Waikato Wellbeing Project Lots of Little Fires

Rainbow Hub Waikato…a place to be yourself.

Joe Wilson on 3 February 2024

“I mean, if you could imagine only having a couple of hours a week where you can be yourself completely yourself and not have to worry about what people might think about that or what people might say to you. It's what most of our community goes through on a day-to-day basis, except that they don't have a couple of hours every day.

They have maybe an hour every week where they can be themselves. So that's why we exist. It's to provide that hour or provide those couple of hours because otherwise what have you got?”

“I mean, if you could imagine only having a couple of hours a week where you can be yourself completely yourself and not have to worry about what people might think about that or what people might say to you. It's what most of our community goes through on a day-to-day basis, except that they don't have a couple of hours every day. They have maybe an hour every week where they can be themselves. So that's why we exist. It's to provide that hour or provide those couple of hours because otherwise what have you got?” Logan

Murdoch and I meet outside the RHW building both nursing our morning coffees excited for the day's filming.

“Ah mōrena kōrua!” calls out Slay, the education lead at RHW, “excited for today?!”

We both reply with a ‘Hey!” and “totally,YEAH, can’t wait!”

We follow Slay upstairs to the RHW space and reconnect with the rest of the RHW team. First things first, we catch up, share our news and scope out the order of the day. Pretty quickly we collectively decide to take a trip down Casabella Lane to get a coffee and pastry and enjoy the morning sun. On the walk down I catch up with Logan, a long standing member of the team, and ask him a bit about his journey with RHW.

“Well I've been connected to Rainbow Hub Waikato for 15 years now. I first got introduced to RHW back when we were Waikato Queer Youth (WAQY) by my first ever boyfriend, if you can call it that, at that age. He told me to come along and meet a bunch of his friends at this cool group. I didn't really know too much about it, I didn't know what it was at that time. And we walked in and there were a lot of very loud, very queer people, which was a bit of a shock for me as a very newly little ‘Gaby’. I spent that hour and a half there and fell in love with the place immediately and I've never left. Yeah, it's been 15 years now, so I mean they might've been trying to get rid of me. I dunno, can't they haven't succeeded!”

We both laugh. Logan is such an accommodating and naturally funny person with a dry yet gentle humor that really helps bridge the often tense conversations around queerness and sexuality. I ask what has kept him in the organization and doing the work he does.

“I guess I've stayed here for so long because of the kaupapa of the organization, the ethos of compassion and community and I guess, I mean, I know it's incredibly cliche, but a sense of family and being able to watch our members grow up and be themselves in an authentic and self-loving way rather than any suppression or self doubt,” he explains.

It is only a couple of minutes walk to Casabella Lane and as we arrive we choose to take a table outside the awesome ‘Hello Rosie’ and order some sweet pastry treats. The pastries are insane and we all choose our favorites knowing full well we will be on a sugar high within minutes.

As Murdoch takes the opportunity to film some cool b roll, the rest of us catch up and chat more about RHW. I ask the crew what they believe is so special about the place.

“For me it is a space where people can come together to explore their identity, figure out who they are through connection and support and whanaungatanga and building relationships.” explains Slay.  “I think for so many people when they're figuring out where they fit in the world, there isn't necessarily a safe space where they're able to do that and go, okay, right here is where I get to be a hundred percent me, get to be completely authentic, completely who I am.”

Nathan agrees and goes on to say,

“Yeah, we are not questioning being like, what's your gender and sexuality? We're just trusting that they're here because they need to be here. And that's so important to honor who you are as a whole holistic person, and especially from, that's the reason why they're so right in a kaupapa Maori lens is you come as you are and you are here, so welcome.”

Sese nods in agreement and adds.

“This may be the first space that someone comes into and feels like they can truly be themself.”

Ben, who came to RHW on a third year social work placement and who himself is not queer, tautoko’s everyone’s sentiments, smiles and explains,

“As a cis gendered heterosexual man, I have never had to deal with so many of the challenges that the rainbow community has to face on a daily basis. I realized what a privileged perspective I have had. Rainbow Hub Waikato, it changed everything for me. It changed my whole way of thinking. It changed my perception about the world and what it means to be queer. It even made me realize how much I've been shaped by not only history, but our current culture today.

The conversation is so refreshing and open. The crew are clearly all so passionate about who they are as a collective but also so skilled at navigating the conversation around what it means to be queer for people coming to the subject from multiple perspectives and experiences.

Nathan, who is the current director of RHW explains,

“I think what's special about our staff is that we all bring a mix of professionalism and passion, but also, we’re really driven by our own lived experience. So we can put ourselves into the shoes of the community that are asking for help, and we go immediately like, wow, this is what it felt like for me, so let's empower these young people and these community members that are reaching out.”

Slay agrees and goes on to say,

“We are a melting pot of personalities. Every single person has individual passions, individual interests, individual skill sets, and everyone is very eclectic and when we come together, it's just a powerhouse of people who at the end of the day are passionate about empowering our community and seeing success for anyone. And that's not just the rainbow community, but anyone in general.”

Previously called ‘Waikato Queer Youth’, RHW has been championed and led by many brave, inspiring and big-hearted people over the years. Many of these people still serve the organization in some form or another but the crew here today are all now employed staff, who each began their time here as clients/community members and volunteers.

The theme that keeps coming through from all the crew here is that RHW offered a sanctuary, a place where they could finally be themselves and see people who reflected who they were in some way when they were younger. That it was a place where they could gently explore their own uniqueness and ask questions about how to navigate their own personal journey in the rainbow community. The memory and impact RHW has had on everyone is what puts fuel on the fire for them to keep fighting for equity and equality for the rainbow community. I ask if they will share their own experiences of growing up and how it felt exploring their own identity.

Slay happily shares how it felt growing up.

“So, for me as a young person, I had a really tough time navigating who I was and where I could see myself in the world because there was no kind of representation of what it meant to grow up and have a successful life as a queer person. And for me, when I was a young person, all I could ever imagine was when I grow up, I want to have a successful job and I want to have a wife and I want to have kids, and I just want that normal kind of world that it looks like. And such a huge part of my battle for accepting who I was was because once I realized I was gay, I was like, wait, does that take my dreams away?”

Nathan nods and relates,

“When I first came out, I was 16, and the first thing you do is when you're having a bit of a fat cry and you're like, oh my God, what are my feelings? What am I doing? Who am I? So, I did the Google search, what does it mean to feel like you're a boy trapped in a girl's body, but I like girls and boys and it's fine. And it was literally page 20 I think, of Google that I found. I stumbled upon this Kiwi guy's blog that all the things he was saying about he was using his own journey to mark his own journey, and every third sentence was like, click, click, click. And I was like, whoa, okay. This is a thing. What does this mean? What does this mean for my future, my life? I couldn't wrap my head around. I didn't have any role models to transplant that knowledge into who I could be in the world, which is a bit tricky.”

Nathan provides his perspective, one that makes me think about the wider messaging around how the rainbow community is portrayed in our media and entertainment worlds.

“Without having that safe place to find people that like me, I felt so, so isolated and I didn't feel connected to my community. So, there were circles of community that I had, but I felt like I was wearing a mask to be in them. I had no sense of community in the queer community sense. I was very new, and my only vision of queer people was on television and film. And there's a trope that a lot of people will know called Kill Your Gaze. We are quite often on in movies and tv you'll have some gay characters, but someone will die tragically, or someone will have this horrific backstory. So having people in the community or role models that aren't just typical media tropes for what a trans person is really important. And I am thankful that I can be here and work in this mahi and do this job to be the person that I would've needed to see when I was that young person. So I wouldn't have to sadly sit at home googling, hopefully to find an example of me and when I got to Rainbow Hub, I was able to see queer people who were living really normal lives, who were really boring, who just talked about the cats all the time or went to work as CPAs or teachers and stuff and I was like, oh wonderful. I don't have to have this horrific backstory or be a tragic figure of some sort. I can grow up and be just as incredibly boring, which was really lovely. And I mean, I say incredibly boring. We're not… I probably am too, to be fair.”

Creating the right atmosphere and environment is key for making a pace feel like home, to feel like a place where we can fully relax and be calm. The rooms and vibe of RHW have such a calming and homely feel that it is easy to drop your guard and just chill.

“Most of our stuff is shop sourced. One, because we're budget, but two because we are really going for that, as you can probably tell, that ‘Op-Shop Garage chic!’. So, if you've ever been in a place where you're seeking support and you feel like you're sitting on these clinical chairs, we're not about that. So spill your coffee on this chair, it's fine. We'll steam clean it out. So, we just really want people to be comfortable here and we know that we've won during a group session when someone feels comfortable having a nap in one of the couches. That's the sweet spot.”

I think about all the stories LOLF has covered this year. The same thread that runs through each story is the deep passion and love that everyone holds for empowering and celebrating people as they are. People and communities just need a place and space to truly be themselves, to be accepted for who they are and to feel the support that enables them to flourish. The crew at RHW embody this culture in its entirety. I ask Slay how RHW provides a service not only to the rainbow community it serves but to our wider society.

“So, Rainbow Hub Waikato, in regards to what we do for the community, we have a few different areas we work in, for example, we do a lot of education. So that might be with businesses and community organizations, helping them to upskill in queer competencies so they've got a better understanding of what it's like to work with the Rainbow community and how they can be more supportive. We also run support services so people can book in to meet with one of our support teams, and from there they're able to get connected to other services they might need. That can be things such as gender affirming healthcare counseling or just having someone to connect to go, look, this is where I'm at, I'm a little bit lost, or I dunno who I am, and I need that support. And then we also run social support groups where people can come and connect, whether that's over coffee, over kai, over kōrero, play board games, chill out, check out our different spaces, and just have a space where they can come to together and have a time where they're not worried about judgment, not worried about what other people are thinking or saying and really just getting to block out all of that internal and external noise and just get to be truly authentic and get to be themselves.”

As the filming takes place in the RHW whare, we get a chance to catch up in more depth with Ben. Ben came to RHW as a volunteer and on a third-year social work placement last year. I am intrigued as to his experiences, perspective and kōrero from a straight white male perspective that is new to the rainbow community.

“So, I have been connected to Rainbow Hub WA Kaur for about a year now. I started here as a third-year social work placement student. What became very clear straight away is that everyone has a different experience, and not one person is the same, whether they're queer or not queer, we are so individualistic. But in the sense of me being an ally, it was learning in a genuine space.”

Being an ally to any minority group or population that faces any form of discrimination or oppression is exactly why Lot of Little Fires exists, so I am excited to learn from Ben how and why it is important for the non-rainbow community to stand as allies.

“So, the queer community goes through so many struggles that the heterosexual or straight community don't face. A lot of queer people who are facing really heavy struggles within our community. Just within the whare here, where I never faced any of those things. I never, I've never felt particularly unsafe in my community. I've never felt out of place because of my sexuality or gender and that's a privileged perspective that I come from.”

Ben speaks passionately about how it is crucial for people to be aware of the messaging that our media, politics and wider society impress on us and our beliefs.

“Me being cisgendered and not queer myself. I didn't know what to expect of the rainbow community or what to think or I had only ever really seen the Rainbow community in the media or on social media. I'd had a couple of queer friends growing up and things like that, but I didn't really know much if anything about the Rainbow community. I'm just going to be completely honest, I thought it was leather outfits and big floats and parades and things like that. I don't know. How would I know? And there's so much stigma behind being queer. And so that informed at a macro level that informed my decision making or my thought process. It's like our society has shaped me to think in a certain way about, and there's such a negative stigma on being queer. And it's so far from the truth. We hear a lot in our society, especially me growing up, it was always like, that's gay, or that's that super gay, and that kind of thing. And then just taking a step back and thinking, how would that make someone else feel? You know what I mean? just being accepting, it's okay to be you and it's okay to be who you are. Every single person is so individualistic, they're so different from each other. There's not one heterosexual person that's the same, and there's not one queer person that's the same. So to put people into a box or put people in this, this is what you are. So, this is what you have to be is just not the truth. It's not right.”

Ben concludes,

“So, the reason there is a need for Rainbow Hub Waikato is down to the fact that our society still isn't equitable. Our society isn't fair.”

In terms of being an ally, Logan laughs and says,

“You don't have to be queer to support the rainbow community… I'm not a greyhound but I support the SPCA!”

I ask Logan what kind or negative experiences he may face on a day-to-day basis as part of the rainbow community.

“Stuff that I would experience as a member of the rainbow community is having to come out every day. People think coming out as a one-time process and all that, but you are constantly having to tell people because you'll say something like my partner, and you immediately see their face go. You said partner, not girlfriend. I mean you do get the drive-by slur throwing from cars. That's still a pretty common occurrence when they do it. I'm like, how can they tell are minced down the street?!

Logan cracks me up! His humour along with a strong dose of reality is so refreshing to hear and demonstrates the incredible resilience that he and the whole team carry but not in a serious and heavy way that can often make it hard to find hope going forward.

Sese gives her thoughts on how to be an ally,

“What I would like to say to someone who doesn't know what they don't know and doesn't necessarily understand the minority experience, particularly the queer experience, is that you don't have to know everything. All that matters is that you make an effort to be kind. That's the absolute basics. And as long as you're trying, people will know, and they will feel it and they will appreciate it. Also, kind of on the other side of that though, don't use minority people exclusively to learn from, because the minority tax is a thing and it's exhausting trying to go through your life and constantly having to explain why your human rights are important. For example, there are so many resources out there that are a Google search away, and particularly the rainbow community, and I, from my current knowledge, any minority community appreciates when someone makes an effort to do their research as well. So it's a combination of driving your own learning and just trying to be kind.”

Nathan tautoko’s Sese’s sentiments and adds.

“For those of you who want to support those people around you by being more inclusive and may not be part of the rainbow community, just be gentle and listen when people tell you things. So, it takes a lot to be that first person that someone comes out to. It takes a lot for people to ask for help and to understand who they are and to share that. So, widen your lens. It might not be your journey, but this is what their journey looks like and they're sharing with you and they're trusting you with that. So that's important to honor them, honor the trust that they've shared with you.”

The day is coming to a close and we have had so many laughs. This is such an incredibly kind, fun and generous collective of people who have made Murdoch and I feel so welcome and included. They have been so giving of themselves, their time and experiences in order to help all of us better understand the rainbow community and to explore ways to be active allies in the march towards equity in our society. The need for RHW and so many more across the motu is obvious. Safe places where the rainbow community can meet, get the support and connection they and to be truly themselves is crucial. What is sad is that so many spaces in our wider society, such as bars, sports clubs, businesses etc are too often still not safe for people who are part of the rainbow community.

Logan explains such an obvious point as to why it is so important that all our society is a safe and welcoming space for members of the rainbow community.

“Well firstly, and obviously, we are people first. We like to do anything and everything that straight people do and so we also want to meet and hang out with people who share the same interests, passions and hobbies as us aside from our sexuality or gender. If we are limited to meeting friends and partners based solely on places where the common interest is our sexuality, then it's pretty limiting to have a full and varied life. We want all places and spaces to be welcoming.”

It is obvious and simply being a good human. That is all that is needed to play our part in creating a safe and healthy society for all of its members. As we wrap up, I ask if there are any messages of hope to young people out there who may be scared or worried about beginning and or exploring their journey as part of the rainbow community.

Slay kicks us off,

“So, if you're on a journey around your identity or your sexuality, whatever it might be, just take your time, figure out who you are, don't worry about putting a label on it and just really think about who you are at the core, what are your values? What are your dreams? What are your aspirations? Just figure out who you are as a person. Start from there. And then when you feel safe enough to start communicating things, then that's the right time to do it. But don't feel that pressure now that you've gone, oh, this is who I am that you instantly have to tell everyone because we get pressured into doing things by other people, but a lot of the time by ourselves. So just focus on figuring out who you are, focus on that, and then you can start to move forward from there and start to flourish.”

Logan adds,

“What I would say to people is you can reach out. You don't have to feel like you're not queer enough or you're not ready for something like that. It's on your terms and yeah, we're always here. Well, hopefully not always here.”

Sese explains,

“It's okay to take your time to figure out who you are and where you fit. And though that journey looks different for everyone, and though that journey seems to follow similar patterns with different people within the rainbow community, everyone experiences learning about themselves and exploring who they are in some way, shape, or form. So not alone, it gets better. And yeah, there are so many things that I'm doing and learning now that I never even imagined myself doing and learning at this point in my life when I was younger.”

Nathan closes us with,

“Just living your truth and doing what's safe for you and what feels right is okay. And there's no timeline on coming out. There's no timeline on what your identity looks like. It's you-centric.”

Lots of little Fires is so grateful to have spent the day with the team at RHW and is proud to be a champion in support of the whole Rainbow Community and will always stand strong alongside as an ally.

Mauri ora whānau

Watch the video here https://youtu.be/GSLgdXBeOIE?si=xKNQzJ-q-HcgMQ2T