How do you capture the lifetimes lived by one person in an article? From the army to fashion this is the story of Tai Waru.
Tai affiliates to Te Ati Awa in Taranaki through her father and Ngāti Kuri in the far North through her mother, and was born and brought up in Manurewa in South Auckland. Tai is the third youngest of seven children and has a twin sister Tina, right.
Tai says her “family was marae-based”; she grew up with a strong cultural heritage doing kapa haka, and spending time with whānau in Taranaki. She attended a lot of wananga at Ruapotaka Marae in Glen Innes, the small marae at Green Bay High School, and Hoani Waititi in west Auckland.
Tai spent a lot of her younger years with her grandfather, kaumatua Sonny Waru, below, who she describes as “a tohunga in many areas, he was a great orator and knowledgeable in whakapapa and history. He ran courses on marae protocol and tikanga for young people.”
Sonny Waru was one of the kaumatua who accompanied the landmark Te Māori exhibition to the USA, as well as the Māori contingent attending expos in Australia. He was also an actor, known for three films from the 1980s: Mauri, The makutu on Mrs Jones, and The lie of the land.
At 16, Tai began a six-month Limited Service Volunteer army course, and was in the army full-time for the next six years, based at the former Papakura army camp. She worked as part of the communications section.
When Tai left, she started working as a supervisor before ending up in management for the past 20 years in the production, distribution and warehousing sector. “It was hard because I was managing between 10 and 60 staff, a female working in a male-dominated area and at times there was a lot of resistance from my male colleagues. It was hard for them to have a female manager.”
After Tai left the army, she also met the father of her son and was married for eight years. Not long after this relationship she came out aged 32.
Tai never identified same-sex couples or queer people as she grew up, and it never occurred to her that she could love a woman. “My mum sent me to counselling when I was 13 because she thought I was gay; I didn’t understand what she was talking about. I didn’t know who I was. All my family said they knew before I did; when I came out they told me ‘it was about time you woke up’.”
“I met a lady through rugby league that I developed strong feelings for. The first moment I passionately connected with a woman it blew me away; I knew straight away this is who I should have been years ago. I instantly felt comfortable – I had a lot of catching up to do.”
Tai didn’t like the lesbian label when she first came out; but when she learnt about butch and femme she “felt a strong connection with butch”. Growing up she had been the sister that tinkered with motors outside with her father, while her other sisters worked inside the home.
Tai played with army toys, her sisters with dolls. “At first I thought I was attracted to butch women, but it was about wanting to be one.” Tai now identifies as being a lesbian and butch, while her twin sister “embodies the feminine side, lipstick and dresses.”
She has encountered discrimination, especially earlier on in her work, with some of her managers asking her to conceal her sexuality in the belief that it would make other staff uncomfortable.
She told one four years ago that she “wouldn’t make a big announcement, but I’m not going to lie. I had to put up with that kind of behaviour a lot, but I worked through it. To be a leader, to motivate and empower and for staff to trust you, you have to be honest; not one staff member has turned away from me.”
Tai has been active in the lesbian community since she came out. After league she joined the Metro Softball Club with other lesbians, has organised drag events, and currently co-ordinates takatāpui participation in Auckland Pride and other events.
In Auckland, Hamilton and Wellington, Tai is also known as the drag king Burn (above with Sonya as Slash), in shows where women perform as their male persona. Her first drag king performance was in a show organised by Cath Cooker over 15 years ago and since then Tai has performed for occasional gigs as part of the rock duo Slash and Burn.
In 2008 Tai and her friend Andy, AKA Miss Taro Patch, organised the first of the popular Kings and Queens drag nights, which provided a platform for over 50 new drag performers. Tai had to stop organising Kings and Queens five years ago, to concentrate on study and work, although she wants to run another SHOW at Auckland’s Family Bar.
Tai and Miss Ribena will be hosting a drag king competition on Auckland anniversary weekend in January 2018.
In 2012, Tai’s Melbourne-based twin Tina started what became the Indigenous Runway Project, below, a programme which brings together indigenous designers, models, photographers, make-up artists, sound engineers and production staff to create fashion runway events.
Tai initially contributed part-time, behind the scenes in IT and operations, but for the last two years has run operations full-time with her twin. Tai doesn’t want to leave home, so she Skypes overseas partners, does programming from home, and travels regularly to events.
Since 2013 Global Indigenous Management has built partnerships with First Nations in Canada, Native Americans in the USA and Māori around New Zealand. They are a part of Melbourne Fashion Show and the Virgin Airlines Fashion Festival. In 2014 they were also contracted to do the Positive Runway for the World HIV conference.
The project has reached over 5,000 people and includes a week of model training, photo shoots, cultural exchange and confidence building. Tai still marvels at the beauty of indigenous models and designs.
“The garments capture the stories of indigenous cultures, the beauty of indigenous people, culture and creativity.” Tai is keen to organise a Rainbow Runway in Aotearoa in the future as a part of Pride.
Tai is one of the Māori co-ordinators liaising with takatāpui communities for Whanau Uenuku and Oceania as part of Auckland Pride, and marched with a half-face moko as part of the Oceania contingent in the parade this year with her partner. She and Tania (on the right) have been together for almost 10 years. Tania’s daughter has also been in the parade every year since Auckland Pride started.
A knee injury stopped Tai playing softball, but it hasn’t stopped her from learning mau rakau (taiaha), which is open to all genders and ages.
“Sexuality was never an issue for our Māori people – there was always a place for takatāpui,” she says, stressing that “prejudice against takatāpui was not part of us as peoples”. At the Pride Parade this year, Māori religions including Pai Mārire, Rātana and Ringatū were represented in the first cultural float, showing support and acceptance of sexual diversity.
Tai is very proud of a rainbow korowai that she commissioned from Waikato designers Te Whare A Rangi, who have also worked with the runway project. She asked the permission of her parents and her son to give the korowai to the Rainbow community and her father, mother and family came to Auckland for the handover ceremony. Tania accepted it on behalf of the Rainbow community.
The idea came to Tai at the funeral of south Auckland whakawahine (transwoman) Mama Tere. “Her casket had no representation of the Rainbow community on it, no rainbow flag or korowai; I thought that if I wanted to wear one, other people would too. It’s there for everyone’s use, for any occasion”.
During the hearings on the Marriage Equality Bill, Tai flew a rainbow flag at her house in west Auckland. When it passed she says, “I grabbed it and ran down Lincoln Rd waving it. That’s how proud I was.”
She and Tania “are still engaged; we were waiting for my father to become a celebrant so he could marry us, but we lost him last year. Within six months, we lost my dad, my mother and my father-in-law, Tania’s dad. That was a very hard year. “Losing our parents reminds us of the importance of family.”
Tai has never hidden her sexuality and has embraced it since she came out. Her family also have been just as supportive. Tai has a collection of over 100 ties and when her dad passed away he left her his ties and cufflinks. She and her dad would share ties when her family stayed with her.
Family have always embraced Tai and her choices in life; it is what has helped shape Tai into a leader, a mentor and a woman proud of her sexuality.
Peggy’s passion for animals shines through as she talks about her work. And it’s driven a relatively recent career change.
She is a lecturer in Animal Welfare at Auckland’s Unitec and coordinator of the Certificate in Animal Welfare Investigations. This certificate is required for anyone who wishes to be an SPCA Animal Welfare Inspector and is the only tertiary course in this field in Aotearoa. It’s a distance course, with three blocks taught on site during the year.
It wasn’t a planned career path. Originally from Indiana, Peggy trained and worked as a teacher, working with children from Kindergarten to 12th grade (New Zealand’s Year 1 to Year 13). Then she was a neonatal nurse working in Intensive Care in the US, and after a move to Auckland to be with her Kiwi partner (she’s been a citizen since 2005), working at National Women’s for 11 years.
Peggy “thought about my passion for animals” when considering a change from the demands of nursing, and retrained at Unitec, on the one-year course she now teaches, and worked as an Animal Welfare Inspector. She also started a Master of Veterinary Forensics (distance study) with the University of Florida, graduating earlier this year – the only person in Aotearoa with this kind of qualification. Peggy now also operates a consultancy in veterinary forensics.
So what is veterinary forensics, and who uses it? Forensics involves applying science to questions of law – in this case, law around animal welfare. For the RNZSPCA, the focus is generally on matters of neglect or cruelty. Other professionals are involved, though: veterinarians, who, surprisingly, don’t get training in how to examine and write reports on cruelty and neglect, and lawyers working on animal welfare matters. Police are involved: they are also animal welfare inspectors and although they do not take many prosecutions, they may add in an animal welfare charge as part of a drug bust, for example. It is generally the police who see how animal welfare matters are associated with the occurrence of domestic violence.
An aside: New Zealand research, reported as ‘Pets as Pawns: The Co-Existence of Animal Cruelty and Family Violence’, is available from Community Research. It’s an examination of the link between animal cruelty and family violence, investigated with a combination of interviews, a survey of Women’s Refuge clients, and surveys of animal shelter managers.
Being an Animal Welfare Inspector was “my hardest job ever”, says Peggy. The work makes physical, mental and emotional demands on the worker. People are often working independently; it’s just as likely to be rural as city-based work, and for animal lovers, there is a constant presence of evidence and worry about mistreatment and neglect.
There is a strong link with nursing work, it turns out. “They are both high stress,” says Peggy, “and you are often working with vulnerable people, families in crisis, a wide range of cultures. There is also the opportunity and need for education.”
Education is a theme that comes through many aspects of animal welfare work. “Most people want to do the right thing,” Peggy confirms. Sometimes the education is for the animal owner, and sometimes for the complainant. For example, “it’s not against the law for a dog to be on a chain all day. It may not be the best treatment, but it’s not automatically unlawful.” So then the inspector is helping the owner to review and maybe modify their approach, as well working with the concerned complainant, perhaps a neighbour, to explain why they are not implementing their preferred solution, such as removing the dog. (Complaints are not infrequently received as solutions to a problem that hasn’t actually been determined.) The communication component of their training clearly needs to address technical, cultural and safety matters.
The implementation of the Health and Safety at Work Act has made changes to how Animal Welfare Inspectors’ work is arranged, and there is more thought given to some of the most challenging physical aspects of the work: someone shouldn’t be on their own climbing a ladder or crawling under buildings. There is more awareness of the risks inspectors may face when working alone: approaching situations where people don’t want them there, where drugs and alcohol, mental health issues may be affecting the parties. Most call-outs in the middle of the night have stopped, although there are still responses to owners needing help to rescue their animal.
Peggy brings her previous experience to her teaching, so the course, which she is rewriting, will address more interpersonal skill requirements for the increasing numbers of students. This year they started with about 30 students, and are expecting around 45 in 2018.
What else does an animal welfare inspector do? They teach, help, advise, and direct the animal owners they come into contact with. They also prosecute – a last resort – so they are the experts in the Animal Welfare Act, how to collect and collate information and evidence, how to create the prosecution file.
And her own animals? Peggy and Alison have an ageing Golden Retriever named Beatrice, who has worked as a therapy dog, and several cats. They have fostered “around 100” cats over the years, and “failed to return” some of the most needy: blind, three-legged, developmental delay.