For Allan Heta Cleaver, both male sex work and the practice of mirimiri are ways to express his pride in being Māori and takatāpui. His story is part of a new documentary Red Light Boys on Re:News. Here’s Allan in conversation with Siena Yates.
It wasn’t until recently that I realised sex work can be described as decolonising. But it’s always been that for me. It’s always been about claiming tino rangatiratanga over my own tinana, my own body.
Right from a young age, I thought: “Your Pākehā laws are telling me that being takatāpui isn’t right. That it’s illegal. But I know myself. This is how I am, and this is what I’m doing, and I don’t care what your laws are saying.”
Reclaiming the kupu “takatāpui” is a big part of that pushback. It’s often translated as “homosexual” but is more of an umbrella term for LGBT+ Māori. It’s tika (right) for who I am as it expresses my diverse range of sexuality. It embraces all of me, whether I’m presenting as tāne, wāhine, or whatever.
Takatāpuitanga, including whakawāhine and whakatāne (trans, non-binary, gender-fluid people) existed long before colonial times. They were recorded in carvings throughout our history. It was the missionaries and Christianity that actively discouraged and criminalised them .
So, to stay pono or true to myself, I’ve pushed back at societal norms and what we’ve been indoctrinated to think is or isn’t acceptable. The colonisers tried to make us conform to a heteronormative way of living and being — and I reject this kaupapa.
I’ve always felt very strongly that decisions about my body belonged to me, and that was how it needed to be. Now I look back, my whole life has been about that decolonising work.
I was 14 when I left school and got into sex work. Now, I’m 56. I’ve been with my beautiful partner Peter for 24 years. We’ve raised kids together and we’re now koro to three mokopuna.
Two of my four kids live in Whangārei and were raised with their two māmā who asked me to be a sperm donor. They’re very much a part of our whānau. Our kids have their gay pāpās, their gay māmās — and, because their mum’s mum came out about 30 years ago, they’ve got their gay nanas too! I’ve just been pushing those sorts of boundaries my whole life.
I was adopted. It was a closed adoption so, essentially, you’re ripped from your whakapapa and raised with strangers. You’re left without a sense of belonging right from the beginning.
I was adopted into a bicultural whānau, which I’m really grateful for because it meant that I still had access to te ao Māori through my adopted mum. She’s from Te Hāpua and has whakapapa to Ngati Kurī, Te Rarawa and Ngāti Whātua. Mum was one of 14 in her family, so I had 55 first cousins. She took us kids up north for tangi all the time and I grew up in the marae kitchen, peeling potatoes and listening to Mum and the others. So I had that access to the culture.
But there was still that sense of not belonging, especially with my sexuality. Being takatāpui was illegal in those days. So, while I knew inside that that was what I was, in every aspect of life in 1980s Aotearoa — from school to media to the law — I was being told that it wasn’t okay.
I started getting expelled from schools from around the age of 11. I refused to go because I didn’t like it and I was over being strapped or caned. Because of that, a police youth aid officer said that I was “uncontrollable” and advised Mum to put me in the Ōwairaka Boys’ Home. So that’s what she did, with a plan to make me a state ward.
Having heard the stories of what happens in boys’ homes, I absconded after one night and a friend’s brother took me in. I didn’t go back home until my father, who’d been ill, passed away.
After Dad’s tangi, the plan to make me a state ward was dropped, and I was given an exemption by the Education Board to leave school early. However, my relationship with my mother was strained. I was an outspoken child, and she was quite domineering and violent toward me.
I only lasted at home for a couple of months before I left. I was 14. That’s when I first got into sex work.
I know a lot of people are quite horrified by that. I was a big boy — I’m 6ft 4 and I matured faster than everyone around me. I didn’t look 14 and I felt in control of the situation.
I got into it when I left home and was couch-surfing in Ponsonby with friends — people who were much older than me. One of them, a whakawāhine named Sheila, was sex-working to get herself through university.
I’d been exploring my gender and sexuality for years by then. I’d dress up in girls’ clothes from a young age. I went through puberty earlier than my peers — from about 11 years old. That’s when I began having same-sex experiences with others of a similar age. Then, at about 12, I started having sex with older dudes.
It was exciting for me to think I could get paid for that. It was a crime but I didn’t see it that way. At least I wasn’t having to commit burglaries or anything, which felt like my only other option. I couldn’t get a benefit because I was too young, and I couldn’t get a job because I was too young.
Sheila showed me how to work the streets and then, all of a sudden, I found a community. It was like: “Oh my God, I’m not the only Māori like this in the world!”
There were all these Māori and Pasifika queens that worked the streets, and because I was so young, they protected me and looked after me. They became my new whānau.
I first got into drag when I was 16, and that was mostly because I needed a disguise to hide from the police. But the first night I went out to work presenting as a woman, the clients changed. It wasn’t just the old gay guys — it was straight dudes too.
I worked out pretty quickly that I could make more money dressed up as a woman than I could as a male, just because it was more obvious what you were out there for, and you attracted a different clientele. I’ve done work presenting as a woman, as well as a man, ever since.
Our life back in those days was all about making money and spending it. You got dressed up all glamorous, went out and worked, and then you went to the nightclub and danced the night away. They were fun days. We lived very fast, and it was very edgy. But at the same time, you were mixing with the underbelly of Auckland city. Gang members and junkies and dealers. Because sex work was illegal, that was the scene you were pushed into. I’ve had to face the consequences of that — I have prostitution and soliciting charges still hanging around me.
Plus, it was dangerous. Just being out on the streets, you were at the mercy of whoever was passing by. You had the police at you all the time. They caught up with me a few times. For a while, I’d be sent to boys’ homes and rehab centres. Then, when I was about 18, I was sent to jail. And that was my wake-up call to make some changes.
Sex work itself wasn’t the issue for me, but it was illegal. So there were drugs, and mixing with people who were committing crimes and going in and out of jail — all of that was very common. My rangatahi years were spent in seedy pubs, nightclubs, strip clubs and gay bars. I needed to get away from that lifestyle because it was too consuming.
So I went up to Whangārei, and that’s when I first started learning te reo Māori.
My adoptive mum was from Te Hāpua and raised in Dargaville, so it was cool to learn Te Tai Tokerau dialect, my own reo. Plus, I was living in Pipiwai where they still spoke Māori everywhere. As an Auckland urban Māori, that just blew my mind.
Learning te reo was huge for me. It gave me this whole sense of self that was like this missing link in my life. That was when I started straightening my life out and slowly changing my lifestyle.
After that, I moved to Wellington and got a job as an orderly at the hospital. That was also when I ended up with a woman. We went to Aussie and then my son came along and I started doing the whānau thing. She and I split after five years, but between us and my partner, we’ve raised our two kids — and now my kids have kids of their own.
It’s interesting because people go: “Oh, so are you bisexual?” But I’m just a sexual being. And that shifts and changes depending on who I’m with and where I’m at. Everyone wants to put a label on everything and throw you in a box. Like when I first heard the term “gender-fluid”, I was just like: Well, I guess that’s what I’ve been all these years then.
But, for me, I’ve just always been strong within myself. I’ve gone, well, this works for me and my whānau, so this is okay.
These days, I’ve been able to make my mahi work for me in a way I had never dreamed of before. Five years ago, Pete and I came back to Te Waipounamu from Tāmaki, because our kids started having kids down here, and I just wanted to come and be a koro and be near those babies.
When I made that shift, I decided to make two changes. The first was to continue to refocus my massage mahi and deliver it as mirimiri, from a more Māori perspective. The second was to refocus my sex work so I could bring both things together. I was just over having these identities that never mixed.
I still wear all these different pōtae — and now I can see clients as a crossdresser, as a male sex worker, or as a mirimiri practitioner. It’s just a matter of asking: “Which pōtae would you like me to wear?”
The thing is, the types of mahi that I do aren’t actually all that different from each other. I see sex work as just another extension of the kind of healing that I see in mirimiri.
I was getting a lot of clients where it was maybe their first time ever having male-to-male contact, and it’s been a real honour to help them overcome that indoctrination that we’ve been colonised with.
I provide a safe space for them to get out of their heads and come into their bodies, to feel, rather than think, and to learn to trust and honour those feelings. There’s a significant amount of guilt, shame and stigma to overcome, and it requires courage to act on that. So it’s about helping them to focus on: “Does this feel okay to me? Am I okay with this?”
The emotional shift that it creates for clients is huge. Even though I’m dealing with their physical self, we’re still working on their hinengaro and their wairua too.
We live in a very touch-deprived society. Us Māori and Pasifika, we touch a lot more. We hongi and awhi and whatever, but a lot of others don’t, Pākehā especially. My Pākehā massage training was all about keeping the body covered and staying away from certain areas. But at the same time, those can be very important parts of the tinana to work with and to honour. So it’s been really nice, now that sex work is legal, to bring that side of my mahi out there in front of everybody too.
In our younger days, we were pushed into the shadows. When you keep things covert and on the down low, it takes on a dark energy. But now, I can deliver my mahi from a space of light, and not with an āhua that’s dodgy or comes from a place of shame. It’s beautiful to see how much things have changed. I see all these rangatahi in the industry now and, oh my God, it’s so beautiful. They’re so much more open and they just totally own their stuff.
A lot of my peers from my younger days still have a lot of internalised shame around even being a sex worker. That’s why it’s important to me to talk about these things — to not only destigmatise this mahi and show that there are people of all ages, shapes and sizes doing it, but to humanise the kōrero around it too.
We’ve never been told that what we do can be a beautiful thing. But I really know that. I see it. I feel it. I want others to know that too.
People are putting a lot of trust in you when they come in to see you, whether it’s as a mirimiri practitioner or as a sex worker. It’s a very vulnerable space because ultimately, it’s about sharing.
Like with the hongi, and that sharing of the breath. I see my sex work as an extension of that but taken to another level. It’s the sharing of āhua and connecting on a level that’s not just about a person’s tinana, about their external shell, but with their humanity too.
Allan Heta Cleaver (Ngāti Kurī, Ngāti Whātua, Ngāpuhi, Tūwharetoa, Scottish, Irish) is a mirimiri practitioner, sex worker and advocate. He is 56 years old and lives in Whakatū, Nelson with his partner Peter Seelen, and close to his son and two mokopuna. He also has a daughter and another moko based in Ōtautahi, Christchurch.
Allan’s story is featured in the new documentary series, Red Light Boys, out now on Re: News and TVNZ+ which was made with the support of New Zealand on Air.
As told to Siena Yates and made possible through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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