Hi everyone! I’m Kirsten, de previous chair of LUPride. The past six months, I’ve been travelling Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand with my girlfriend. During this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I’ve made notes on how people react to us, a female gay couple, and how queerness in general is treated in the countries I’ve been to. So if you’d like to know how it is to travel around as a female gay couple in these countries and like a bit of a personal story, instead of relying only on official information from the government and tourist websites: here is part three of my story!
For this last part of this travel blog, I’ve chosen to put Australia and New Zealand together. Sorry Aussies, sorry Kiwis. I’m not saying the two countries are similar, but I did have similar (and not that many queer) experiences in both.
Part 3: Australia and New Zealand
My girlfriend and I arrived in Australia in late winter (August) and drove in about a month along the east coast from Cairns to Sydney. After two days in Sydney, we travelled onwards to New Zealand, where we had a less straightforward route: we had five weeks to see as much of New Zealand as we could and intended to see EVERYTHING. However, we decided to skip most of the cities, because we’re more into nature and love to hike.
In both countries, we didn’t see much queer activity going on. Beforehand, we heard that both countries, but especially New Zealand, was lesbian paradise, with lots of lesbians, alone or in couples, travelling around. I guess it’s because the countries are both gorgeous and safe for women and queer people to travel. I blame it on the season (winter/spring) that we didn’t see many people, apart from elderly straight couples and the occasional lone backpacker. This was also the season where people who like peace and quiet, like us, chose to travel. So nobody interacted that much with other people anyway.
Apart from the apparent lack of the advertised lesbians, I didn’t see much queer activity going on. After Canada, I expected to see a lot more of that going on. I mean, in both New Zealand and Australia they speak English as well, right? So wouldn’t the same ‘gay advertisement boom’ be going on in these countries? This was probably due to my somewhat simplistic worldview: I automatically assumed that English-speaking countries would ‘team up’ in this sort of thing. Forgetting that they might not feel like a team at all, had different governments, are situated at opposite ends of the world and are, well, different countries.
The first LGBT+ activity I witnessed in Australia, was in Sydney, at the very end of our stay in that country. As far as I could see, there were two ‘LGBT+ neighborhoods’ in Sydney. One is Oxford Street, in the Paddington neighborhood, with loads of gay bars, clubs, sex shops and everything gay related. Many of the shops, restaurants and bars are rainbow colored, there is a large rainbow crossing and suggestive paintings on the walls of the clubs. They definitely didn’t feel the need to be secretive, which is good in a country that has only legalized same-sex marriage less than a year ago. However, as is the case in most countries, I was told that Oxford Street was mainly frequented by gay men.
Not that far away from Oxford Street is Bondi Beach. Bondi beach is a bit of a surfer/hipster neighborhood, next to the, you guessed it, beach. It has a relaxed atmosphere and people seem to go here to shop, lay on the beach or to have a coffee in one of the countless coffeeshops. On many of the public buildings, they have put inclusive stickers with aboriginal and gay flags and I’ve seen quite a few people from the LGBT+ community walking around here.
Although support for the LGBT+ community isn’t that visible in Australia at the moment (not as visible as it is in Canada at least), there is some when you look around a bit. Kylie Minogue and also Bindi Irwin (daughter of Steve Irwin) among others, are LGBT+ allies, which is nice. And of course there are some famous queer icons who advocate for queer rights in Australia. Such as Portia de Rossi, Andreja Pejic and Ruby Rose. Although these famous allies and queer people are good for further acceptance, representation and visibility of LGBT+ people in Australia the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, might pose a threat to the newly achieved rights of the queer community in Australia. Before he was PM, he was a vocal opponent of marriage equality and we hope he will not try to reverse the law that made same-sex marriage possible, now that he is Prime Minister.
New Zealand is considered one of the most liberal countries when it comes to LGBT+ rights. Discrimination on basis of sexual orientation and gender identity has been banned since 1993, civil unions are recognized since 2004 and marriage equality has been reached in 2013. Although they were not the first, it has been around for a while. When travelling around, we didn’t notice any difference with Australia in terms of openly queer activity, but I bet it would have been different if we lived in those countries. In both places, my girlfriend and I would sometimes hold hands, as there were not that many people around anyway, and never got weird looks or people snatching their children away. The only queer activity that we encountered in this country, apart from ourselves, was a police car with a gay flag on the window. Which was nice. It should be said again that we didn’t go into the cities. There are probably gay neighborhoods in Auckland or Christchurch, such as the one in Sydney, albeit on a bit smaller scale.
Who has ever come to New Zealand, knows about the Māori (early settlers of New Zealand of Polynesian descent) who share the country with the Pākehā (late settlers of New Zealand of European descent). Since the European settlers tried to take over the country at the beginning, partly due to Europeans taking advantage of a confusingly translated agreement between Māori and Pākehā, Māori have fought to regain their own rights, regulations and culture. Part of their culture, was the word takatāpui, which historically denotes ‘an intimate partner from the same sex’. Some famous gods from the Māori pantheon shared this kind of relationship with a same-sex partner. And although the definition of takatāpui has changed over time, modern day Māori have reclaimed the word about thirty years ago as denoting LGBT+ individuals of any kind.
In Māori culture, being queer seems to be overall more accepted than in the white Pākehā community, as a 2011 Research New Zealand poll showed. I couldn’t find this poll myself, but it seems in line with the other messages on positive reception of LGBT+ individuals by Māori. As Māori culture has managed to stay alive despite the pressure from the European settlers, it comes as not that big of a surprise that their vision regarding queer people survived as well. Of course, there are Māori people that are not okay with queerness, but those people can be found in any culture.
As most countries, New Zealand has Pride Parades, with the biggest one held in February each year in Auckland. The name apparently changes occasionally from Pride Parade to Hero Parade and back, but the concept seems to be the same. Both Māori, often in their traditional garment, and Pākehā walk in this parade. As someone visiting the parade said in their travel blog: “The participation of New Zealand’s unique indigenous populations and representations of their cultural dress, dance, and other customs woven into the parade made the event particularly unique from parades I have been to elsewhere.” I wish I could have attended myself!
So that was it! After six months of travelling, we have finally returned home. We have gained thousands of amazing experiences and have met some wonderful people on our trip. Although we partly selected these four countries, because we felt relatively safe going there as a female gay couple, we were surprised at the ease of it all. I expected to get at least one uncomfortable stare or giggle. But apart from the confused, but open-minded, high school girls in Japan, we weren’t treated any different from other girls on vacation. However, we were often told that, being two girls alone, we should be careful of strangers and shouldn’t do this or that, but that had nothing to do with our sexuality and all with the world being not that safe for two girls on vacation. But also related to our gender, we didn’t encounter anyone or anything that intended to do us harm, so yay! I mean, we had a bear on our campground in Canada, but he was way to preoccupied with berries and baby elk to pay any attention to us.