Cole Meyers, a trans activist, teacher and writer, is debuting his groundbreaking series Rūrangi today, which he co-wrote and produced. It’s one of a number of recent shows and films that aim to show positive representations of the transgender experience. The series is set in the fictional town of Rūrangi, and focuses on a Māori trans activist named Caz, who returns to his hometown to confront his past. Here Cole talks to journalist Aroha Awarau.
Kia ora, Cole. You first became a writer for the screen on Shortland Street, where you helped them write their first trans character, Blue Nathan, in 2016. What was that experience like?
Actually, I first got involved with Shortland Street after I received a random email from the casting director asking if I was interested in auditioning for the role of Blue. I felt my audition went okay, but the role was for a 15-year-old and I was 29 at the time. At the end of the audition, I kind of talked them out of potentially casting me.
But I told them that my main thing is writing and consultation. I asked the producers if they wanted help with creating trans storylines or shaping the character of Blue.
They were really receptive, and that’s how I eventually got to be on the storylining team at Shortland Street. When I first got the scripts and read the dialogue and scenes with Blue, I was like: “There’s some stuff in here that’s not great.”
It didn’t read as if a trans person had written it, which obviously a trans person hadn’t. It was things like the language not being the best way of talking about things, and not in the most authentic way.
I’m always of the view that you can’t know what you can’t know. There’s no fault attached to not having the experiences of a group that you’re not a part of. But you need to know that you don’t know and be okay with saying that. And reach out and listen to the people who are of that group. Work with them to bring truth to the story, to the characters. And that’s what they did when they asked me to come on board.
My time on Shortland Street was amazing. I learned an enormous amount in a very short time. It also really helped me to own my identity as a writer. And I got to bring all of my life experience, and all of the difficulties that I’ve been through, all of the challenges, to that work.
The producers saw them as strengths. I think that was a big turning point for me. I started to see them as strengths, too. It wasn’t just that I’m able to be a writer despite all of those things. It was that those things are actually seen as being valuable and valid.
What were those life challenges?
I had a happy childhood growing up in Pt Chevalier, in Auckland. My family were very loving and supportive. My dad is an electrical engineer and my mum is a teacher and artist. I have one sister, who’s an incredible artist and lecturer, and we’re very close. Our family did short stints living overseas for my dad’s work. Seven months when I was five and seven months when I was 10. We lived in Hong Kong, we travelled around Europe, we walked across Spain.
I’ve always been a highly sensitive person, and so I came to have an awareness of the world and of other viewpoints that I think most people at that age don’t really have. In one sense, that awareness from travel and from my sensitivity made me feel good, because I was so curious and so interested in people and the world is so big. But it also made me feel isolated and feel like I didn’t fit in.
And gender issues came into that, too, because I didn’t feel like I understood or fit in with the girls or with the boys. Or even with myself. But I didn’t have any frame of reference for those feelings.
I also had a lot of mental health stuff going on from a young age. I certainly had depression from the age of 10 and I didn’t tell anyone about it and didn’t have an understanding of what was going on. There was a lot of introspection, a lot of time alone.
But there was creative power in that loneliness. It really fuelled an understanding of my internal workings, emotions. I always just wanted to know: Why, why, why?
So as a child, your creative outlets became your therapy?
Yes. I did a lot of acting and writing. I remember in primary school making friends rehearse in my plays, and having notebooks full of my “novels”. But it was on and off.
On one hand, depression can feed into some inner learning and understanding, but also, it can be incredibly blocking. Your brain can’t do anything new, it just goes over and over the same thing. Or goes nowhere at all.
But the thing that I’ve done relatively consistently from a young age has been to write in a journal — and that’s always been helpful. Even if I always have to keep reminding myself just how helpful it is having a space to write down things at a time when I wasn’t sharing them with anyone else. I had a place where I could put all these things buzzing around in my head.
And there was a sense of relief that I could then look at the words, and go: “I can see how it works now.” That was really powerful.
What gave you the confidence to eventually tell others about how you were feeling?
To be honest, by far the biggest change happened after I nearly attempted suicide again. I realised, just before I did anything, that I didn’t actually want to die, but I didn’t want to live “like this” anymore. That part of my mind that wants to understand everything was like: What does “like this” mean? What is it about life in its current form that is so intolerable?
There’s a real clarity that comes from the edge of things like that, where I could see and understand things that I hadn’t allowed myself to see before. I came to the realisation that I had huge issues around gender that I needed to confront. To actually look at them. To actually do something about it.
This was scary. There was a possibility that there were people in my life that I would lose, or our relationship would change in a huge and unknown way. That I might be rejected by society. That I may not be able to do all the things that I love. That I may never have a job or money and I’d be homeless and alone and get sick and die.
When you’re thinking about all of those things happening, and you’re already about to do the last worst part, to take your own life, you realise that nothing really scares you anymore.
I just knew I had to be honest with myself — and with others — because it was literally killing me.
Who was the first person you told you were transgender?
My fiancé at the time. I was 26. That was one of the hugest things that kept me silent for so long, until it became so poisonous that I couldn’t keep it in anymore. Losing him.
He was very shocked, hurt and confused, and it was a really rough time. He then became relatively supportive, but he could never get past his issues around gender, sexuality. And he ended things. So one of my biggest fears came true, and it was incredibly painful.
But then it was actually one of the best things that could’ve happened. Because I got to find out and explore who I was, what I really wanted, not just follow how you’re told things are supposed to be.
I told my parents and my sister just after I’d told my partner. They were shocked, but there was never ever a question of whether they would stop loving or supporting me. They needed to wrap their heads around what it all meant.
I think also the fact that I had previously come out to them in many other ways over the years played a part in that. I’d been like, “I’m bisexual”, then “I’m a lesbian”, and then “I’ve fallen in love with a man”. And so they were thinking: Is this another thing I’m going to change my mind about?
But I explained that it wasn’t a case of changing my mind about these things. It was my experience of my own gender that was complicating how I felt in connection to others. It was a case of evolution, of finally having the terms to explain it.
What a great term to describe your journey — an evolution.
When I came out as trans, it was exciting. That fits so much better. And now I’ve found non-binary fits, too. I don’t think I’ll ever be done exploring and learning.
Your entire life experience has heavily influenced the trans character of Caz in Rūrangi. Was this liberating?
There’s a lot of my journey, emotions and world in Caz, and in the world of Rūrangi. That’s part of the sense of authenticity that I really strive for. The stories that we normally see about trans lives are often tragic and sad, or focus on surgery and sensationalising their transition. It was important to me to show trans experiences through a trans lens, rather than it being filtered through cis people’s experience of trans people.
It makes sense that cis people are often focused on the external elements of being trans, because that’s all they can see. But, for trans people, there’s a big internal, emotional, mental experience.
And, for me, because my mental health issues changed dramatically for the better — at the same time that my body changed dramatically, from both the testosterone and from me trying to recover from a restrictive eating disorder — it was also kind of a spiritual experience.
I was a new person — and, at the same time, I was reconnecting with who I’ve always been.
It’s interesting that you’ve written your main character, Caz, as Māori when you’re Pākehā. How did that come about?
I knew that the pool of trans actors that were available was going to be a limiting factor. So, the character of Caz was originally written with no specific ethnicity in mind, so it could be as open as possible when casting came around.
But then we auditioned Elz Carrad, who’s Māori, and he was a star. We saw him and straight away knew he was Caz. From that moment, I went back to the script again, and rewrote it, because we now had a reference point and it wasn’t going to be the same story because of this.
You had a large team of tikanga Māori advisers, including Tweedie Waititi, Te Rāhui Chantelle August Sutherland, Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, Moehau Hodges-Tai and Herearoha Skipper. Why was this important?
There was no way I was going to do this without that extensive cultural consultation. It was important to get it right. That comes from my experience as a trans person, knowing what it feels like to see someone like you on screen, or a life that’s supposed to be like yours, and feel ashamed about it and just a total lack of connection with it.
Our tikanga advisers were invaluable. They suggested ways of achieving certain dramatic outcomes and character journeys — and and also complete new avenues for us to explore.
As well as co-writing Rūrangi, you also had an advisory panel of trans representatives on the film. Was this to ensure all trans voices were respected?
We had a panel of five trans consultants that I handpicked. All of them are very much leaders or experts in their own right within the trans community. So they weren’t five random trans people. These people have opinions that are very valuable, trustworthy, and are respected within the community. They met throughout the production process, and also had the power of veto.
I’m very aware that I have the viewpoint of life that I do, and that I have the identities and privilege that I do, and that there’s enormous amounts of things I don’t or can’t know. Having those extra ways of seeing things was vitally important.
I’ve often been in positions where I’ve been the only trans person and I can’t be the ultimate authority on these things. It needs to be something that comes from a wider pool of experiences and range of identities.
It was also important that the trans actors on Rūrangi weren’t expected or relied upon to fall into that consultation role, that they were allowed to just be actors. That’s not to say they weren’t empowered and encouraged to bring up things if they saw something or felt something that didn’t feel right, but that it wasn’t made to be their responsibility.
The series, which has a predominately Māori cast, not only deals with trans issues but also cultural issues. In particular, one of the central characters is embarking on a journey to learn te reo Māori. How did this storyline come about?
Intersectionality has been a core aspect of Rūrangi, and a part of that has been a need to create more roles for women that are fully developed, complex characters, with lives and goals that don’t revolve around the needs or desires of men. So Anahera needed to be Anahera, not just “Caz’s friend”.
It was also important to not just have one character who was Māori, or just one Māori woman, but again, multiple fully developed wāhine with lives and goals that don’t revolve around white people.
But there’s also the context of the reality of structural oppression, and Anahera’s emotionally complex relationship to her culture felt like it made sense with who she is as a person.
A trans woman on the consultation panel, who’s on a similar journey of reconnecting with her Māori culture and learning te reo, really connected with Anahera, and talked about that sense of shame, that judgment on herself, and also the pain and anger around the reasons why she’d been cut off and wasn’t able to access her indigenous language. There’s a sense of grief and alienation around her culture.
I hope that Anahera’s journey resonates with people, because it’s a really important conversation to be having.
What do you hope audiences will gain from watching Rūrangi?
I hope that they feel how much aroha exists within it, and went into everything around it. And that they connect with Rūrangi and its people emotionally — in a very deep, very real way. Because I’m always of the mindset that, while specific educational work is important, there can be a stronger transformational power that comes from fictional stories.
That education work comes in through the mind, whereas stories, when done right, come in through the heart. There are fewer defences. You might not have all the right words for who someone is, but it’s really hard to hate a person when you’ve felt a real emotional connection to them.
For trans audiences, I hope they see more truth, more possibilities for themselves. Their lives and identities and talents deserve to be seen, listened to, valued. And I want them to know that their lives and truths are unconditionally worthy.
But I will add something that’s so important. That increased representation needs to go hand in hand with increased action. Because we don’t just want to see our life experiences. We want change so we can fully experience our lives.
- Rūrangi is being screened in the New Zealand International Film Festival between July 26 and August 2 (see here for screen times), before being released online.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aroha Awarau (Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Porou, Niuean) was born and raised in Hawera, Taranaki. He’s won numerous journalism awards and is a former news editor for Woman’s Day magazine, senior writer for the NZ Woman’s Weekly and a producer for Māori Television’s current affairs show Native Affairs. He’s also an award-winning playwright and scriptwriter, with his short films and plays screened and performed in Australia, Canada, Germany and Russia.
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