As part of RNZ’s sexuality podcast, Bang!, Melody Thomas looks at Māori sexuality and gender expression prior to colonisation.
Despite spending more than a year learning about sex, sexuality and relationships in Aotearoa – until recently, I knew very little about pre-colonial Māori perspectives on these things. I’d have more easily defined the indigenous North American term “two-spirit” than our own takatāpui.
For an episode of my podcast BANG! I spoke with scholars and activists Emeritus Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Dr Elizabeth Kerekere about why old stories illustrating diverse sexualities and gender expressions in Te Ao Māori aren’t better known by all.
For most of the 20th century, the question of pre-colonial Māori attitudes towards homosexuality and other non-binary genders and sexualities had only one answer.
A typical comment came from the 1970s vocal psychiatrist L. Gluckman, as quoted in Sexuality & the Stories of Indigenous People: “Homosexuality in both male and female was unknown in early New Zealand. Sexual perversion in the modern Māori is culturally determined by current social, economic and environmental pressures.”
This was mainstream view – Māori were free of “perversions” until they were introduced by Europeans.
But in the 1970s there was a challenge to that mainstream view. In that decade, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku was one of two people to stumble upon the word “takatāpui” – an ancient term defined as “an intimate companion of the same sex” which had fallen into a long period of disuse.
Takatāpui was reclaimed by Māori in lesbian, gay and trans communities in the 80s. In recent years its definition has expanded to encompass all tangata whenua with diverse gender identities, sexualities, and sex characteristics – similar to the way the word ‘queer’ is used now. But for Te Awekotuku the word has greater significance: the fact that it predates European arrival in Aotearoa is a clue.
“In the world that existed before Tasman, Cook and the arrival of outsiders, I believe there was a really robust and vigorous and intense exploration of sexualities, and an acceptance of them,” she says.
Te Awekotuku believes the arrival of European settlers and later missionaries, meant behaviours which had been entirely acceptable were suddenly cast in a deviant light.
“Whatever Christianity may have brought to the Māori world which was good and wholesome and proper and acceptable, it also brought a great deal of pain and a lot of judgement,” she says.
As a result, says Te Awekotuku, many takatāpui went into hiding. She says queer sexualities were “seen by the more rabid Christian communities as a Pākehā problem that arrived with Pākehā.”
The view that sexual fluidity didn’t exist within Māori prior to first contact remains prevalent today, including among Māori.
In 2004, the newly-appointed head of the Anglican Church, Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe, said that, “with issues of homosexuality, I think probably most Māori would find that culturally very difficult” and that “one day society would find homosexuality unacceptable.”
The word takatāpui isn’t the only evidence of diverse Māori sexualities and expressions in pre colonial Aotearoa. More clues have been uncovered in old chants, songs and carvings.
Te Awekotuku says graphic descriptions of “sexual joy” exist in waiata koroua and mōteatea which are still performed today, including explicit references to non-heterosexual sexual relations. In one lament a young man called Papaka Te Naeroa is described as, “Ko te tama iti aitia e tērā wahine e tērā tangata” (A youth who was sexual with that woman, with that man). Crucially, the word ‘aitia’ was later replaced with ‘awhitia’, meaning ‘hugged’ or ‘embraced’ in an effort to ‘clean up’ the lament by translators in the late 1800s.
There’s also physical evidence. Papahou and wakahuia (carved treasure boxes) commonly depict a man and woman intimately intertwined on the lid – but Te Awekotuku has found a few same-sex examples.
One in the Auckland Museum collection depicts a female figure performing oral sex on another female figure. Another at the British Museum features eight male figures engage in various form of penetrative sex with each other.
“It is a visual document, but for me it is evidential. It is really important. And I imagine that there is still a lot of stuff in overseas institutions that we haven’t found,” says Te Awekotuku.
Elizabeth Kerekere chairs the Tīwhanawhana Trust, a national takatāpui organisation based in Wellington. She named her thesis on takatāpui identity Part of The Whānau for something her great grandmother said after Kerekere came out as lesbian.
“These are women who… lived together as a couple in the late 1800s – long after the Treaty. Laws were well and truly in place that made [homosexuality] illegal, and our whānau had no issues with it.”
At the time, the word takatāpui was not in use, so 16 year old Kerekere asked her great grandmother: “What name did they have? What did you call them?”
Her grandmother replied “They didn’t have a name, they were just part of the whānau.”
Kerekere, who has uncovered her own ‘clues’ about diverse sexualities pre-contact in whakataukī (Māori proverbs), says that while some Māori were active collaborators in the suppression of takatāpui stories and behaviours, others might have had different motivations.
“When our whānau saw the discrimination and … the misogyny, the homophobia and transphobia of the colonisers… they just hid it, and kept quiet about it. I often say that sometimes over generations, over decades, over a century they forgot why they kept it quiet. I believe it was to protect us,” she says.
We know that Aotearoa has one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the OECD, and that those in LGBTQI+ communities are even more vulnerable. Takatāpui are particularly high risk because they are doubly stigmatised: On top of discrimination based on gender identity, sexuality and sex characteristics there are the regular health inequalities of being Māori, who have a suicide rate nearly 70% higher than non-Māori.
Kerekere notes that the number one protective factor against suicide is a supportive whānau. As long as there is confusion or discrimination against takatāpui from within their whānau, they are at high risk.
“Right now, there is no excuse for any of our whānau mistreating and kicking out our kids because they don’t like them being their awesome, diverse selves,” says Kerekere.
But she also recognises that parents, grandparents, caregivers and whāngai parents are right to be worried when the young people in their lives come out.
“There is pain out there. They are gonna get hurt. They are going to be discriminated against. Your job is to make them strong through your love and your support. [So] when they go out there, they know “my whānau have got my back, nothing can hurt me.”
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and carry out more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.