Toni. 25. Dargaville. North Island.
Hi, I’m Toni. I grew up a small town called Dargaville which is in the north part of the North Island. The town only has about 5,000 residents. I’ve been living in Auckland since I was about thirteen when I started boarding school, though.
What was your experience growing up in Dargaville as someone who identifies as queer?
Dargaville is a really sporty town and into its rugby, hunting, fishing and the farming–I mean, we’re the kumara capital–so farming is clearly a big thing there. As a kid, girls would play netball and the boys would play rugby, but I was never into netball. I was into rugby. I loved doing all the traditional “boy” stuff. I never felt like I fit in with any other girl or the constructed gender roles of the girls. So growing up, I always knew that I was tom boy. My dad has two older sons and I’m his only daughter so he definitely tried to push me into being more a girly girl. We would have earth-shattering arguments about dresses and stuff.
I would have been about nine when I got my first crush on a girl. I knew what was happening. I mean, I knew but I always put my place in the role of boy. I was always framing my crush in a heterosexual way and would think that, “Well, there can only be a boy and girl in a relationship” and I wanted to be the boy and not another girl. I never had any of the words for “gay” or “lesbian”. Those words were never talked about or discussed at my school or in my community. My family never talked about it either.
I never knew that I had anything to hide until I was older and went to boarding school. I remember begging my mum to send me to boarding school. My dad didn’t want me to go. I said to my mum that I “needed to go” in a way that framed it like “I’m too smart for Dargaville” but that wasn’t true. The truth was that I knew that I needed to get out of Dargaville because I was gay. However, I didn’t know that I was that word “gay”. I knew that I liked girls and wasn’t your typical girl. I dressed differently–I just was different, and I couldn’t be different in Dargaville. I also didn’t know how to be different–like I didn’t have any label. My motivation for getting out of Dargaville was that I knew I saw no room there to be me.
Everyone knew me and I couldn’t be anyone else than the Toni that I had created to hide my feelings. I was like “How do I start again? How do I come out? How do I tell people who know me that have this idea of me and know my family? How do I do that?
How did you know or why did you think that no one would accept you? Were there clues that you would get that reaction?
Because it was never talked about, I felt that I would be introducing something completely new to my world and my community (which probably wasn’t actually the case). Growing up, it was always that there were “boys” and there were “girls”. Just this heterosexual sort of system. The “other” didn’t exist–there wasn’t anything. Admitting to yourself that you’re gay is like jumping out of a plane into open air. You don’t know what’s going to happen. When I was growing up, if someone was like “this is an identity and people can be gay or transgender”, at least I would have known it existed.
Why did you figure that going to the city was going to make your life better?
I didn’t know that. When I went to boarding school which I didn’t associate with the city and associated more as “somewhere else where no one knew me”. It was place that I could start and again. I could be whoever I wanted to be since no one knew me or had any idea about me. But what ended up happening was that a girl from my childhood ended up going to the same boarding school so my plan couldn’t work. Some one else would know about me. I didn’t end up coming out until year eleven which is when you’re fifteen. So for the first three years of high school, I hid.
What was your experience like during that period of hiding your sexuality?
I just wasn’t out to anyone. During my second year of high school I remember writing in my diary that I was a lesbian. So between that stage and the age of twelve, I started to form this idea of what being gay or bisexual meant. It was lonely, to say the least. I wasn’t happy. Self-harm came into play and just being generally really confused and down.
Can you talk more about your experience coming out?
I vividly remember the summer I came out to my friends. It was the summer of 2006-2007. I used MSN Messenger back then and I told my best friend. My parents knew nothing, though. My mum ended up finding out about it because the administration at the hostel found out that I was dating a girl at the hostel . So the boarding school rang my mum and outed me to my mum. So my mum gets a call in the middle of the day at work being like “your daughter is gay and she has been having an inappropriate relationship with this other girl at the hostel”.
I remember walking into the hostel–right inside there is a whiteboard on the opposite side of the wall that listed the names of people who received parcels and the names of everyone who needed to talk to the receptionist. The other column was for anyone who needed to talk to the head director. My name was on that board and I was like, “crap.”
My poor mum had no idea about my situation. My mum came down to the hostel and spoke with the head of the hostel, the dean, and vice principal of the school. They all sat down and had to decide whether or not I would be allowed. It was so crazy. If a kid came to me right now and told me this happened to them, I would absolutely be appalled. But, at the time, I didn’t know that was wrong so I didn’t do anything. They eventually decided that it was okay that I stay. Everyone rallied around me that was in my year. Obviously, it was hard at times but it was really cool to see everyone supporting me.
Later on, my mum met with my dad and talked to him about the meeting she had had with the school. I had no involvement with my mum and dad’s talk since I was down at school.
What was your dad’s reaction?
I’ve never asked him. I was too scared to ask or know. A couple of weeks after my mum told him, though, he drove down to Auckland and took me out for dinner. I didn’t talk about anything my mum had told him but when he was dropping me back off at school, he was like “by the way, I’m all good with whatever you want to do. We’re sweet. Don’t worry.” He never said the words “lesbian”, “gay” in that conversation. I knew exactly what he was talking about though. Now he’s fine and jokes about it. He loves my partner and they get on well when we visit.
Why do you still visit Dargaville so often?
Because of my family and the land. It’s where I grew up. I mean, I hated living there when I was younger. That’s just teenage crap, though. Growing up and after traveling a bit, I realise how lucky I was to have grown up where I did. The place is just amazing. I’m also closer to my family now that everyone knows.
And I appreciate Dargaville more now because I have been away. I feel like all of my childhood I was sort of a rock–the rock in the stream that didn’t flow with everyone. But since I have made that journey of accepting myself and I have a better understanding that it’s okay that I don’t agree with the religious, conservative attitudes that are present there. I can see now that these things are not the land and not the essence of my childhood but instead are just the views of some of the people that inhabit it.
So you could say that now you’re not the rock that is obstructing the stream but is just a rock in the river that’s letting all the water pass by.
Absolutely. My connection to my community and hometown is stronger because I have journeyed away and come back with more understanding.