There’s been a bit of talk lately about tikanga and sexuality, triggered by debate over whether two men or two women should be legally able to marry or to adopt children as a couple. One side is saying things like same sex marriage and adoption are anti-tradition/ tikanga, anti-society and endangering children. The other side tells us that opposing same sex marriage and adoption is discriminatory and bigoted, and also anti-tradition/ tikanga. I can understand not wanting to be associated with either of these sides.
What is missing is discussion about whose values are at the heart of the debate. When Hone Harawira and Brendan Horan say there are more important issues than gay marriage (on Rhema and Native Affairs episode 6/17 respectively), I agree—but what I think is more important is probably very different from where they’re at.
The legal rights we give to different sorts of relationships are much less important to me than how we treat people in our communities. Too many kids never get old enough to be in a relationship. Around a third of 21 years olds with same sex attractions have already tried to kill themselves (eg, in New Zealand and other studies). The messages they hear about homosexuals are so clear and hateful that the thought of being one, or trying to live as one, is just too awful. This isn’t because these young people are weak, this is because of the bullying, stigma, and hatred they see and live through. Stopping that crap is more important to me than legalising same sex marriage, or even adoption. At the same time, legal discrimination justifies hateful behaviour.
Where does all this fear and hatred of homosexuality come from?It certainly doesn’t come from tikanga mai rā anō—there’s no evidence of homophobia in anything that I’ve come across (such as creation traditions, whakataukī, art, pakiwaitara). There are enough people looking to justify their homophobic beliefs that I’m confident if there were homophobic traditions, we’d all know about it. There’s plenty of evidence from the period of early contact with Europeans that tangata whenua didn’t consider ‘sexual orientation’ a big deal at all (eg, Te Awekotuku, Ngahuia (2005) "He Reka Anō – same-sex lust and loving in the ancient Māori world" Outlines: Lesbian & Gay histories of Aotearoa. Edited by Alison J Laurie & Linda Evans. LAGANZ, Wellington )—whereas Europeans did (eg, Parkinson, Phil (2005) "'A most depraved young man': Henry Miles Pilley, the New Zealand missionary" Outlines: Lesbian & Gay histories of Aotearoa. Edited by Alison J Laurie & Linda Evans. LAGANZ, Wellington).
Europeans, and especially the Christian churches, introduced their fear and hatred of homosexuality to these lands. English law is strangely obsessed with who people have sex with. Until very recently, men who had consensual sex with men could be imprisoned, or even killed. Te Awekotuku talks about the church trying to have one of its own priests hanged because he liked sex with men (he survived because English racism was greater than their homophobia—the only evidence they had was from the Māori men the priest had slept with, and it wouldn’t be right to kill an Englishman based only on evidence from natives). I don’t know why they developed such violent practices to control something as joyful and fun as sex, but they brought them here.
When we look to our parents and grandparents for guidance on how to think about different sexualities, we need to remember that for generations we have lived under English law, and been educated in their schools and churches. There are very few places to avoid the awful messages of that culture—it called tikanga primitive and violent, then told us it was right to hit children, to dominate women and to hate homosexuality. Our kaumātua may genuinely believe that there is something wrong with homosexuality. After a couple of hundred years of colonisers trying to shame us into rejecting our values and adopting theirs, that’s hardly surprising. Many of us aren’t sure what is really ours and what has been forced on us (perversely, Māori who have come to accept values the colonisers taught us, like homophobia and patriarchy, are now called primitive and ignorant).
We can’t stop children being exposed to hatred, but we can fight the impact, just as we have with all the messages about Māori being less than awesome. We can stand up for sexual diversity; we can talk about our own crushes or curiosity or lovers; we can treat their crushes equally, whether it’s a boy or girl they’re obsessing over; we can speak against homophobia, silence and discrimination; we can show our children that it is safe for our whanaunga to be honest about their relationships. We can make sure they understand that it is wrong to even ask whether gay couples should be able to legally marry or adopt. It’s a ridiculous question that reflects a ridiculous but dangerous culture.
We need to be clear that homophobia (the belief that homosexuality is wrong, depraved, and dangerous) does not come from tikanga. It comes from the colonisers. Whakapapa is about inclusion—there needs to be a bloody good reason to exclude or demean someone in any way. Who they sleep with is not a good reason. Our children grow up in an environment where they will see, hear and experience hatred of different sexualities. Whoever they grow up to be, these messages are dangerous. These messages will limit how our children see themselves and who they can imagine being.
Two women or men loving each other does not endanger children, homophobia does.