For Maori who don't fit neatly into carefully constructed moulds of gender and sexuality the term takatāpui can be a relief.

Scholar Elizabeth Kerekere argues that pre-colonial Maori were sexually experimental people who openly accepted gender and sexual fluidity.

Anyone who didn't fit into heterosexuality was considered "takatāpui".

Takatāpui scholar Elizabeth Kerekere has just completed her PhD in the topic. Photo / Doug Sherring
Takatāpui scholar Elizabeth Kerekere has just completed her PhD in the topic. Photo / Doug Sherring

Kerekere, who identifies as lesbian, has spent five years writing her PhD and discovering new evidence takatāpui existed in pre-colonial society. It was released recently at Victoria University.

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Now she's on a mission to normalise the term and create acceptance for LGBTQ Maori.

"Takatāpui were part of the whanau, we were not separate, we were not put down, we were not vilified for just being who we are," Kerekere says.

Other Polynesian cultures have similar concepts for non-binary people like the fa'afafine of Samoa, the māhū of Hawaii, and the fakaleiti of Tonga.

Kerekere, 51, says the story of takatāpui can be seen in chief Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikāheke's telling of the famous Maori love story between Hinemoa and Tūtānekai. In Te Rangikāheke's version when Tūtānekai falls in love and marries Hinemoa, he laments the loss of his intimate relationship with a man named Tiki, his hoa takatāpui.

Kerekere says the fact they were sexually intimate was pretty obvious.

"Some people say that's not sexual but then what do you think 'intimate' means?"

Maori were sex positive before colonisation. This can be seen in stories and songs, Kerekere tells the Herald, like the waiata about an elder woman singing about how her vagina used to travel the country.

"Sex was a normal part of life. There was a lot of pride in skill. If you wanted to have sex you should be good at it."

Kerekere's thesis cites the story of missionary William Yates being sent home to England for engaging in mutual masturbation and fellatio with more than 100 young Maori men. What was interesting was that in the court news it said "the Maori weren't ashamed and did not believe anything to be wrong", Kerekere says.

"He was just a massive embarrassment to the Church because everywhere he went he kept doing it.

"The key thing was that it was accepted by Maori."

As English culture spread to Maori, sexual freedom was stamped out, Kerekere says. Women and children were seen as the chattel of men and subservient.

"Colonisation changed everything - our expression of sexuality, women having control of their own body, female leadership.

"We lost all of that, having fluidity, being polyamorous . . . our sexuality was stolen."

Kerekere analysed 150 proverbs on gender, relationships and sex for her thesis. She drew and painted them to find patterns in their imagery. Fire and "talking in the night" were common metaphors for sex, she says.

It was when she found the whakatauki (proverb) "Nga korero ahiahi o Hinewha" which literally translates as "the night-time talks between women". After looking at other metaphors Kerekere believes it actually means sex between two or more women.

"'Talking in the evening' often was an allusion to sex. When you see all these other examples and in each one it means sex, that means this one also means sex.

"You couldn't have sex during the day, that means you're lazy. There's lots of whakatauki about sex at night.

"It's the first new proof of takatāpui in decades. When I found it I was crazy excited."

Kerekere believed she had found two other whakatauki, one alluding to polyamorous male relationships and another a female polyamorous one.

Rainbow Youth have recently released their second resource on takatāpui called Growing up Takatāpui: Whānau Journeys to engage families in their child's journey.

Rainbow Youth communications manager Toni Duder says being Maori and having diverse gender or sexuality are not in conflict. Photo / Doug Sherring
Rainbow Youth communications manager Toni Duder says being Maori and having diverse gender or sexuality are not in conflict. Photo / Doug Sherring

Communications manager Toni Duder said it was key to use the concept as a way to honour Maori culture and their ideas around gender and sexuality.

"Using the word takatāpui says you're significant, this is a part of your Maoriness, be comfortable with who you are.

"Being Maori and having diverse gender or sexuality, these things aren't in conflict. They're actually really compatible."

​Takatāpui youth

Three takatāpui youth share their experiences.

Ariki Brightwell, 28, Gisborne

Gisborne's Ariki Brightwell identifies as a wahine. Photo / Supplied
Gisborne's Ariki Brightwell identifies as a wahine. Photo / Supplied

Identifies:

Wahine

What was coming out like?

It was pretty intense. I came out when I was around 23. It's like this immense pressure and stress, I just had this big cloud of depression. It was nerve-racking. But once people were told that all lifted. There wasn't anything left behind there was nothing holding me back any more. I just went for it.

What does takatāpui mean to you?

It's a natural thing that people need to be aware of. For me it's an umbrella term for what it is and what the journey is. In the end that person can identify as whatever they want though.

What do you wish people knew?

I wish that people could just accept others for whoever they are. It's very difficult for someone coming out and transitioning. You're going against the grain of wood in every pie in society. People can react in a harsh way. By educating the next generation and normalising the standards we have that would change things for the better.

Nathaniel Gordon-Stables, 21, Wellington

Nathaniel Gordon-Stables and his mum from Wellington. Gordon-Stables identifies as tangata ira tane [trans man]. Photo / Supplied
Nathaniel Gordon-Stables and his mum from Wellington. Gordon-Stables identifies as tangata ira tane [trans man]. Photo / Supplied

Identifies:

tangata ira tane - trans male

What was coming out like?

It was definitely a process. It lasted over three years and started when I was 14. I came out three times as I was figuring out my sexualtiy. I thought I was bisexual so I came out then, I came out as a gay-cis female, then I came out as trans.

It was quite hard for my family especially for my mum and dad. There were a lot of fights. It's a process for your entire family. Now it's amazing, I have great communication, I see them every week, my mum is a great advocate for trans-youth.

What does takatāpui mean to you?

For me it encompasses my sexuality, my gender and my culture and history. When I use that word I know I have my community and culture backing me up. It's empowering.

What do you wish people knew?

To be more supportive and understanding of your youth and children when they're coming out. It does so much to help, and we need it with the high suicide rates for trans youth. Also using the right names and pronouns for trans-people because that means so much.

Morgan Butler, 23, from Turangi

Rainbow Youth support manager Morgan Butler came out to their mum and friends at 14. Photo / Doug Sherring
Rainbow Youth support manager Morgan Butler came out to their mum and friends at 14. Photo / Doug Sherring

Identifies:

Takatāpui, queer

What was coming out like?

I came out to my friends when I was 14 then my mum found out. She was quite upset. She'd say 'please don't be gay. I want grandchildren' before I came out to her.

But as my mum met more youth with diverse identities she warmed to the idea. She became the mother that was accepting and everyone else who didn't have a good family relationship they would come to my mum and talk to her. I'm so glad that it happened.

What does takatāpui mean to you?

Takatāpui is the perfect way to categorise my identity. I didn't really understand what I was or who I was. Saying queer or lesbian can be really annoying to explain and understand. Sometimes I don't want to understand what my identity is. My culture is so important to me so having takatāpui was relieving.

What do you wish people knew?

Aotearoa has huge Maori heritage, I wish there was more understanding of the culture and value so takatāpui wasn't such a shock to people's system. Validating our values and views in Maoridom would help bring back the word takatāpui.