In the Gay'zeebo: A Māori Pasifika Response to the Gay Narrative

Hold onto your spare eyes!

A response to ‘In the ‘Gay’zeebo: A Māori Pasifika Response to the Gay Narrative’ held on 19 March 2016 at the Mokai Kainga community gardens by Rachel O'Neill

My three-­year-­old nephew has one. His spare eye can see things that don’t seem to be there. I imagine that spare eyes are the kinds of things bastards try to take from us. We get older, surely a spare eye is now an awkward ‘accessory’, or simply dangerous? While I’m new to kōrero with spare eyes, I can say that they know when to be disobedient. They’re also more than that. A spare eye is present in a world that often wants us to dissolve, to close off, to fall asleep dreaming of all the extraordinary things we could have done together, shaped together, leant breath to if only we had... Spare eyes acknowledge the roots of fear, yet don’t take any one root (i.e. fear) to be a law to live by. I imagine spare eyes keep growing, even when idiots try to grind them into the ground for us, because weren’t we already putting our foot down? (it's called taking a stance, duh!) Spare eyes spring out of the earth, out of stories, out of legal documents, out of alternative universes. They are resilient, they do not forget yet are already seeking and sensing change. In fact, spare eyes help us to radically shape the future by making meaningful and challenging connections with the past, the knowledges and experiences we possess and inherit, the imaginations of people through time and space who have made us who we are.

Do you still have your spare eye? Where could it be? You already know, right? Tonight, check the hot water cupboard, the back seat of the car, the flashy leaves of your enemies’ silverbeet! Perhaps you already did this and were the person who reminded me to look for mine! P.S. if you discover your spare eye of the moment is square, don’t freak out. They come in all shapes and sizes! (Today mine has the colouring of a rare golden tuna and yet is shaped like a cornflake… ) The future needs many alert eyes, spare or otherwise. For me, being part of Kava Club, is about spending time with friends and meeting new people who live, work and kōrero with alert eyes, who come together face to face to talk, hang out and listen (just to clarify you don’t need a spare eye, a third eye, or to even prioritise the sense of sight, to come along to Kava Club).

Making a great friend is like winning Lotto. In 2014 I met a (future) core Kava Club member on an art residency. We continue to talk about important things and really unimportant things. We laugh, gripe and talk passionately about what it means to live and work here in Aotearoa. We talk about place, land, relationships, connection and reciprocity. We talk about our families, our collaborations, our weird art moments and art plans (I just misread this as ‘art pains’ so those too!). And sometimes when I’m going off on a tangent, my friend honestly and respectfully says, Sorry, you’re still not making sense.

Kava Club is a community of Pasifika Māori creatives who collaborate, connect, support and network. The kaupapa is ‘A safe space for unsafe ideas,’ and at each gathering you really feel all the work and commitment from Kava Club that goes into keeping the intention clear, inviting and responsive to the time, place and people who come along and make the gathering what it is. The relationships and conversations that Kava Club bring into being through care and hard work are incredible. What Kava Club do is a healthy challenge to individuals, institutions or homes where art, creativity and community happen, yet who only pay lip service to ‘diverse’ creatives and audiences, rather than be the friends and peers who have decolonized their whare in readiness to host us and who properly resource us to do what we do with sovereignty. Kava Club is the real deal from the heart out. This challenge is but one glint of the Kava Club prism.

When I started to go to Kava Club I initially thought through the latter part of the kaupapa. What is an unsafe idea? I wondered. I had some personal statements I posed to myself as questions: What is the place of imagination and storytelling in politics, activism, art, education and community? How do we motivate ourselves and others to change without just resorting to shame and judgement, which can prevent people from connecting with what they do know and have to offer? What if we don’t insist on knowledge of something or someone right now, and instead establish a relation or connection with something or someone over time? Are ideas and thoughts actually spaced out in the world or through time, rather than locked into one individual, place and time? How do we better connect with and support each other as we bring shared, sometimes unstable ideas into being? When do we share something and when might we hold back, protect and care for it?

During and after attending the ‘Gay’zeebo’ I thought more about the ‘safe space’ part of the Kava Club kaupapa and I don’t think I’d fully articulated to myself the value and feeling of it until then. If you’re feeling generous, just call me Late-to­-the­-Party­-Pākehā. The kaupapa of the ‘Gay’zeebo’ was ‘a unique event bringing together sexuality and gender diverse people who whakapapa tangata whenua, tagata Pasifika, indigenous and people of colour, as well as their whānau/family and loved ones’ to connect with the 30th Anniversary of Homosexual Law Reform and regional Pride events. The whole day continues to resonate in me. Like all Kava Club gatherings it’s about being there with everyone else who has also chosen to be there. Writing about it is a bit beside the point. There are other awarenesses, too. This piece is written in the English language, for example. There are big limits to speaking of a day that was about many languages, and I mean literal languages and others, from the language of the body, to the gardener, to the leaf and to memory (to name a few!).

Kava Club shape indigenous, decolonised and queer­friendly spaces. As a queer Pākehā, I come along and enter the Kava Club whare, my friends’ house, and participate in accordance with the kaupapa. My intention for writing about the Gay’zeebo is first and foremost to reciprocate. I hope this response goes some small way to honouring the emotional and meaningful experiences I had and am incredibly thankful for. In this light, and as a poet, I aim to work the English language hard. Hold onto your spare eyes! This is a part-­chronological response that includes dreaming, word­play, time travel and the feeling that happens when people sing together.

After a train, bus and leg journey over from the Kapiti Coast to Owhiro Bay I arrived at Mokai Kainga already giddy on sunshine. We were warmly welcomed to the gardens by Mokai Kainga whānau and community and after our greetings we set off across the Owhiro stream to the Gay’zeebo and some handsome-­looking blankets under a group of trees for a series of workshops and intergenerational kōrero.

Chanel Hati (Ngāti Hine) talked about her love for and connection with poi and showed us how to make poi. As the scissors went around, Chanel shared some of her story, including her involvement in the queer community over the years and got us thinking about LGBTIQ role models in Aotearoa. I saw her shape a flame in the air with her poi. Being in the Mokai Kainga community gardens and hearing Chanel speak I thought about my home turf, literally East Waikato peat, wet-­country that also contains sparks of various kinds. Our house sat on peat that was eight metres deep. I’ve heard the land around us miss/described variously as ‘reclaimed wetland’, ‘east of the confiscation line’, ‘Piako Swamp’ and just generally ‘swampy’. In the summer the same wet earth became arid and fuse­like. A spark could ignite underground and snake away under there for days, weeks or months. Chanel’s poi shaped a flame of thought about land, occupation and a reminder that history is in the care of the living, that it’s tied to memory and its ongoing articulation by people over time, and how the history of our queer people, our lives and stories must keep being told so that we can meaningfully articulate who we were, are and want to become.

Vic Taurewa Wikiriwhi Biddle (Ngāi Tūhoe) lead our second workshop and he taught us a haka that he wrote named Te Ahikāroa. He also spoke a little about a waiata that, if memory serves me, his grandmother composed, which inspired the way I conceived of this response. The beautiful waiata conveyed to me a picture of the future as a sort of prism of eyes. I often refer metaphorically to my queer lens, sometimes imagining a weird set of binoculars that help me focus the haze and maze of contradictions in life into a temporary picture. For example, there was me, a queer kid growing up in the Waikato amidst all that wet/dry peat. As an adult, how do I talk about the influence of land, queerness and history, acknowledged and unacknowledged? Once, I asked my Dad for a pool. A pool? This wasn’t the first time I’d asked. Fat chance, we were both thinking. A friend at school had a spa pool. I got spots all over my body after using it. That’s what passed as an experience! All right, Dad said. I couldn’t believe my luck. He sawed a large plastic drum in half. Probably it had previously contained drench, which protects cattle from parasites. Anyway, after using the ‘pool’ I never got parasites. He put the half drum on the lawn and got the hose and filled it to the brim. I was ecstatic. A pool for one! I couldn’t do lengths but I bobbed up and down, professionally. Vertical swimming. I invented it. I exaggerate, of course. I invented it only in my trumped­-up imagination, always a little separate from reality and yet somehow glaringly connected to it.

Reality is the thing we’re always crosshatched by, that places us somewhere, sometime and in relation to every other vertical/horizontal swimmer through time. The most specific opening in the world, that we may or may not be ready for. I bobbed up and down in my pool on land that was once swamp and that was ‘reclaimed’ by Pākehā colonisers who gleaned profit from the land over generations, including the one that fed and clothed me as a child. I think about myself in that pool that rested on top of former wetland, so dry in the summer months we listened for fire. The past can be a secretive thread of heat tingling along your arm, or as idle as the phone cord circled in on itself when the neighbour calls to raise the fire alarm. Vic asked us about what the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill meant to us and while we didn’t answer immediately, I think it was a question we probably all stored away and have all since thought or talked about.

The future needs many eyes and the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill is a reminder to me of what can be achieved together when we believe in ourselves, our dignity and our love, and what more there is to protect and work towards. And just like 1986 there are difficult conversations to have to achieve what we want to achieve. Kava Club inspires people to dig deep, yet not in isolation. We can do vital work when we dig deep and stay face to face.

Ana Te Whaiti began her workshop by talking about her connection to the art of weaving and how her practice has been shaped over the years by mentors and her appreciation of the tikanga and kawa relating to harakeke and weaving. I got really really into weaving. Almost a little pathological. I had to get a bit of a grip on myself. Weaving made me think about beginnings. When people are in a space of beginnings, where we attend to beginnings, we are in a space so political we are already changing the world. Because beginnings are people thinking and acting together. Beginnings can inspire and forge trust that then responds and flexes in relation to the next beginning. Not always and easy process or thing to acknowledge, that no one knows exactly what’s going to happen next. Politicians tend to insist they do and build campaigns of fear or confusion around this falsity, rather than take responsibility for their actions and thoughts, or beginnings. Beginnings grow beginnings. One of the most important things we can do is to take responsibility for the initial intention we bring to bear on our lives and work and the new beginnings this inspires.

After a wander around the garden and a break, we gathered for Aloha ‘Āina Hour with Walter Kawikakaka´iulani Aipa and Kamalani Kapeliela, two members of the Hawai’i Culture Centre, the first ever centre of its kind in Aotearoa and recently launched. Kamalani and Kawika talked about the history of a profoundly moving song called ‘Kaulana Nā Pua’ or Famous Are The Flowers, composed by Eleanor Kekoaohiwaikalani Wright Prendergast in 1893 for the Royal Hawaiian Band who protested the violent overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai'i. The light was growing dusk-warm and everyone stood alongside the Owhiro Stream, Wellington’s last open stream, remembering two inspiring women and feeling the power of resistance and sovereignty in our vocal cords.

I reluctantly headed off after Aloha ‘Āina Hour just as the sun was going down to return to the Kapiti Coast and tend to the needs of my aging Staffy Cross. I missed out on Herbert Bartley’s (Tokelau/Samoa) clay story­making event in which participants created temporary clay sculptures inspired by a person who shaped their life. I didn’t get to see the sculptures displayed throughout the gardens or partake in the hangi. I piled my plate up high in spirit, though!

Kava Club’s Gay’zeebo was an LGBTIQ event organised from an indigenous perspective that, as Kava Club member Kassie Hartendorp wrote in the press release, opened ‘up discussion around what gives us hope and what we are still fighting for.’ The day afterward, I had a little cry of gratitude. I rarely, as a queer person, feel that ‘safe spaces’ are safe. Perhaps I don’t get out enough! Still, the Gay’zeebo clearly showed that safe queer spaces are decolonised spaces, indigenous spaces, and for all queer folk. This is my personal and rather indulgent response to Kava Club’s Gay’zeebo. Thanks for joining me. I appreciate and tautoko Kava Club’s amazing community and kaupapa of ‘a safe space for unsafe ideas’. Grab your spare eye, or even just enough clothes, and come along to Kava Club!

Thank you to the tangata whenua of the Mokai Kainga community gardens and the gardens’ caretakers, whānau and community for welcoming us. Thank you Leilani and Kassie and other core Kava Club members for creating a safe space for everyone so we could listen, think, laze in the sunlit garden and share kai to name just a few of the good things. Thank you to the makers of the Gay’zeebo itself. Thank you to the workshop leaders for sharing your knowledge and experience and questions to take home with us. Thanks to everyone who was there, plus special mention to the tuna in the stream, the geese, the handsome taro and the magnificent sun!

Rachel O’Neil (Ngāti Pākehā) was born in Tokoroa in 1983 and moved to Puketaha in the Waikato with her parents when she was one. She lived with her parents on their farm with her brother and sister until she left home to go to university in Auckland. Since then she’s acquired an education of sorts, become quite a lot queerer and has come into possession of some dogs. She was the first person in her family to go to university and her mum has all her certificates, even the one she got for 4th Form debating, though she was never on the debating team. She is grateful for her parents, siblings and her nephew who introduced her to his spare eye. She tries to be a good friend while making films, doing art, writing and capitalising on her cheesy sense of humour in Paekākāriki and Te Whnaganui-ā-Tara Aotearoa.