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Trans people from their teens to their 70s were asked to identify objects of personal importance and to share the objects’ stories. What emerged was a quirky collection that is a testament to the diversity of trans experiences, and which disrupts established (and cis-written) narratives about trans lives. Read the 29 stories below.
My item is the first envelope sent to me that said Mr on it.
I got this envelope in my first few steps to becoming a male.
I received the letter from Kiwibank. When I got the envelope I felt really glad and excited because this was quite a meaningful part on my journey to becoming a happy male.
Bank letter, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
The green jumper was knitted by my grandma for my grandad, who, despite being 87, fluently uses the correct name and pronouns, as well as frequently referring to me as a young man in a way that doesn’t feel forced. He’s a kind and funny man, which is something I aspire to, and wearing his jumper makes me feel connected to him.
The watch face belonged to my grandad’s father who I never met, but wearing family heirlooms from masc people makes me euphoric.
Jumper and watch, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
Growing up was a progress of one step forward, two steps back. As a trans non-binary/genderqueer person there has been no single point of coming out but rather coming out again to different groups of people but also the same people for whom my trans status meant nothing or was awful to them.
When I made this dress I had just moved to Wellington; I could see examples of rainbow whānau and gender minorities around but I had no community. I wanted to wear what I believed on my skin because it felt like there was nowhere else it was acknowledged.
I drew pictures in felt tip as it was what I had and the colours were bright. Now, I like how the colours have faded and my beliefs run into each other. The dress has tiny symbols of protest, friends and lovers embracing, and quotes relating to loneliness and depression. The bottom hem quotes Marina Tsvetaeva: “A kiss on your forehead—erases misery. I kiss your forehead”, 1917. These feelings of anger, searching, and being poor feel like they will always be part of my life and gender but so too is vivid euphoria, solidarity, and support.
– Sol Marco
Dress, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
So I was at this party 3 days ago and it was like, 8am in the morning after and I hadn’t slept. I saw this doll and I was like wow this bitch is LITERALLY me, the purple hair, the pig tails, the cherry lil smile the DEAD DEPRESSION eyes, I was just like wow you know, I love her so much she’s a lil luci doll and undeniably she’s been through some shit but she’s like na i don’t care I’m still going hard. The party host came down at like 12pm finally and I was like can I PLEASE have this absolute precious little angel. She was like yea bro idc I found her at the dump. So now she’s mine.
Doll: “lil luci”, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
We have had our ups and downs through all my various comings out and stages of transitioning most certainly, but I know I can face anything else the world throws at me so long as I have the support of my family. Fuck, am I lucky to have their support.
This is only a small sample of the many cards my mum, who lives in Auckland, has sent me during my time in Wellington – these are from only the last six months and all for random occasions, purely because we all did the ‘love languages’ test and I told her mine was tied words of affirmation and quality time – she has certainly taken that on board! To mum, dad, grandma, and Sophie – I can never thank you enough.
Three cards, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
I chose this picture, the Virgin Mary, when I transitioned way back in the 70s. My mum instilled in me to always say the Rosary and that God guides me in my life. I’ve always had a close relationship with God and I pray for everyone before myself. I’ve had a bout of cancer and was given five years to live. I am seven years free of cancer and still going STRONG. I believe in the strong blessings of the family, great friends, beautiful animals, and a wonderful powerful environment. We each need to do out part to save the world. No reira tena koutou, tena koutou meitaki ngao ki a koutou katoatoa.
– De’Anne (Cook Island, Tahiti, Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngāti Hauā)
Image of a statue of the Virgin Mary, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
My binder was given to me during a really rough time. I was not accepted by my family and that lead to me questioning my validity as a trans person. And I entered an “ending HIV” giveaway on their Instagram. Then one day I went outside and found this package in the mail with my name on it, and I felt so cherished that I had been chosen. It really helped me see that I was valid and deserved recognition.
– Micah (Ngāti Kahungunu)
Chest binder, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
This ring was my great grandmother’s wedding ring, made in 1921 – it’s almost a century old. Her name was Sonoko – which is where my middle name came from – which means “garden child”. The ring is so small now that it only fits on the pinky finger of my left hand; it was given to me by my obaasama (grandmother) on my 21st birthday. It reminds me to be proud in my Japanese heritage, and it makes me feel like my Hiiobaasama, my namesake, is watching over me.
– Jaye (Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Hauiti)
they/them, ia, he/him
Ring, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
I didn’t need to buy menstrual pads anymore, didn’t need to make up excuses for not entering the water, didn’t need to feel like an alien every month. My taonga is good to the environment and gives me freedom to be involved with the things I care about. For years, it’s been my shield against what would have been a debilitating scale of dysphoria.
Menstrual cup and purple bag, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
When I changed my name publicly on social media, I posted a picture of my old mug which had the initial of my deadname on it with the caption saying “Ima need a new cup”. Next time I saw my Dad, he’d bought me a new cup with my preferred name on it.
Cup, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
This object is a symbol of opportunity and possibility. It represents a separation between external capacity and internal complexity, leaving only one’s perception and bias as judge.
– Shay (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Arawa)
Laptop, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
Ahakoa he iti he pounamu.
Despite being small, it is of great value.
After countless years of struggling with my hinekaro (mental health), and many failed efforts to find solace, I didn’t think I’d ever find something that could ground me, or tautoko me in times of need.
I carved this grounding stone, to help calm my tamaroto (inner self) and māharahara (anxieties), especially as an empathic, energies absorber. Whether it be a meeting, workshop, public speaking, doctor’s appointments, or anything that may cause anxiety or stress, I can hold this pounamu, and feel less alone and present in the moment – to be connected to the earth, my whenua, my whānau, my tūrakawaewae, my whaikaha, and my pono taukiri. I am the strength and mana of my tupuna, and through this, I feel it.
– Brit (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu)
Pounamu grounding stone, by Brit, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
This book makes me feel very overwhelmed and grateful when I read it. I carry it everywhere in a brown paper bag so the cover doesn’t get scuffed. I’ll probably need to get a new bag soon, the paper is wearing thin.
Book: Kate Camp, Snow White’s Coffin, 2019. Reproduced courtesy of Victoria University Press. Photo by Te Papa
I always find the contents of handbags interesting. Last time I emptied this there were 23 earrings! If you get a hysterectomy, you need to carry lube for the rest of your life.
Contents of makeup bag, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
The tattoo was hand-poked by my girlfriend who is also trans. One-and-a-half years later, we are still dating and living together. The symbol is above my knee, facing outwards towards the world. This visible tattoo is a symbol of me being openly trans, even when I could ‘pass’ and fly under the radar, for those who can’t be.
Tattoo, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
The note is how I came out to my brother. I remember feeling so nervous, I felt like I was going to throw up and like I couldn’t say it out loud, so while he was making porridge one morning I held the note (“ur a gay, im a guy”) in front of his face. “Okay, cool” was the response I gained from that. We talked about it later that day, and he’s been lovely and supportive ever since.
Note and journal, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
This was given to me by my partner when we were teenagers. When I came out as trans, he and I had been together for about six months. I was terrified he would leave me, but instead he reassured me that he would always love me no matter how I presented or identified. A couple of years later, he bought this piece for me.
The shape is a pikorua – which represents two interwoven pikopiko ferns growing together – symbolising love between two people, endurance, and connection even when the two are apart. For me, this carving is a symbol of our relationship, and the commitment that we have made to each other. We had our five-year anniversary in July (2019).
– Jaye (Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Hauiti)
they/them, ia, he/him
Pikorua carving, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
I chose to take a photo of one of my favourite shoes because they’re one of my favourite pair of shoes and they made me feel feminine, which gave me the confidence I need. Another special thing was that they come from a trans op shop that I volunteer at.
Boot, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
I was given this piece by my grandfather for one of my birthdays when I was a kid – probably about 8 or 9 years’ old. He passed away when I was 11 in 2008. I miss him very dearly, and this piece reminds me of him as my koro, but it also helps me feel connected to the heritage he passed down to me.
Whakapapa is represented with the sprawling branches of a tree growing up and out – we trace out ancestry back to its roots in Rangiātea. This is the point from which we all originate, and in times of distress or when I feel lost, this reminder of my ancestral origins is comforting, and it also reminds me that my identity as someone who is takatāpui has always existed, and was an accepted part of life for my ancestors.
– Jaye (Ngāti Apa, Ngāti Hauiti)
they/them, ia, he/him
Ornamental tree, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
This badge is from where I was given my name.
My name has been instrumental in feeling comfortable in myself and helping me on my journey of gender liberation. My name was given to me a year before I knew I was non-binary and has stayed with me as a permanent fixture of who I am. Although my identity may change, or the language I use for myself may change, I will always be Compass.
Scout badge, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
Pounamu taonga: This taonga was gifted to me from a friend in Hokitika. It is hand carved from raw pounamu and has not been produced by machine. Being the only pounamu of its kind in the world, it has been hand carved with two designs that represent “strength”. To me the first design represents my strength within my bio family life and the second represents my strength within my transsexual life.
Heru – two-prong hair comb in whale bone: This heru was made for me by a friend from Christchurch, whom has now since passed away from cancer. It was gifted to me as a koha for catering his son’s tangi many years ago.
Heru – four-prong hair comb in commercial beef bone: This is a commercially made heru, gifted to me from a grateful person for my catering services while in Hokitika.
Heru – large brown wooden seven-prong hair comb inlaid with pāua: This heru was also hand carved (in Australia) and gifted to me from my older sister. It was presented to me shortly after the Tangi of another sister in 2019.
White albatross raukura (feathers) hair clip: These feathers are only worn by people of Te Āti Awa, Taranaki. Usually worn at tangis and ceremonial occasions. To me, they represent both my iwi and my ties to my marae in Taranaki. (My marae are both Parihaka and Puniho.)
Harakeke weaved wrist bangle: This harakeke bangle was gifted to me by a friend as a koha for catering her wedding in Hokitika.
All of these taonga collectively represent my strong connection to my cultural heritage, my whakapapa, and my tīpuna.
– Kay’la (Te Āti Awa)
Assorted taonga, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
The first skirt I owned in my adult life. I dressed up as a boy until I was 21. I used to wear clothes like this when I was a kid, but I began to censor myself once I started school. I think that was the safest decision for me, living in a tiny South Island town. My choice probably prevented a lot of bullying, but at the cost of repressing my identity. When I finally started to let myself wear what I wanted, it was scary but felt great. It was a rediscovery of my queerness, and I now identify as gender diverse (amongst everything else!).
I got this skirt for free from a flea market in Berlin when I lived there, but didn’t start wearing it until I moved back to Aotearoa. I sewed a new zip onto it and now it fits great. I even wear this skirt when I go back to visit my hometown.
– Louie (Ngāi te Rangi)
Floral skirt, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
I received this tag on the day I reached two years of continuous sobriety from all drugs and alcohol. It is, without a doubt, the thing I have worked hardest for in my life. I nearly died many times – very nearly died – and I cried when I first held it. A large part of my substance abuse stemmed from not loving myself and not feeling comfortable in my own skin. I have fought so hard to just exist as a person and my trans identity isn’t scary or secret anymore.
NA tag (composite), 2019. Photo by Te Papa
Kia hora te marino. Kia whakapapa pounamu te moana. Kia tere te kārohirohi i mua i tō huarahi.
May the calm be widespread. May the ocean glisten as greenstone. May the shimmer of light ever dance across your pathway.
I met this taoka and we bonded instantly, as I admired the natural beauty of the stone. One side appears to have a waterfall running down it, crashing into the colour below, lined with boulders on the right. On the other side, it’s all waterfall, except for a silhouette of a person right in the centre of the waterfall: my Nana, my tupuna.
When I first put it on, I questioned my worthiness of such taoka, of the mana it represents, but I have never second-guessed my worth or my mana since. I deserve this taoka.
This taoka represents my journey and my identity: tōku ako, tōku rearea, tōku mātau ā-wheako, tōku hinekaro, tōku wairua, tōku hauora, tōku hirika, tōku kohara, tōku whakapapa, tōku mana, tōku whaikaha, whakaora pāmamae, aroha atu, aroha mai, he Pākehā ahau, he Māori ahau, he takatāpui ahau, tōku kiritau. Tihei mauri ora. My learning, growth, lived experiences, mental health, spirituality, wellbeing, determination, passion, genealogy, pride, strength, healing trauma, love given, love received, being of European descent, and Māori descent, being takatāpui, and being worthy.
– Brit (Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu)
Pounamu toki necklace (composite), by Jeremy Dalzell, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
My hair can’t possibly encapsulate my gender identity, but it has played a significant role in my journey. This packaging is from when my best friend and I dyed my hair at 10pm in a gas station bathroom. I’ve dyed my hair in the past, but it was always in a long style and centred around trying to please others, never what I really wanted or resonated with (and never as wild and fun an adventure as this!). No one else gets to define who I am and how I express it. Realising this has empowered me to better align with my gender identity. I feel more comfortable in my skin than I ever have.
Hair dye packet, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
My first (gendered) card. The first boy card. Having come out to the majority of the family in 2019. At my 21st in July, I got this card from one of my aunties and her family who have been very supportive of me. Many of my cards did not have my name used in it – they had my birth name.
– Tiare (Taranaki Iwi, Te Āti Awa, Ngāti Maru, Ngā Ruahinerangi)
Birthday card, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
The photo I have provided is a reminder to me about the time I spent with Playgirls. It was an amazing and memorable time of my life. It proved to me that it didn’t matter what part of society that you came from, you could do anything. Playgirls was made up of trans street girls and strippers – each individual had something to offer. The talent was amazing and what I liked the most is that we all worked as a team and not as individuals. The friendships developed as a group was simply stunning, we were a close knit whānau and I feel very privileged to have belonged to such an amazing group of trans girls who put their heart and soul into entertaining the public. Kia ora.
Photo, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
This small plastic bug was left in my mailbox alongside various treats, some lavender, stickers and a small note, from a group of really wonderful friends who knew I was having a bad day. A lovely and thoughtful pick-me-up that I think about when my anxiety kicks in.
With this particular group is the first time I have felt that feeling of community and queer family I’ve always heard of and dreamed about. I love my network of friends who are compassionate, silly, communicative, open-hearted, and help me rip down anti-trans posters! They make me always want to do better so that I can be the best friend possible, and my worst nightmare is to let the people who have supported me down.
Plastic bug, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
Despite what anti-trans activists and conservative religious groups would have you believe, these do not dictate my identity or worth as a human being.
– Anonymous (Ngāti Porou)
Biopsied uterus, cervix, and ovaries, 2019. Photo by Te Papa
Working with Gender Minorities Aotearoa, Tranzform, and trans members of InsideOUT and Tīwhanawhana, we sought to figure out helpful ways that we, as the national museum of Aotearoa New Zealand, could support trans communities.
Recognising the power of objects to bring history to life and the importance of trans people narrating their own stories, the Trans Past, Trans Present: Making Trans Histories project was born.
In November 2019, trans people were encouraged to bring in objects of personal significance to themselves and write up that object’s story, to preserve them and make them available for all to see and share.
We celebrated the project during Trans Awareness Week, bringing participants and their loved ones together to share their stories in person.
We credit the Museum of Transology as our inspiration and thank them for their dedication to preserving trans stories.
This project would not have been possible without the hard-work, patience, and enthusiasm of Gender Minorities Aotearoa, and in particular GMA’s incredible national co-ordinator, Ahi Wi-Hongi. A huge thank you also to Kay’la Riarn from Tīwhanawhana for being so supportive of younger trans people, and her ability to marshal the troops. To the other facilitators and volunteers who we co-ordinated with to bring this project to life – especially Rosie Leadbitter and Compass Ramsay from InsideOUT, and Sol Marco Duncan and Oscar Upperton from Tranzform – thank you for your time, excitement, and support.
Last but absolutely not least, an enormous thank you to everyone who participated in this project. Thank you for being so open-hearted and willing to share stories of your lives with us. I can’t tell you how much it means to us, to me, that you have trusted us with preserving and sharing them – and I can’t tell you how much I truly believe it will mean for the trans generations who will follow us.
– Will Hansen
Project Co-ordinator, Trans Past, Trans Present: Making Trans Histories
The taonga in these photos are for the Making Trans Histories project and are not part of Te Papa’s collection.