Tangaroa Paul is the kind of person who lights up a room just by walking in. With a huge smile and an infectious giggle, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Tangaroa’s life has been non-stop sunshine and laughter. However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that Tangaroa’s journey has been anything but straightforward.
Tangaroa identifies as gender-fluid, not identifying with any fixed gender. Rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns, Tangaroa has recently come to prefer the term ‘Irarere’, which translates to “gender-fluid” in te reo Māori. The term represents a unique coming-together of Tangaroa’s Māori culture and gender identity, mirrored by the term Takatāpui, which Tangaroa also uses to refer to being Māori and identifying with diverse sexes, genders and sexualities.
“I felt I deserved the bullying… because maybe I don’t belong.”
From an early age, Tangaroa remembers feeling different.
“I knew I was different, but I didn’t know how to articulate how that was. I kept asking, what’s Tangaroa really all about? Am I crazy? Is there something wrong with me?”
Part of the problem, Tangaroa says, was a lack of people that seemed similar.
“As a young child at a Kura Māori (Māori school), there was no real reference for me to see myself. Even within the cultural aspects, I never saw representation for who I was.”
“Even prior to even coming out as a gay person, it was just sort of questioning ‘do I belong’ within Te Ao Māori, and in Te Ao Pākehā. I did start to question whether or not I belonged in any space.”
Tangaroa says that it was these obvious differences that made for an easy target for school bullies.
“Going through primary and intermediate, that was a tough time. In terms of any bullying, it was always only because I was different from the norm.”
Tangaroa’s inner struggle with belonging meant that in some way, the bullying felt justified.
“In some cases, I felt like I deserved the bullying... I thought they must be right, they must have the right to beat me up. Because maybe I don’t belong.”
“Bullying is nothing next to how you feel when you yourself question if you belong.”
Reaching into the past to understand the present
Throughout Tangaroa’s journey, the search for belonging has been a constant driving force, leading to a PhD at Auckland University of Technology, researching the role of Takatāpui and their place within Te Ao Māori.
“In our old world, our understanding of being was very fluid… Our people were very performative people, because we had that spiritual way of being, and an understanding that you can be fluid, that you can behave like a female or behave like a male.”
“I think we had a very holistic and a very clear understanding of our roles, but also understanding that they can actually change depending on what's needed at the time and on your environment, and who you are as a people.”
In investigating pre-colonial Māori attitudes to gender, Tangaroa has not only been able to learn more about Māori cultural history, but also to reclaim a sense of belonging and self within Te Ao Māori.
“With Irarere, I see that as a term to describe those of us who are in-between.
“I believe that those who identify as being gender-fluid, their role was to teach, care and nurture the young. We were educators - not so much of a physical world, but of that spiritual realm, because I believe we have more of a spiritual understanding because we have that expression of male and female entities.”
“The desire for me is that one day we can have a space again where gender-fluid people or those who don’t identify as being male or female can contribute.”
Kapa Haka: finding identity and joy through performance
Another way Tangaroa is reclaiming a sense of belonging through Te Ao Māori is through kapa haka, Māori performing arts.
“I am fortunate to be part of Hātea Kapa Haka, one of the stalwart Rōpū Kapa Haka groups in Te Tai Tokerau.
“A couple of mates asked me to get involved in helping teach Poi. And I loved it. At the time, I thought I was just jamming with my mates.”
Now, Tangaroa has moved from performing in the male kapa haka line, to performing with Wāhine (women) - a move that has meant a huge step towards joy and self-acceptance.
“I asked a Pou of our Rōpū (leader of our group) if I could trial for the Wāhine line. I thought I was going to get shut down… But instead everyone said: none of us know how to navigate this, but we’ll learn together.”
“It’s pretty cool”, Tangaroa says with a smile, followed by a trademark belly laugh. “I’ve been yearning for that for years.”
Looking back now, Tangaroa credits close friends as a huge help in the journey towards self-acceptance.
“I am so grateful more for my mates than anything else. They’ve helped me navigate that space within a Māori context, but not in a dictated space. They’ve just said ‘you be you, you can do what you want to do, and you tell us.”
However, for other Irarere or Takatāpui growing up today, the road ahead can still look long and scary, with bullying, discrimination, feelings of insecurity and disconnection. For those feeling this way, Tangaroa’s advice is short and sweet.
“Things do get better. Don’t give up. Don’t worry bro, you’ll be all goods.”