Karangahape Road:The Need to Protect Queer, Trans, Migrant, Poor and Vulnerable Presence in the City

I’m nervous about discussing the dry and rectangular world of city planning, and more fluid, mutable worlds of spirit, community and creativity in one blog-post. And yet, I am called to action by my fierce loyalty towards Karangahape Road.

Wayne Thompson (no relation) wrote an article in the Herald on friday about the changes afoot for Karangahape Rd.

Auckland City Council is seeking feedback on their draft K’Road plan by 14th May, and are having a public drop-in feedback session with the council’s planning team this Monday 5 May 11am-2pm, Methodist Church, Pitt Street (It’s the last of four but I only found this out sorry).

Struggling through the policy-speak of draft plan (lots of vague words like ‘colourful’, a word I will come back to), the Council knows that Karangahape Road area is going to be a vital site because of it’s centrality to the future city rail link. Think lots of moving bodies. They also know as the city population grows, Karangahape Rd is going to need to accommodate a bigger population; think more businesses, more accommodation, more people wanting to have fun. They have already consulted with Karangahape Business Association, but to my mind there are other vital stakeholders whose views are obscured or missing from the current draft, and a risk that the jargon of planners will lead to Karangahape Rd being banal and soul-less.

Wayne Thompson writes:

“Karangahape Rd has long been known for its character – which includes everything from quirky stores and trendy cafes to a vibrant nightlife and prostitution.

For some, that mix is what makes the area unique and appealing. For others it’s a mix that needs to change. A road that needs to be cleaned up.”

His article usefully draws attention to the tensions expressed by Karangahape Road Business Association, who want to see the road cleaned up, and yet retain its current atmosphere. Thompson quotes Waitemata Local Board Member, Vernon Tava, who says:

“The problem is how to keep the colour and yet make it a safer place for business”

This statement is really the heart of it.

What bothers me most is that making it “a safer place for business” is not the same thing as making it a safer place for people, and even then, we need to think about which bodies we are protecting, and from whom. Making Karangahape Rd “a safer place for business” is not really about safety at all – it is about protecting capital, wealth and assets, for private business owners. Safety for people is a different matter all together. It is about the absence of harm or violence, respect, dignity and compassion. Some businesses the Herald article spoke to complained about “binge drinkers” and “sex workers” in their carparks and doorways; and one businessman complained about “the street people”.

I want the City Council Plan to protect city dwellers who live rough, sex workers and other vulnerable users from the micro-agressions inflicted on them by business owners. In fact, that’s only scraping the surface of what I would dream for Karangahape Rd.

I am reminded of the work done by queer theorist, Michael Warner (2002) who has described how attempts to “clean up” edgy parts of the city, privatises sex, and marginalises queer, gay, lesbian and trans visibility and culture. Warner described the rezoning of New York City in the 1990s, where these actions led to the loss of public expressions of gay culture, and a public space that was more mainstream, and heteronormative.

I want to tell you my own history of Karangahape Rd.

In 1997, I was 17 and had my first lesbian love affair with a girl who lived in a dingy flat above shops on K’road. She might have been 18 or 19. She had long dreads. Grunge was still in, and I can remember her wearing op-shop cardigans, smoking roll-your-owns and wearing doc marten boots. At the time it felt worlds away from the chaos that was unfolding in my conservative family. We could walk down K’road holding hands and feel safe, and ‘at home’. We could sneak into nightclubs like Legends, or the Staircase. Once I remember a girl took a photo of us at a party; she had never seen ‘beautiful’ lesbians before. Quite simply, Karangahape Rd was a Queer St. A street of glitter covered drag queens, of gay men in tight tee-shirts ,or else wearing leather and handle-bar moustaches. It was overtly sexual. It was the place you escaped to from the suburbs.

Now, I know that over 20 years gay politics have changed. Last year’s recognition of marriage equality would have been entirely unimaginable to my 17-year-old self. There’s been a shift from a politics of radical visibility, to a politics of seeking equal recognition. There’s no question that for many gays and lesbians, sexuality is no longer that important because of the high level of mainstream acceptance.

But I have a few concerns.

Firstly, when the current draft of the Karangahape Rd plan mentions “colourful”, or refers obscurely to it’s “character”, it doesn’t mention the significance of GBLT community. When it talks about preserving “culture” and “vibrant history” it doesn’t mention preserving the relationship between Karangahape rd and sexual and gender diversity. It’s frustrating that queer community has provided the bodies, the energy and creativity, but then are not explicitly consulted about it’s future, and our stake in it.

While there have been tremendous gains made for some members of the GBLT community over the last 20 years, there are still those of us that do not have the privileges of Pakeha middle-class gays and lesbians, and who have some way to go before they experience gender or sexual justice in their lives. Particularly young queer folk, including those who may be trans or gender-queer. I want Karangahape Rd to retain it’s character as a queer hub through the presence, safety and comfort of queer people. Currently, Karangahape houses Rainbow Youth, an organisation for GBLT young people. Community organisations like Rainbow Youth are enormously susceptible to the pressure of market rents. We need to future for Karangahape rd that maintains it’s connections to queer young folk.

In the plans there are a few references to public spaces that will be made “family-friendly”. Now, in general, of course I would want public areas to be family-friendly. But in the context of an area with a current and historic association with young, brown trans, fa’afafine, fakaleiti, and whakawahine sex workers, I don’t want the creation of “family-friendly” public space leading eventually to the pushing out of these street-based sex workers (who may be unable to get brothel work because of racism and transphobia) into areas that will make them more vulnerable.

Cities can have a creative presence that is difficult to pin down. It is something about the rub of different bodies, the movement, and the different textures that emerge from the juxtaposition of diverse worlds. A frission if you will. So Karangahape road has also been a home to artists and writers. The plan mentions consultation with creative industries, but I wonder whether the planners understand that the presence of artists and writers is also dependant on materialities (e.g. affordability of rent), exposure to diversity, cafe culture, and the ability to cultivate relationships with the eccentric, the non-productive and the under-employed. I can often be found drinking coffee and writing at either Alleyula in St Kevins, or at Revel. If it gets too commercialised, it will die.

Finally, lets talk about the relationship between Karangahape rd and people who live rough in the city. The draft plan for Karangahape Rd does mention the Homelessness Action Plan (I couldn’t find a live link to it on the council site) but from my limited understanding, it is a multi-agency strategy for assisting those people sleeping rough into long-term accommodation. This occurs on a case-by-case basis via support workers who can help them those sleeping rough access services (via say, WINZ and Housing New Zealand). Obviously I haven’t looked at the plan in full, but in terms of where rough sleeping intersects with Karangahape Rd, I still think there could be a more meaningful acknowledgment of the relationship between cities and rough sleeping, and an approach of explicitly acknowledging the safety  and well-being needs of the rough sleeper population and recognises they are likely to be a continuing aspect of the city. I imagine that plans to move people into long-term accommodation often have some kind of lag while bureaucratic wheels turn, and that there might be gap in meeting the short-term and immediate needs of the city-based people who are vulnerable.

I thought about how in Tory St in Wellington’s inner city, there is the is the amazing soup kitchen at the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre. Firstly, before people get worked up about the suggestion, Tory St is still a thriving and popular street which houses trendy cafes, graphic design companies and the like. The Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre is an accepted and welcome part of Wellington inner city at least partially because the soup kitchen has been there (albeit in different forms and at different venues) for over 110 years. It has become part of the public culture of Wellington. Despite this, of course, it is only possible because of a group of nuns, and probably, private church wealth and low property prices.

In 2014, in a highly, secular culture, it doesn’t seem appropriate that we leave the role of public compassion to the work done by church organisations. There is no equivalent social body to say, buy inner city property to create soup kitchens (certainly not with the same level of public uptake). Which brings us back to the Karangahape rd plan of the Auckland Council. How could the needs of the most vulnerable street users be made more central?

Please get involved and give the council feedback by May 14. I want to leave you with an anecdote about a recent Karangahape rd experience. I drinking coffee and writing on my laptop at Alleyula in St Kevin’s Arcade a few weeks ago, and a kid came up to me. He must have been 12-14, but his skinny frame and oversized jumper made it difficult to tell. His skin was pale but the rims of his eyes were very red, and he had a very slight tremor. He asked me for two dollars so that he could catch a bus “to get home”. I looked at him and knew it wasn’t for bus money. I said, “Sure, dude” lightly, and reached into my purse to get change. He continued talking, “The other people won’t help me because they think I’m just a bum, like one of those K’road bums? But I’m not a bum”. I could see that he was trying to represent himself  – via an imaginary bus ride to an imaginary home – as someone I would help and speak kindly to. That we are often prepared to help those we are ‘like’; a kid who has plausibly forgotten their bus money, but not the same kid who has been living rough and using drugs to survive overwhelming distress. So I gave him a couple of dollars, but said, “Yeah, but you know, no one is really bum. They’re just people who are having really rough times”. He thanked me and moved on to asking other tables, evidence that he did not just need a trip home. But he turned and waved to me when he was leaving, giving a grateful smile.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was a teenaged lesbian and when lesbians were still outsiders, Karangahape rd taught me about safety, joy and community you get from other outsiders, no matter how much of an outsider you are. Please lets protect Karangahape rd’s relationship to outsiders, queer folk of all stripes, migrants, artists, poor folk. If it has to be a “safe” place, let it be a safe place to be different and vulnerable.

 

 

 

 

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Love Radically: Some words about trans/ cis romantic and intimate relationships and intersecting axes of difference.

Okay, so I just read Mia McKenzie’s interesting and challenging list on 8 Ways Not to be An Ally. Mia is a writer I hugely respect. But the item on dating sat uncomfortably with me, and awoke some tensions I’ve been trying to work through in my own thinking and politics – not because I don’t think that fetishism and exotification are important – but instead because I think we need to make sense of relationships in even more complicated ways, and make sense of the way intersecting axes of difference can operate differently across different aspects of relationships. Mia McKenzie writes:

 Some folks seem to think that the quickest way to lifelong allyship status is to just date all the people who resemble those that one claims to exist in solidarity with. Anti-racist? Date all the POC! And be sure to do so exclusively and with no analysis whatsoever about fetishism, exotification, or the ways your white body might be interrupting POC space! Cuz, hey, you’re an ally and stuff. Right? Ew.

I want to discuss some aspects of my long-term relationship with my ex-partner as a means of extrapolating what I mean by intersecting axes of difference and power, and the way these complex intersections play out in relationships. And simultaneously, I want to use an intersectional feminist analysis to deconstruct some of the uneasy assumptions about what it means to be a partner and ally, and raise important questions about how we think about partners – as either allies, limited term allies, or as non-allies (because of the potential for exotification or fetishization).

Firstly, Mia’s statement is about making sense of people who don’t just have one relationship with someone from an Othered or marginalised category (i.e. a POC or a trans person say), but who continually date people from that group. Is that fair enough? Is that just a reasonable means of identifying people who may be threats, who fetishize a particular group? Here’s where it gets more complicated for me.

I am a Kailoma (mixed-race) Fijian/ Tongan/ Pakeha queer femme genderqueer cis woman from a poor background. My ex-partner is a white middle-class bisexual trans woman. While we were together, I sometimes experienced hostility from other white trans women who felt that I was ‘cis privileged’ and didn’t like my participation in trans events. I was also called a “tranny chaser”, and when I spoke to other lesbian cis women who were partnered with trans women, I found that they had also been called “tranny chasers”.

So my then-partner and I had a big talk about how we saw privilege and power operating in our relationship, and between us. We agreed that while there were a small handful of situations where my cis privilege meant that I experienced more social ease than my love, by and large her whiteness and class privilege trumped my cis privilege in most areas of our lives together. This doesn’t mean that the social ease given to cis people wasn’t real or relevant in our lives. It means that class and race are such forceful social mechanisms that in most situations being non-white and from a poor background made me relatively disadvantaged in relation to her.

We need to think carefully about how axes of difference play out in intimate relationships. It’s not much that one person holds privilege and that necessarily extends to “power over” the other person. It’s often more that privilege creates access to wealth or resources that the other person might not have to hand. And that, in an intimate relationship, if one person continuously experiences less access to resources, that may amount to a relative lack of power. This relative lack of power might play out as a diminished ability to make decisions in the relationship that effects both people.

But of course, what happens in a relationship like mine where a couple are negotiating multiple differences is that you experience privilege differently in different sites. So in lesbian nightclubs or queer events that were more multicultural, my status as cis would mean that I would experience more social ease than my partner (women might exotify me, but my identity as a woman wouldn’t be questioned). But at university, my partner’s whiteness and class background created an pervasive ease and sense of belonging that I didn’t have. Her whiteness acted as a buffer in an educated academic setting. And because under capitalism, work and education have more impact on our overall lives than social relationships do, she was relatively privileged in relation to me.

But what does this mean when a couple might – like us – negotiate different cultures and classes alongside different gender identities or sexualities? Does it mean that her whiteness acted as the most powerful lens and I was racially exoticized? Does it mean that my cis status acted as the most powerful lens and she was fetishized? What if I told you that her previous partner was also non-white? What if I told you that another former partner of mine is currently exploring their gender identity? Are we both freaky perverts for daring to border-cross? Or were we delusional for imagining that we could find genuine love, intimacy and fairness across differences?

It’s worth recalling Braidotti’s claim that in the West, difference is colonized to denote relative power –  so our delineations of ‘self’ and ‘other’ become a means of creating and reinforcing social hierarchies. Difference outside of this context of meaning-making might be neutral. So we can question the ways in which we view ourselves and others in light of the cultural value we assign, and how this produces power relations.

One of the biggest problems I have with the “tranny-chaser” perception of trans-partners is that perpetuates another binary between the “good” trans-partner/ally and the “bad” “tranny-chaser” that doesn’t speak to the complexities of relationships and ongoing need for dialogue between partners. In the first year of our relationship, I probably unequivocally saw myself as the “good” trans-partner/ ally. That’s because we hadn’t been together long enough for me to know that we would eventually need to have hundreds of difficult and painful conversations about gender. Not because I wasn’t entirely on her side, whatever that might be. But because over time we realized that we understood gender entirely differently, and we had different perceptions of what ‘woman’ meant, which was as much about our different racial backgrounds as it was about our cis/ trans status. My belief that I was an ally – on the basis that I believe trans women are women who should have equal access to rights and dignity as cis woman – didn’t necessarily amount to a shared understanding of my partner thought was important about her gender. And as much as I wanted to truly recognize my partner the way that she saw herself – because I wanted her to feel recognized and validated in our relationship – I couldn’t always understand gender in the way that she did. Equally, we have had hundreds of difficult conversations about cultural appropriation, classism and racism.

Hundreds of conversations about differences probably sounds exhausting, and it definitely could be. But I actually think that overall it is something we did pretty well. It’s hard to have to constantly be trying to put your own preconceptions to one side, and listen wholeheartedly to someone else. It takes a lot of love and compassion to carry you across that gap in worldviews. And strength of character to hold on to different perceptions where they are important for your own sense of authenticity and self. You need to talk heaps about gender and race, and at the same time hold on those feelings of love and connection that make relationships worthwhile.

I like how Sandoval has talked about love as creating radical possibilities for alliance across differences. I guess if I were talking to a trans and cis queer couple contemplating a relationship despite differences in culture and class background, my advice would be to love radically. Fetishization happens when someone views another person as less than who they are, because their viewpoint is obscured by a cultural stereotype. They classify the person as an erotic Other. I loved my ex-partner as a whole, complex and unique person. I wasn’t afraid to love her trans-ness, but I also loved the complexity of her story, her ideas and insight beyond being trans. I loved her enough to listen carefully, and ask questions, and disagree and try again. You need love, mutual respect, and a commitment to ongoing dialogue about how salient social differences impact on your ability to relate to each other.

Reflections on the Suicide of a Transgender Teacher After Media Furore

Lucy Meadows was a 32 year old primary teacher in Accrington. She was popular with her students. Three months ago she started the challenging process of transitioning to live as a woman. People who are transitioning need to be afforded human dignity, and more than a little peace. It’s an awkward, stressful time. She was well supported by the school principal, who requested in a newsletter that after break, students refer to her as “Miss Meadows”.

Unfortunately, Lucy Meadows was subjected to a derisive article in the Daily Mail, where columnist Richard Littlejohn led with the inflammatory headline:

“He’s not only in the wrong body… he’s in the wrong job”

Littlejohn went on to argue that having a transgender teacher might have a “devastating effect” on Miss Meadow’s pupils.

Littlejohn’s article started a press furore. The local press went as far as even trying to pay parents for a photo of MIss Meadows. The Guardian quotes Jane Fae, Trans writer and acquaintance of Lucy, as saying:

“Lucy writes [in an email to another friend] of how parents themselves complained that their attempts to provide positive comments about her were rebuffed,” Fae said. “The press gang, it seems, were only interested in one story: the outrage, the view from the bigots”.

On Tuesday morning, Lucy was found dead following suicide.

Grossly enough the Daily Mail have defended Richard Littlejohn. You can sign a petition calling for him to be fired here.

Lucy’s death is a tragedy. It’s not good enough that the Daily Mail can pretend that public words don’t create harm. They clearly do. Lucy did not deserve such a cruel attack.

And we as a broader community of trans, genderqueer folk and allies did not deserve such a cruel attack. Beyond the media hounding of a particular person, hate speech creates fear and apprehension that resonates far more widely. It’s a form of gender bullying. We don’t all need to be bullied to know that the bullies are out there – and to be a little bit more afraid because of it.

My partner Jaimie is a transwoman. When I see transphobic media, I feel more afraid for her safety. I stress unnecessarily about late night public transport. Transphobia wins a bit of ground.

I’m feeling a deep sadness about this case because the world needs good transgender teachers. The kids is Miss Meadows class deserved to get to know a transgender person as a human being, someone they looked up to, someone who treated them well. Children deserve to learn that difference isn’t scary, it’s our prejudices that make it so.

And more than that, moralistic finger pointing about “protecting the children” forgets that there are trans kids too. Kids that deserve to know that they are not alone, and see transgender adults in places of responsibility and value. Kids that – like all kids – deserve to believe they can grow up to be whatever they want to be.

Meaningful Journeys

Last weekend Jaimie and I went to a reading by Imogen Binnie, who is touring with her first novel Nevada. Imogen is exactly the type of writer you want to hear talk because she lets her actual life steal into the room, as if you are listening to a punk guitarist, or your extremely hip older sister. She was a mix of eccentric and captivating and self-depreciating. Imogen is on a bizarro road trip that is actually a book tour reading to trans and queer communities dotted like silver stars across North America, which is appropriate because Nevada is also a transgender road trip.

I’m only a quarter of the way through so where I am up to the main character Maria is still riding her bike around New York City, angsting about her girlfriend, and experiencing life through the disruptive film of dissociation. Binnie writes in very raw way. You feel crushingly close to Maria’s anxious and complex thoughts, and it feels unnerving. But luckily, also fresh and funny.

It’s courageous for a writer to take on the narrative of the great American road-trip. In American hands, cars equal freedom. It’s even more courageous when the writer is a transwoman because the great American road-trip has been so intensely masculinist. And yet, as the trans scholar Aren Aizura reminds us, trans lives are filled with travel. So I’m excited about how it will unfold…I think you should buy this book, read it faster then me, and then comment about it.

My partner Jaimie is trans. The launch made us especially miss our trans friends in Auckland. It would have been more fun if we had people to eat gelato with.