Career

Kiwi transgender artist and filmmaker Awa Puna shares her inspiring journey of self-acceptance

'Ever since I've had conscious thoughts, I've known I wasn't in the right body...I struggled with self-conflict and the fear of coming out. I went through a really dark place where I felt I had nowhere to run.'

She's an artist and award-winning filmmaker, but as Awa Puna prepares for a photo shoot with Woman's Day in the lounge of her family's Kapiti Coast home, excitedly fiddling with her dark curls and clutching a fresh cup of herbal tea, she could be any young woman.

It's easy to forget the gentle 19-year-old beauty was born a boy. Named Te Awarangi by her parents, painter Caroline and policeman Te Roera, she grew up beside the beach, with three older brothers, in a house filled with visitors, animals and art. She spent much of her childhood writing stories or acting out quirky characters in the backyard.

"She's always had a sparkly personality," laughs Caroline, 54, recalling how Awa used to walk around in a little green blanket to be like her favourite Shrek character, Princess Fiona, before her fascination shifted to the Powerpuff Girls. "She'd draw pages and pages of them, then she became obsessed with being a mermaid at age six. She even researched how to make a tail."

Smiling, Awa adds, "I was like, 'Mum, it's easy – just buy some silicone. It'll only take about four days!'"

Like the butterflies she loved as a boy, Awa has gone through a metamorphosis.

At 10, the little boy with a love of dresses and butterflies started writing intricate stories about misunderstood characters, including a tale titled "Charlie the Dog who Wanted to be a Cat". Caroline tells,

"Writing was Awa's way of expressing her feelings and there were lots of metaphors throughout."

Her characters eventually spilled into scripts for short films, which she created with the help of a handheld camera and neighbourhood friends. Her first movie, the vampire-themed Trail of Blood, was focused on the theme of transitioning.

From a young age, Awa would dress up and tell her stories.

Awa says, "It's interesting because the things I made were subconsciously related to what I was going through. I saw vampires as outcasts who had to keep their secret from society."

Writing and acting became a form of escapism as Awa struggled with her identity.

She says, "Ever since I've had conscious thoughts, I've known I wasn't in the right body. I was supposed to be a girl. In the films, I was whoever I wanted and I always gave my characters gender-neutral names like Sam or Alex."

As she grew older and closer to puberty, things became more difficult. Awa recalls, "I struggled with self-conflict and the fear of coming out. I went through a really dark place where I felt I had nowhere to run."

At 14, Awa's struggles were exposed when she attempted suicide by taking a handful of pills, later found to be expired anti-anxiety medication, she'd found in a bathroom cupboard.

"I had to go to hospital and the ambulance driver told me it was my fault for getting into this state," Awa tells.

"I wept, 'I didn't mean for this to happen.' At the time, I told people I took them by accident thinking they were vitamins, but a part of me had wanted something to stop the suffering."

"I love how she has always lived her own truth," says Awa's proud mum Caroline.

Writing in a post on the New Zealand Police website, devoted dad Te Roera, 54, who admits to having had a sub-conscious prejudice against transgender people, recalls, "We booked appointments with counsellors, and met psychologists and medical specialists. They gave us a better understanding of transgender. It's not a choice, but the result of a chromosome imbalance."

He and Caroline then accompanied Awa to her local GP to discuss the process of transitioning, which led to rigorous psychological testing to prove that her feelings weren't the result of mental health issues.

Finally, in 2014, Awa began hormone treatment. Immediately, Caroline noticed a change in her "angry, awkward boy", who grew confident and started to flourish.

But it was just the first step. "Starting high school was hard because they gave me shorts and wearing them felt so foreign," tells Awa. "I had a big art folder I took with me everywhere at school to hide my shorts because I hated them so much!"

Through her YouTube videos, the talented teenager has helped other youngsters face their own gender battles.

At the end of her second year of college, Awa came out as transgender, but not by choice. She explains, "Someone I trusted betrayed me and came out for me through a Facebook status because I accused her of stealing my money, which it turned out she did. But in a way, I thank that person because most of the comments were good. People were so supportive and it enabled me to decide to come out fully."

After a family meeting with the school principal, the nervous adolescent arrived on her first day of fifth form in female uniform, finally feeling true to herself.

"Eyes were glued to me, but I was proud. I never really got ridiculed to my face, but I knew they'd talk behind my back. Friends and family supported me and assured me I was enough, and that's how I coped."

Yet challenges continued to emerge, such as which changing room to use during her school dance class. Awa remembers, "When I was invited by the class of girls to come into their changing rooms with them, I felt like crying. It was so liberating and I felt so me."

By her last year at high school, students didn't care about the first openly transgender student at their school any more.

"The only problem was that they hadn't experienced anyone like me before," says Awa. "Even I didn't know what transgender was when I was younger. People used to ask if I was gay and I'd say no. Yes, I liked males, but the thought of being a male freaked me out!"

Awa has been nominated as a finalist to be NZ rep for Maori LGBT+.

To help others understand her story, Awa launched a YouTube channel of videos filmed in her bedroom. Her clip I am Transgender: This is Me has received more than 16,000 views. Since then, three younger students from her former high school have transitioned and told Awa she was the reason they could do so openly.

After high school, Awa co-wrote, produced, directed, edited and starred in the short movie Black Dog, about a boy going through depression, which won awards at student film festivals, including the supreme prize at the Roxy5 Short Film Competition.

Awa was later named Most Inspiring Young Person of the Year at the Wellington Pride Awards and became the subject of a powerful documentary, Born This Way: Awa's Story, produced by Nigel Latta's film company. The doco, which won three New Zealand Television Awards, follows her journey as a transgender teen and also sees her discussing her next battle – gender reconstruction.

There's currently a 35-year waiting list to have corrective surgery in Aotearoa, with no doctors in the country performing the operation.

Now studying drama at Wellington's Toi Whakaari, Awa says, "I'm going to cross that bridge when I come to it, but for some people, it's the difference between wanting to be in this world or not."

When she does reach that stage of her journey, Awa knows she'll have the full support of her family.

Caroline smiles, "Awa's incredibly brave. I love how she has always lived her own truth – that's what I admire most."

And the doting mum's advice for parents of children who may be transgender?

"Love and accept them no matter what. If they know there's always someone there, they'll always have a safe sanctuary to come back to."

While she's "independent and content", Awa does admit that she'd one day like to find someone to share her life with.

"I'm a woman with a history and I'll never hide it from anyone. The right person will respect that."

Thoughtfully, Awa adds, "People often focus on the technical side of things, forgetting about the heart and that we are all human. We all just want to live happy."