Bharat Mahajan (he/him), a 28 year old clinical services manager – mental health for Pinnacle, has won the title of Mr Gay New Zealand 2021.
Already recognised as a young leader in the health sector, Bharat impressed the judges and the voting public to take the winner’s sash at The Big Gay Out on Sunday 14 February 2021.
Far from being a traditional beauty contest, Mr Gay New Zealand (MGNZ) is designed to find, build and develop future leaders within the LGBTTQIA+ community. MGNZ candidates are chosen for attributes such as leadership, relatability, communication and their ability to engage with the wider LGBTTQIA+ community.
Bharat is the first Mr Gay New Zealand of Indian heritage, and the first with a background in the health sector. With an Indian mother, Middle Eastern father and growing up with his step-mother’s Māori and Tongan family, he’s a man of many colours and cultures.
“I entered the competition because I could see that having the support of the LGBTTQIA+ community and a platform to speak from would make my voice stronger and more heard,” says Bharat.
“People are already thinking hard about equality and equity, it’s an exciting time to talk about the issues, identify opportunities and make change.”
It was this determination to do things differently that saw Bharat become a charge nurse manager at 25 years old, a remarkable achievement.
“As a first year nursing graduate I had a mentor who told me: you should go into management,” says Bharat. “I realised I don’t have to follow the society-expected rules of a career timeline, where you wait until you’re 50 or 60 years old to be a charge nurse.”
Within four years of graduating from nursing training, Bharat was executive operations manager at The Supported Lifestyle Hauraki Trust in Thames, before moving on to become charge nurse manager – mental health and addiction services with the Waikato DHB at Thames hospital. In 2018, he flew to Europe to attend the International Initiative in Mental Health Leadership conference (IIMHL) and USA 2019.
He says the conference opened his eyes to both the positives in New Zealand, including same sex marriage and funding for same sex couples wanting to have children, as well as the need to talk about the issues in the mental health and disability sector.
Over the next 12 months as Mr Gay New Zealand, there are several things Bharat aims to highlight. Two topics close to his heart and career are equity of access to primary healthcare and improved rural health services for people in the LGBTTQIA+ community.
Having grown up in Rotorua, worked in Auckland and now based in Thames, Bharat has first-hand experience of the resources available in both urban and rural areas.
“The big cities like Auckland and Wellington are well set up with lots of resources for people in the rainbow community. Not so much in the regions,” says Bharat. “We need more resources in rural areas, particularly in mental health and for rural rainbow youth.”
He also knows that many LGBTTQIA+ people find it hard to access primary care through general practice, due to barriers in the health system. Currently working with Pinnacle to get Rainbow Tick certification for the organisation, Bharat says he’d love to see general practices going through the same process.
“It’s a goal that might take a while, but it’s important. A GP office needs to be a comfortable place where people can ask questions and have discussions with a clinician who is well-equipped to give advice and talk about issues.”
Dr Jo Scott-Jones (he/him), medical director at Pinnacle and locum GP, agrees. “Raising awareness about how basic things such as making eye contact, asking about pronouns and using preferred names make a GP office more inclusive and welcoming,” says Jo.
“There are also a lot of technical medical issues and complexity experienced by people in the LGBTTQIA+ community that need special consideration and more education. It is the role of the GP to manage all these things and provide care.”
Jo says that although there is far more understanding and information available than 20 years ago, there is an ongoing need for change in the health system and more LGBTTQIA+ awareness and education.
It’s a position also supported by Pinnacle deputy CEO, Justin Butcher (he/him). “Creating awareness of the needs of the rainbow community, within general practice and Pinnacle as a primary health organisation, is hugely important,” says Justin.
“People should feel safe and supported in general practice. There are issues with defining gender identification within our health system, for example the use of ‘Other’ to determine gender is quite confronting. We need clear, consistent ways to capture information that respects people’s identity.”
When it comes to making changes, Bharat believes that representation from the LGBTTQIA+ community is essential. “If we’re talking about reform in healthcare and other areas, change needs to be made at a policy and government level. Having LGBTTQIA+ representation there is really important.”
“I want to encourage and promote that leadership in the community. People should represent and be proud of it.”
True to his own experience, Bharat adds that age is no barrier. “If you’ve got it in you, don’t wait,” he says. “I had to get comfortable with young leadership, it’s a challenge but it’s also a super power. Overcome any negative thoughts and go for it.”
Another part of Bharat’s role as Mr Gay New Zealand is to be an ambassador for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, working towards the goal of ending new transmissions of HIV in Aotearoa by 2025. He’ll also be representing New Zealand at Mr Gay World later in the year (COVID travel restrictions permitting).
“I feel really privileged and really responsible to continue the work of previous winners and give a voice to the things that need talking about,” he says.
It’s a lot to get done in 12 months. But if anyone can do it, Bharat can.