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An appreciation: Henare Te Ua

Wed 2 May 2007 In: Community View at NDHA

In a small country like New Zealand, the most unlikely people become interconnected, just names one minute, friends the next. When I joined the NZBC and Radio New Zealand in the 1970s my knowledge of things Maori was frankly minimal. A close family friend had given glimpses of maoritanga during my Southland childhood but a largely mono-cultural experience of Christchurch added very little during my teens. In the world of broadcasting two Maori names were spoken with hushed admiration, even awe. Wiremu (Bill) Kerekere and Henare Te Ua. These were broadcasters of immense gravitas and ability, whose knowledge straddled Maori and pakeha cultures and histories, who were equally at home interviewing a rugby player or royalty. Bill Kerekere, it turned out, had served in the RNZAF and, I think, the RAF with my father during World War II. The Henare Te Ua connection was more personal. During my time as founding co-publisher and sometime editor in the early days of express newspaper Henare became my eyes and ears into things Maori and gay. At first just a voice over the telephone, providing off the record insights and interpretations, he soon became a valued, though sadly infrequently met, friend. I first encountered Henare face to face in the mid 1990s at a gay community occasion when he was, it has to be admitted, slightly the worse for a few to many drinks. But his aura was unmistakable and his friendliness undeniable. To this white-bread pakeha guy trying to reflect as many aspects as possible of the New Zealand glbt experience, Henare became an invaluable advisor on things Maori. Whenever I needed some perspective, or to take care in uncharted inter-iwi waters, Henare was there to guide and educate me. I will always be grateful for that. Gracious and courtly, he was not afraid to speak out with firmness and authority. One of my favourite Henare quotes dates from when the then NZAF board proposed reserving two seats exclusively for Maori. Henare, the NZAF's kaumatua, exploded at such tokenism, aggressively taking the board to task for setting aside seats solely for 'brown bums.' "I plead with any organisation, NZAF included, against Maori gaining Board status by right under Treaty principles, against having a quota of brown bums on seats," he thundered. "It's essential that any Board member, Maori or Pakeha has specialist expertise to contribute and if a Maori has this, then by all means offer that person Board membership but not because of ethnicity. HIV/AIDS does not respect ethnicity. The Foundation's work, including its brilliant research papers, is pan-people, as it should be." Wow. When the gay community raised a collective eyebrow at rabidly anti-gay cult religious leader Brian Tamaki's unexpected and high profile appearance at last year's formal Waitangi Day commemoration, and when he was seen grandly perched beside the ailing Maori Queen for hours during her celebrations, it was Henare who counselled a cautious approach to the issue. Yes, he acknowledged, Tamaki's presence in such august circumstances sent a disturbing message to glbt Maori, but too much ruckus from the gay community could backfire in the complex corridors of Maori protocol and precedence. Then, after giving Tamaki a personal public blasting on, Henare did the rounds of iwi-based media, warning frankly of the Tamaki influence. Henare's family was A-list in Maoridom, and his personal reputation and influence undeniable. Whatever qualms some high-ups may have had about his homosexuality, Henare was untouchable, encyclopedic and respected beyond measure. When he spoke people listened. In recent years Henare became increasingly frail as he battled cancer. His public appearances became more infrequent and, when he could muster the energy to leave home, he was physically frail, walking with the aid of a stick. But in his eyes you could still see his strong spirit, his forty years of life as an out gay man and seven decades as an intelligent forthright Maori. Though diplomatic in public, Henare could be difficult to live with, but he and his long-term partner, Dudley Moir, somehow overcame the fraught times and our thoughts in the coming days, weeks and months are with Dudley. Here at Henare will be hugely missed, his insight, reassurance and gently guiding advice will be difficult to replace. But his up-front, hands on, commitment to the welfare of all glbt people in New Zealand, his good sense, patience and quiet activism will be his greatest legacy within the glbt community. Rest in peace Henare. - Jay Bennie Content editor,     Jay Bennie - 2nd May 2007

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Wednesday, 2nd May 2007 - 12:00pm

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