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Qtopia: 'Everybody was incredible'

Coffees at the mobile cart are eeny, meeny, miny and moe.

Anne Nicholson orders a moe, then navigates the warren of rooms at Community House, clutching nearly a litre of coffee.

“This is our fifth space,” she says, over her shoulder.

Qtopia started life in Community House ten years ago as a support network for Christchurch’s queer and transgender youth or, as Anne calls them, Qtopians.

Anne has been the coordinator for the last four years and is glad the group has returned to its birthplace. But in October it will shift again.

“A week after we moved in, CERA gave us our marching orders, which nobody was expecting.”

The group will move with Community House to Colombo St for five months, before shifting to what Anne hopes will be a final location on Tuam St.


Qtopia is used to moving.

Before the September earthquake in 2010, it was in a timeworn stone building with a rickety lift in Bedford Row.

“I think if you looked at it from an earthquake standards point of view it would never have passed anything. It was a very old red building,” she says. “It was run down but perfect. It had ping pong, games machines, couches.”

“It was a beautiful big building that our young people were free to express themselves in.”

After the September quake, Anne snuck up a broken staircase to get Qtopia’s gear out of the old building, but would never have dared that in the next location. Until the February earthquake in 2011, Qtopians gathered weekly in a cave-like space under the rumbling bus exchange.

“It was more secluded and quite a closed space. The Bedford Row one was like a big open warehouse. This had very low ceilings but we had a lot of fun in there,” Anne says. “We were using a dance studio, so we kind of had free reign of the dance floor as our wee space.”

Having space is important for Qtopia, which often holds high-energy events – like the 2010 Queer Fair that held a drag race with drag queens instead of cars.

The biggest challenge with that, Anne says, was getting the drag queens to put their make-up on more quickly. “We were telling them, ‘Just throw it on!’ and they said ‘No! It has to look good!’”

Every four weeks, Qtopians host an event in-house and recently held an art show to allow members the chance to express the issues they grapple with daily.

“Some of them don’t necessarily have a voice out in the community – they do in Qtopia.”


Qtopia Ball 2011

Queer and transgender young people are three times more likely to harm or attempt suicide than any other young person, Anne says.

“We’re talking about young people who are coming to terms with their own sexuality and gender but we’re also talking about young people who society say are not okay. Qtopia provides the one space in Christchurch where it’s okay to be them and explore who they are.”

For instance, high school, which is a harrowing enough experience for most people, can be hard on Qtopians. School balls are an especially difficult time, as many schools in Christchurch ban same sex partners.

So, two years ago, Qtopia held its own ball, in its third home since the September earthquake, the Family Planning building on Washington Way.

“Everyone came in tuxes and ball gowns and flamboyant bright colours. I think the greatest was a velvet green suit and there was a lot of cross dressing going on,” Anne says.

“It was a chance for our members to have their partners at a ball and for it to feel normal for them.”

Strong support for one another and flexibility have helped Qtopia remain strong, even through its multiple moves.

Immediately after the February earthquake, several Qtopia facilitators moved into a facilitator’s house in Riccarton, dossing down together for nearly a week in a makeshift home dubbed Camp Homo.

“There were about ten of us staying there initially – probably about six people from Qtopia and other friends of the organisation – and we all camped out. I was nearly eight months pregnant so I was lucky, I got a bed.”

The group’s members relied on social media to check up on each other.

“Those first couple of days were critical in just keeping communication going. We had a lot of really scared kids and facilitators who were extremely stressed.”

“Everybody was incredible, but at the same time completely lost. I was amazed at the depth we saw from our facilitators and our board – the level of caring and help despite the fact that they’d lost their own homes.”

Anne had a baby a month and a half after the February earthquake, but there was no question of her leaving.

“Everybody was immediately like, ‘Okay, bring the baby’. So he came to work with me in a snuggle stack, which he lived in, and was just a part of the office.”

Keeping an open and welcoming space for people to be themselves, no matter the location, is what Qtopia is all about.

It’s an amazing space,” she says. “We take these often angry, very quiet young people and they turn into these big blossoming, beautiful people with these amazing personalities … ready to tackle the world and leap forward in a really healthy way.”

With the help of an increasingly nomadic Qtopia, they learn that “not only is being queer okay, it’s great”.

_As told to Daniela Maoate-Cox

This story is part of a UC Journalism project to trial a new form of community journalism by recording and sharing people’s everyday stories about the Canterbury earthquakes and recovery. You can read more about the Connecting our Stories project here.