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New Zealand ballroom culture
Photography Apela Bell

How ballroom culture transformed New Zealand’s trans community

Safe spaces for QTPOC communities in a country seen by the rest of the world as progressive are rare, but trans women are finding space and solace in Auckland’s balls

At the height of the pandemic, hundreds of New Zealanders would attend a ball. It had been a little over three months since the country locked down, and under four since Kentuckian Breonna Taylor was murdered by Louisville police in her apartment. The first freed from quarantine’s confines, New Zealand’s queer population rallied en masse to ‘Say Her Name’ – voguing toward a better future for Black lives from 8,000 miles away.

While it might appear New Zealand ushered in the roaring 20s before anyone else, for its LGBTQ community there is no party without protest, and no protest without a ballroom backdrop. To cross hemispheres from Harlem is a long way for vogue culture to travel, but the bottom of the world was only ever going to burn if a brave few would set it alight. Among those leading Auckland’s ballroom birth has been Jaycee Tanuvasa, who not only mothers her own House of IMAN (named after Somalian supermodel Iman) but many young QTPOC Kiwis navigating their – often ostracised – intersectional identities.

“Balls remind us of our power,” says Tanuvasa. “It’s also a boot camp for real life, holding tools that protect us when navigating the outside world… Living in New Zealand as a non-passing fa’afafine trans woman, I’ve faced many challenges: discrimination, violence, misogyny, and transphobia.”

For many, this account will come as a surprise. New Zealand ranks among the top four of the most socially progressive countries (beaten out only by Scandinavia), and has long been praised for its social liberalism in first offering women the vote, eliminating nuclear power and electing female leaders. Nonetheless, a dark underbelly of toxic masculinity has always anchored its culture. Shaneel Shavneel Lal, a 21-year-old Fijian-New Zealand trans-queer activist, claims this is underscored by its colonial origins. 

“Indigenous queer people are suffering from tremendous generational trauma,” says Lal. “Queerphobia is rooted in racism. Queer people held a special place in indigenous communities before colonisation – we weren’t only accepted, we were celebrated. Colonisation taught white homophobic and transphobic practices into our people… (New Zealand) is infused with homophobia, it is dripping with transphobia, and we are not doing enough.”

In a 2019 Youth Parliament session, Lal delivered a viral-worthy speech unraveling conversion therapy’s legality in New Zealand. In the months thereafter, Lal would assemble a task force to see conversion therapy banned in New Zealand and as of this year, 110 – of 120 – MPs are in support. While this is an immense victory, Lal remains frustrated that neither the New Zealand government nor media elicited feedback from QTPOC consultants on a law that will leave non-citizen immigrants particularly vulnerable. Because criminally convicted non-citizens face immediate deportation in New Zealand, a queer child removed by non-citizen parents to be ‘converted’ must make an impossible decision: endure conversion or call the police to possibly deport their parents. Naturally, says Lal, “the law will fail marginalised queer people.”

“Indigenous queer people are suffering from tremendous generational trauma... (New Zealand) is infused with homophobia, it is dripping with transphobia, and we are not doing enough” – Shaneel Shavneel Lal

“New Zealand does not deserve its progressive international image,” Lal claims. “There were six attacks on queer people in Pride month alone. Church groups came to protest a Pride march... I do not just want to be tolerated. I want to be free.”

At the very least, that freedom can be found in the ballroom community. Tanuvasa notes that there are queer sisterhoods bubbling in all-boys high schools – voguing on rugby fields. In 2013, the FAFSWAG Arts Collective produced the first vogue ball in Auckland, and the ballroom scene has since flourished ever since in some of New Zealand’s most famous spaces. The largest in recent memory was hosted this year by Tanuvasa’s House of IMAN, which was held at the ASB Arena – a venue that has hosted tennis sensations Serena Williams and Roger Federer. Throngs looked on as the houses vogued, strutted, and posed in various categories (femme queen, female figure, drag queen etc).

“The ballroom scene was my gateway into the ballroom culture,” says Tony Su’a, a 25-year-old events coordinator and House of IMAN member, whose favourite ball category is drag. “As ballroom is growing, individuals who have been scared to express themselves can find support and allies within the ballroom scene.”

Lal believes ballroom has been so fervently embraced by Auckland’s queer community because their safe spaces are often co-opted. This month, several of the city’s key LGBTQ figures organised a midnight protest against Auckland’s historic gay bar Family, accusing the owner of racism and transphobia, as well as pandering to an increasingly ill-intentioned straight male clientele. Frustration has been mounting since December, when queer rapper Brooke Candy was allegedly assaulted by the bar’s in-house DJ following a disagreement. In other cities the gentrification of a club simply signals it's time to move on, but for Auckland, a Family Bar boycott is like cutting off the blood supply to the queer community’s beating heart. If not there, where? Ballrooms, says Lal.

“White cis gays could go to the bars, day or night, but trans POC could not, even if the spaces were owned by white gay men. Trans POC were never the ones to beg for crumbs, so they created their heaven on earth” – Shaneel Shavneel Lal

“White cis gays could go to the bars, day or night, but Trans POC could not, even if the spaces were owned by white gay men,” they explain. “Trans POC were never the ones to beg for crumbs, so they created their heaven on earth.”

Within the queer community, “white gays really be the most annoying,” echoes Leah Pao. Even as a cis-passing trans woman, the 30-year-old model-office administrator admits her existence in New Zealand is “a struggle”. She looks forward to navigating cis-dominated spaces without discrimination, or leaving the room knowing she won’t be the next topic of conversation. Even finding work as a trans woman in New Zealand can at times prove difficult, she says. Pao believes the country’s ballroom scene has gained so much traction because queer Kiwis consistently sought a place to feel “liberated.” 

“I feel like every vogue event is important to our community. It is a space where we can unapologetically be ourselves and, let’s be real, we don’t have the luxury to do that everywhere else… connecting with the girls has given me things that my blood family cannot give: that is the same lived experience.”

Tanuvasa agrees. “Balls are a reclamation of space and identity and it gives refuge to those from our community who feel alone: one big chosen family that offer things most cis-hetero parents cannot offer.”

Nonetheless, the girls long for the celebration of their identity by the outside world – even if they themselves are outsiders. Personally requested by Pose co-creator and producer Steven Canals to speak at the ‘Power of Inclusion Summit,’ Jaycee Tanuvasa unraveled her once-held desire to be “invited” to benefit from the same systems that have served cis-straight people for centuries. Eventually, Tanuvasa would reach a crossroads of two paths: dismantle their system, or create her own. She opted for the latter. 

“Every vogue event is important to our community. It is a space where we can unapologetically be ourselves… connecting with the girls has given me things that my blood family cannot give: that is the same lived experience” – Leah Pao

“(New Zealand is becoming more accepting) only because trans people are doing most of the work ourselves,” she says. “No one is going harder for us than ourselves. I may not receive empathy and compassion as easily as cis-heterosexual people but I’ve never been alone, and the love of my family and community has empowered me to flourish.”

Perhaps the tragedies committed against marginalised communities hemispheres away feel so personal to Auckland’s queer-trans Polynesian sisterhood, is because they are. The race, sexuality or gender of those whose stories are circulated on social media bears little relevance to Jaycee Tanuvasa, Shaneel Shavneel Lal, Leah Pao or Tony Su’a, because there’s no distinguishing discrimination. Part of intersectionality is recognising our interconnection, and in ballroom, culture is their platform. Politicians could learn a thing or two – nothing brings people together like a dancefloor.

“The ballroom is beyond a safe space,” explains Lal. “The ballroom is about supporting and uplifting each other. It is about showing up when the community needs you. It is about celebrating the most marginalised. But most importantly, the ballroom is about family.”