Richard Hills: Bullying can change people’s lives

When Richard Hills became an Auckland City Councillor in 2016, headlines soon followed declaring him “Auckland’s first openly gay councillor”. For Richard, who had been living as an openly gay man surrounded by a supportive community for years, the sudden focus and ensuing negative social media surrounding his sexual orientation was a bit of a shock to the system.

“Before I was elected, I was working at Auckland Sexual Health as a youth worker, working in high schools… It was just generally quite an inclusive environment to be out.

“But then when I got elected in 2016, and the media was like ‘first openly gay Auckland City Councillor’, then the negative stuff did pile on, mostly on social media. I guess I should’ve expected it, but I kind of didn’t take it into consideration.

“There was some nasty stuff, like the sharing of me and my husband’s wedding photo in a negative way, and some quite disgusting things during campaign time. In the last campaign, in 2019, there was quite a lot of homophobic hate on some of the North Shore community pages.

“Sometimes it’s annoying, gives you a bit of a shock, and takes you back to that schoolyard bullying homophobia that you don’t expect as an adult as much.”

Richard says that while negative messages proliferate online, these are often combatted by equally strong messages of support and aroha. “Thankfully I’m in a time where I’m more likely to see people that I don’t know defend me than maybe ten, fifteen years ago.” 

In addition, he’s not afraid to use the social media tools at his disposal to remove hateful voices. “I can use the block button pretty liberally if I want to.”

However, when facing negative online comments, Richard’s primary concern is not for himself, but for young or vulnerable members of the rainbow community who may be exposed to these harmful messages.

“My concern is always that [these messages] could harm people from the rainbow community, especially people who may be less privileged, like someone who is transgender or a transgender person of colour. For me, I worry when I see it myself and I get that little sting, what must that be like for a young person to see those types of things, or someone that’s part of a more vulnerable part of the rainbow community that doesn’t have the same privileges that I do?” 

Richard has been actively involved in Pink Shirt Day over many years, including in his previous role working with high schools, and now as a public representative. This year, he plans to join forces with children’s television presenter Suzy Cato, visiting local schools to lead Pink Shirt Day activities with the students. 

“It’s quite a nice break from the normal Council work to be out in the community, with so many schools getting so involved. It’s really cool to see.”

Ultimately, Richard believes that the most important thing about Pink Shirt Day is that it starts the conversation.

“Bullying can be quite vicious, and it can change people’s lives... Pink Shirt Day starts lots of good conversations about what bullying looks like - from isolating people, snide comments, jokes, general stereotyping, to physical harm and assaults.”

Pink Shirt Day also serves as an important reminder to young rainbow people that they are not alone. Richard believes that having this representation when he was at school may have encouraged him to be more open about his identity at an earlier age. 

“At my school, I wasn’t super targeted but there wasn’t really anyone out. I didn’t come out until I was 20.

“I imagine if Pink Shirt Day was a thing, and there was more discussion around speaking up and looking out for each other, and zero tolerance for homophobic and transphobic bullying, and all types of bullying, then potentially I would’ve come out when I was younger, or felt more confident to do so.”

InsideOUT provides resources, information, workshops and support for anything concerning rainbow or LGBTQIA+ issues and education for schools, workplaces and community organisations across Aotearoa.

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“Kōrero Mai, Kōrero Atu, Mauri Tū, Mauri Ora – Speak Up, Stand Together, Stop Bullying!”