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Henare Te Ua:

Fri 29 Sep 2006 In: True Stories View at NDHA

Henare Te Ua Much-loved radio broadcaster for forty years, and now in his mid-seventies, Henare Te Ua is the NZAF's Kaumatua. In our interview he shares part of his story you won't find in his recent biography. Q: You came out 40 years ago, while working in radio. What was that time like for you? At that time, coming out publicly was a major undertaking, because of the societal attitude to being gay - that we were the bottom of the heap. We suffered all the old labels: 'poofs' and 'queers'. We were called 'fruits' and all that. But I guess it was a move which was just part of being true to myself. I didn't come out in a wildly dramatic sort of way, because there was a belief then that just because we were gay, why did you need to announce it publicly? We thought, we didn't see heterosexuals jumping up and down saying 'look at me, I'm heterosexual'. We had to go through all sorts of trauma - it was a hellish time. Standing up to your family. Standing up to the world. Ostracism. I remember of the senior directors of broadcasting castigating me what was termed my 'extramural activities', which reflected negatively, so they said, on the organisation. I laughed and said, "If you were to remove all gays out of radio and television, the organisation would just fall over." It was true - there were gay people everywhere you looked. Q: What was the gay scene like in those days? Very closeted and secretive. I was in Whangarei, when my gay activities, you could say, 'sprouted', but I often used to come to Auckland, where there were little cells of gay activity. You were either admitted in or not. There wasn't the same freedom of choice that we have now. Things were very restricted. Then, men having sex with men was a criminal act. The police had all their different entrapment programmes, and would frequent all the more popular pick-up places. If you were caught having sex with men or indicated that you wanted to, then you were tossed in prison. I had a lot of friends who were put inside. So gay activity had to be kept well shielded. I very well remember one of my first forays into the gay scene in Auckland. To get into the premises, you had to have a 'secret knock'. A small flap would open, and an eye would look you up and down, to see if you were a cop. You couldn't buy alcohol outside of a hotel in those days, so there were all sorts of ingenious schemes devised to 'sell' the alcohol indirectly, like the use of elaborate ticket systems. The amazing thing was that no matter how sleazy the place was, and how dangerous it was, one would not have foreseen the progress to come, so I applaud those people who organized those sorts of venues. I'm sure they were in it to make money, but they addressed a need. At that time, AIDS was still far off on the horizon. There was a real promiscuity. The sexual behaviour was quite outrageous sometimes. So there's been a lot of growing up to do. Q: What are your thoughts on the gay community now? I just hope that now, with so many members of Parliament being gay, that the whole climate can be turned around. Provided that the gay society itself accepts responsibilities. The freedom we can enjoy now comes with responsibilities. That's why I applaud the work of the NZ AIDS Foundation. The work they do is battling out there - and sometimes the messages don't get through. And this is where I start sounding like a boring old fart, but it's worth remembering how far we've come. There's a great Maori proverb which says 'To look forward, you've got to look back.' I think that's a tenet that many cultures subscribe to. Look back, to see where you've come from, so you've got an idea where you're going. Q: Is it more difficult being gay in a smaller town than in a bigger city? Absolutely. Attitudes probably haven't changed that much. In small towns there isn't the population necessary for a person to find anonymity. In Whangarei when I came out we had a population of 30,000+, but it was still seen as a small village. And to be ourselves sexually, we had to come to Auckland. Q: You hear a lot in the media about Maori-Pakeha relations. How do you think gay Maori get on with gay Pakeha? For us, are things better or worse? This is the age of enlightenment. Occasionally you will always find the odd hiccup or blister that pops up. And it often takes an undue proportion of publicity. You only need one or two of the old rednecks to get up and open the sore again, sometimes a bit of political point-scoring comes to the fore. And people's visions become diverted. But when you analyse it, the fusion between Maori and Pakeha is marvelous. My old friend Max Cryer recently published a dictionary of New Zealand sayings. I was amazed at the number of Maori words in regular use. People speak quite comfortably about Mana, a Marae, a Tiki and a Kiwi. And we say Kia Ora. I think is gay people in particular, we've come through so much, that we've all got such a great contribution to make. There's another old Maori proverb that says 'With the contents of your food basket, and the contents of my food basket, all the people shall feed'. Working together, we become a formidable force. And in the gay community that's happening now. I get annoyed sometimes when I hear people talk about Maori separatism and saying 'Maori just wanting to do things their way'. I took umbrage with Don Brash and his Orewa speech, because it had all the connotations of everything that's bad about monoculturalism. It's saying 'You're Maori, you're a great guy, but I'd like you better if you did things the way I do them'. Well, if I did things like that Don, I wouldn't be Maori. So try to understand why I want to do things my way, without treading on you, and still getting things done. Q: Is it easier for young Maori people to come out than it is for young Pakeha, or more difficult? It's a hard one that, because within any Whanau grouping, because the attitudes have been laid down over periods of time. Certain things have become unmentionable. I think or a young Maori to come out now is probably a damn sight easier than it was some generations ago, only because of the enormous amount of media coverage and awareness. It's a different world now. So many of our younger folks are maturing far more quickly. At one time the golden age was 21, in which it seems like the gates opened. That's far-gone now. Q: What does your role as kaumatua of the NZ AIDS Foundation entail? Maori at various times have come into bad press. Even now, Parliamentarians battle with ideas of biculturalism, let alone multiculturalism. Right from the beginning, the AIDS Foundation has been cogniscient of the Maori role within the organisation, while they're grappling with education and health promotion. Some Maori like to have things explained to them in a way that is more understandable to their cultural group, and makes them feel included. It isn't separatism. It's just because Maori have a certain attitude towards health issues, kaumatua, and family. Put it all together and it's a different way of looking at things. If the message about AIDS can be translated within that cultural framework, they're much easier to pick up. So I try within the Foundation to make more Maori and Pakeha people comfortable culturally with each other. But messages about safe sex are so important, whether you're Maori, Chinese, Malayan, European, French, whatever. Q: Have you ever felt that being openly gay has been a barrier to anything you've wanted to do in life? I've been very lucky to be associated with radio and broadcasting for over 40 years. And with my education and background, I've never felt ill-at-ease with any culture or atmosphere I've ever been part of. I've never felt the necessity of having to hide or shield that fact that I'm gay. I still don't know if I made the right choice when I wrote my biography [published last year] by not covering some of the topics we've discussed in this conversation. I only referred very casually to my sexuality. Me being gay was mentioned only briefly. I hope I did the right thing because the story I told there was the story for which a greater number of people know me, and wanted to hear about.     Matt Akersten - 29th September 2006

Credit: Matt Akersten

First published: Friday, 29th September 2006 - 12:00pm

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