For Pride this year, three of our Wellington staff who are part of the LGBTTQAIPPSN+ community get together to talk about Rainbow and Takatāpui issues in their workplace, life and future.
Who are you, where are you from and what is your role at VSA?
I’m Yuval Jacob Zalk, I’m originally from Israel and Germany. I’m the Online Communications Officer at VSA and my role is to collect all the great work that our volunteers, partner organisations and staff members do, and present it on our social media channels. My responsibilities are to craft and monitor our online presence across Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and our Website. I also edit videos and take care of VSA’s presence at some of our external events. I work in the small and close Communications Team which helps me to deliver our vision on our social media channels.
Hi. I'm Hillary. I’m originally from the USA and have worked in the NGO sector for about four-and-a-half years.
I grew up in a suburb called Ellicott City, a short drive from Baltimore, Maryland (where John Waters’ Hairspray is set). I went to University at one of our local State colleges… then moved to Washington, DC for work, where I lived for a year and a half.
It was in University and while I lived in DC (where I worked at an LGBTQ Civil Rights organisation) when I really started to come in to my queer identity and see myself as part of a larger social and cultural context. As a result of inspiring, social justice-minded professors, friends, and colleagues, I started to see life through a more human rights lens. This was at the time I realised a queerness in me; and ultimately I did come out as a lesbian in my second year of Uni. I sort of think of myself as more queer, though; a queer lesbian perhaps. At the same time, I also began to reckon with the larger cards at play that helped me feel free to make choices about my future, such as a good public school system funded (inequitably so) by high income tax, a fully funded college education, and whiteness. I am always learning and relearning to navigate the intersections of my identity in a helpful way.
There is shame, stress, and fear around being a queer person. I’m still unpacking how that has impacted my feeling valued as a marginalised person and owning that I have a unique perspective and deserve to be “at the table”. I have known many incredible people who have shown me how to brew strength from dark times. I am in my late twenties now, and I can say that every year I am learning more and more how to be my authentic self; how to thrive. It’s actually magic. Now I am constantly tweaking and challenging myself to learn what it looks like to live life for me than just me - to help sow the seeds for others to thrive.
Anyhow, I got itchy feet in the States - always living within 45 minutes of my birth home - and moved to New Zealand on a working holiday visa to work & travel for six months and then head home. Then I met an incredible Kiwi woman named Jess, and now four years later, this has become my home.
Right now, I work on VSA's fundraising team, helping us to raise our 10% contribution to funding (MFAT generously covers the rest), plus funding for additional projects that fall out of our scope with MFAT.
I was born in Ōtautahi, Te Waiponamu, the South Island of New Zealand. I grew up in Whakatu/Nelson with the deepest and greenest rivers of the Wairau, Aniseed, Lee and Maitai. Tahunanui, Totaranui, Pohara, Pakawau, Golden Bay, Tasman Bay, and the Abel Tasman were the seas. Keneperu, Pelorous, and Malborough were the Sounds. Rotoiti, Rotorua, Pukaki, Tekapo, Hawea were the lakes. The West Richmond range with Mt Arthur were the hills and Aoraki was the mountain. The bloods are Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Polish and Alsace Lorraine. I am Pakeha and Tangata Tiriti. Honourable Kawantanga is a driving force.
I spent nine years between 1977 and 1986 living in the US, the UK and time in Australia on the way out and the way in. For the past 30 years or so I have lived in Te Whanganui a Tara.
I am a performing artist, an actor, director, teacher, organiser and community arts networker. I co-founded Magdalena Aotearoa with Sally Rodwell of Red Mole in 1997, a New Zealand network inspired by The Magdalena Project, an international network of women in contemporary theatre. From 2006 -2011 I was co-artistic director of Acting Up, a Charitable Trust which offered regular drama and music programmes in the Wellington region to adults with learning difficulties and intellectual impairments. I hold a Masters in Theatre Arts, in Directing (MTA) from Toi Whakaari/ The New Zealand Drama School and Victoria University.
I work in the independent, experimental, self- devised performance traditions. These often involve an engagement with political or social perspectives outside the mainstream. I am interested ideas and forms that have hitherto been unexpressed in that arena. I want to bring forward voices and ideas which are often excluded or have excluded themselves from engagement with theatrical forms.
In order to support my life in the performing arts I have worked as a waitress, street seller, cook, artist’s model, dishwasher, jewellery maker, gardener, caregiver, and nurse aid. I have worked extensively with homeless women, people who are dying, the elderly, and people with disabilities and psychiatric illness.
At VSA, I am the administrator of VSAconnect, which is the alumni association for returned volunteers. I work two-and-a-half days a week and look after the returned volunteers once they have finished their final debrief process to make sure they are completely in the loop with everything VSAConnect offers. I also organise the national speaking programme for VSA whereby volunteers present to a variety of groups about their experiences of being on assignment.
How does the workplace fit with your rainbow orientation?
In my case, I remember I came to my interview and I said that I have a partner and that I’m volunteering with Rainbow Wellington. It didn’t feel like it was an issue that affected it negatively or positively but the fact that I mentioned it meant that I was comfortable from the beginning. In addition, we have a gender-neutral toilet and before our current CEO, that position was filled by someone from the rainbow community for five years. Therefore, I feel that there is history and strong connection to the LGBTTQAIPPSN+ community since before my time. Since then, we’ve opened an LGBTTQAIPPSN+ group that meets for group talks and we update the office team about Rainbow issues and events at our staff meeting. In my private perspective, I tend to have great conversations about gender issues, sharing my knowledge about gender minorities’ discrimination and issues in general – there is a thirst from people in the office to learn and develop this knowledge for themselves. It makes perfect sense for me, as we are an NGO that communicates about human rights and diversity issues with local partners in the Pacific and beyond.
Well, my favourite rainbow activity at work is when the LGBTQ+ group meets for chats. It’s three of us (for now!) a range of ages - myself, a millenial, then there’s Yuval who is an older millennial/just on the cusp of Gen X, and then there’s Madeline - our wise young boomer. Having a generational spectrum is really special for me; I learn a lot from Yuval and Madeline and enjoy their friendship. Our workplace has been a supportive place for having an LGBTQ+ group. We have a little slot at the staff meetings where we provide small updates, and we’ve had ally colleagues inquire with us about whether VSA should get the Rainbow Tick. We aren’t sure yet whether we’re going ahead with it - and if so, how we want that to look - but the fact that our non-queer colleagues presented this as an idea is really affirming as a queer person. It’s like they are saying, “VSA is a place that should be accepting and supportive of you, and please help us do that.” Like Yuval said though, “It makes perfect sense for me, as we are an NGO that communicates about human rights and diversity issues with local partners in the Pacific and beyond.”
I love real rainbows but as a colour scheme rainbow is definitely not me. I am more andro steam punky with an occasional Goth twist. Having said that, the day Donald Trump got elected, when everyone around the office was going slowly grey, and the election chocolates were going untouched, I donned a plastic rainbow ring to a pounamu I always wear and I haven’t taken it off since. But it reminded me that along with every other identification I adhered to which Trumpism rejected, that queer too was under threat. I felt I needed to take strength from all my tribes.
How is it to be part of the rainbow community in New Zealand?
I believe that for a gay cisgender person (someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth) who is also white, to be part of the rainbow communityis quite comfortable here the capital city of Aotearoa. Aotearoa has many benefits, accepting and embracing the mainstream of the rainbow community, and until the Mosque attacks in Christchurch, it felt like a safe space for us. As I’m also a volunteer for Rainbow Wellington (social media) and Gender Minorities Aotearoa as a photographer and volunteer for their opshop (Aunty Dana’s Opshop at 130 Riddiford street Newtown) I’ve learned that for people of colour and for trans people, New Zealand is less accepting, that they face daily discrimination both in society and by law in accessing public services. There is limited information about rainbow issues, such as housing for homeless queer people, access to medical services, education about gender issues across the country, lack of funding for Rainbow organisations, sex workers who face discrimination and lack of knowledge about their life experience, and more generally, a feeling of fear of people who are not white or cisgender. However, Aotearoa is going forward and the work of the local communities is thriving because of the hard work put in by our community. The understanding that we need to work together in the community is growing. The acceptance from religious organisations here amazed me, from Christian churches through to the Jewish community that embraces rainbow visibility is just outstanding. Rainbow culture is thriving in Wellington and there is a huge hunger to be exposed to our culture and that is a good sign for the future.
I absolutely love being a queer person here in Wellington, right now in my late twenties, and I feel profoundly grateful to be here. It is difficult to put in to words why, exactly; it’s a culmination of many factors..
It is interesting how one gets strength from ones community even if you don’t hang out there all the time. There are some truly incredible people working in Aotearoa to create a safer, kinder and more accepting world for young queer people to come in to. Some are young, some are older and they are phenomenal.
What would you wish for the rainbow community in New Zealand and the Pacific?
I would wish for us and our siblings in the Pacific to be happy, to be loved and accepted in their communities. I’m aware that there is still active discrimination against our community enacted through the law such as banning same-sex sexual activity in some countries in the Pacific. However, there is also positive change in some countries. Timor-Leste had a pride parade with 1,500 people, almost like in the Parade last year here in Wellington. The parade was supported by former President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and was organised by a young Timorese youth NGO Hautatan. In Tonga, the Tonga Leiti's Association organizes the Miss Galaxy Pageant and has a tight relationship with royal family. Also let’s not forget the traditional culture here that includes gender and sexual diversity (now known as Takatāpui), Fa'afafine in Samoa, and many more examples from across the Pacific. It has been estimated that 1-5% of Samoans identify as fa'afafine. Today, we are witnessing a movement that grows from cultural roots, from before western colonialism. Rainbow groups have more opportunities for a dialogue in Aotearoa and the Pacific than in the past, and I feel this will continue to expand. In addition, Australia has made a positive change in their policies for rainbow communities (by legalisingapproving same sex marriage last year) and joined the Pacific with the positive change.
I wish for “thriving communities”. It’s VSA’s overarching mission for our development work, and it’s what I wish for rainbow communities in New Zealand and in the Pacific.
As we do this work, I'm interested in questions like, how do we build policy, law and culture that ensures freedom and human rights for all people? How do we ensure that we are not elevating one part of the queer community while leaving another behind?
For example, why, in New Zealand, as the pay gap between white women and white men shrinks, do white women and men still make more, on average, than Maori, Pasifika, and Asian men and women? Axes of power (gender, race, class, ability, etc) overlap and when they do, create unique systems of oppression. We need to lift up voices of those who get caught in the cross hairs, so solutions don’t leave people behind. Feminist and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw discusses this in her theory of intersectionality. To all move forward, together, is what I want to see and advocate for; it requires folks with experience across many intersecting marginalised identities to have a seat at the table.
The same freedoms and human rights that should be available to all human beings.
Acknowledgement that being queer, gay, lesbian, trans, intersex, + is often to hold a marginal position in society and that it comes at a cost.
Removal of laws that still state that flogging and imprisonment in some countries near to us is an acceptable response to being gay.
Acknowledgement that being queer may not be the norm but it is natural.
Fundamentalist fruit cakes of all persuasions, off our backs and out of our faces.
Recognition of the profound value that comes from a queer perspective.