Our Heroes – Moana pioneers shifting mindsets and creating space

Tai Paitai reflects on people, places and a particular time in his life, post the Homosexual Law Reform Bill.

In the 1990s I’d had a few heroes. Most, if not all, were first generation Polynesians selected for our national rugby, rugby league, and netball teams; they were also the brown presenters on television, and they were the voices of Māori emerging against a backdrop of colonisation; they were my family who migrated here in the 1950s; they included the double hulled sailing vaka Hawaikinui, navigated from Tahiti by my grandmother’s cousin, Francis Cowan; they were a group of friends that met every Sunday to play volleyball in Grey Lynn Park. There were many more, though in this lot only the last group of people were queer.

From Savai’i to Grey Lynn

The Kingdom to Karangahape Road.
From the Rock, and the Cooks
They arrived.
No mad rush
When you understand time better than most

The Te Papa collection has inspired the reflections I now share about a period in our time when Heroes within our community shifted mindsets and created space for us in strategic plans, on stages, and in full public view throughout Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Hero programme, 1993, photograph by Mark Smith, cover designed by Peter Roband, published by The HERO Project Limited, New Zealand. Gift of Te Herekiekie Herewini, 2011. Te Papa (CA001013/001/0002)

I found this Hero magazine published in 1993, and the poster series published as part of the New Zealand Aids Foundation’s safe sex campaign for our MVPFAFF/Ānuanua communities during the 1990s. Similar to objects within our own family and friend’s homes, they stir memories and can be seen as representing ‘our’ collectivism in terms of family, community, and culture both here in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the greater Moana region.

Brown-skinned Suckling

Feast your rump;
Your cheek.
It’s a tradition.

Returning to Aotearoa/New Zealand from Sydney in 1992, after the matriarch of our family passed away, I remember walking through our backyard, Karangahape Road in Auckland, and being stunned as a young brother walked past me wearing a pareu, and an ‘ei pōre’o. I felt like I had arrived in the future. Such an odd reality, I was so elated I could’ve hugged him but even after my brief time away, I was still aware of expectations around personal space amongst our people – instead I carried my joy in my stomach as if I’d just devoured a meal of umu puaka, rukau, ika mata, and taro. Returning home from Karangahape Road past the Auckland Girls’ Grammar netball court, where ‘thunderous laughter’ boomed from behind the tall native bush, I am reminded that our community is made up of more than who we see.

Not welcome.

This was a defining moment. What was once hanging from family photos, or decorating lounge rooms, and even under eyelids, was now out in the open for everyone to see. The 90s were here. The struggles and protests of the preceding decades were still fresh in memory – the Hikoi Land March led by Dame Whina Cooper, Raglan, Dawn Raids, Bastion Point, Springbok Rugby Tour, Anti-Apartheid, the 1981 Youth March, Anti-Nuclear Protests, 150 years since the Treaty of Waitangi, the Homosexual Law Reform Bill.

Mauri (of our deceased)
Vaerua (of our living)
Sharing (space)
Entwined in (moon-cycles)
Dance (gatherings)
And (in sleep)
Moe (marū)

The 1993 HERO Parade and Party expressed how our LGBT community wanted to celebrate every Hero (living and deceased), every victory, every stand, and every stance.

The AIDS epidemic had given us every reason to stand together. Heroes, lithe and svelte, would strut to a club classic and own a dance floor pulsing with the ever-present pride. We’d gone from underground to ‘in your face’. Unapologetically. Ponsonby Road was queer, but it wasn’t for the first time. It was just legal, and so it turned itself into a village, but that wasn’t the first time either. It seemed like art was everywhere, or that the art angels had jumped from body to body, from the community to community giving light and space to revealing. And there was a lot of that.

Your deeds
Sing the loudest
On tongues salty with tears

AIDS was at the forefront of conversations amongst our communities. Specifically, education around what it is and safe sex practice. Being in our 20s, we were bold, brazen, and built to have a presence. Our leaders, sagacious in their fabulous-ness, banded and mobilised us, as they were determined that we were to be our own voice. Education was needed. Capacity building was needed. A new Pasifika role within the New Zealand AIDS Foundation was needed. We needed a voice on the Board. There was so much learning in such a short space of time. This was AIDS.

It was about the bigger picture, about our MVPFAFF/Ānuanua communities seeing themselves being spoken to directly. The health statistics around our communities speak for themselves, and the work that has been done throughout the Moana/Pacific region to allow each island nation to strengthen their voices in education, capacity building, and advocating continues to both bear fruit and raise issues. We had strong support from our Māori takatāpui whānau in every industry, and the respect was mutual.

Like Our Ancestors poster, 1998, New Zealand, by New Zealand AIDS Foundation, Arjan Hoeflak, Mariano Vivanco, Harold Samu. Gift of New Zealand AIDS Foundation, 2019. Te Papa (GH025369)

The Greatest Treasure of the Pacific poster, December 2002, New Zealand, by New Zealand AIDS Foundation, Bob van Bekkum, Mariano Vivanco, Evotia Tamua. Gift of New Zealand AIDS Foundation, 2019. Te Papa (GH025371)

Queens of the Pacific poster, late 1990s, New Zealand, by New Zealand AIDS Foundation, Arjan Hoeflak, Mariano Vivanco. Gift of New Zealand AIDS Foundation, 2019. Te Papa (GH025370)

Leadership within a Moana context speaks to serving our communities, and our leaders within the MVPFAFF/Ānuanua (Rainbow) communities were exemplary, articulate, and defined grace. These same leaders have not deterred from serving our communities. Some of them have passed on. Rest In Love, Kindred Souls.

Salutations scented with vodka
Under the facade of a Colgate grin
Wore size 11 jandals,
A size 13 attitude
And a Gardenia, always worn on the right

Grey Lynn Park played hostess to our small band of merry Moana Queens. Summoned at 2pm on most Sundays, we arrived at 3pm (always on time).

A net turned friends into friendly evil-friends
With laughter that shook and swooped.
These articulate creatures
Serving coconut shade
Grated with Pawpaw (to heal) and Lime (to remind you)

The camaraderie was established quite early. Volleyball was a match of skill, speed, and a whole lot of sass! Vito had it in spades, so did Isaac. Tara and Sione were the quietest until they hit the ball. Smallest diamond was Barbara, but her wit was anything but rough. Anthony was there for the fitness (and I believe him), Siaosi just wanted to play netball, Trish was regal, poised and like everyone could smack a ball as if her life depended on it. Patrick and I were there to set up the net and take it down, really. Many others joined us. Many came and watched. Nearly ten years later, a small group of us from those early days at Grey Lynn Park participated at the Gay Games held in Sydney in 2002. There were no medals for playing, but a lifetime of thanks for the memories. And never ever pack condoms and lube into boxes as your fundraiser! [ 1 ]

Toolbox condoms & lube, 1997, New Zealand, by New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Gift of Dame Margaret Sparrow, 2011. Te Papa (GH023728)

So these items, for me, embody a period of time where our Moana community were actively visible in the wider LGBTQI+ communities. Flamboyant, fiercely creative, and fluid.

More than 25 years later, we can say the same for this current generation.


  • Hawaikinui – the name of a double-hull vaka built using totara from Aotearoa, that was sailed from Tahiti to Rarotonga and onto Aotearoa in 1985

  • Moana – used here to refer to Oceania, and Oceanic peoples

  • MVPFAFF – Pasifika families have long included mahu, vakasalewa, palopa, fa’afafine, akava’ine, fakaleiti (leiti), fakafifine. The term MVPFAFF was coined by Phylesha Acton-Brown although these indigenous terms do not encompass lesbian or bisexual women and should

  • Ānuanua – Rainbow (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • pareu – sarong (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • ‘ei pore’o – cowrie shell necklace (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • umu puaka – pork cooked in an underground oven (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • rukau – taro leaves cooked with coconut cream (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • ika mata – raw fish dish with coconut cream (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • taro – starchy root vegetable

  • turou – welcome (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • Mauri – refers to the spirit of the deceased in Manihiki, Cook Islands (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • Vaerua – refers to the spirit of the living in Manihiki, Cook Islands (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • moe – sleep (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • marū – peacefully (Cook Islands Māori language)

  • takatāpui – te reo Māori term meaning a devoted partner of the same sex


[1] Our team did a number of fundraisers, and our biggest was securing a contract from New Zealand AIDS Foundation to pack ‘tool kits’ with condoms and lube. Over 20,000 tool kits. We dragged in family and friends to assist us because it was a nightmare of a job. Never again!