Pink Shirt Day: Finding strength through taonga

Pink Shirt Day: Finding strength through taonga

Today is Pink Shirt Day, “a day about working together to stop bullying by celebrating diversity”. Collections Data Technician Gareth Watkins talks about the significance of the day, and finding strength in our collections.

I’m really proud of Te Papa for being part of this year’s Pink Shirt Day. It’s important because it sends a clear message from a significant national institution that bullying in any form is not OK and that diversity is an asset and should be celebrated.

Pink Shirt Day began in Canada in 2007 after a student, Charles McNeill, was bullied for simply wearing a pink shirt during the first day of school. Two fellow students then bought and distributed 50 pink shirts around the school to show solidarity. Today, Pink Shirt Day is marked internationally as a day to speak up against all bullying behaviour – particularly in schools and workplaces.

Knitted doll wearing pink pants, a green cardigan, a pink headband, and carrying a yellow purse
‘Camp Mother’ knitted doll, about 1999, New Zealand, maker unknown. Gift of Lynda and Jools Topp, 2000. Te Papa (GH007985)

Bullying and intolerance can be both overt and subtle, carried out by individuals or groups or institutions. It can come from someone close to you, via social media or more broadly through society in general. While all people can be the target of bullying, some groups experience more bullying than others. Homophobia, biphobia, intersexphobia, and transphobia are still prevalent throughout New Zealand.

For me personally, I find it very hard to listen to Bishop Brian Tamaki continually (since the early 2000s) preach publicly against homosexuality or to Pastor Logan Robertson in 2017 broadcasting to the world that gay people should be shot “through their head the moment they kiss”. The police decided not to take action against the Pastor as “no criminal offence has been committed”.

But sometimes it’s harder to recognise bullying behaviour or homophobia, biphobia, intersexphobia, or transphobia because it’s not as overt as the Pastor’s sentiment. And if it does occur, it can sometimes be hard to know who to talk to about it, and how to respond.

For me, working in the heritage sector I find myself periodically turning to the taonga in our collections for strength. In the case of Te Papa’s collections, I think of anti-discrimination and HIV AIDS activist Carmen Rupe and her strength of character in the face of a sometimes hostile society.

This included people like Sir Robert Jones, who in 2007 – the same year Pink Shirt Day started – wrote in the Dominion Post (30 June 2007), “Carmen cut a grotesque figure, as might be expected of a 136-kilogram King Country Māori bloke wearing a dress and flaunting massive breasts thanks to implant surgery.”

Framed photograph of Carmen Rupe
Photograph, framed, 1970, Wellington, maker unknown. Purchased 2006. Te Papa (GH011919)

And the Topp Twins, who as well as being amazing entertainers, are fearless political activists – having been involved in numerous social movements including Māori rights, the anti-nuclear movement, and LGBTI rights. Also Chrissy Witoko’s Evergreen Coffee Lounge in Vivian Street which became a safe space for marginalised communities in Wellington.

Collage of photographs of people
Collage (detail), about 2000, Wellington, by Chrissy Witoko. Gift of the Witoko family in memory of Chrissy Witoko, 2012. Te Papa (GH015975)

And I think of artists such as Brian Brake – one of New Zealand’s most significant photographers whose vast image collection is now held by the museum.

Shirtless men stand steadfast in front of their trainers
Police training school, Kuching, Malaysia, 1963, Kuching, by Brian Brake. Gift of Mr Raymond Wai-Man Lau, 2001. Te Papa (E.005542/34)

But Te Papa also contains other items that tell different stories. For instance, the museum has collected Bishop Tamaki’s polyester suit that he wore during the Enough Is Enough rally against civil unions in 2004.

A man's suit
Formal Men’s Suit, China, maker unknown. Gift of Bishop Brian Tamaki, 2012. Te Papa (ME024093/1-2)

I believe the Bishop’s suit and the related Enough is Enough T-shirt are taonga too because it’s important for us to collect a broad range of narratives, enabling future generations to explore the many layers of meaning and points-of-view.

I draw strength from when major institutions and community leaders stand up for diversity and inclusion. I think of the Mayor of Wellington, Justin Lester, recently lighting up the Michael Fowler Centre in the colours of the transgender flag to stand “side by side, shoulder to shoulder with the pride and trans community”.

View of Michael Fowler centre across the Whairepo Lagoon, with alternating blue and pink lights covering the entire building
Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 2018, Photo by and courtesy of Gareth Watkins

I think of how history was made on 17 May on the forecourt of Parliament when four flags – the bisexual, intersex, rainbow, and transgender flags were flown side-by-side for the first time to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT).

Forecourt of Parliament, 17 May 2018
Forecourt of Parliament, 17 May 2018, Photo by and courtesy of Gareth Watkins

I think of MP Louisa Wall and All Black halfback TJ Perenara standing up to Israel Folau’s anti-gay comments – and today I think of Te Papa taking an active part in Pink Shirt Day.

Of course, it’s not just about a single day or a single type of bullying or phobia. Every day we need to consciously make our schools, workplaces and society safe and inclusive for everyone.

So please, not only on Pink Shirt Day but every day, be inclusive in your workplace and community, support the work of youth organisations like InsideOUT and Rainbow Youth and, at the very least, call out bullying behaviour when you see it.

The pink flag on the forecourt of the national museum is flying high and proud today – thanks Te Papa!


  1. Tena koe e hoa.

    What a great blog Gareth, written with much thought and passion. There are so many different ways today that we can support those in need, and in particular the workplace. Stand proud not only in support of Pink Shirt day and bullying but everyday…


  2. Lovely blog post Gareth!

  3. great blog Gareth, thank you for sharing!

  4. Such a great blog and yes Te Papa should feel proud to stand up and speak out about bullying and the way in which it values diversity. Great photos and love the way you linked the article to Te Papa’s collections.

  5. I got a bit tearful when I read this. It’s an amazing reflection on kindness to humans who aren’t always kind to you and why you should always treat other people the way you would like to be treated yourself.

  6. Te pai hoki | Fantastic !

  7. Love your blog Gareth!

  8. Great blog Gareth!

  9. Beautiful kōrero Gareth, thanks for presenting a lens on the collection in this way.

  10. Nice writing Gareth 🙂

  11. Tēnā koe Gareth
    Thank you for your thought-provoking article. Tautoko!
    Ngā mihi mahana

  12. The ‘polyester’ suit!
    ‘Polyester’; ‘made in China- maker unknown’. Oh how this part of the article made me laugh.
    Great article.

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