Aotearoa New Zealand is having a diversity moment.
Politicians, community leaders, judges, civil society groups, and senior managers are all talking about it. There’s hardly a public institution or large firm that doesn’t have some kind of “diversity action plan”.
We’re starting to ask hard questions about which doors are open to whom—who gets the red carpet and who must summon all their strength to push through. We are, at last, looking with a critical eye at the Kiwi “mate-ocracy” (giving a leg up to those in our personal networks who are “just like us”) and at the entitlements of our dynastic families.
And the implications of te Tiriti o Waitangi for public life are being put front-and-centre, even if we’ve still got work to do to figure out exactly how te Tiriti obligations intersect with diversity issues. They’re connected, but different in key respects.
While there’s still much to do, we’re getting much better at highlighting inequities around race, gender, and ethnicity. And we’re also getting better at understanding how different parts of ourselves—gender, race, religion, whakapapa etc—intersect. But this is also a moment to ask whether our diversity talk is too narrow.
There’s one minority group that’s scarcely mentioned in our diversity conversations: LGBTQI+ people. There’s almost no public discussion about representation of queer people in public life.
It’s difficult to recall much deep reflection on the under-representation of takatāpui in professions, on boards, in tertiary study, in community leadership roles and the like. When was the last time you heard anyone suggest that it was a problem that there were no queer people on this committee or in that boardroom?
In recent times, many of us have sat through well-meaning speeches by community leaders about the importance of diversity. Typically, they highlight concerns around race and gender, and rightly deplore past injustices and barriers to entry.
They celebrate what’s been achieved. They admonish us to do more. They look forward to an Aotearoa that better reflects our society. And, just as predictably, they never mention queer people. And yet the rainbow community is one of our largest minority groups.
Why the silence? Some of it must be due to a simple lack of thought. Many of these diversity champions would be horrified to think they’re not as woke as they thought they were. And partly the silence reflects a lack of data: many institutions don’t keep records about sexual identity. There’s no box to tick. Invisibility gets reinforced by human resource algorithms.
Discomfort around sex also accounts for some of this silence. A subset of the rainbow community includes people who are attracted to the same gender. While queer identity is much more fluid than this, this group has historically got the most attention.
If it’s about sex, then it’s private—not an appropriate topic for a conversation about how we organise our public life. For diversity champions, the connection with sex offers an easy out.
But a moment’s thought tells us that sexual orientation and LGBTQI+ identity are fiercely political concerns, not just matters of private life. Same-sex marriage, conversion therapy, the rights of rainbow families—these are public struggles where politics and sex intersect.
Here in Aotearoa, gay men now in their 50s grew up knowing that, once they became sexually active, their society would regard them as criminals. Being categorised as a criminal by one’s own country offers an especially sharp perspective on issues of power, justice and the potential brutality of the law.
The politics of queer identity do not always play out on such a grand scale. But they’re close to the surface.
How many queer people don’t speak up in local community settings because they’re afraid they won’t be taken seriously? How many avoid putting themselves forward because of past experiences of homophobia? When we look at CVs burnished with impressive achievements, how often do we ask whether queer people genuinely had the same opportunities?
Overseas, the dull drumbeat of anti-queer hatred gets louder. A gay teen is thrown off a building to his death. Towns declare themselves LGBT-free zones. Rainbow internet chatgroups are blocked. LGBTQI+ people are declared enemies of the state. Anti-trans laws pop up like a nightmarish game of Whack-a-Mole.
Our first concern must be for the immediate victims of these atrocities and human rights violations. But even in countries such as ours, the emotional impact of these acts should not be underestimated. In public and private life, how much personal reticence is born of fear?
Well-meaning thought leaders who discuss diversity are doing important work. We need them to keep doing it. But they risk crowding out other conversations. Far too often, they obliterate LGBTQI+ people every time they open their mouths. The silence signals that queer people, takatāpui, rainbow people, don’t count—and that there are no insights derived from LGBTQI+ identity and experiences that might enrich public life.
Highlighting the silence around LGBTQI+ identity should also provoke us to think about who else is being muscled out by our inattention. Diversity talk needs to go beyond anti-discrimination, and consider what other experiences, what different perspectives and worldviews, are being undervalued or overlooked.
Age? Disability? Class? Full-time caregiving? What else? As we work together to make Aotearoa a place where everyone is celebrated, we need to ask—what are the diversity conversations we’re not having?
Professor Graeme Austin is Chair of Private Law at Te Herenga Waka -- Victoria University of Wellington.
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