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Homosexuality in pre-colonial Maori society

Tue 1 Jun 2004 In: True Stories

A slightly edited transcript of a Radio New Zealand interview from 9-Noon with Linda Clark: Linda Clark: The Anglican church has a new head and for the first time it's a Maori, Bishop Whakahuihui Vercoe. In an interview with the Herald in the weekend the new Archbishop said homosexuality was unnatural and not morally right. He also said it is still not time for women to be ordained as bishops despite the fact that Penny Jamieson, the first female bishop in the church, has long been ordained. Now, when anyone recently elected to top office in this country usually makes such proclamations there is outrage. This time however, the liberals are being surprisingly quiet. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku joins me now to cast a bit of light on all, of this. Good Morning. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (RNZ Maori Issues correspondent): Kia ora Linda. Clark: Well, what do you think of what the new Archbishop has to say? Te Awekotuku: Oh, look, there's so much to say about this whole issue. First of all the headline which shrieked at us on Saturday morning, “A World Without Gays, Top Bishop's Vision,” is an abomination in itself I think. But what disturbed me most of all was the way that Bishop Vercoe actually spoke, saying things like” homosexuality is unnatural, it is an abomination to the dark races,” that his views derived from a cultural context and there are some areas within Maoridom where leadership by women is not accepted and that likewise issues of homosexuality Maori would find culturally very difficult. And when I read all this Linda, I didn't know whether to respond and address sexuality questions this morning or the whole issue of women. But because there are lots of women that can talk about this I think in the Maori world, I think I'll just direct my ire towards the whole issue of sexuality and for me what's so bleak is that Marsden's crusaders, the ones that came in 1814 and whom Bishop Vercoe so gleefully elevates, came into a Maori-Polynesian-Pacific world in which sexual expression and spontaneity was enjoyed. It was a sex-positive culture in which the erotic was celebrated and and dignified in the arts, in song, in motiatia and in carving. Clark: So do you know that there was homosexuality before the Europeans arrived? Te Awekotuku: Oh, absolutely. Clark: I know that sounds like such a bizarre question but if you take from what the Archbishop is saying, you would take it that there wasn't? Te Awekotuku: Well, you know he is one of our leading elders and someone whom, as a Te Arawa person and Te Arawa kin and Matatua kin, I am compelled to respect. But I actually feel that certainly on this issue he has got some quite misguided ideas. Clark: Yes, but isn't it interesting that no-one is really challenging those ideas. Because the same article in the Herald quoted Richard Randerson, well-known liberal and Dean of Parnell, who excuses all of this by saying the views arose out of a cultural context. Hello? Te Awekotuku: Well, the cultural context from which they arise is the missionary context and you know, within the carving traditions of the Maori people and within the oral song traditions, there is evidence of same-sex engagement. It is there, it is visually there. I have seen it in the museums of Dresden, of Rome, of London. Most of the material that remained here in Aotearoa though was systematically destroyed. But a lot was collected in the 18th century and it is in overseas museums for someone like me to celebrate and discover. What's ironic though, is that the church at that critical time actually gleefully indulged themselves in the sex -positive culture of the Maori people. The one that's most discussed is Thomas Kendall but William Yate, himself an entrepreneurial and somewhat provocative individual, enjoyed lots of connections with young Maori men and what's particularly interesting is that when he was confronted by the church and subjected to some pretty gruesome charges, the young men were called upon to give evidence of his “unnatural behaviour.” And they actually said that “they were unaware of any sinfulness in the practices and Yate had not initiated or corrupted them and that they showed no shame.” I'm actually quoting from a Church Missionary Society document here. And these young guys enjoyed each other, they enjoyed Yate. This is in the 1820s in Aotearoa New Zealand! And it really does upset me to hear rubbish like [Vercoe's views]. A further irony too of course is that on the same weekend that the Bishop made these pronouncements, Penny Jamieson and Witi Ihimaera both of whom he's judged by his comments... Clark: (laughter) Te Awekotuku: Exactly, one gay, one a female Bishop, who were awarded with one of the nation's highest honours. Clark: Oh well, timing is everything! (laughter) Te Awekotuku: It is indeed. Clark: I just want to go back to his justification that these views are okay because there's a cultural explanation. It seemed to me like saying that because in Indian culture brides are burned, that's okay too? Te Awekotuku: Yes, exactly. For instance, in parts of the Middle East if a woman somehow impugns the family's honour, the older brothers have every right to kill her. You know, this whole idea of cultural relativism is a very risky and sensitive and prickly issue. Clark: Yes, but in this case it's just PC. I mean, nobody wants to rain on the first Maori Archbishop's parade. Te Awekotuku: That's right and yet you know I'm quite happy to, because I think that what is the real abomination here is that someone who has got mana, who has got vision, who has got significance for the Maori people, should turn around and make such absolutely bigoted and ignorant and misguided comments which do hurt us, which hurt his kin. Clark: Well, it may be that his views are really the views of a generation, rather than an ethnic group which is what he would claim? Te Awekotuku: I don't know, because I grew up in a community in which there were same-sex couples and although they were never ever encouraged to flaunt themselves, the quality of their bonding, the integrity of their relationships were revered and respected, and certainly in the writings, for example, of Witi we see a similar honouring of such relationships and for those relationships to be condemned as abominations or unnatural, I think flies in the face of much of what, even within his own generation, the Bishop I'm sure has encountered. Clark: The ordaining of women bishops though, is more problematic, because we do know that when you're talking about cultural practice there, I mean women still can't speak on many marae? Te Awekotuku: Mmm. And I'm actually from a particular community where that attitude prevails. Clark: And I bet that just gets your goat? Te Awekotuku: Well, it does. But at the same time there are other environments and opportunities in which I can make my opinion known. Nevertheless, it's the reinforcement of such farcical ideas as: ‘we refuse to let women speak because by refusing them that right we are protecting them' is quite bizarre. It's contradictory, it's bizarre and it needs to be challenged, it really, really does. Everybody still gets very excited about the prohibition of women speaking but I think that's done at the cost of the female voice having its own time on the karanga and for me that is where women like myself do have the opportunity to express our vision and our views. Nevertheless, what the Bishop is saying here does disturb me. I do think as well that his vision is based firmly and irrevocably in a 19th century tradition of the Anglican Church of that time and what pleases me most of all is that although the missionaries attempted to wipe us out, to wipe out and reconfigure Maori sexuality, they did fail and they failed miserably. And I'm so glad for that. Clark: Yes, and I suspect that when Bishop Vercoe says that he's confident one day homosexuality will be unacceptable to society, I think he may fail there too, don't you? Te Awekotuku: Oh, definitely. But I just lament the fact that he made such ill considered and fatuous remarks. Because they do, I think, not only marginalise him as someone of considerable wisdom in other environments but they do question those criteria on which he was appointed.     Radio New Zealand - 1st June 2004

Credit: Radio New Zealand

First published: Tuesday, 1st June 2004 - 12:00pm

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