Article Title:Think you
Category:True Stories
Author or Credit:Matt Akersten
Published on:2nd February 2007 - 12:00 pm
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Story ID:1570
Text:Michael Gullery greets his close friend Mabel Wharekawa-Burt One of Maori Television's best-received shows, ‘Ask Your Auntie', is now back on our screens for a forth series. Viewers write in with their personal problems – seeking relationship patch-ups, recipes, reactions or just reassurance… and the panel of knowledgeable, trusted and world-wise ‘Aunties' deal with each dilemma in their patented ‘cut through the crap' heart-winning style. “I'm fifteen and I think I'm gay,” one of last year's letters announced. Another asked: “How do I know if my husband's gay?” Many more were on a similar theme – and the regularity of written-in dilemmas dealing with same-sex attraction led one regular Auntie, Mabel Wharekawa-Burt, to the conclusion: “Being gay has become flavour of the bloody month!” You might remember Mabel from her role as an elder in ‘Whale Rider', or some over-the-counter scenes in ‘In My Father's Den' – she's also one of the oldies sitting on the bus stop bench in the Four Square ad (“How convenient!”). Working in film and telly for over twenty years, both here and overseas, she says it's an industry where gay and lesbian people are everywhere - and then admits it took her some time to know how to handle that fact. “I've had issues, from being raised Catholic, and then moving to the Baha'i faith,” she explains. “I felt I couldn't condone homosexuality. I do believe there were same-sex relationships in the traditional stories passed down to me though – heaps of them. “But my main issue was that all Maori are focused on ‘tomorrow'. Reproducing for future generations as members of a Hapu [clan]. I couldn't see that it could happen with two males, or two females.” When Mabel left New Zealand in 1981, being ‘takataapui' [gay and Maori] “was very much under wraps. I didn't know anyone who was gay before I left. Particularly in my whanau – nobody was gay. “But I know now, I had a cousin, Bosi, who was gay. We didn't really acknowledge the fact - but he was just quite a bit gentler than all the other menfolk in our family. And I met his friend Michael, who was part of Bosi's circle, and was ensconced in the home and hearts of our family - he was already my Auntie's ‘son'. So naturally he was just part of my family. But I didn't think much about them being gay. It really wasn't very important to me.” Michael Gullery tells us he was in a whole different world when his sexuality was revealed. “While Auntie Mabel was finding out we were gay, we were dealing with sickness – which is really what made Bosi have to declare himself. He was HIV and got sick,” he says. “All the Aunties would come to ask me what was happening to Bosi. I had a partner who'd died of AIDS and had lived with people who had AIDS, so out of everyone, I knew more about it. So I was the channel for information about what was happening to our friend. We really didn't have to ‘go there' about the sexuality - because the discovery was more about the illness.” To this day, Mabel's Aunt – the mother of her gay cousin – never acknowledges that he was gay. “He did not die of AIDS, she insists. He died of a virus.” “She doesn't seek to define it,” explains Michael. “She doesn't feel it's necessary. I think a lot of Maori feel like that, because it's a Pakeha thing to be obsessed about definitions. To have your category identified. Saying ‘you're That, not This' is a very Pakeha way of thinking. The process of Maori thinking is almost always inclusively – it's not that you're gay… it's that you're my cousin. In our family, you don't become excluded for being gay. There's no reason to be excluded, because you can't deny who you are. “But I know the experience in all families is not the same. One gay guy we know left his family. Some would have it that his mother kicked him out. But they separated from each other - so that when he died, his mother didn't really know who he was. “There's no real Maori ‘code of practice' on gay people,” concludes Michael. “Each family's different.” Mabel smiles as she remembers the two close friends. “When we had a family function, Micheal and Bosi were always the best at doing all the table decorations. The gay thing wasn't that big in my Whanua [Family]. It just came along with a lot of other different things.” “It's got a lot to do with the role that you perform,” Michael agrees. “Particularly in the Marae situation, our lot would always be in the kitchen and the dining room. Not because we were gay, but because that's what we were good at. Like all things in the Maori world, you fit to where your skills lie. They say: ‘Oh you're gay – does that mean you can sing? Can you cook? Good, get to work!'” Asked whether a gay person could ever become a leader on a Marae, Mabel instantly responds: “I believe a lot of them already are. But they're not going to say. They'll come to Auckland and practice their behaviours, but not on the Marae. “But I don't feel that it's appropriate for a homosexual who has ‘come out' in Auckland, to come back to a Marae and say ‘I'm gay, but I still deserve to be here'. That is not what gains you any points on a Marae. Homosexuality does not really enter into it. It's Whakapapa, and it's skills, and it's efforts on behalf of your people in being a good leader. Those things are important to people to the extent to where their sexuality is really quite irrelevant. Mabel believes there were “heaps and heaps” of same-gender relationships in the days of her ancestors. “They kept their relationships going, but when they wanted to continue their Whanau, there was a woman there. The man could do both! “So their preference was to have their same gender, but in order to produce that other aspect of being a respected leader of your tribe, they kept a woman there – as a little ‘incubator'!” Times are changing and Mabel says people now feel much freer in society. “I see it in my TV programme. Kids are writing in to me saying ‘I think I'm gay', and so I always tell them about Michael's experience. “I even run into people that say: ‘I'm a lesbian and my name's Ngawhi'. I say back ‘My name's Mabel, and I entertain thoughts!'” People should have the opportunity to live the life they were destined to live, opins the Agony Aunt. “Whether it's something you're born with, or just something in your behaviour. Just make sure you're living it through. Your own life - and not the life of somebody else.” So, does Mabel enjoy her job on the telly talk show? “Yes, I do,” she says reservedly. “I've been working in this industry all my life, and this job gives me the maximum opportunity to reach people. But I don't take it lightly. I am very careful what I say, because I've learnt that every word is important. And I am also quite aware that people place a lot of credibility in what I say. So it's important I get inside other people's heads. I want to know ‘why?' What makes people tick? So I can be the best servant that I can be. “But I'm never so bold as to say to another person ‘I understand how you feel'. Because I don't – we're all individual.” See how Mabel and the rest of the Aunties deal with a whole new year of dilemmas on ‘Ask Your Auntie', 6.30pm weekdays on Maori Television.     Matt Akersten - 2nd February 2007
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