Rainbow constituents deserve apology from the Office of Ethnic Communities and its Minister

Recently, near the start of Pride Month 2021 here in Tāmaki Makaurau, I attended a hui hosted by the Department of Internal Affairs and its Office of Ethnic Communities, the first of its kind to focus solely on rainbow ethnic community members.

It was alarming to learn how deceptively the Office sought to approach our rainbow ethnic folks. While they seemed to offer an olive branch and asked to build relationships and bridges for future development, they failed to acknowledge the history of harm (ongoing) towards rainbow ethnic people that they have been complicit in.

And it got worse.

There was no political representation at the meeting. The Minister of Ethnic Communities, Hon Priyanca Radhakrishnan, did not deem it worthwhile to attend the first ever hui with rainbow ethnic members. The consultation was instead facilitated by an intern, with a regional manager in attendance, along with another staffer. When asked whether the Minister was even interested in the event, the officers refused to answer: “we can't say”. Was the Minister even aware this event was happening? “We can't say”.

The main offer to the rainbow ethnic communities from the Office was access to the Ethnic Communities Development Fund (ECDF), a $4.2 million fund providing grants and support to ethnic communities.

According to the staffers, they were disappointed to learn that no rainbow ethnic folks had taken advantage of this fund, but they acknowledged this may be because there was historically no connection between the Office and this sector. So they were now here to build that missing bridge, and all would be well, once a few rainbow ethnic folks were empowered to start some projects.

But has there really been no connection between us and the Office?

There has been a connection: the Office has been funding harm towards us.

They have done this by continuing to fund bigots — homophobes and transphobes — in our communities, without questioning that bigotry, or enforcing standards through their grants criteria. When giving out money, they do not vet whether a group purporting to represent a whole ethnic community is also inclusive of its LGBT+ members.

Have no rainbow ethnic folks ever applied for funding? That is also a myth.

Every grant given to a group purporting to represent a whole ethnic community (or wider) is a grant that ought to include the group's LGBT+ members. When an association of Indians seeks funding for a “diversity centre”, but that centre excludes gender and sexual diversity, then the system has failed. The Office has provided money which is supposed to benefit rainbow members too, but the delivery and execution has not followed through.

That failure is not the fault of rainbow folks who merely did not step forward to apply for a separate grant. The original failure is that the Office supported discriminatory applicants who do not align with the principles of the Bill of Rights Act or the Human Rights Act. The secondary failure is that the Office did not vet and verify the problem, and does not have a policy to be concerned about these widespread breaches.

Many ethnic minority tauiwi communities have a familial or collective value system. We may not go to the Office of Ethnic Communities primarily identifying as “rainbow” or “LGBT+” members. We may seek their support through every dollar that is spent towards this or that particular ethnic community we belong to, and may prefer to primarily identify with that ethnicity. In my case, it may be as an Indian that I want the Office to ensure that LGBT+ Indians are protected through all their funding.

So before the Office seeks to build new bridges with rainbow ethnic folks, as if there was never any troubling history between us, they should acknowledge their track record of supporting ongoing harm towards us. One staffer even described their position as tabula rasa — a clean slate — as if that means green fields of opportunity lie before us. But there is not a clean slate. It is bloodied.

Before the Office sends its interns to consult with us, let us see the Minister express her interest. Let the Minister visit us in the next session. Let the Minister have a chance to express an apology for their history and ongoing propagation of harm through support of homophobic, transphobic leaders and groups in ethnic communities.

Let the Minister, an ardent feminist, even take a moment to address her friendly airtime pre-election interview with an Indian ethnic media figure who went on to abuse LGBT+ people in public without consequence, after previously abusing Muslims and women.

When the Minister is done with the preliminaries, let us consider what her Ministry and the Office can do to engage on Government legislation that threatens to leave behind rainbow ethnic communities, like the Births, Deaths, Marriages and Relationships Register (BDMRR) Amendment Bill. The proposed law not only fails to offer any relief for overseas-born people (including New Zealand citizens) who seek to amend their birth certificates, but it also apparently removes an option to seek a court declaration to support a birth certificate amendment that was previously available to all eligible persons including overseas-born citizens and permanent residents. The law as proposed is the product of a Pākehā-centric movement, which has failed to consider the needs of especially overseas-born people (disproportionately affecting people of colour whose countries of origin could be more hostile, as it often is for refugees). This is exactly where the Office of Ethnic Communities and its Minister is supposed to be a voice in Government.

The Minister could also explain what policy advice she and the Office can offer for any law tackling the problem of conversion therapies (which is a kind of torture). A simplistic, blanket ban, as is currently proposed by a Member's bill, could disproportionately criminalize nonwhite communities, while relying on a regime of (racist) policing and incarceration to enforce the new law. What consultative advice can the Office provide legislators on developing a programme to end conversion therapies (which are racialized and varied between ethnic-religious communities), and not just ban it (so as to wash one's hands of the issue)? What would a funded set of programmes of outreach, culturally-sensitive community reforms, education, counselling, wrap-around support services, and so on, look like when backed by meaningful legislation? How can a legislative package be formulated to avoid the consequences of rainbow ethnic members facing the criminalization of, and separation from, their isolated families, or facing undetected overseas conversion therapies, or facing greater risks and threats (like retribution) in conversion therapies driven further underground? In other words, what would a law designed to actually eradicate conversion therapy look like, instead of a law designed to soothe the liberal, cisgender, straight politician's conscience and enhance our 100% Pure international image?

This is the direction that the Office of Ethnic Communities needs to head towards if it really means to build bridges with rainbow ethnic people. First, it must apply non-discrimination requirements to its grants, so that no gender or sexual minority in any ethnic community is harmed by its funding. Second, it must acknowledge the history of harm that has been caused, and the Minister — not an intern — should publicly front up and commit to a change of course, including by fighting for us in ethnic media and spaces where bigotry goes unchallenged. Third, an intentional, scheduled policy review and development programme should begin, with close community consultation, and a high priority placed on rainbow policies proposed by the Government, so it does not harm (intentionally or inadvertently) rainbow ethnic folks.

What need not continue is the duplicity of funding homophobes and transphobes in our ethnic communities, while also offering breadcrumbs of acknowledgement too-little-too-late by sending an intern to thrust us into grant-application workshops (as if we were delinquent all along). The real problem is homophobia and transphobia and misogyny and sexism and bigotry, and it is located among even our ethnic communities' cisgender and straight population, leadership, and media. To help rainbow ethnic communities, it is vital that the Office or any other body should address the problem at its root, starting with its funding.