Teoti Jardine

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April 23, 2024

Riverton man Teoti Jardine, 80, is a potter, poet, psychiatric nurse, and gay rights activist who believes wellbeing is about taking care of ourselves and being who we are. Here Teoti lays bare the shock of discovering homophobia and how he escaped to the other side of the world to feel safe and accepted.

I was born in Queenstown in October 1944 and grew up on Kawarau Falls Sheep Station, which was my father's family farm. My father met my mother Sheila Wilkinson when she was nursing at Frankton Hospital. She grew up on Rakiura and has Kai Tahu whakapapa through her Great Grandmother Kuihi Bates. 

Growing up I didn’t realise how sheltered and free I was.

I spent my spare time dancing and playing with dolls and my parents and everyone around me accepted it. They accepted me just as I was which led to a wonderful, supportive upbringing.

So when I enrolled at Southland Boys’ High School as a boarding student and became surrounded by homophobia and bullying, I quickly learnt I wasn’t “normal.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, Queenstown was a small town where everyone knew each other. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I knew from a very young age that I was interested in men rather than women. I remember, when I was about seven, I told my brother I wanted to kiss his friend Barry and he told me not to be so ridiculous. I couldn’t understand why but thought, OK, there are some things I shouldn’t say.

When I was at the boarding school there was a homosexual event published in the Southland Times and homophobia became rife. I thought to myself, Oh OK that’s me. I had better hide who I am. That was the first time I had ever really felt that way. I had to bury who I was and play a game of not being myself.

The homophobia affected me so deeply I started considering suicide. I became so angry that there was a law that basically said it was a crime for me to exist. I got so angry that I decided actually no, I wouldn’t kill myself. Instead I would get as far away as I could from this country with this ridiculous law; where I could be who I am and feel safe.

So in 1965 at the age of 20 I found myself living in Montreal, Canada. I quickly made friends who introduced me to shows, drag queens, gay bars, and a safe way to live my life being who I was. I remember going to a drag queen event on Halloween on my first ever night at a gay bar, and my friend introduced me to someone and said, this is straight George from New Zealand.

I admitted to him that I wasn’t straight and he said “I knew you weren’t, you bitch.” That same night I was dancing with a man who kissed me and it just felt like a ton of bricks had lifted off my shoulders. It was extraordinary. I didn’t realise until then how much weight I was carrying not being able to be myself.

From that point forward I lived my life the way I wanted to. I joined a dance troupe, completed my psychiatric nursing training, studied pottery, learnt to touch type, and went to shows, especially the opera. I joined the peace movement, I meditated daily, and I met Arthur Weinstein, an interior designer from New York, and we fell in love.

During my time overseas I was hired as an assistant to the Chief Technician of the Cardiac Catheterization Operating Room at The Royal Victorian Hospital in Montreal. It was exciting and interesting, but I found my relationship with the patients gave me more satisfaction than my role as a Technician. To that end, I trained as a Psychiatric Nurse. People living with Mental illness are also disenfranchised and I could truly empathize with them.

Working with people who are experiencing psychosis, I soon learnt to be centered and balanced in order to be their anchor, and be there for them.

In 1970 Arthur and I moved to Italy so we could concentrate on pottery. 18 months later we moved to the United Kingdom where we set up a pottery studio. I also studied at the Beshara School for Intensive Esoteric Education at Chisolme House in Scotland. This was based on the teachings of 13th century Arab-Andalusian Muslim Scholar, mystic, poet and philosopher Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi. This made a huge impact on me, and I felt a deep connection with the school that continues today.

For a very short time we moved to Jamaica to chase the warmer weather, but it didn’t work out. We ended up moving to Nova Scotia and that’s where I lived for the next 10 years. In 1977 my relationship with Arthur ended and I purchased his share of the property. We remained good friends until his death in the early 90s.

During this time, in 1972, I travelled home to New Zealand to spend time with my father after he suffered a major heart attack. It was such a blessing to have that time with him. I really got to know him during that time and I realised that if I had told him I was a homosexual when I was younger and that I wanted to be a dancer, he would have done everything in his power to make that happen. I know that now.

He passed away shortly after in 1973.

Later I trained to become a deckhand at a nautical school, and then worked on research vessels. I remember on one trip we sailed the St Lawrence Seaway, into the arctic and through huge icebergs, to Bermuda, through the Caribbean and finally the Panama Canal.  What an extraordinary experience it was.

One day during meditation one of my tupuna visited me. He had a complete tā moko, and pounamu pendant hanging from his right earlobe. I could feel his strength coming into me and it was like he was telling me I needed the strength and vigilance of a warrior. He awoke in me my taha Māori and I knew I had to come home, and even though it took me seven years to do so, I returned home in 1984.

While staying with Mum in Invercargill I saw an advertisement in the Southland Times inviting homosexual men and Health Professionals to a talk by Bruce Burnett about HIV /AIDS. We became good friends and I became a member of the AIDS Network, which later became the AIDS Foundation, and now The Bruce Burnett Foundation. 

He was a lovely man filled with energy to spread the information around safe sex practices. He lived with HIV and it was an AIDS related condition that took his life in June 1985.

Later, in Dunedin, I met and became friends with two well-known poets, Hone Tuwhare and Cilla McQueen. This peaked my interest in poetry. In 2022 I was asked to write a poem for a publication celebrating 100 years since Hone was born. I will forever cherish that hand-made publication.

In 1988 I moved to Geraldine and worked at Timaru Hospital and also managed Heaton House, a psychiatric supported accommodation house. While I was working at Timaru Hospital I attended a Health Hui at Arowhenua Marae. After the Põwhiri I was talking to one of the whānau who asked me about my whakapapa. When I told her, she said, “You're one of us”. This was where the Tūpuna had called me to be. 

I'll always be grateful for the Arowhenua whānau who so generously stepped me into Te Ao Māori. I was with them for almost 30 years. 

I attended the Hagley Writers Course, became a member of the Canterbury Poets Collective, a member and eventually chair of the Avon-Ōtākaro Network executive committee, and an iwi representative on the Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board.

In 2018 I felt the call to come home to Murihiku and so I rented a flat from the Ōraka Aparima Runaka.

At the Riverton Medical Centre one day, I asked the nurse what was happening for the LGBTQI+ whānau down here. She asked for my phone number and I received a call and was told that CHROMA LGBTQI+ Initiative for Southland held a drop-in session every second Tuesday in the library of Ngā Kete.

I went along and met these wonderful young people doing such a great job and enjoyed these sessions just being queer together. They invited me to become their Kaumātua, which I felt humbled and honoured to accept. 

I have come completely full circle. I fled Murihiku so I could be myself and now I am solidly being myself and supporting this group supporting so many others. I feel honoured.

Wellbeing to me is all about taking care of ourselves and being who we are. I believe, in a health setting, it’s all about looking after our people. It can be the most simple things: Introduce yourself, it’s about mihimihi, take the time, allow the tangata whaiora to tell you about themselves. You just have to make that time and if you do, everything else will fall into place.

Life is wonderful living in the beautiful Aparima! I live with my dog Aimee who I walk by the beach daily. I continue to connect with the Beshara School. We do readings every Wednesday morning via ZOOM. That nourishes me and my spiritual wellbeing. Living in Te Ao Māori is the main source of my spiritual wellbeing and I feel blessed. 

Recently I was invited to speak at a Gay Pride event in Nelson. What an honour it was to be there and to share my thoughts. When young gay men come to me saying they would like to tell their parents but are feeling vulnerable about doing so, I tell them to wait until you are feeling strong about who you are. You can do that here in Aotearoa now, not go to the other side of world like I had to. During my life people have asked me what happened to make me queer, what’s wrong with me? What happened is that we are born and we are who we are. Stand strong within yourself. Nga mihi.

CHROMA the LGBTQI+ initiative for Southland are committed to providing social and community support, rainbow advocacy, and health promotion to our local LGBTQIA+ whānau and allies. We run fortnightly coffee groups, monthly pizza and movie nights, two-monthly whānau support groups, and other events & activities.

Phone: 0210 830 1694 or email: chromasouthland@gmail.com

You can also get in touch with Outline for LGBTQI Support:
0800 OUTLINE (0800 688 5463) Gay/lesbian phone counselling, myths and stereotypes debunked, face to face counselling, sex information, events, coming out guide, frequently asked questions and more.

PAPATŪĀNUKU

Papatūānuku is our earth mother

her generosity so freely gifted

that we’ve taken her for granted

She gives only aroha yet if we listen

we can hear the voices of her children

reminding us to be her Kaitiaka

Taking care of Papatūānuku’s wellbeing nourishes ours

her aroha has no bounds

Teoti Jardine 19/04/2024

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