Leaving Home LGBT New Zealand
Paul Reynolds, PhD, Cherryl Smith, PhD and Leonie Pihama, PhD
March 22, 2014
Having to go away from my family to find myself was the best thing I ever did. As a family, we had been very close. I discovered that I hadn’t really had my own life. I now had the space to find some acceptance of stuff, particularly my sexuality, which I had been ignoring and not dealing with. I was different from my family. This connection, or reconnection, with myself was extremely maturing and spiritually balancing. (Reynolds, 2007, p.118)
I think a lot of people leave home to live their lives. Well that's what's happened with me. If I had of stayed there I don't think I'd be living the life I am now. (Participant cited in Pihama et al, 2009)
For some takatāpui (a term utilized by many Maori who are LGBT) leaving home is necessary because of rejection and abuse, or the perception that this will happen if they come out to their families. Sometimes leaving home is also a way to live more honestly and to know what it feels like to be accepted (Reynolds P, 2007; Hutchings & Aspin, 2007; Pihama et al, 2009).
For some it is about seeking to 'find' who they are or to come to understand more fully what being takatāpui means. For some who find non-acceptance of their sexuality an unbearable burden, exiting home can take the form of suicide. This article will examine the potential vulnerability of takatāpui who decide to leave home and their iwi (tribe), why some choose to stay, and how they reconnect to home if they decide to return.
Choosing to exit home, including going overseas, often means there has been a healthy space created between the person and 'home'. In a project examining Maori perceptions of sexuality, Pihama et al (2009) described “going to the ‘city’ as allowing the individual to enter a more neutral environment given that urban or metropolitan ‘society’ may be more accepting of different sexualities than small rural communities.”
Disconnection or rejection from whanau (extended family) can create a feeling of isolation, which can leave people vulnerable. That vulnerability can be identified and potentially exploited by others.
…and what happens to them there is just horrific really. They were the ones that became prostitutes, they were the ones that went through hell really, drugs, alcohol and couldn't come home. They were just totally ostracized and they still feel that pain and not until much later in their lives when they become adults were they able to go home again and to make peace, it's horrible. (Participant cited in Pihama et al, 2009)
There are high rates of reported and unreported victimization of takatāpui. Prostitution, risk-taking and self-destructive behavior, are all associated with high rates of victimization and can be the forerunner to mental health problems and suicidal ideation. (Aspin et al, 2009; Walters, 1997; Walters et al, 2000; Walters et al, 2006; Simoni et al, 2006).
In a study by Aspin et al (2009), takatāpui men were found to be more vulnerable when they were first coming out in the gay scene in urban centers. Young takatāpui who leave home to explore their sexuality are vulnerable, given that they are new on the scene and don’t have a social support system when they are first entering gay bars and clubs (Aspin et al, 2009). These young men also don’t know about the predatory behavior among some of the men who are likely to ‘hit on them’ and pick them up.
There isn’t a lot of it, but it does happen. With old predatory, very predatory older men… Young, especially if they’re good looking, especially if they’re Maori, Polynesian or, Indian, Chinese. These guys make a bee-line for them and try to drag them into cubicles. (Aspin et al, 2009)
Aspin and colleagues’ (2009) study highlighted the impact of trauma stemming from non-consensual sex among urban Maori men who have sex with men (MSM; Aspin, et al. 2009). The main findings from this study of urban Maori MSM who were raped or sexually violated (often without a condom) revealed that there were multiple impacts of sexual trauma.
Serious health impacts resulting from sexual trauma could be physical, mental and spiritual, and included PTSD, long-term anxiety, compulsive disorders, addictions (to drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy behaviors), social isolation, and suicidal ideations. Additionally, the survivors often kept silent around their victimization, some because they thought no one would believe them, including the authorities, and others because they believed that they had caused, or even consented in some form to, the sexual violence. It also is acknowledged that the impacts of traumatic incidents not only affect the survivors, but also all loved ones who are connected to the survivor (Briere & Lanktree, 2013).
In contrast, other takatāpui choose to stay within their iwi rohe (tribal territories) and choose to assert their identity amongst their own iwi. One direct community intervention implemented as part of a research project related to Maori sexuality took the form of a community radio series that was aired on local iwi (tribal) radio stations in New Zealand (Pihama et al, 2009). The series profiled Maori who were gay, lesbian, and transgender, and included personalities and local people talking about their sexuality and also discussing the prevalence of homophobia among Maori. The series provoked discussion about issues related to sexuality and caused a lot of discussion within communities.
During these discussions it was clear that the veil of prejudice was relatively thin for many Maori when it came to takatāpui. Generally, when radio listeners learned of the trauma caused to their own nieces, nephews, and other relations through stigma and homophobia they were saddened that such events were happening among their hapu (sub-tribe) and iwi (tribe) and quickly moved in to defend their relations (Pihama et al, 2009).
Interviews with takatāpui who stay home also show that they tend to have support either from whanau (family) or friends, that they are vocal and prepared to fight against stigma, and that they educate others about their identity (Pihama et al, 2009). The importance of whanau, hapu, and iwi support has been reinforced in the book, Sexuality and the Stories of Indigenous People (Hutchings & Aspin, 2007).
The book highlights the personal journeys of takatāpui from all walks of life. The consistent message that comes through from all these stories is the importance of being confident and strong in being both Maori and LGBT, and of being accepted and supported by whanau and friends. In a government report about HIV/AIDS and Maori (Te Puni Kokiri, 1994), a key conclusion was that, “Whanau, hapu and iwi support systems can enhance identity and self esteem and lessen the likelihood of engaging in risk-taking behaviours.”
Home shapes us, but we also shape home. Some people have the support to help them reshape home or they don’t. If they don’t, they can exit home to strengthen their identity, then return more self-assured and confident in themselves. Some will return and some won’t. Even when people disconnect they will maintain differing degrees of contact with home.
I know for myself that I could never totally disconnect from home. Even when I went away to study overseas (the perfect opportunity that presented itself to get away from home), I was always connected to my parents, brother and grandmother by weekly phone calls and letters. I loved them all so much but it seemed like I could love them better by living far away from them. I needed to be away from them to have my own life for once and sort out who I was.(Participant cited in Pihama et al, 2009)
Many do return home and rebuild relationships. The relationships are often more clearly negotiated.
My mother and I have reconciled our relationship and both of us understand we love one another. However, there are parts of my life that are never going to be reconciled with my mother, namely my sexuality. I’ve come to understand that I can still have a relationship with my parents, my mother in particular, but at a distance and with a few blindspots.
(Participant cited in Pihama et al, 2009)
Home for some takatāpui is shaped by a process of exiting, recovery and return. Exiting can take many forms. It can be physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Leaving home and exiting is a process of finding strength and confidence in self. Sometimes leaving home to find that strength of identity means that eventually it is also possible to return home.
About the Authors
Paul Reynolds, PhD, received his degree in communication from Simon Fraser University, Canada, and is currently Co-Director at Te Atawhai o te Ao, an independent Maori research institute in Whanganui, New Zealand.
Cherryl Smith, PhD, received her degree in education from Auckland University in New Zealand, and currently is Co-Director at Te Atawhai o te Ao alongside Paul Reynolds.
Leonie Pihama, PhD, received her degree in education from Auckland University in New Zealand, and is currently Director of Te Kotahi Research Institute at the University of Waikato, New Zealand.
All three authors are currently investigators on a Health Research Council of New Zealand funded program of research called, ‘He Kokonga Whare: Maori Intergenerational Trauma and Healing,’ which brings together Maori and Indigenous researchers to explore the impacts of imprisonment, sexual violation and land alienation, and developing a healing/recovery pathway from trauma.
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