Auckland Pride kicked off last Friday, and Sunday marked one of the main events of the festival: Big Gay Out.
2017’s theme was based around ending the transmission of HIV, something that many believe to be possible in New Zealand providing we continue to have protected sex, get tested more regularly, and get treated early.
It is estimated that there are currently around 3,200 people living with HIV in New Zealand. In 2015, there were 224 diagnoses, and of those, 153 were amongst gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, showing that there is much to be done to prevent these rates rising over the coming years.
On entering the site – based in Point Chevalier’s Coyle Park – attendees were faced with a tent that offered rapid HIV testing to anyone who wanted it. It was instantly clear that the New Zealand AIDS Foundation weren’t messing around, this wasn’t going to be one of those situations where an event is excessively advertised and then under delivers. Big Gay Out – Ending HIV had every intention of doing exactly that.
As you made your way around the tens of glorious stalls, all happily promoting pride and acceptance, you were suddenly faced with a slightly ostentatious purple condom that must have been 20 feet tall. Printed with “ENDING HIV”, the message was clear and simple: Use a condom, friends.
Aside from the monster condom, branding was everywhere as patrons wandered around with temporary “I’M IN” tattoos on their arms, provided by the Ending HIV tent, and free condoms were available at every other stall.
Despite its serious undertone, the general vibe of the event was anything but. While the main theme was, no doubt, always in the back of your mind, it’s hard to let yourself get too bogged down by sombre truths when you’re surrounded by infinite rainbows and glitter. Even if you didn’t spend half an hour lining up to get doused in glitter at ANZ’s #HoldOnTight tent, there was no way you were walking out of that park without being just a little bit sparkly.
It would have been easy for the frivolities of the day to take away from the message that Big Gay Out was trying to spread about HIV, and yet somehow, all it really did was remove the stigma that surrounds it. To be able to walk out of the testing tent and into one that provided rainbow face painting created this sense that it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, or embarrassed by. It pushed stigma aside and created an environment in which this disease can be openly and casually talked about. This was explicitly addressed later, as the winner of Mr Gay New Zealand Charlie Tredway briefly expressed amazement at his award, due, in part, to his openly HIV positive status.
The main stage lineup was bursting with diversity – from transgender musicians, to non-binary fronted bands, to tremendously talented and entertaining drag queens, it would have been difficult to find an audience member that wasn’t fairly represented. It’s easy to be biased when it’s an event run in your own country, yet even headline performer Parson James couldn’t say enough just how much he loved us, and how there was a lot his home country - United States - could learn from New Zealand.
The 2017 Big Gay Out is the first one I have attended, and I can understand why people return year after year. It is a safe and inviting environment that is far removed from the one that members of the LGBTQI+ community often find themselves in, one that defines unconditional acceptance and equality. This is something that needs to continually be promoted in our everyday society, to ensure that all of our days are – at least metaphorically – filled with glitter and rainbows.