From the ashes
Since Thursday, when I read the news, I have asked myself: how can I say this nicely? Then I realised, I don’t want to say it nicely. I figured that out this afternoon, under the stage lights, in the crowd, watching the dancers.
For today, at least, I am done with nice.
Thursday morning I was scrolling on my phone, like you do. There was one dismayed post, then another, then a flood. I could see where the flames had forced their way up the wall; where the roof groaned before it fell in. Once the fire service put it out, once the ashes and embers stopped steaming under the work of the hoses, the police moved in to investigate.
Tauranga’s Rainbow Youth and Gender Dynamix centre had burned in the night.
I come from a provincial town too, further south than Tauranga. I can’t tell you the rainbow kids I went to school with, other than the one who was relentlessly bullied, and the one who barely lived into their twenties. The others were silent. They had reason to be. That silence, in turn, made it easier to believe their kind didn’t exist.
When I went back home, about four years ago, it was as the mum of a rainbow kid: someone with a different perspective than the one she’d left town with, a quarter of a century before. It was a work trip, and it took me to the local hub for rainbow kids. I’d organised it all in advance, ordering disgraceful amounts of junk food – finding out about the healthy eating policy only when the pizza arrived. My hosts were gracious enough to look the other way, as I sheepishly offered paper plates. I was there for a kind of focus group, to talk with the kids about their experiences.
I had my notebook with me, a few prompt questions up my sleeve in case the conversation slowed. I took my seat on a couch near the pool table. The kids sat opposite. I asked them, what’s it like being a rainbow kid these days? What’s good, what’s not so good? What would you like to improve?
We talked. No: they talked, I listened. The kōrero was halting. Pain sticks in a person’s throat, clutching their words like a fist. Schools that could not – would not – offer dignity or mana. Families that didn’t understand, or chose not to. Rejections, from jobs, by landlords, so teens could not find independence to leave homes that weren’t safe. Aloneness, in every sense a person can feel it.
There was one silver lining, I guess. The kids told me that for the first time, in the last few weeks, they’d felt safe enough to advertise the address of the rainbow club meeting.
The pizza went uneaten. I’d assumed, I guess, that kids like pizza. Kids are carefree. They want to sit around on a Friday night, talk shit, have a laugh. That’s what you’re meant to do when you’re a kid, right?
It would be easy to tell ourselves this is just a small town thing, or something left in the past. You know, something we can comfortably distance ourselves from.
I’ve locked horns, more times than I can count, against TERFs, and their ragged mates on the fringes of the alt right. I have not forgiven them, and nor do I underestimate their harm. But the thing about those guys is you get exactly what it says on the tin. They never claimed a moral vantage point higher than the gutter.
It's people closer to me, in philosophy at least, who have more acutely let me down – a small group, to be sure, but the disappointment they create exceeds their actual numbers. The 70s feminists who put it all on the line to smash gender roles, only to claim their identities are now ‘erased’ by calling others she/her. The unionists who refuse gender inclusive language, then wonder why young people don’t join unions. The self-proclaimed socialists who mock people for asking for their pronouns.
It’s not that I oppose debate: we need it, critically, if we are to create a new kind of society, both fair and welcoming for every gender. It’s just that this marginal bunch won’t even enter into civil debate, sharing memes and trolling instead – even though the harm it causes trans kids could not be more stark. Even though we’ve just seen where the enablers of hate lead. I mean, solidarity is nice and all, but getting laughs from aging cranks on Facebook? Hell, there’s no contest.
My son is trans. He is almost twenty-one, taking his place in this world, in progressive politics, with a brain that is as sharp as his impulse for social justice. He believes in solidarity. He’s still waiting for it, from some at least.
And I am angry – for the kids in Tauranga, for every child who feels afraid. I am so angry at times my own words stick in my throat.
I’d got a message from my son a few days ago, that he and his mates were going to perform today at the TSB Arena. We drove into town, the rest of his whānau, on the grey of a winter’s afternoon.
I want to say, for all that people can hurt folks like us, they can also be kind – overwhelmingly kind. And when they are, they lift us up, families like mine and our precious kids. They make us strong.
Here is my son and his non-binary partner, just after their cosplay dance troupe extravaganza. They were exuberant, free, like they were kids again. I lined them up after, all embarrassing mum styles, against the wall in the foyer, made them hug while I took a photo.
Look on, you heroes who punch down on kids, both those of you who are out and proud, and the ones who tell yourselves it’s only a snide joke. Look at these two. May their delight - and my love - burn glitter-sized holes in your miserable souls.
All genders are joyful, are infinitely colourful. Cowardice is the same shade of brown every time.
And ashes are meant to be risen from.