David Herkt said about Auckland in 2013, ‘there are no public monuments to queer people’.1 The ‘Golden Goddess’ costume which features in Tāmaki Herenga Waka is a towering, glittering drag ensemble designed and worn by Buckwheat aka Lealailepule Edward Cowley. Asserting a bold identity, the character Buckwheat stands for acceptance and tolerance and against oppression.
Edward has experienced the good and the bad of changing attitudes towards not only drag but LGBTTIQ+ people. While the Auckland drag scene is loud and proud in 2020, it hasn’t always been that way. Drag performers have been in the forefront of activism for LGBTTIQ+ rights and while New Zealand can rightly be proud of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill of 1986, it is also important to remember the strength of feeling against the bill at the time and the attitudes that were revealed when the bill was championed through parliament.
Buckwheat and a who’s-who of Moana drag divas – Tess Tickle, Bertha, and the late Bust-Op2 – called the influential Staircase nightclub home.3 Queer Aucklanders were welcomed by Buckwheat at the door and the hostesses were famous for bringing a warm Moana vibe to the the LGBTTIQ+ nightclub scene. After 1986, society slowly began to reform too and with it the visibility of LGBTTIQ+ lives. Buckwheat has been a regular at events such as The Big Gay Out and multiple Hero and Pride Parades, as well as the Sydney Mardi Gras where she performed with other hostesses on special Air New Zealand ‘Pink’ flights to Sydney. As Edward says: ‘the way that people react to drag now, or the character Buckwheat, has completely changed’4 and she is as likely to emcee a corporate event as a night at the Phoenix Cabaret on Karangahape Rd.
Edward/Buckwheat's involvement with the Staircase and advocacy with other LGBTTIQ+ progressive movements and events in inner city Tāmaki connects to the culture and art history of New Zealand as a Pacific nation with a multicultural population. This highlights the involvement of Moana peoples in the negotiation and expression of new identities.