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Why the struggle for gay rights is far from over

Streets paved with rainbows: San Francisco’s pride parade. Photo/Getty Images

Despite growing acceptance of the rainbow community, research suggests there's still a way to go.

Passing through San Francisco last month, I got to witness the city’s annual pride parade. This is gay pride, but not as we know it. The streets are paved with rainbows, pride hearts adorn police cruisers and hawkers sell multicoloured boas to tourists and beer out of little carts. More than a few nipples are protected from the cool temperatures by little more than stick-on pride flags.

Despite a small group of protesters briefly blocking the parade, it was an impressive, colourful and slightly weird collection of floats and marchers that set off down Market St. A recurring memory is of walking past a street corner only to do a double take at a slightly tubby gent who was wearing nothing more than a flag across his shoulders. He must have been moving pretty fast, because I kept passing him, only to find him ahead of me again.

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It seems a good time to be part of the rainbow community. Indeed, a recent article in literary and cultural-commentary magazine the Atlantic went so far as to suggest that “the struggle for gay rights is over”.

I’m not so sure. To support its argument, the article notes that the proportion of Americans who think homosexuality is unacceptable has halved to 30% over the past 30 years. I find myself wondering if 30% really means someone’s struggle is over. After all, it’s just over three years since the targeted killings of 49 gay nightclub goers in Orlando.

LGBTQI+ rights have improved over the past 30 years, and New Zealand has been among the more progressive nations. It has always intrigued me that one of the more memorable moments during the passage of the Marriage Amendment Act 2013 was the “big gay rainbow” speech from Maurice Williamson, a member of one of our more conservative political parties.

Maurice Williamson. Photo/Getty Images

Richard Bowman, writing in 1979, reported that three-quarters of straight New Zealanders he surveyed felt that people had a “right” to be gay. That’s more accepting than the US is now.

But, as with the effects of colonisation, decades of discrimination continue to play out in the health and well-being of rainbow people in New Zealand. Research by the Youth 2000 team, and others, has shown that sexual-minority youth are disproportionately worse off in terms of mental health.

One explanation for this is the notion of minority stress. Everyone experiences ups and downs in the course of their lives (Where’s my rent coming from? I need to get an excellence for this assessment, etc) and these stressors are no respecter of sexuality. But rainbow people experience these stressors and those that come from living in a world where maybe one in four of the people they meet don’t accept them. Coming out can be extremely stressful, but imagine having to do it repeatedly each time your school counsellor changes, or you visit a new GP?

Indeed, if it weren’t for this minority stress, our rainbow folk would be just as badly off as the rest of us, not worse.

This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.