Queer culture is all but characterised by its forgetfulness. The AIDS crisis wiped out far too many of our elders—a trauma that most of us cannot remember. Our liberal, white, spoon-fed love of cops begets the fact that the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria Riots were battlegrounds, not celebrations—a distinction that many of us cannot remember. The dominance of Pākehā culture in Aotearoa is indicative of the conflict introduced by colonialism in the first place—the violence of which white supremacy does not want us to remember, while for others it is impossible to forget.
This forgetfulness is destroying us from within.
Activist group No Pride In Prisons (NPIP) has emerged to resist this narrative. As a group we believe that it is one thing to say that it is important for queer people to remember our history, but entirely another to understand what that means, and to determine how our history should impact our present in ways both positive and negative.
It is easy for us to acknowledge, then, that this year marks the 30th anniversary of the passing of the Homosexual Law Reform Act in New Zealand, which decriminalised male homosexual sex. Following over 18 years of dedicated political action the bill was passed—albeit without the anti-discrimination clauses, which took six more years to pass in 1993.
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The history of the Homosexual Law Reform Act is long and arduous. Untold sacrifices were made to get the government and mainstream culture at large to remove their boots from our throats, and it is important to recognise those sacrifices. What is harder to recognise is not only what has not yet been achieved, but our failures—a considerably less palatable part of this country’s (and community’s) history.
NPIP targets the prison system in particular because of its significance in colonial society. Its long history as a tool for the subjugation of indigenous peoples by incarcerating them in order for the state to steal their land is well-documented, particularly with the government’s invasion of Parihaka in 1881. This colonial occupation continues this century with the seizure of Aotearoa’s foreshore and seabed from Māori ownership, as well as with white feminist darling Helen Clark’s refusal to sign the the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when it was introduced in 2007.
While New Zealand finally signed the declaration in 2010, doing so has not changed the reality that Māori still comprise a majority of the prison population. This is a practice that runs wholesale against indigenous self-determination, as precolonial Aotearoa had no equivalent for incarceration. Civil unrest was resolved by identifying the source of the conflict and addressing it, not by locking it away in a cage. Doing so is a violation, plain and simple.
It is important to draw from all of this history and make these connections, regardless of the potential discomfort brought on by its implications; the sense of safety Pākehā are afforded from violent criminal elements is bought by incarcerating so many more people and destroying so many more families and lives than a handful of lone killers ever could. This is an end that does not justify its means.
And then there’s the overcrowding problem. Minister of Corrections Judith Collins can continue to deny it—she claims that most facilities in New Zealand are not in fact exceeding capacity—because the government has been implementing a double-bunking policy that saves space by placing two prisoners at a time in cells instead of one. Numerous studies on an international scale have indicated that this policy leads directly to violence.
NPIP has found that this includes sexual violence directed at trans women, who are by default placed in male prisons before opportunities to transfer are introduced, despite the existing policies that should prevent this from happening.
Even transfers are impeded by conveniently misplaced paperwork, as was the case for Jade Follett last year when, during her incarceration in Rimutaka Prison, her request to transfer to a women’s prison was delayed. It took a hunger strike from NPIP Auckland, and threatened action from the then-nascent Wellington chapter, for the necessary paperwork to just as conveniently reappear.
All the while, trans women prisoners face continued and increased risk of sexual violence not only from their bunkmates, but from prison guards themselves. Despite repeated allegations coming from a woman held in Whanganui Prison, Corrections has refused to even launch an investigation, writing her off for a “history of making claims” rather than taking them seriously to begin with.
For their racism, transmisogyny, and negligence, Corrections has no place in Pride. When they were invited to march in the parade at the 2015 Auckland Pride Festival, NPIP was formed to take both Corrections and Pride to task by interrupting the event for its flagrant disrespect of the most vulnerable in our community—the queer, the trans, the brown; all of whom are targeted by the prison system (and who it should be remembered are in fact the reason Pride exists to begin with).
Pointing out this hypocrisy resulted in violence; festival-goers booed and jeered while parade security forces, who are legally not supposed to touch any attendees, responded by shoving the only visibly trans and Māori NPIP member to the ground, fracturing her arm in the process.
She was lectured, while security held her down, by the president of the Gay Auckland Business Association, which funds the pride festival, while said president personally destroyed another NPIP member’s phone containing video evidence of what had just transpired.
A year and a half later no accountability has been demonstrated by any of these guilty parties. Queer culture in Aotearoa is ready to forget all of this too—while for others, doing so will be impossible.
NPIP exists to make sure we do more than simply remember. With chapters emerging across Aotearoa and an ever-growing social media presence, we are more committed than ever to fighting for the dismantlement of the prison system and instituting alternative justice models that honour tino rangatiratanga and actually address societal problems, rather than locking them out of sight and out of mind.