Judy Virago gives perspective to the debate that has divided our community.
Four years ago, a cock-eyed consort and I were arrested on suspected possession of methamphetamine. The officer asked me if I’d had any issues with the law before. I said I didn’t think so, started to sweat and gave him my name and birth date. I didn’t show up in the system – not a trace of me at all. He asked if I had been honest about my details. And that’s when I remembered I was trans. I knew I was innocent, but I was concerned my change of name and sex would be perceived as deceit. Terrified, I disclosed the history of my gender. The officer’s tone softened, he apologized for questioning the validity of my details in front of others and took me aside. He asked if I was comfortable continuing the conversation out of ear shot. I told him my name at birth, and he assured me that he would keep my history confidential.
I asked to see the allegedly illicit substance they had found on my inebriated associate. On return from testing it turned out to be sugar crystals in a little zip-lock baggie left over from sour gummies! The officer chuckled, released me, and held back my drunk and disorderly darling to give me a chance to get away from him safely.
This encounter with authority turned out to be an acceptable (if not initially alarming), experience for me. My privacy (and pronouns) were respected, and my immediate safety needs were met. But let’s be very clear here, I am a white, educated, femme-passing trans woman with certain privileges afforded to me. Not every LGBTQI+ person gets this treatment. There is significant diversity of experience with law enforcement across New Zealand’s trans community. I will remain critical of the structures designed to keep us safe until all of us are treated safely. But to truly achieve Pride for all of us, we must avoid reductive debates that demonise New Zealand Police, victimise trans folk, and conflate the diverse lived realities of LGBTQ+ Kiwis of colour. Police still have a long, nuanced way to go before they can be considered genuine allies to the trans community, but the challenging conversations required to get there can be had without alienating ourselves or each other from the collective joy that Pride Festivals can offer.
As a community, we have acknowledged that the state sanctioned harm done to many LGBTQI+ Kiwis during our pre-Law Reform era was atrocious. For many LGBTQI+ New Zealanders who experienced that harm, police participation in Pride signals that we have progressed as a society. They see it as a symbol of inclusion, and acceptance of diversity. Historic abuses aside, many others continue to suffer. We are a population that prides itself on compassion for others. We must acknowledge that people who still fear the police are sharing their truth with us; their pain is real. Taking an intersectional, trauma-informed approach to Pride requires that we consider the needs of everyone – those who have survived historic abuses, those who continue to suffer at the hands of the state, and those LGBTQI+ members of the police force who dealt with exclusion and harassment throughout their own lives.
To the LGBTQI+ cops reading this, I know what it means to break into a workforce you may have once felt excluded from. I know you want to celebrate, and be celebrated by, the rest of your community. I know you probably don’t intend to cause harm, but the emblems of your occupation can have a negative impact on others. You and your colleagues have a responsibility to be aware of that impact and continue the incredibly hard work to prevent it. Some of us are here to talk when you’re ready to ask the right questions, and genuinely listen to our answers. By working together we can improve life for the most targeted and vulnerable, all year round.
Judy Virago is an educator, showgirl and the Chair of the OuterSpaces Trust.