is with the celebration of homosexual rights reform.

This fixation on the demands of men who identify as women is something that PAPA has in common with the Pride board, whose co-chair until five months ago was Lexie Matheson, a man who is well over sixty and blogs as “Dykie Girl.” Inspector Tracy Phillips had assured media that the police, too, are “set up to recruit transgender recruits now,” and that “almost every recruit out of the Police college is wearing a rainbow lanyard.” She added that a new policeman recently proposed to his boyfriend at a Police College graduation, and earlier this year the police acquired a rainbow Pride car. The police also count among RainbowYouth’s donors, and don’t appear to see the problem.

Kim Hill tried to pin down the problem Pride has with police uniforms in an interview with Pride president Cissy Rock on Radio New Zealand (RNZ). “Would you prefer the clergy not wear clerical uniforms, should they still want to support the Pride Parade?” Hill asked. Rock explained that “the police as an institution have a different kind of power, don’t they. They are a state institution.”

But, the New Zealand government is also aligned with the goal of rainbow visibility. Government announced plans both to adopt one-step sex self-identification into law in August, and promised to “dramatically increase” the number of gender reassignment surgeries undertaken annually. Minister for women Julie Anne Genter takes the position that “transwomen are women,” and many other members of parliament support this mantra. The Ministry of Social Development funds RainbowYouth and InsideOut to work in the youth and education sector, and the Auckland District Health Board (ADHB) directs health practitioners to affirm gender identity.

As for the corporates, ANZ bank launched its “GAYTMs” – ATMs decorated in rainbow coloured rhinestones – in 2015, with the help of computer programmer Conrad Johnston dressed in a wig and beard while he posed as “LaQuisha St Redfern.” Prison abolitionists vandalized the Auckland GAYTMs on the eve of Pride, condemning them as corporate “pinkwashing.” In another example of all the incongruence in play, when ANZ withdrew its sponsorship this month, PAPA tweeted that this amounted to “holding the Auckland Pride Board to ransom” – despite its former objections to accepting the dirty money.

There seems to be so much argument over how best to serve the interests of heterosexual men who claim to be lesbian (“transwomen” are normally heterosexual men) that neither politicians, Pride nor PAPA are stopping to ask how consistent these interests are with the real, female homosexuals Pride is supposed to represent. Pride is about gay and lesbian people, and given the combined homophobia and sexism lesbians continue to face, women should surely be front and centre. Yet in a July article titled Lesbian Pride, Lesbian Protest, Jo Bartosch wrote from London:

“Yesterday I counted the women on the 2018 Pride in London website, the actual women — not the diva drag queens. In a tableau of thirteen images, there was one with some women volunteers, that’s a worse male to female ratio than the House of Lords. Pride is no more than corporate willy-waving.”

Indeed, gay and bisexual men might not feel threatened by the trans takeover, so long as the overall theme of male sexual license remains sacred. New Zealand’s 2018 programme included KIWIFIST, marketed as “New Zealand’s biggest arse-play event… A full-on, five-hour-plus, gathering of gay and bi men into fisting and arse-play big-time!” Organizers offered slings, toys, lubricants, “touch-up douche facilities” and a clothes check-in for a mere $30 at the door. It seems that Pride is not a celebration of homosexual liberation after all, but of male sexual license in all its forms.

This is the nub of why government and corporations are comfortable with Pride: even president Cissy Rock concedes that it replicates existing power arrangements. “It’s fair to say,” Rock told Hill on RNZ, “inside our community there’s a hierarchy that’s the same as in mainstream society: there’s a group of people at the top.” Those people are men, whose sexual freedoms Pride is designed to offer lavish expression. It should not be surprising to find people who want to keep on-duty police at arm’s length among supporters of such an event, and many more who are downright hostile to lesbians and feminists.

This hostility to lesbians sparked a series of lesbian feminist protests at Pride parades in 2018. In February, I joined Charlie Montague from the Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa (LRAA) to sneak through the barricades at Auckland Pride with a banner reading ‘Stop Giving Kids Sex Hormones / Protect Lesbian Youth.’ In July, a British collective including Anti-Porn author Julia Long, called “Get the L Out,” followed suit. These women brought banners to London Pride that said, ‘Lesbian = Female Homosexual,’ ‘Lesbian Not Queer’ and ‘Transactivism Erases Lesbians.’ They lay down in front of the parade, bringing it to a halt. Other protests took place at parades in Melbourne, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Belfast and Brighton.

These actions have generated intense backlash, usually accompanied by the slur “TERF,” which has come to a head in New Zealand. Labour politician Louisa Wall is now promoting the exclusion of lesbian feminists from Pride – citing the London protesters and Speak Up For Women spokesperson Georgina Blackmore as examples of the kind of “fucking TERFs” who shouldn’t come.

On November 18, Wall attended a Pride meeting to discuss the police uniform ban, which a show of hands revealed that 75 per cent of the approximately 160 people gathered were against. As a politician who spearheaded same-sex marriage legalization and liaises with police, Wall would have been expected to show some solidarity. She had posted beaming photos of herself with members of the police on Facebook only nine days prior, at the inaugural Government and Partners Rainbow Conference.

Despite her ties to police, Wall was not willing to override the Pride Board, and the stakes were high. Pride’s sponsors would start backing out the following day: the New Zealand Defence Force were the first, and Westpac and big banks BNZ and ANZ have since withdrawn funding, as have New Zealand Media and Entertainment, SkyCity, Vodafone and Fletcher Building, among others.

It was awkward. “Historically, as a community, we know we’ve had an issue with the police. We’ve had an issue with Corrections,” Wall conceded. But, “the police are doing an amazing job of diversifying. Some of you may not even know, they won a Diversity Award this year,” she said. “The police aren’t bad… The police are exemplifying, at the moment, diversity and inclusion. And that’s the irony of this decision, okay?”

Wall then began talking about the importance of prioritizing “trans inclusion,” before a flash of inspiration caused her to blurt: “My whole thing is that I don’t want any fucking TERFs at the Pride Parade!” This non sequitur won her thunderous applause, audible in the recording released by Speak Up For Women. It seems the old ploy works: when in doubt, blame women.

Pride is supposed to be about rainbow visibility. But this cause, whether championed by politicians, activists or the board itself, is increasingly dominated by the interests of men claiming to be lesbian, their insistence on lesbian compliance, and their disdain for feminists. While some Pride attendees invite teenage boys to “arse-play” parties, “transwomen” violate the very definition of lesbian, woman and homosexual, and harass women to do so. In this context of male sexual license, it is obvious why on-duty police are considered a threat by some Pride goers. Lesbian feminists explicitly against the parade’s phallocentrism remain the real party poopers, though – and easier to target.

Rock is playing it cool. She reckons “sponsorship is not really a big issue for us.” Whether or not she is being upfront, the thrust of her statement is true: the integrity of an event that started up to celebrate the decriminalization of homosexuality is more important than money. That integrity will remain on the rocks, though, as long as Pride refuses to listen to today’s lesbian DeLarveries. A Pride parade true to its origins would honour, not cast out, woman rebels fighting state sanctioned vilification, medicalization, censorship and male violence – “the forces which destroy us.”

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