This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Jac Lynch: Sara, you were involved in the Butch on Butch photo project. That was fantastic. I was really thrilled when you came forward about that. Can you give us an idea about why you wanted to be involved in the project?

Sara: I don’t know, it’s kind of tricky. Ultimately what it boiled down to was the fact that it was you doing it. It was someone I felt I could trust. Someone I knew had an understanding of being butch and what that means and so that kind of just made me feel comfortable and made me want to volunteer and do it really.

Jac: Oh thanks, that’s not the answer I was expecting but (laughs) I’ll take that. The photo we ended up taking was based on your idea and we went into some bush around Wellington and set up quite a stylised photo. Would you like to take us through that because it was really your idea about how you wanted to be seen and it was really you that controlled that shoot. Could you take us through what you wanted to do with that photo.

Sara: My Celtic hereditary is quite important to me, it’s a strong part of how I identify so wearing my kilt was quite important to me I guess.

Jac: Tell us about your kilt.

Sara: Well it’s my family tartan and it’s something I’m really proud to wear.

Jac: Do you get much chance to wear it?

Sara: No I reserve it just for special occasions so it’s the first time I’ve worn it I think since my graduation in 2002.

Jac: And you’re wearing some other kit that looks fairly Celtic too. Tell us about that.

Sara: I guess you’re referring to the sporran (laughs).

Jac: I thought it was a merkin (laughs) but there you go.

Sara: I’m sure it’s been referred to as one of those before. Yes that’s a sporran referred to often as a man’s purse. I don’t know what more to say about those.

Jac: Well that’s quite a decision for you anyway to be making to be wearing a man’s purse as such so that’s part of the image you were wanting to portray with this?

Sara: Yes I think so. I mean there’s whole lot of regalia that can go with wearing a kilt. There’s proper socks and garters, a skindo, which is a knife, and then the upper clothing is quite specific as well but I don’t possess any of those for a start but the sporran for me is, I don’t know what it is, but it represents something I guess but particularly for that shoot. But just generally when I do wear it I always make sure I’ve got a sporran on.

Jac: I’m looking at your photo now and I can see quite a collection of necklaces. Can you talk to those?

Sara: Yeh well there’s, I’ve got my labrys bone carving which was made for me by a friend for my 25th birthday. I’ve got three things and I wear them all the time, I’ve got the Celtic knot, a pendant that my Mum bought me for my 40th birthday and that represents my Celtic heritage along with the kilt but obviously the necklace is there all the time. I’ve got the labrys which represents my identity as a lesbian and then I’ve got a greenstone adze which was gifted to me and that just represents the New Zealand side of my family and my new being as being someone who came to live in New Zealand from somewhere else.

Jac: Where did you come from? Tell us a bit about your background.

Sara: From the UK originally. I was born in London, my Mum married an Englishman and I was born nine months after the honeymoon (laughs). I don’t know it’s kind of weird, it’s something I’m aware of obviously, it is not something that plays a big part of whom I am. Maybe other people see me in that sense, I don’t really know but I’ve got Scottish heritage, was born in England and came to New Zealand when I was 17 with my Mum, and New Zealand is my home. My Mum and sister went back to the UK for a number of years, my sister still lives there, my Mum returned about three years ago. But I’ve always stayed here, New Zealand’s home. I love being in New Zealand. I love being here and I love the life that I’ve developed for myself as a result of being here.

Jac: When you first came to New Zealand, where did you come to live?

Sara: Auckland, and I hated it. I’d been here a couple of times before. Once when my Dad died and then before that when my Grandfather was dying. And to me that was in the late 70s and early 80s, it was a small little backward out of the way country and I hated it. So when my Mum said we’re moving here, it was like ‘No!’, I tried everything I could and she said ‘well, if you can find a job you can stay,’ but I couldn’t find a job so I had to come with her but as times gone on and the country’s changed and I’ve changed I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would never go back to live. I think New Zealand is the best place to live and I love living in Wellington particularly.

Jac: Why did you move to Wellington?

Sara: To be honest I moved to Wellington for study. I wanted to be studying at the heart of politics, what I thought was the heart of politics, capital city where the seat of Government is and I thought it would be more politically active and I could get more engaged with that kind of stuff. I also came here with the original plan of doing the Masters in Creative Writing at Vic but that’s a really hard course to get into so I wasn't accepted but I did other things instead and I love it.

Jac: So what is it about Wellington and the political scene here, and who do you have connections with here that kind of keep you going?

Sara: Wellington just feels like home, it just feels like the right place to be and there’s always something going on if you look for it. Like today when I was at the TPPA march. My politics is really important to me, it’s part of who I am. So there’s always something to engage in if you want to or if you can’t find something to engage with it’s quite easy to find like-minded people and create something yourself. Being politically connected and being connected to the community are really important things to me.

Jac: So on the political spectrum, what gets you?

Sara: Workers’ rights get me, human rights get me, anything to do with people being oppressed and fighting for the underdog that’s what gets me yeh. Challenging the Capitalist corporate norm, that kind of stuff is important and everybody having the right to live the life that they want to.

Jac: So are you involved in groups in Wellington that help you do that?

Sara: Yep, definitely, I haven’t been as active with the TPPA stuff as probably I’d like to be, I’m doing things about that. Wellington Gay Welfare Group is probably the one that springs to mind the most. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff especially in the last two or three years funding different groups and helping people out in making a change to Wellington community, and that’s really cool to be able to do that. Queer Avengers are on a bit of a hiatus at the moment. I was heavily involved in that. That was a really important organisation. At the time we did a lot of activism around transphobia and bullying in schools. That kind of stuff is important so yeh.

Jac: So the involvement in collective action has been something that’s driven you for a while.

Sara: Yeh.

Jac: Do you see anything in yourself in terms of how you are with a butch identity being expressed at all through this, or having a foundation in this at all?

Sara: That’s a difficult one to answer because I mean I identify as butch and that’s why I’m in this obviously but it’s part and parcel with who I am. I am butch, I represent as butch, I am butch and butch, therefore I am, kind of thing and it probably does have a part of the political action that I take but I guess I don’t do it because of the butch identity. It’s just there because that’s just who I am.

Jac: Would you like to read what you wrote for the narrative that went with your photo?

Sara: It is difficult to explain what it means for me being butch, it just is who I am, kinda like trying to explain what it's like to be human. I cannot imagine being anything else. I have been mistaken for the male of the species many times, as far back as I can remember. I still am. During my teens and twenties it used to bother me, but as I have gotten older, I have learnt to have fun with it. It is fascinating seeing how the 'straight' world reacts to me. So, yeah, hard to put in to words what being butch means to me. I just am.

Jac: This bit about the straight world reacting to you. Can you give some examples of how you’ve experienced that?

Sara: I remember actually one of the first conscious visits of coming to New Zealand. I was 12, my father had just died, so my Mum brought us back here to be with her family for a while. And I remember being in a department store in Tauranga and gone into use the bathrooms and you know as a lot of us experience ‘This is the girl’s room, what are you doing in here?’ And being a shy 12-year-old who had just lost her father I didn’t have the kind of response as what I’d have today so a lot of stuff like that. I remember when I was a bit older, I was about 17 or 18 I think, I was in a pub with a couple of other friends and some guy coming up to me and saying ‘my friend really likes you, she thinks you’re a really cute guy’. It was like “uh, yeh no, sorry’. So he scurried off all embarrassed. Yeh that kind of stuff, the Sir or the Mate, that typical stuff a lot of us experience. As I say it used to bother me but now it’s just like ‘get over it, it’s the 21st century for goodness sake. Stop trying to put your ideals on what someone should present, what society thinks someone should look like. It’s just rubbish.’

Jac: Do you find yourself saying that to people or just let it roll off?

Sara: No, these days I challenge it. I remember the first time I ever challenged it I was doing an unemployment training scheme thing up in Auckland, when I used to ride a motorbike. I had quite a big bike. I pulled into the carpark one morning and this other guy was getting off his bike at the same time and said ‘oh that’s a big bike for a girl’. So I said ‘fuck off dickhead, it’s not’, something along those lines. I was angry and at that point I was an angry wee person so I ripped into him and told him he needs to grow up and why can’t a woman ride a big bike and what the fuck’s that got to do with anything. I can ride it, I can handle so what? Doesn’t matter if I’m a man or woman or don’t identify as anything I can ride the bike and that’s all that matters. So probably not quite so aggressive these days, not quite so angry but I don’t let people get away with it. If people say something to me, I will challenge them on it. Maybe something like well just because I don’t fit what you consider to be the standards, that’s not my problem, your problem.

Jac: Are you around other butch people much these days?

Sara: I guess so yeh, just among my friends and some of them identify as butch and some of them don’t. I don’t purposely go out of my way to seek out other butch people. They’re just in the circles that I associate with, they’re there as well.

Jac: I thought it was quite interesting in the project that there were about 20 people involved and there was such a range of people from those who just saw themselves as labelled as butch but not necessarily identifying as, to others who were quite happy really to have that as an identity.

Sara: Yeh I guess it’s part and parcel about what’s come along in the development and the changes in the growth and the acceptance of queer people and that people are now more comfortable to say ‘yep I identify as butch’ or ‘other people see me as butch but I don’t take that label myself’. I don’t know if it’s just a Wellington thing or if it’s a New Zealand thing or what, some people still struggle, but for me it seems interesting that there is an acceptance of people being able to identify how they want to rather than the binary cos the binary sucks too which butch and femme, the dynamic is part of that but it’s a different aspect of it. It’s not the same as the straight dynamic, it’s quite different. So it just seems there’s a lot more acceptance and there’s a lot more understanding and people just can be who they need to be which I think is cool.

Jac: Do you have the butch femme dynamic in your life?

Sara: Yes (laughs)

Jac: How does that show itself?

Sara: Well clearly I’m very butch and my girlfriend is very femme. It’s actually to be honest with you, it’s quite a new thing for me. I’ve had girlfriends in the past who have not identified as femme so it’s been a learning curve to say the least but it’s cool I really like it and it’s made me more proud of who I really am, of me. Having someone who appreciates me for my butchness is a really nice thing to experience.

Jac: There’s some critique that you hear sometimes around butch and femme and that dynamic, and around butch perhaps taking up space and those sorts of things. Have you ever been involved in those sorts of discussions?

Sara: I haven’t personally but I know it is challenging. I think it’s part of the whole spectrum I suppose. It’s about allowing everybody to identify how they want to and express themselves how they want to but at the same time making sure everyone has space to do that cos I’ve heard of horror stories from the 70s with butch women taking over feminist spaces and being quite oppressive. I like to think that doesn’t happen quite as much or at least as overtly as it might have done once. I could be naive about that. For me I don’t see it as a part of my butchness, I just think it’s fair just for me personally that everyone has a right to have their space and they have their say when they need to.

Jac: The groups that you’ve been involved in, Wellington Gay Welfare Group, and the support that they’re giving groups around town. Can you speak a little bit more to that?

Sara: It started out as a helpline back in the early 80s but that need seems to have drifted away over the last few years so that side of things have a really got a lot more quiet. So now we’re focussed more on funding where we can. We still run the Peter Cuthbert Trust which is specifically for financial assistance for men with HIV so we’ve got a legacy to do with that. But we haven’t done much in the way of fundraising of late but we try to distribute any monies. People from the community can approach us and say ‘Hey we need money for this. This is what we are going to do with it and this is how much we need. Is it something that you guys can help with?’ And most of time we do. So yeh we’re shifting gear a bit and becoming more of a funding operation and see how that works out and what we can do around that so I think that’s going to be more of our focus.

Jac: I know you’ve been involved in helping School’s Out. Can you tell us a little about that?

Sara: Yep, School’s Out is a group that Wellington Gay Welfare has supported right from the beginning. It’s a group for youth by youth. They are branching out on their own more these days so they are just rely more on us more for the charitable status and the funding side of things which is really cool as they take off and be their own entity which is amazing. So yeh we just help out with that when we can, when they need us to. I guess you could probably say that Gay Welfare Group is more of an umbrella organisation now and they are definitely our biggest group under the umbrella. So it’s been really nice to see them develop over the years and become their own thing and focus on the needs of youth. We’ve also been in a position where we have been able to help out with funding for paid positions. Unfortunately we haven’t been able to get ourselves into a position where we can continue to pay someone in an employed role in that organisation. It would be good if we can get round to that and it can be a continual thing rather than just short-term and temporary employment but yeh it’s been good to be able to do that when we can.

Jac: Do you have any thoughts generally on how the community in Wellington, or the communities in Wellington do act to support each other, or what they could do more?

Sara: It’s kind of a curly one that because I guess ultimately we’re not really communities as such. We come together when there is a need which is really good because that would make the situation even worse if we couldn’t even do that. But we do, whenever something comes up, whether it’s a need for funding, or whether it’s a need for activism or support or something we all seem to rally around and come together and help out when the cry is put out. In an ideal world it would be great if we didn’t have to do any of this, we could just be and just exist and there would be plenty of funding for anybody who needed it. You know like in Australia they get millions of dollars from Government for supporting stuff. If we had access to that it would be brilliant. So yeh in an ideal world, fantastic, but unfortunately that’s not the situation and we do what we can when we need to and I think that’s actually quite nice really.

Jac: Now, about your studies. Tell us a bit about that.

Sara: Crikey. That took longer than it was meant to. I just completed a Masters degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. The last person at Victoria University to graduate from the Gender and Women’s studies department with a Masters degree so that’s kind of cool. I did an examination of the experiences of, well, the official title is ‘An investigation of the homophobic heterosexist culture of tertiary accommodation’ so in a nutshell I was looking at how heterosexist student hostels are cos I worked in them for about four years and not only experienced homophobia myself but witnessed other younger people experiencing it. So I thought well there are some studies done overseas, we needed one done here in New Zealand, so I did it, there was a gap in the literature so that’s what I did.

Jac: You’ve just finished it, how long did it take?

Sara: It took me four years in the end. Yep.

Jac: And what were your findings?

Sara: Basically that there is homophobia and heterosexism experienced in hostels. Generally the situation is that it’s not intentional it’s just that the people who run the hostels don’t take a minute to just sit back and see how they can be more open and more accepting to people who don’t identify as straight. So one of the recommendations I’ve made is that they need to have more diversity training within the hostels. The big assumption is that everybody who walks through the door is straight. That’s that. And that’s how they do everything, organise everything, everything they plan is that they just assume that everyone is straight. I just wanted to try and point out that actually that’s a bit of a sucky assumption to make.

Jac: Who’s been able to access your research or who’s been interested in it?

Sara: Nobody at the moment because I haven’t actually handed in the final version to the library. Once I do that there’ll be a copy online and one in the library, Victoria library so anybody will be able to get hold of it. I’ve had one person already ask me when it will be ready so they can use it in for some research they are producing themselves, up in the Hamilton, a good friend of mine so that’s cool. I’m hoping to publish it in a couple of magazines that go around student hostels, it’d be nice to get some stuff in there. So yeh, it’ll be available to anybody who wants to have a look.

Jac: Were you talking to residents and residential assistants, and to others? Who was involved in it?

Sara: I didn’t talk to any of the official staff. I did it through an online questionnaire with the students. That was challenging in itself, I had to do it twice because the first time I publicised it, I didn’t get much of a take up but I managed to get quite a few people in the end. So it was just asking anybody in the hall who wanted to take part, you didn’t have to identify as queer in anyway cos I wanted to get a broad response so I could show from their responses that this is the way that these people think and this is why this kind of stuff is challenging if you don’t identify as heterosexual.

Jac: Were you looking at the residential halls across New Zealand, or was it mostly Wellington?

Sara: Initially it was going to be across New Zealand but due to health reasons I had to reduce that so it just ended up being Victoria actually in the end.

Jac: They’ll be interested in your findings when it comes out.

Sara: I hope they bloody will be. They should be, I hope so. That’s what it’s about I guess isn’t it? It’s having someone who identifies as queer doing queer research so that people who don’t have an understanding of what that means can take a look at it and say ‘oh yeh, we can implement that in our place, cos that’s easy, that’s straightforward, there’s no reason why we can’t do that.’ Hopefully, that’ll happen.

Jac: What sort of work are you involved in?

Sara: I’m a research assistant with Otago Medical School here in Wellington and we look at housing. So we look at safety aspects of housing, who gets to live in a house, how easy that is to do. One of the big things we look at is social housing and what the Government is doing to basically destroy that so we point out why it’s important to have social housing and why that’s important and why it’s needed and why the State needs to hang on to it. But I’m also hoping to do my own bit of research later in the year, specifically related to homeless issues specifically related to LGBTI people so that would be really cool if I can pull that off.

Jac: Great, what’s your interest there? What’s sparked that?

Sara: Again, that’s probably my involvement with Wellington Gay Welfare Group. We’ve had a number of cases over the last three to four years of young people being thrown out of home because they identify as trans* or queer and the parents can’t handle it so they kick them out and they’ve got nowhere to go, no one to turn to, nothing, so we’ve helped out where we can and again there’s a bit of stuff going on overseas so we need to do it here. I’ve learnt in the work I’ve been doing over the last three years that New Zealand tends to copy everywhere else 10 years later so my argument is well why wait 10 years. We need it now, I’m hoping to do it now, so do some research and explain why it’s important to have emergency housing at the very least.

Jac: In your experience of how the community rally around, have you seen them rally around those sorts of situations where someone, a young person is homeless and needing help?

Sara: Yeh for sure, we’ve got quite a few contacts within WG where people are willing to offer a sofa at the very least, if not a spare room and take people in for a short-term or a longterm. Which is really nice, it’s good to know we’ve got people out there we can rely on when needed.

Jac: What sort of advice would you give to a young person that’s coming into the queer communities in Wellington?

Sara: Crikey, you’re nothing but the big questions, eh Jac? I don’t know. Be yourself, get support around you, people who will accept you for who you are and don’t want to try and change you. There are people out there who will hug you when you need a hug, they exist and I suppose don’t be afraid to ask for that help when you need it. It can be daunting coming to terms with who you are and to ‘fess that up to somebody else especially if you don’t know them that makes that feeling 10 times worse but we’ve all been there, we’ve all done it. I find that people in Wellington want to help when they can, they want to support people if they can. You just have to ask for it.

Citation information

Record date:8th March 2015
Interviewer:Jac Lynch
Transcription:Jac Lynch