People

Auckland Council’s Great Gay Hope

express Magazine
Written by express Magazine

Over the past few years elected LGBTI representatives on Auckland Council have dramatically fallen from five in 2016 to currently just one (Richard Hills). This year two openly gay candidates are standing, with Hills up for re-election and Damian Light entering the fold. Christopher Dempsey discovers what makes these two candidates tick.

Damian Light:

Why are you standing?

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I’m proud to have lived and worked in Auckland my entire life. I love our city but I’m also frustrated by the slow progress and lack of leadership. People don’t see council as effective and people have turned off. Our low voter turn out is a symptom of this disconnect, despite the huge impact that council has on our daily life. From water, rubbish, transport and our parks, council has the ability to make our city amazing or average. We’re growing fast and we have an opportunity to shape Tāmaki Makaurau into the best city it can be, not just for today but for the generations to come. To achieve this we need passionate leaders who will demand the best for our city, leaders with a vision for a better future and who will work hard to achieve it. It’s great having some experienced councillors, but we also need some younger members who bring new ideas and fresh determination.

Does being gay make a difference to standing?

I’d like to think it doesn’t make a difference to people’s voting, although maybe it does for some. I’m more aware of what it means to be in a minority and can more easily relate to other diverse communities.

Are you ‘out’ to your local communities?

I’m pretty open about me being gay and having a partner. There was a lot of coverage of me during the 2017 general election being the first openly gay leader so it’s widely known.

Have you ever encountered homophobia while campaigning? 

Yes, although most of this has been during the general elections. Mostly it’s people online who hide behind their keyboards and immediately go quiet when challenged. I’ve got four brothers and a sister so I’ve got a pretty thick skin and don’t let it get to me. However I do worry about how it might impact others who see it especially younger people, so I always make an effort to call it out publicly when I see it.

The Rainbow community has it pretty good these days. We can get married, we are protected from discrimination, and Council supports the Pride Parade. What difference would a GLBTTIF Councillor make?

There’s plenty of evidence that a more diverse board means better governance and Auckland Council is no different. We need people with a range of people skills, experience and backgrounds to ensure that all views are considered and that decisions are based on the most complete picture possible.

Council has a Rainbow Panel that largely has operated out of sight of the community. What’s your view on the role of Council’s Rainbow Panel?

Getting a wide range of views is essential to council making the right decisions and this applies as much to the rainbow council as the ethnic communities and youth panels. I believe that they’ve done good work but we could definitely do more to raise their profile and engage with the communities better.

The Charlotte Museum Trust that operates a Lesbian Herstory Museum, has faced constant difficulties. Is there a place for Council support of GLBTI history in Auckland?

The stories and history told by this trust are amazing and we’re so fortunate that it’s been kept for us to learn from. So much has improved for gay and lesbians in Aotearoa it’s easy to forget the incredible challenges that have been faced in the recent past. Having those stories kept and shared is essential as we must never forget the massive scarifies that were made to gain what we have today, especially as we continue to fight for others. The challenge is there are so many amazing organisations that need help and council’s resources are limited. However, I would love to see the museum granted Auckland Council Community Occupancy to reduce their rent and ensure they can continue to tell this important story.

Research shows Rainbow Rangitahi make up a good number of homelessness people. As Councillor how would you address this problem?

I’ve volunteered with the Auckland City Mission in their drop-in cafe, so I’ve seen first-hand some of the struggles our most vulnerable people go through. There’s no easy answer and it needs a cross-functional response with wrap-around services to help those in need. Housing First is a great start and I want to see this continue. Ensuring that these services are relevant and inclusive, especially for our rainbow people. I fundamentally disagree with one Mayoral candidate’s suggestion of criminalising those on the streets – they need help and support, not political point-scoring. 

Do you think as Councillor you’ll have a role in keeping the community united, and ensuring inter-generational understanding?

Being a leader means bringing people together and I see this is a key part of being a councillor. Our diversity is a strength and we need to embrace our differences and celebrate it. This inclusion starts at the top and we must have a council that actively works to make it happen.

Every generation faces challenges and while there has been a huge improvement since the homosexual law reform in the 80s, there’s still a lot that needs to happen. Understanding how far we’ve come is essential to appreciating what we have and also to motivate us to continue to fight for true inclusion – not just for ourselves but for every minority. 

What are the top three issues facing the Rainbow communities in Auckland?

Auckland Council’s greatest weakness and the challenge is localism – how do we continue to build on the advantages of scale and size without losing the voice of our communities. Not just the communities of the suburbs, but those of the rainbow communities too. We need to get greater diversity onto council and shift the culture of the organisation so that it listens to a diversity of voices, not just the loudest or most common.

Transport is a challenge across Auckland for everyone and needs desperate attention. Our public transport has come along way in the past decade, but it needs to be more affordable, reliable and accessible. I’ve heard from those living with disabilities that despite improvements, there’s still far too many challenges getting access to transport. Enabling people to move around the city helps bring our communities together and we need to shift it to be an enabler, not a barrier. 

Climate change is undeniably the greatest challenge facing our generation and we must do more. Auckland Council has declared an emergency but we need real action to reduce our emissions and slow the changes as well as preparing for the impacts. 40% of our city’s emissions come from transport and council need to take a more determined approach to reduce this to make our transport system carbon neutral. 

What are your top tips for staying sane while campaigning?

Make some time for yourself – I try to get along to the gym and exercise. It’s a good stress release and helps clear the mind and body. Having supportive family and friends helps, despite all the stress and frantic times, that I’ve got people behind me that care makes it all worth it.

Is your secret weapon your husband?

My partner Josh is absolutely my secret weapon – he keeps me grounded, focused and fed. We’ve been together three years and this is my third election so he’s a core part of my campaign. He’s often my sounding board for ideas as well as ensuring the practical things are looked after (like eating). He comes to any event I ask him to, even if he’s not interested and he’s learned more about politics in the last few years than most people will know in a lifetime. He’s part campaign manager, cheerleader, personal assistant and volunteer. He’s an absolute rock and I definitely couldn’t do this without him.

What’s your secret to looking so baby faced and fresh all the time?

It sure doesn’t feel that way! I wish I could say eating and sleeping well but during the campaign, both are rare (coffee helps!). My secret is my supportive partner Josh who makes sure that I take some time to look after myself.

Favourite diva song?

“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor is a timeless classic, covered by many.

Favourite GLBTI cultural icon?

So many to choose from, I love that so many entertainers are so supportive and open it’s hard to pick one. I have enjoyed much of Sir Ian McKellen’s work and had the pleasure of briefly meeting him when he was here performing King Lear.

Best secret Auckland place?

We’re so lucky in Auckland, but my current favourite place is Stockade Hill in Howick. It has amazing views across East Auckland and the Waitematā (see pic attached), I love seeing the sunrise and sunset across the city. For the community, we use this space to commemorate the fallen on ANZAC Day and celebrate 

Favourite GLBIT podcast or book?

I haven’t had much time recently for podcasts or books – love to get some suggestions!

Richard Hills:

Why are you standing?

I am standing because I love this city and I want to make it better, we need investment in public transport, the environment and water quality and to make sure we support and include people from all backgrounds in our decision making.

Does being gay make a difference to standing?

Not really, the issues and campaign I run is no different because I am a member of the rainbow community. I do get some nasty homophobia every now and then but I use the block button freely. I think maybe I bring a slightly different perspective than some other standing, I see my identity as an asset.

Are you ‘out’ to your local communities?

Yes, I am very much out. I guess you would have to have your eyes closed not to know. I have written opinion pieces in local and national media on rainbow issues many times, commented on related stories and I celebrate my relationship with my husband on social media etc.

Have you ever encountered homophobia while campaigning? 

Yes, but mostly online. Quite sick stuff really, but I have got used to it and realise it is a small minority of people. 

The Rainbow community has it pretty good these days. We can get married, we are protected from discrimination, and Council supports the Pride Parade. What difference would a GLBTTIF Councillor make?

Many in the gay community have it good these days, yes, but that’s not the case for everyone, it’s especially not the case for our transgender, intersex or gender diverse whanau who have a lot more discrimination and barriers to living full lives feeling include in our city. Rainbow members of our community still have higher rates of abuse, suicide, homelessness and can find employment a challenge too. That is not everyone [has that challenge] but there are still many issues we need to address and are addressing as a community and a city. I try my best to ensure those views are being heard.  

I can help give some rainbow community members a louder voice, I work with rainbow members and friends. I do not pretend to speak for the whole community and especially not members who live different experiences to myself such as those from Maori or Pasifika community or those who are trans or gender diverse, I need to help elevate their voices and stories but I should not speak for them.

Council has a Rainbow Panel that largely has operated out of sight of the community. What’s your view on the role of Council’s Rainbow Panel?

The Rainbow Communities Advisory Panel do an amazing job feeding into council plans and priorities. They have held many public meetings. Some well attended, some not so much. They also ran a wide consultation on what the community wanted them to focus on. They also had stalls at rainbow events such as BGO. They are appointed to ensure council is focused on rainbow issues, they don’t speak for the whole community but they are members of the Auckland rainbow community and help the council understands some of the concerns and ideas some members of the community have.

The Charlotte Museum Trust that operates a Lesbian Herstory Museum, has faced constant difficulties. Is there a place for Council support of GLBTTIF history in Auckland?

It’s likely that would be up to a local board as they’re responsible for community leases in community facilities, and community funding. I am happy to look into this, I am not sure who or why there hasn’t been a place they’ve been able to go so far. Have they asked advice from the Auckland Museum and Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage too? Happy to chat with them.

What are your top three issues for the Rainbow communities in Auckland?

 The three I hear the most is transport, housing and safety.

What are your top tips for staying sane while campaigning?

Try going to the movies every now and then to actually zone out, me and Leighton love a superhero movie. Sleep if you can and when you can. Surround yourself with good people. Drink water, not alcohol. Don’t take criticism personally.

Is your secret weapon your husband?

Yes, Leighton is my hero, he doesn’t like the limelight like me, he’s good at knowing when I’ve had a tough day, he takes time off work to deliver pamphlets and leaves me food in the microwave and ironed shirts out when I am out late every night. He knows how to change my focus when I need to and he’s my biggest supporter. He’s also given up a lot to let me live my busy, public life. I am very lucky.

What’s your secret to looking so baby faced and fresh all the time?

Haha, this term on council is turning me grey. But I think being positive!

Favourite diva song?

“Gimme More”, Britney Spears or Beyoncé “Single Ladies” – there are plenty.

Favourite GLBTI cultural icon?

 I will not choose. It’s a trap!

Best secret Auckland place?

Auckland is small, you have to leave it to find a secret place. Lol. But our beaches or native bushwalks on the Shore are my favourite places to escape.

Favourite GLBIT podcast or book?

The Male Gayz  – Eli Matthewson and Chris Parker are HILARIOUS.  

 

About the author

express Magazine

express Magazine

express is New Zealand's leading LGBT+ publication. Our goal is to inform and support our community by delving into relevant people, stories and events.

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