The first gay pride events in New Zealand took place in the early 1970s and grew out of Gay Liberation, but were nothing like what we see today.
It was a different world. People used to bring in their own stereo and records from home for Gay Lib dances at Auckland Uni. There were clubs, pubs and bars of course and dances organised through the ‘80s with small groups of dedicated people putting small events on here and there, a far cry from the major queer festivals and parties that were growing around the world and most obviously looking across the ditch, New Zealand had nothing like the Sydney Lesbian and Gay Mardi Gras.
In 1991, at the darkest time of all the horror AIDS had brought, the first HERO Party was launched in Auckland. HERO was initially a project of the NZAF and can be seen as a sort of “stealth” public health operation. The underlying logic had two points to it. The first was that our communities, especially gay men, were going through a nightmare as so many of us got sick and died, leaving little in our lives to celebrate. The second point was that a community that is positive, strong and happy is a much healthier community, and so by helping us celebrate who we were, HERO would help us stay well and look after each other. Those first parties are the stuff of legends, magical nights with over 5000 people dancing till dawn, amazing stage shows and a joyful vibe.
Wellington had been running Out in the Square since just after Law Reform, which started out as a rallying event called “Fair for a Fair Law” the year prior to reform passing, and added the Devotion Party the same year HERO started, while further south Christchurch had its Freedom Party, both similar if smaller than HERO. Some brave people also organised a few events in smaller centres around the country as well; it felt like our communities were staking our place in the sun.
The HERO Party idea quickly grew into the HERO Festival and the NZAF handed it on to the community to look after. Even though a lot of people mainly remember the parade that was an afterthought in some ways.
The first HERO Parade didn’t take place till 1994 and it went down Queen Street, not along Ponsonby Road. This was a very controversial move, Queen Street parades are for the All Blacks and America’s Cup winners, returning soldiers or families watching Santa and there were a lot of people who thought a bunch of dirty diseased perverts didn’t deserve to have that honour. You need to read the Letters to the Editor in The Herald from that time to see just what sort of hatred was directed to us. It was pretty strong stuff.
Les Mills was Auckland’s Mayor for those first parades and fought hard to stop it and any Council support for it. There was a massive meeting at the Town Hall in 1997 for a vote to see if the Council would give us some funding. The Town Hall was full, mainly with supporters but some opponents and it was a loud, fiery meeting. We lost that vote. Now we have the Auckland Council helping fund the entire festival and working to help thing flow, another sign of what’s changed.
The following parades were held on Ponsonby Road. As these were night time parades some of the floats were pretty raunchy, causing some upset both inside and outside our communities. As HERO looked for financial support there were more and more floats that seemed to be about advertising rather than pride.
There was no parade in 2000 as HERO was slowly dying and the final one was in 2001 when unfortunately the whole project became unworkable.
The great legacy that continued after HERO was the Big Gay Out, now sponsored by Get it On!, and it’s still there at the centre of it all 14 years later. Even if we haven’t had a full Pride festival here in Auckland for a while, we’ve had that day and it’s become the central event for us to celebrate ourselves. It’s a fun, cruisy day in the sun for catching up with mates and feeling the pulse of what’s going on in our world. The Get it On! Big Gay Out shows that even without a full-blown Pride Festival, queer Auckland has continued to celebrate, but now with the Parade and Festival we’re inviting the rest of the city to join us.
| Michael Stevens