Renee Gerlich is an independent writer and feminist activist based in Wellington, New Zealand. She was a researcher for the 2016 social history documentary The Heart of the Matter. Her current work aims to generate discussion in a climate women are increasingly silenced, using satire, interventions, street art, and exhibitions like, Too Much Truth: Women’s Global Resistance to Sexploitation. You can listen to her interview on prostitution in New Zealand with Women’s Liberation Radio News here, and follow her writing at reneejg.net.
Meghan Murphy interviewed her via email last week.
Meghan Murphy: How did you come to get involved in feminist activism?
Renee Gerlich: Like a lot of women, I grew up angry about what Naomi Wolf calls the “beauty myth” and the way that advertisers cultivate and prey on women’s insecurity. I lived in the Netherlands in my early 20s, and was inspired by a campaign challenging the beauty industry using the phrase berperkt houdbaar, which means “perishable” — it’s the Dutch version of saying that something — in this case, women — has an expiration date.
By 2011, I was looking at the fact that the primary determining factor in terms of students’ achievement in New Zealand’s public school system is their mothers’ own prior achievement. So I was thinking about the perpetuation of race and class privilege in the school system, but also about how women — both as teachers and as mothers — are expected to overcompensate for a dysfunctional system that relies on privilege to function. This issue politicized me, and led me to the New Zealand activist scene, where I got involved in other issues like militarism and corporate “free trade.”
It was after 2013 that I began defining myself as feminist. I met Pala Molisa, who was writing his PhD, “Accounting for Apocalypse,” which draws on feminist literature to critique accounting mechanisms and their role in perpetuating systems of power. Pala’s work continues the legacy of his mother, Grace, who was a poet, a freedom fighter, and an instrumental figure in the Vanuatu independence movement. She was secretary to the first elected prime minister after independence, but focused much of her energy on exposing nepotism and ongoing misogyny. Her poem, “Colonised People,” illustrates her voice and work.
Grace was also part of the organization, Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific, and was part of a movement that is now represented by women like Ninotchka Rosca and groups like Gabriela in the Philippines and Af3irm in Hawai’i. These women’s groups have an analysis that connects realities like militarism and masculinity with prostitution and colonization. I became a feminist as I read the work of women making these connections, and although I never met Grace — which saddens me (she passed away in 2002), she was the catalyst.
In 2015, Pala met a formidable woman named Rosalie Batchelor, who was trying to start a safe house for women exiting prostitution. We wanted to help her, and I published a piece about the need for such a safe house on my blog. We also went to meetings with Rosalie and that’s when we first started dealing with the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC). NZPC is New Zealand’s government-funded sex trade lobby, and they see see projects like Rosalie’s as seriously inconvenient, because they put a great deal of effort into promoting the sex trade and sanitizing the realities of prostitution. Rosalie managed to open her safe house in early 2016, but it was shut by the end of 2017 because of a lack of support and political will. That’s the climate in New Zealand.
MM: What is the current situation in New Zealand, with regard to the feminist movement and women’s rights? What are some of the challenges women are up against over there?
RG: Women in New Zealand face many of the same challenges as women throughout the West and throughout the world, stemming from male violence and our forced dependency on men. We live in a rape culture, where reporting and conviction rates are low, women’s services are spread thin, and abortion is still in the Crimes Act (meaning that a woman can only get a legal abortion if she sees two certified consultants and demonstrates that having a baby would cause “serious danger” to her mental or physical health). Single mothers struggle to raise children on low wages and benefits. About 87 per cent of women in New Zealand prisons are mothers — the majority of them Indigenous — and also primary or sole caregivers, sentenced for what can be considered crimes of poverty. A group called the Backbone Collective is drawing attention to the various ways that the Family Courts work to keep women in abusive relationships.
In terms of trying to tackle these challenges, women in New Zealand are massively hamstrung by a state that is more dangerous than it may first appear. New Zealanders like to pride ourselves on being pioneers, because of legacies like being the first country to win women’s suffrage and to declare ourselves nuclear free. We forget that we are also guinea pigs: we were one of the first nations to institutionalize neoliberal economics. When Depo-Provera was approved for use as a contraceptive in the United States in 1992, it had already been tested for 10 years in New Zealand — 25 per cent of Maori women had been injected with it, and it was being called the “new eugenics.”
More recently, in 2003, New Zealand fully decriminalized prostitution, meaning that pimping became legitimate business here, making us a pilot scheme for the global sex trade lobby. We have also been pioneering and promoting “restorative justice” programmes and prison abolitionism, both of which receive criticism from feminists overseas. Now, we are proudly leading the way in erasing women’s rights by implementing one-step sex self-identification. There are all sorts of frightening problems that come with living in a climate where prostitution, prison abolition, and the legal erasure of women’s rights are being heavily promoted at the same time — including by women’s organizations. Our prime minister is like a female Justin Trudeau, with a baby, and she talks about the gender pay gap all the time — because she appears superficially “progressive,” the left has fallen into a deep coma and nowhere to be seen when it comes to thinking about these issues critically.
Despite New Zealand’s perception of itself as “pioneering,” these projects are popularizing some truly regressive narratives. I’ve written about the extent to which the legitimization of prostitution has saturated New Zealand media and academia in sex trade advertising. It is uncanny. And while we are fed this notion that prostituted women “choose” the sex trade as “empowered” individuals, and that we are not to talk about these women as “victims,” we are simultaneously told by prison abolitionists that violent men must be defended as “victims of circumstance.” I understand the critique of the prison system — particularly its racism — but this is a truly misogynist double standard. We can see where these narratives lead with the case of Jayne Crothall, whose daughter was murdered at the age of three by an 18-year-old paedophile who had been a boarder at their home, and who then proceeded to attack Jayne with a hammer and knife. She recently went to the government’s $1.6 million Justice Summit, and, for obvious reasons, raised some questions about the idea central to “restorative justice” initiatives: that offenders should be viewed as victims. In response, she was told that she is “white and privileged,” and so basically to shut up, because she does not know what it is to be a victim.
Women are being told this exact same thing, of course, when we question, for instance, Gavin Hubbard representing New Zealand in women’s weightlifting with the endorsement of the Human Rights Commission. No one cares about Iuniarra Sipaia, the Samoan woman who Hubbard nabbed a gold medal from in 2016 after lifting 42 lbs more than her in the Australian International. If we question rehousing male prison inmates like Jade Follett in women’s prisons, where 64 per cent of inmates are Māori, that’s also apparently a “white and middle class” concern. It doesn’t even matter that Corrections has released information showing that six assaults have been committed since January last year as a result of such policies. It’s obvious that liberals are using the phrase “white middle class” as a progressive-sounding way to shut women up — not because of our race or class, but because of our sex and the female-centred nature of our challenges.
MM: What led you to first begin criticizing transgender ideology and gender identity legislation?
RG: I first started criticizing trans activism around the time that I witnessed the emergence of a support group in my region for parents who were transitioning their children on the basis of extremely conservative notions of gender. These parents mainly had little boys who liked pink and wearing dresses — something boys are almost always shamed for. It’s concerning that kids are now being sent to the doctor because of perfectly normal behaviour and childhood magical thinking, and subjected to gaslighting — being told they are in fact the opposite sex, which is the first step on a journey toward puberty blockers and cross sex hormones.
I spent a while researching transgenderism and writing about it critically on my blog, while organizing space for other women to speak about these issues. I then met Charlie Montague around December last year. As a young lesbian, Charlie was fed up with the bullying and immense pressure she had been subjected to by transactivists — her stories are outrageous. Given the media lockdown on criticisms of gender identity, we both wanted to take action, so we went up to Auckland and surprised the organizers of Auckland Pride by jumping the fence and opening the parade for them. We carried a banner that read, “Stop giving kids sex hormones/Protect lesbian youth.” Charlie did the first live interview [at 14:55, you can see Renee and Charlie hop the fence with their banner] of the parade.
As a result of our action at Pride, Sandra Dickson, a programmes coordinator at the National Council of Women (NCW), accused “transphobic feminists” (quite clearly pointing to Charlie and I) of “enabling” the murder of a trans-identified male the following week. Zena Campbell was killed in Wellington by a man he met on Tinder but Dickson implied our action at Pride was directly connected to these kinds of crimes. Charlie is a member of the Green Party and they all but bullied her out. When I voluntarily withdrew from the the Greens’ mailing list via email, I got a response saying, “Bye bigot!”
Later this year, things became more urgent as the government announced a bill “updating” the 1995 Births, Deaths and Marriages and Relationships Registration (BDMRR) Act. Media never picked up on the bill because, in preliminary readings, members of parliament (MPs) made it out to be just boring, non-partisan, apolitical updates to cremation law and digitizing family history. But this was not the case.
The original 1995 BDMRR Act already contains sections that allow for “sex nomination,” meaning that people can change the sex markers on certain identification papers after going through court and medical procedures. While a new bill was under consideration, the Green Party, who are currently in government with Labour, made proposals to amend these sections to allow for one-step “sex nomination” on birth certificates. If those proposals are adopted, any man will be able to fill out a form and have the sex marker on his birth certificate changed to “F” without any questions. He then can’t be refused entry to any women’s facility, and this has many endless implications for women’s safety and status under law. So feminists had to submit on the Bill by critiquing the language of “sex nomination” carried over from the original Act while forecasting that the select committee would likely accept the Greens proposals. As predicted, in August, the select committee announced plans to adopt the Greens’ proposals. No consultation or impact assessments have been carried out, and, rather than inviting women to talk, MPs are actively working to shut us up.
MM: And what happened when you began challenging these things?
RG: When you stick your neck out in New Zealand, you get spotted from a mile away. I’ve gone through this weird public silencing, where no local media will publish me, but somehow lots of people still know of me as “that woman.” We are seeing insane deployment of power against very small groups of women and individuals who don’t hold any notable power themselves.
I have personally been subjected to incessant online harassment, including multiple attempts to hack my blog and a bullying pact that helped drive me out of my job and city. I was banned from a Wellington zine fair; I have had articles surreptitiously removed from a news site; an interview I did for Radio New Zealand about a petition I created, challenging a Givealittle campaign that asks supporters for funds to promote breast binding in colonized regions, was mysteriously “lost;” a community radio presenter who scheduled an interview with me received a warning from his station manager for doing so; and a postering company blacklisted me after I submitted a pro-suffrage poster campaign for printing and distribution. Trans activist organizations, RainbowYOUTH, InsideOUT, and Gender Minorities Aotearoa have been involved from the beginning. There is no support in New Zealand for women dealing with any of this stuff. I have been to the Human Rights Commission, NetSafe, and the Press Council, and these organizations are of no help.
It gets worse. In August, activist Georgina Blackmore and several others launched Speak Up For Women — New Zealand’s version of A Woman’s Place UK — and the Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa (LRAA) was launched as well. This happened around the same time that a newspaper covered the ban on my posters. Really, only two women have been visible through all of this — myself and Charlie, spokesperson for the LRAA. No one else is publicly and actively drawing attention to these issues. I am currently unemployed, and Charlie is trying to finish her university degree. Nonetheless, the backlash against us escalated. Sandra Dickson of the NCW painted us as “dangerous,” and at least seven members of parliament have made public statements responding to “transphobic feminists,” often targeting the two of us specifically. Labour MP Louisa Wall published a press release with the specific aim of discrediting and smearing the LRAA as having an “agenda of hatred towards transgender people,” concluding, “HATE is HATE. It is ugly and intolerable!”
The Green Party has been the worst — co-leader Marama Davidson, MP Golriz Ghahraman, Minister for Women Julie Anne Genter, and several others have all been green lighting the backlash against us. There have been cartoons slandering the LRAA and feminists who challenge self-identification, biased news reports specifically targeting us as “anti-trans feminists,” and impersonator Twitter accounts. Several emails were sent out to a mailing list of about 14,000 via a petition platform called ActionStation in order to fundraise for a retaliatory poster campaign with the company that banned me. The emails referred to “anti-trans groups” with “extreme” views that are “violent towards trans people and gender minorities (non-binary and gender diverse people).” They alluded to the suffrage-themed posters I hung up and pro-lesbian stickers that had been found around Wellington as promoting “messages to generate fear and division”. The appeal raised $5,000 in 48 hours to have posters distributed nationwide that advertise transgenderism — a misogynist medical experiment — as Indigenous.
Trans activists managed to block a member of Speak Up For Women from doing a $2 job at a printers. The woman went in wanting to print a letter about self-identification to present to an MP, and was told that one of the shop’s biggest customers had threatened to take their business elsewhere if the printer did any job of the sort. Yet, these trans activists still claim underdog status.
MM: How can feminists around the globe support your work and the feminist fight in New Zealand?
RG: We need to stop one-step sex self-identification from going through in New Zealand, and we need a critical discussion about transgenderism and the liberal whitewashing of feminism here. One of the biggest hurdles we face is the fact that, whether out of cowardice or capitulation, our local media will barely look at these issues critically. Most women in this country do not know what’s going on, so there are a few individuals against whom an insane amount of power is being deployed, just because we vocalize what are essentially very benign positions, like that women are female, and prostitution is exploitative.
This is what is concerning me at the moment — this deployment of power against individuals on the basis of some very, very low thresholds for what now constitutes “transgression.” Among other reasons, it concerns me because I see this bullying as a predictor of how women’s speech is increasingly monitored, in harmful and insidious ways, regardless of our politics. We need feminists overseas to help us coax New Zealand media to realize that, even though our prime minister is a smiling young mother who doesn’t like the pay gap, the rising, highly authoritarian sexist harassment going on in this country is a major red flag connected to some seriously misogynist policies, programmes, and legislative proposals that need to be critically investigated — like, yesterday.