Conversion therapy ban petition: Takatāpui 'inherent to our culture'

1:43 pm on 8 March 2021

Content warning: This story discusses suicide ideation.

Takatāpui are still fighting to stop churches harming their people after colonisation aimed to strip Māori and Pacific gender and sexual identities.

Green Party members and supporters rally in support of a ban on gay conversion therapy.

Trinity Thompson-Browne with members of the Green Party at a rally in support of banning gay conversion therapies. Photo: Meriana Johnsen

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi has committed to passing legislation to ban gay conversion "therapy", which involves attempts to change a person's sexual or gender orientation.

Takatāpui and other indigenous queer people say the practice has long been part of church efforts to colonise and reshape Māori and Pasifika sexuality and identity.

Trinity Thompson-Browne (Ngāti Kahungunu) spent over a decade in the pentecostal church thinking that their attraction to women was "God trying to strengthen [their] character".

"So I left the church because it was either [that or] if I keep staying in church I'm going to kill myself - that is the reality I'm staring down the barrel of - so I left the church for that reason but then also I've tried for a decade to be straight - it has not worked," she said.

Thompson-Browne walked away from the church at age 21.

They said the gay conversion "therapy" was often masked as "purity courses" or "stepping into God's call".

"A lot of people are not aware of the inherent harm that exists for queer people or takatāpui people when you go into the church ... unless you're the target of it, you don't see the impact of it, directly," Thompson-Browne said.

Seven months after leaving the church, Thompson-Brown found "healing" by receiving their moko kauae.

They also find peace in writing poetry, drawing upon Māori concepts and understandings of atua (Māori gods) to understand themselves.

Thompson-Browne said there was ease in identifying as takatāpui.

"I appreciate that I can come from a culture where takatāpuitanga pre-colonisation was just normal. You didn't have to fight, we didn't have to fight for every single inch to create a sense of belonging because that sense of belonging was inherent to our culture to start with. I really look forward to the returning back to that," Thompson-Browne said.

Reclamation of takatāpuitanga was the focus of Dr Elizabeth Kerekere's thesis published in 2017, which involved interviewing whānau with takatāpui members and analysing traditional Māori narratives.

"Takatāpui is an ancient Māori term meaning intimate partner of the same sex [and] as far as we can tell it was more used as a term of affection, like 'whaiāipo' is sweetheart, so this was your sweetheart of the same gender as you," Kerekere said.

"We have adopted it now to embrace all Māori with diverse genders, sexualities and sex characteristics, so that includes whakawāhine and tangata ira tāne but also our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and queer whānau".

"It's very much about seeing that our sexuality and who we are is as important to us as our whakapapa, as our spirituality and our whole culture, and actually this is a normal part of who we were in the past."

The arrival of missionaries in Aotearoa in the early 1800s resulted in many Māori being converted to Christianity, where homosexuality was considered a sin.

"The church was very, very considered and methodical on how they broke that down," Kerekere said.

"There are broader things like taking over the sexuality and the body integrity of women, saying that men are now in charge of your body and actually your entire life. That was very, very new to our people. So, there's those systematic ways that they tried to control us."

Māori are not the only indigenous group where non-binary sexual and gender identities were accepted prior to the arrival of settler missionaries.

"Whether people agree or not, queer people in the Pacific have always been around," Shaneel Lal, a native Fijian (iTaukei) and leading campaigner for ending conversion therapy in Aotearoa said.

"In fact, my great grandmother when I was able to communicate with her and now she lives in Fiji, said that I as a queer person was my ancestors wildest dream because for a very long time our people had lost touch with their queer side and when she saw me grow up as a queer young person she was hopeful for the future, so I know queer people are fundamental to indigenous communities".

Having their say

Takatāpui and other queer people will have the opportunity to have their say on the proposed bill to end conversion therapy once it reaches the select committee stage.

Campaigners like Lal argue they should have a hand in designing the bill.

"This bill quite literally can make the situation better or even worse and to wait until the select committee process where everyone is treated as if the bill affects us all equally, is just not fair.

"This bill affects our community very deeply and I think that the ministry and the minister need to make a larger effort to consult the community before they propose it to Aotearoa as a whole."

Minister Kris Faafoi said he had asked Lal to pass further details of their concerns onto his office.

ACT and National supported a ban in principle, but raised the question of where to draw the line so as to not impinge upon free speech.

Green MP Dr Elizabeth Kerekere said preaching hate against the gay community must be outlawed.

Dr Elizabeth Kerekere joins marchers in support of a ban on conversion therapy.

Dr Elizabeth Kerekere joins marchers in support of a ban on conversion therapy. Photo: Meriana Johnsen

"People in power should not be able to use that and people with a platform and a voice should not use that to put down parts of our community... at the very least, they need to stop making those kind of statements".

Lal said there was a fine line between religious freedom and bigotry.

"I think it is wrong for religious people to argue that conversion therapy is a universal religious right because recently we've seen that 370 religious leaders have joined the call for a ban on conversion therapy".

Lal also said that religious rights were not absolute, and were subject to justifiable limitation under the New Zealand Bill of Rights, arguing that the harm caused by conversion therapy justified encroaching on these rights.

Legislation to ban conversion therapy is expected to be passed by the end of the year.

The Ministry of Justice is in the process of figuring out how to define conversion practices and whether there would be fines or infringement notices rather than criminal liability.

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