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Brey Kin Hearts and building backbones

Rex Letoa is a Sāmoan/French fa‘atama poet. A keen observer of the world around him, as well as the world inside of him. His poetry and storytelling act as a wayfinding tool back to his cultural and gender identity.

Here, Rex navigates the loss, grief, and shame that has been learned from growing up in a society built on the values of white supremacy. This work talks to a journey of unlearning, learning, and imagining new beginnings. His nana was a healer in her village, and he hopes he carries her spirit in his words.

I sit with my Sāmoan village guide at Balaena Bay on one of the last days of a Wellington ‘summer’. It’s late in the season so the small stretch of pebbles belongs only to us.

That Antarctic breeze sinks into my skin and sends icicles across my chest. For the first time since 2017, I swear I can feel my nipples.

She interrupts our conversation with the waves and, without looking at me, asks if I'm cold, a hint of confusion in her voice. She’s got thick skin from being a brown queer in the 90s.

Shows me snippets of her past. Movie reeling the times she watched her trans women of colour friends get beat up by cops, and transphobes, and each other.

Shares fragmented memories of people who are no longer with us, the list being far too long at her age. She laughs to soften the blows.

She’s harsh truth while cooking you dinner and setting the table. Middle finger to the world since the 80s. Drops wisdom wrapped in Strathmore slang. Makes you a cup of tea as soon as your feet hit the welcome mat.

I remember how she fed me and helped me hang my washing after top surgery. How she sat with me through months of unemployment and heartbreak; every day she would pull a new song out of her record collection and gift me her refuge.

She taught me how to keep the beat, tapping her earth-brown feet on the wet concrete and counting me in. 

Three images in a row with a green leafy necklace on the ground, a poster in blue and pink with silhouettes of people, and a cartoon of a panda mixing music on a mixing deck

Caption

(Left) Pasifika Festival, Rainbow Pasefika lei, 20 January 2018. Photo courtesy of Tash Helasdottir-Cole

(Middle) In the ‘Gay’zeebo: A Māori Pasifika Response to the Gay Narrative; 2016. Te Papa (TMP038228)

(Right) DJ Panda, 2015. Image courtesy of Leilani Sio (artwork by Ariki Brightwell)

Shivering and blue-lipped I tough-guy my scarred chest out with confidence and tell her I’m all good. She rolls her eyes and wraps my shoulders in her badge-sewn camo jacket anyway.

She starts to tell me about a conversation she recently had with a young Pasifika queer kid. “He asked me if the feeling of ever wanting to die goes away.” The question settles heavy in our lungs. 

For the first time that afternoon she peels her eyes away from the call of the horizon, “It doesn’t aye?" Her eyes search me for signs that we are part of the same soil.

I look down at my feet and dig my toes into the wet stones, “Nah aye? Just learn how to manage”. 

Our mouths volcano clouds of cackles that start from the bones of our feet and reach all the way across the bay. “Man, can you imagine what it’s like to feel safe being alive?” We laugh to soften the blows. 

I’ve been planning my escape since I was 10. Drafting blueprints on how to not make it to 25. I have packed and unpacked since I was a teenager. Did anything to make myself smaller and unrecognizable. I was all bone and thin skin. I was all teeth and ruins. 

For 24 years I ignored the song of my elders lighthousing me home. I made no claim over my spine, always just said the ground wasn’t mine.

Til one night Nana’s feet parted the horizon, she cradled my body close to her chest until I could feel her heartbeat in my gut. Told me, “This is what you can trust.” Mama fish hooked her blessing and pinned my name to my cheeks.

My lover at the time took my head in her palms and washed the shame from my hair. Honeycombed her love over my skin and untangled every love-me-knot she could. Massaged spirit to body and helped me claw my way out of the fire.

I started to elephant my way home.

An adult and child on a blue bed, a child playing on a mud slide, two children in a backyard

Caption

(Left) Chantelle and Rex, about 1998. Photo courtesy of the author
(Middle) Our family mud slide on the farm, Weber Dannevirke, about 1999. Photo courtesy of the author
(Right) Rex at 8 years old, 1999. Photo courtesy of the author

Navigating Identity

A barefoot child running through the paddock at my sister’s farm. Avoiding prickles like landmines and belly sliding with my bros onto our homemade mudslide.

This was the safe-house for my boyhood, where time and gender didn’t exist. Where I learned to ride dirt bikes and shared the same position as my bros when it came to bath time slots.

We were eagle-eyed possum hunters, jumping into East Coast rivers shirtless. 

Back in the suburbs, I was Jordan on the basketball court, always a lottery pick in team sport, king of the breakdance crew, and the last one standing on the bullrush field.

Raised by the middle sister who would help me dress like a skux version of heartthrob Nick Carter. Singing Boyz II Men to her Barbie doll audience on bended knee. It didn’t take long for me to understand I wasn’t going to Freaky Friday my way into another body, but I wasted two decades of birthday wish currency trying. 

Unravelling of self

The erosion of self started when my hips pressed flesh and the moon pulled me into her arms. She wrapped the tide around my neck and turned my bones to salt. Hollowed my flesh. I was all water and no weight. No stomach or spine. No bark or bite.

I grew like ivy into the walls, became fluent in the language of lonely. Focused all my time on perfecting the art of disappearing, and by 19, I was a master. I shaved my hair, bleached it blonde, and lost myself under city lights. 

Stumbled through the open door of my first home, sprawled myself out on the pool table in the lounge, and started the process of unravelling. My home was a Māori/African cyber-goth soul sister with a lightning-crack laugh. She was the jacket on my back, my light in the hallway, a shepherd for my learning curves, the wise owl’s watchful eye. 

A person in a leather jacket looking off camera, two people looking at the camera and a poster of two hands with the words C.L.I.T. FEST written on knuckle-duster rings with the text below that says 'Combatting Latent Inequalities Together'

Caption

(Left) Mr. Brey-kin-hearts (first performance), October 2012. Photo courtesy of Jessica Savage
(Middle) Mr. Brey-kin-hearts and Bex, October 2012. Photo courtesy of Jessica Savage
(Right) C.L.I.T FEST (Combatting Latent Inequalities Together), June 2013. Image courtesy of Box Oceania

Dancing together under strobe lights, her purple and black dreads were a blanket for my heartbreak, she let me sleep in her bed for a week straight while I grieved. Her lounge, a mother’s lap, where I could rest my whole being on the bed that was always made up for me in the hallway.

Wrapped in a sunrise cocoon

She helped bind my chest and pack my pants for the first time as Mr Brey Kin Hearts, the drag king name she baptised me in. She ushered me to my return. She created space for my limbs to grow, nurtured them in syruping coffee-eyed conversations, wrapped in a sunrise cocoon.

A poster that says BOXOCEANIA.ORG POLYNIZE UR MIND, a poster mentioning polynize ur mind and a photo of five people posing in front of a banner that says Free Pussy Riot

Caption

(Left) BoxOceania.Org, 2015. Image courtesy of Box Oceania
(Middle) Polynize yo Mind, 2015. Image courtesy of Box Oceania
(Right) Free Pussy Riot, December 2012. Photo courtesy of Merrin Macleod

It was through her I met the Niuean/Sāmoan guardian of the Moana. They pulled the secrets of skux from their Mufasa mane and gifted them to my Simba curls. They pulled me onto my moss-covered patio one night and taught me about the vā. Painted stars that danced along the shore and said, “This space in between is sacred, and what we gift to that is the only thing that matters”.

A design poster with two people filled in with the ocean, Two people with black hoodies on, and a poster that says Homie Sexual in large print with a lot of smaller print above and below

Caption

(Left) Zapelu Kidz at Obscene, 2016. Photo courtesy of Fetuolemoana Teuila Tamapeau
(Middle) Zapelu Kidz at Dragulations, 2016. Photo courtesy of Fetuolemoana Teuila Tamapeau
(Right) Homie Sexual, March 2016. Image courtesy of Box Oceania

Pulled their wisdom teeth and threaded them to an umbilical cord they gifted to my neck. Gifted me my only ‘ie, then gifted me the waves. Split the tide in two with their palms, shouted a takalo to the earth, and gifted me the Siva Tau.

The first words I spoke were a battle-cry, my mouth chewing through years of wild blackberry. Guided by the star of the sea, their open ocean carrying me, they would smooth the vowel sounds that ricocheted off my jagged teeth into river stones we skimmed along the sea.

How to have pride

They would library their stories out loud to me, each pull of their spine taught me how to have pride. They called a truce to their world war and taught me ‘no pain, no pain,’ a constant reminder that the gain doesn’t have to be painful. Lifted me onto their shoulders and walked me to shore.

Three people in a dark room looking at the camera, A poster of a rastafarian head with the words 'Paiaka: Relate, resist, organise, and a photo of a person standing on a beach wrapped in a rainbow flag.

Caption

(Left) The Zapelu Kids with Kassie, 2016. Photo courtesy of Kassie Hartendorp
(Middle) Paiaka. Image courtesy of Kassie Hartendorp
(Right) Still from He Kakano Ahau: From the Spaces in Between, 2017. Photo courtesy of Kassie Hartendorp

My Ngāti Raukawa queen found me buried. She came to me with waiata flowing from her mouth, collecting harakeke to wrap my broken body in. Carried me home and unlaced my boots at the door. I felt centuries of breath release into safety. Her palms stretched wide to hold everything I am.

Come the winter, when my bones started to shake, she would bury my hands in the warm earth until I could feel the heartbeat of my beginnings. “Everything you are belongs here,” she would repeat, until I began to understand the meaning of open.

Gifting yourself

I watched her follow the ruru home and begin to heal in its womb. Every treasure she unearthed she would loop through the cosmos and gift to my roots, letting me know her ancestors.

She would tell me, “Gifting yourself is the most important thing you can do”. I watched day turn to night at her feet as she weaved her language to her spine, her spine to her moana, her moana to her whenua, her whenua to her iwi, her iwi to her waka, her waka to her awa, her awa to her maunga. She would tell me, “this is where all life begins”. Sat with me, hand in hand, until I was ready to claim mine. 

She taught me that the first highways were between oceans. I’d like to think we’ve been connected since my Gafa first met her Tūpuna on whatever plane that was. When they traversed the tides to learn one another, knowing one day we would find each other at the right time.

        I unburied my spine at rock bottom
        Found it held together by everyone who has come before
        My trans siblings who paved the way with the blood on their teeth
        Who built foundations out of their bones
        Whose stories make up my skin
        Whose names won’t be forgotten
        My queer family who held an umbrella and said ‘come in from the rain’
        Who turned brick walls into butterfly murals
        Who were always in my corner when I was down for the count

I’ve spent the last few years practicing my soft hands, my 1s and 2s, trying to switch kick the script of what it means to be a man. Now, here I stand at 28. Three years past my expiration date, looking at the person I’ve been manifesting since I was 4.

        I am an open ocean now
        I am the river mouth
        I am a child made from clay
        I am earth brown feet keeping the beat
        I am an open home if you’re wandering
        I am a basket of collective knowledge
        I am a space to let go of your breath
        I am setting the table
        I am inviting you in

Glossary

  • awa – river (Māori)
  • ‘ie – short for ‘ie lavalava, a wraparound cloth worn by men and women (Sāmoa)
  • gafa – geneology (Sāmoa)
  • harakeke – flax (Māori)
  • iwi – tribe (Māori)
  • maunga – mountain (Māori)
  • moana – ocean (Māori/Niue/Sāmoa)
  • ruru – owl (Māori)
  • Siva Tau – war dance (Sāmoa)
  • takalo – war dance (Niue)
  • tūpuna – ancestors (Māori)
  • – the sacred space between people/relationships (Sāmoa)
  • waiata – song (Māori)
  • waka – canoe (Māori)
  • whenua – land (Māori)