To discover and assert your cultural identity sometimes means standing up for your rights — and the same can be said about your sexual identity, writes Tainui Stephens. To be your authentic self may require courage.
There’s a bunch of recent research to suggest that, in the western world at least, people are having less sex. We’re also having less of the whole range of sex — from solo to partnered, to group events. At the same time, more people than ever are asserting pride in their gender or sexual orientation.
Campbell Johnstone is the 1,056th All Black. He’s the first of that über-masculine band of brothers to declare himself as gay, and proud of it. He’d decided he could no longer bring only part of himself to the game.
Campbell, now 43, was a 110-kg prop forward who played three test matches for New Zealand in 2005, and more than 100 games around that time for Canterbury teams.
At the recent Te Matatini kapa haka competitions, two LGBTQIA+ members of the Angitū team performed the poi. Pere Wihongi and Tūhoe Tamaiparea portrayed the feminine artform with deep respect and sheer style.
Many thousands applaud the courage of these people. Others, like the world’s first transgender MP Georgina Beyer (who passed on this week — moe mai rā e te rangatira) and the master entertainers Dames Lynda and Jools Topp, have secure places in the nation’s heart. Why do we salute such assertions of rainbow pride?
The sad truth is that homophobia, like misogyny, racism and other forms of bigotry, still exists. As Martin Luther King Jr said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Some who identify as other than male or female, and straight, know injustice well. They might be disowned by their family and peers. They may be victims to mindless venom or violence flung at them from abusers who see them only as “poofs, fags, trannies and dykes”. They may succumb to depression and then suicide.
On the other hand, they might find that their emerging sexuality was apparent to all who love them, and they just happened to be the last to find out.
Just as discovering and asserting your cultural identity sometimes means standing up for your rights, so it is with your sexual identity. To be your authentic self may require courage.
Our sexual identity is primal. It defines and drives us, as much as the culture or the economic class that we might inherit from our ancestors and parents. For many, but not all, adolescence is the time when sexual exploration shapes our character and the way we will relate to other human beings for the rest of our lives.
When I was a kid, I remember my first so-called wet dream, and it scared me. My mother was embarrassingly frank about sex. She happily told me what was going on and gave me a box of tissues. She also taught me about menstruation, and I understood that 12-year-old boys had nothing to worry about.
In those years, I used to hang out at a cluttered Christchurch bookshop and comic exchange called Ringo’s. The titular owner of the enterprise was a small man under a big cloth cap. He truly looked like a ferret with a bristling moustache that was way too big for his face.
He smoked incessantly and had a rasping ferrety voice. Ringo was always friendly as I scoured his bundles of war comics. One day, I noticed a magazine called Health and Efficiency.
It was on a high shelf, clearly intended just for adult access. I clambered up and grabbed it. The magazine portrayed the naturist lifestyle. It stunned me that people chose to go to a summer camp to have holidays in the nude. The many photos showed people of all ages having harmless fun in the nick. For all the boobs and bollocks playing handball, it was distinctly unsexy.
The Playboy and Penthouse magazines in the next shelf, however, were indeed sexy. Those magazines were the soft porn of the day. Any adult I met who bought one would say he only did so “to read the articles”. Incidentally, they were often excellent.
I lost my virginity a few years later with a late-night appointment in a central Christchurch park. The anticipation was way happier than the ending, but I suddenly felt grown up. I had started my journey of straight and gay sexual discovery. My remaining teen years were spent putting myself into a range of situations and figuring out how I, and whoever I was with, felt about that.
In the ‘70s, the journey from the snog to the shag was a lot safer than it is now. There were far fewer drugs and STDs to ruin your life. We weren’t deluded by hardcore porn. There was no social media to expose you. There was only pregnancy to be careful of.
It didn’t take me long to discover that intimacy could be fleeting and fun (or not), or it could lead on to wonderful enduring relationships. My life ended up straight and full of the latter.
Several years later, my then wife Poto and I had a dear friend, Taka Pukeroa. He was from Pawarenga and was a beautiful speaker of te reo. He was also an outrageous drag queen and a member of a gay Māori cultural group called Te Oranganui. They’d put on charity shows with gorgeous waiata ā ringa to charm you, and skits to paralyse you with laughter.
One weekend, we hosted the group at the Kōkiri Ki Maungarei marae in Mt Wellington. I can’t forget the hilarious sight of their bus stalled on the hill with the combined weight of the gals, their dresses, and costumes.
They got out to push the ageing vehicle. Rain was hosing down, so they shrieked. The larger ones heaved against the bus, but their high heels made the task impossible. They shrieked some more. And as they flapped about, the bus struggled on without them.
Taka also became the first Māori funeral director. He was based in Onehunga and quickly became sought-after by the Māori community. He was a fabulous mix of devout tikanga and a glittery floorshow. He prepared the dead with love. He prayed, he sang, he wept, and he laughed with the people, as he went about his job. He truly brought all of himself to his game and was beloved for it.
In 1985, I wanted to do a documentary on Māori homosexuality. In my research, it was apparent that before the influence of Victorian attitudes, Māori found a sense of joy in diverse human sexualities. Sensuous ancient carvings or saucy metaphors in old waiata were proof of that.
Yet a learned kaumātua also told me of tribes who had put homosexuals to death because homosexuals didn’t contribute to the procreation of the people — for people were the power base.
In some tribes, men sleeping with men was an expected consequence when they were in a state of tapu for battle, and they couldn’t be in contact with their wives. Other tribes found a role for gay men and women as tohunga or skilled artists.
A friend had agreed to tell his own story on camera, but he cancelled at the last moment, and I couldn’t make the doco. Although he lived openly as a gay man, he felt that to say so in public would embarrass his elders.
Sexuality is a powerful part of every individual’s make up. There’s a rich diversity among all of us that’s sexy in the eyes of someone, somewhere. Sex itself has myriad health benefits beyond the emotional connection and peace that making love can bestow upon the lovers.
One of the fruits of sex is the birth of a child. A child’s journey in life is one of constant exploration of the surrounding world. Children need our guidance and love. We need to make them strong and resilient.
It may be a good thing if people are having less sex — especially if it’s a sign of caution.
Teenagers tell me that in kura kaupapa, the physical side of sex is well taught — but less so, the sensitive emotional and social dimensions. I’m sure that some schools have a wider approach. I’m also sure that our youth already know more than the teachers think they do.
Many rangatahi understand gender diversity because they see it in their friends and don’t judge them for it. They’re comfortable with new language like pronouns that include those who identify as neither fully male nor fully female. They know that gay is an adjective and never a noun.
The Māori world is mostly progressive with regards to sex and identity. But there are conservative quarters too. A society moves forward when individuals assert whoever they happen to be — and they make a difference by setting an example.
I once made a documentary series about the inspirational linguist Tīmoti Kāretu and his journey with the Māori language. We ended one episode with Tīmoti standing in the middle of an empty Eden Park wondering what it might be like if one day, a stadium full of Kiwis — tāngata whenua and tāngata Tiriti — comfortable with the Māori language performed the haka. We created a soundtrack of thousands of people doing “Ka mate” to make the point.
Fast forward a couple of decades to the same Eden Park, and it’s the Black Ferns who brought every bit of themselves to the game and won the Rugby World Cup. The stunning LGBTQIA+ athlete Ruby Tui inspired the whole stadium to roar with joy and song for this victory of womanhood.
It wasn’t a provocative haka with a life or death vibe — but a popular waiata of unity.
Tūtira mai ngā iwi, tātou tātou e!
We many peoples stand together, as one!
Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.