It’s a time of the year that is imagined, on a societal scale, to be celebrated—endless trips to the beach, catching up with family and friends, and travelling. While all this is true for some, there is seemingly an underrepresentation of the less-than-desirable experiences, particularly of the LGBTQIA+ community in Aotearoa. Up until Christmas 2022, when I stayed in Tāmaki Makaurau, I had always travelled to where my parents were in order to spend the holiday with them. Not long after being born in South Africa I moved to New Zealand, and in subsequent years also moved to both Qatar and Australia for a few years respectively. Since returning to Aotearoa and moving to Tāmaki Makaurau for university in 2018, I have travelled to Eltham, Taranaki, for the Christmas and New Year period. Within this text, I’ll be using myself as an example to discuss how some queer people might experience summertime in regional Aotearoa, and how self-presentation shapes their experiences in those spaces.
Before diving into my own experiences, I would like to explore the social ideals which are attached to a ‘Kiwi’ summer in New Zealand. Summertime in Aotearoa is evidently a core component of the nation’s branding. When searching “Kiwi summer” on Google, there is an abundance of websites that claim to have the top ideas behind having the best, or rather a classic, Kiwi summer. Ideals surrounding those who experience Kiwi summers include cis-gendered nuclear families, who are usually Pākehā, and part of the (upper) working class. These people are often able to express themselves safely throughout the nation, which increases their likelihood of having positive experiences throughout the summertime when it’s the norm to get out and about. Government agencies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry for Primary Industries, and Tourism New Zealand provide funding which is behind this branding. On a website titled ‘New Zealand Story’, for example, there are key components to a Kiwi summer with videos that ultimately work as an advertising technique (New Zealand Story, n.d.). Able to be drawn from the website is an overarching theme of bond strengthening, through examples such as going on road trips, attending BBQs, and exploring your own backyard. While these activities can most definitely be enjoyable, there is a presumption clear in the discourse which assumes participation with immediate family members.
There is no doubt that a Kiwi summer can be, well, a stunner. But, it is somewhat disheartening for some members of the queer community as their experiences of summertime are not necessarily so positive.
Since coming out as queer, I have had both positive and negative experiences during summer periods. Those experiences which may be grouped as negative usually happened when I went to visit family in rural Taranaki. On the other hand, those experiences which may be grouped as positive were experienced during times of solo travel and being in urban spaces.
Before I had really engaged with and found my place within the queer community in Tāmaki Makaurau, I would go ‘home’ to Eltham, in Taranaki, for both Christmas and New Year’s. Isolation was a feeling that I became familiar with, and I still engage with it when I go back nowadays. The town of Eltham is very small, with a population of less than 2,000 as of 2020. Not only is this population aged, but to my knowledge, there are also very few people who are outwardly part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
In addition to this, my parents moved to Taranaki when I moved to Auckland for university. This left me with no previously-made friends in Eltham and, as many people are familiar with, it is seemingly more difficult to make friends the older you are.
During Christmas Day BBQs with my parents’ friends, I experienced both homophobia and transphobia. As much as I wish I had the strength to speak up for myself and others within those communities, I was reminded that not everywhere is a safe space.
With such experiences becoming reoccurring with each visit from Auckland to Taranaki, I decided that I wanted to act in my best interest—for my wellbeing and mental health. I still continued to visit my family in Taranaki, because I missed them, but I also began to explore my backyard in Tāmaki Makaurau.
Navigating these changes did create a sense of anxiety, however. It was hard to explain to my family that I knew I was safe with them, but not in the town they lived in. How does one go about that? I am still navigating this, and it has become easier with time.
Fitting in with socially constructed ideas surrounding regional differences, urban spaces are more accepting of queer folk when compared to rural spaces (Butterfield, 2017). This is for an abundance of reasons including there being a higher population density of queer folk in urban spaces (Thompson, 2022). Regardless of the forces behind urban spaces typically being more accepting, this leaves implications for those queer folk in non-urban spaces, particularly during holidays over the summer period where there is an abundance of social events with expectations to partake.
In another article of mine, I discussed the idea, and my experience of, straight cosplay (Breitenbach, 2022). What started as a joke between a friend and I has turned into something bigger. I have noticed through my own and others’ experiences, we (queer people) tend to mask our authentic selves in certain spaces. This is not only to keep ourselves safe but also to ‘fit in’, rather than risk being treated negatively or perhaps even unwantedly outed.
When I go ‘home’ to Taranaki for summer periods, I am not generous with my self-expression. I show myself to be very one-dimensional. When in Auckland I feel safe to express my authentic self, not only because it is my true home but because Auckland just looks more queer-friendly. When in Taranaki, I practise self-censoring—I squeeze myself into a mould that doesn’t necessarily fit, but for that context it is preferable. I avoid topics such as queer culture, dating, and my own experiences of day-to-day life. This has become the norm for me when I visit family over holiday periods as in the past I have been met with discontentment and disapproval when expressing myself.
“Rather than rural spaces being intrinsically homophobic, I think that there are inaccurate assumptions of queer folk present.”
Something that struck me as surprising is that those aspects of life in Auckland which are seemingly banal to me, are much more nonstandard in Taranaki. I am aware that I dress stereotypically queer, Dr. Martens and all, but this is ‘normal’ in Auckland. In a rural space, I feel like I stand out much more than I want to. Of course, this makes sense to an extent—Taranaki is a large producer of meat and dairy, so perhaps self-expression through fashion is not so essential to daily life.
To better contextualise this experience as not one I was solely experiencing, I made a callout over social media because I wanted to learn about other rainbow community members’ experiences of presenting queer. An experience similar to my own, Zia Ravenscroft (they/he) shared with me that they have always presented queer. This led to being bullied in school for not fitting within norms that were then assigned to them. For example, not being feminine enough. Coming out as trans in their last year of high school, Zia shared with me that they “had internalised this idea that rural men are tough […] and never show emotion, and most importantly are cishet”. Not only did Zia experience an internal strife, it was exacerbated through transphobic experiences which were both mentally and physically violent.
Another anonymous sharer had experiences of a similar nature when it came to “the feeling of walking around and knowing [they] look different”. It is a double-edged sword because they feel affirmed in their gender by not being defined by appearance, but at the same time, they don’t enjoy sticking out due to unease and the fear of being hate-crimed. Anon had a similar experience to Zia through being ostracised at school. They were singled out during a prize giving, through the school not acknowledging their presence simply due to the fact that they had dyed hair that didn’t fit within the school’s, or the community’s, expectations around presentation.
Rather than rural spaces being intrinsically homophobic, I think that there are inaccurate assumptions of queer folk present. Due to the absence of queer events which are celebratory of our identities, for example. Not only does this absence create a sense of isolation for the LGBT+ community who occupy these spaces, but it also works to maintain the status quo relating to the social views of the community. If there is no force that is actively reshaping societal perceptions of queer people, making them accurate, then outdated and inaccurate views may be perpetuated.
The 2022 summer holiday period was the first which I had spent away from my immediate family. I had anticipated a mixture of feelings, but was most worried about guilt. How would my absence at the Christmas Day BBQ make my parents feel? Would it worsen my relationship with my family? My brain was somewhat flooded with ‘what ifs’. This led me to spend Christmas alone, to combat the guilt. But, surprisingly, it was one of the best Christmases I’ve experienced–filled with poetry writing, book reading, and wine drinking. The absence of negative and invalidating experiences heightened my holiday season even though I didn’t do many traditional Kiwi Christmas activities.
While support and affirmation present themselves in small doses, the queer community in non-urban areas are often left to their own devices in standing up for themselves against homophobic and transphobic communities all year round.
New Zealand Story. (n.d.). It’s Time You Had A Kiwi Summer. https://www.nzstory.govt.nz/stories/kiwi-summer/. Accessed November 15, 2022.
Butterfield, N. (2017). Imagined Rural/Regional Spaces: Non-Normative Sexualities in Small Towns and Rural Communities in Croatia. Journal of Homosexuality 65(13), 1709-1733. https://doi.org/10.1080/00918369.2017.1383111
Thompson, J. (2022). Are urban spaces queer-friendly places? How geographic context shapes support for LGBT rights. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjW4uLvlc37AhU39zgGHU8PCqEQFnoECBYQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fosf.io%2Fd4e86%2Fdownload&usg=AOvVaw2tBmJ4lhAD2vB6wDGo8E5u. Accessed November 20, 2022.
Breitenbach, M. (2022). Putting the ‘Pan’ in ‘Pandemic’ – How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected the LGBTQIA+ community in Aotearoa?. http://craccum.co.nz/features/putting-the-pan-in-pandemic/. Accessed 5 December, 2022.
Featured photo courtesy of author.