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Monday 08 November 2010

The two sides of 'Mama' Tere

Posted in: People
By Jacqui Stanford - 18th October 2010

'Mama' Tere Strickland
News that the New Zealand AIDS Foundation Trust Board had decided to award Mama Tere Strickland life membership sparked uproar when it was revealed on

In the weeks since, two pictures have emerged of the South Auckland-based outreach worker.

One is of a troubled trans kid who overcame abuse and survived life on the shadowy streets, and who made many mistakes on her way to becoming a protective mother-figure for trans prostitutes who has a great deal of mana in some circles.

The other picture which has been painted of Mama Tere is of a feared and terrorising bully, who has made life tougher for many of the vulnerable young trans street workers she has come into contact with.

Claims have been filtering in to of Strickland's violence towards trans sex workers with, for example, TV producer and K Rd habitue Glenn Sims detailing an incident he observed
in 2007 when Strickland was physically abusing two girls. Other reports include her hanging around the NZ Prostitute's Collective drop in centre on K Rd and waylaying and assaulting sex workers. Off the record many gays and transgenders familiar with the Auckland street scene describe her as "a bully" and "bad... everyone knows she is bad."

Strickland herself has declined to comment on the allegations despite offering her the opportunity a number of times. But we have now been able to speak at length with three women who have had dealings with Strickland over the past two decades; one who has also helped trans street workers and two who worked the streets themselves.


The first woman, who wishes not to be named, worked with transgender street workers for a number of years. She says that giving Strickland an award would be totally inappropriate. "It's clearly distinctive to me that there's not been a consultative process. It's deadly obvious ... how embarrassing for all."

The woman recalls Strickland during her 'standover' period 10-15 years ago.

"I forced one of her victims to make a complaint, because I was trying to eliminate the mafia-style running of K' Rd. And this particular queen that [Strickland] had bashed up, was intimidated and I said to this particular queen 'if you don't do anything about it and make an 'Ugly Mug' complaint I'll bash the shit out of you because you've let that happen'.

The Ugly Mugs programme aims to alert sex workers to dangerous individuals and situations in order to prevent further violence and harassment. Through it Strickland was eventually listed as a potential menace to working girls.

"It was quite threatening; it was horrible really on reflection, because it was violence dealing with violence. And I was forcing that queen to give some exposition so that nonsense would stop. And it actually, because it got to the Ugly Mug stage, it actually ceased violence at quite an alarming rate."

The woman says Strickland hardly has anything to do with the central [Auckland] streets these days. "All the queens from South Auckland probably put her up on a pedestal higher than anyone else because they obviously felt obliged to, because she probably did help them. She has got a core group of kaumatua out there that support her.

"But it's for the blind eh, you know, because other people just shun her, detest her."

The woman says although it happened years ago, Strickland doesn't need an award, she needs help. She says if she is given the honour there will be an "absolutely furore".

"But it will be healthy for the AIDS Foundation as well because it needs a slap in the bloody ears."


Former street worker Roimata Mehana has known Strickland for about 20 years and lived with her for "quite awhile" and on a number of occasions. She says Strickland was a horrible person to live with and backs up claims she has left a legacy of violence with many of the girls who worked the streets under her watch.

"We're her sisters. So we know most of the ins and outs about her. The only things that we remember are all the negatives."

Mehana says the violence and standover tactics have left a bad taste for many in the 'sisterhood'. "I think she's burnt both sides of the toast. You can scrape as much as you want off it, but it still tastes like burnt toast," she says.

"It's hard for us to move on from what she used to be like. And I don't think that she's changed at all."

Mehana says living with Strickland was torture. "I was working on the streets at that time. I was only young and she used to make me stand up on the corner and take my money off me. I'd get home about seven o'clock in the morning and get to sleep by eleven because then there was all her businesses that we had to attend to."

She says she would then be back out at work at seven at night. "It was no life for anybody really."

Mehana lived with Strickland around ten years ago and was there when her young adopted son died. "She took it out in violent rage, violent rage on us. And standovers."

One day Mehana decided she'd had enough. The final straw was being left to care for a suicidal street worker while Strickland and the other girls went to a netball tournament in Wellington. "I was only fifteen and they left me to tend to a person with suicidal tendencies. They left me there to look after her and she must have been like 29 or early 30s. I was fifteen!"

Mehana says she told Strickland she didn't want to stay with the woman and in return she was given a "hua of a hiding and some money thrown at me, then they left".

The terrified Mehana fled the house when the woman began self harming and there was blood everywhere and says she was hated for it for many years by the other girls. "But I could barely look after myself? How could I look after an adult? I didn't understand. And so that began my hatred for [Strickland]. Hate is a very strong and harsh word but absolutely I have not one iota of respect for Tere. Not at all. Everyone calls her Mama Tere. I call her Tere. Or Charlie. There's no love lost there as far as I'm concerned."

Mehana says most of the trans street workers are afraid of Strickland. "She's very big. Most of the girls are small and petite, because that's the ideal of a woman should be like. They're small and petite and very polite and she comes across as overbearing with a big deep voice. You know, in her eyes, when you look in her eyes you can tell she's got a lot of knowledge.
She is quite intimidating. But she doesn't intimidate me. "I don't fear her. I'm not like the rest of them."

Mehana questions what Strickland has even done to deserve the NZAF honour. "All she's ever done is just given out condoms. So have I. I've given out condoms too. Does that mean that I'm eligible for that award as well?" She has since confronted Strickland about the past and been told "girl, move on from that, I've changed."

Mehana says she won't believe Strickland has changed until she has apologised to all her victims. "And she still does it, so therefore she's still at the top of my list."


There are others who have known Strickland for many years who are adamant she has turned things around and should no longer be judged for her past.

Pauline Mullins worked the central Auckland streets in the 80s, before eventually moving on and opening a massage parlour.  She is outraged at the negative talk about Strickland's past, saying the NZAF should have thought about the "crap" that would come up when it decided to give her an award.

"A lot of the things that have been brought up, she disclaimed herself, years ago. It's supposed to be about what good she has done and people are bringing up things that they've heard through the grapevine."

Mullins says it was tough on the streets and violence was a way of life. "The pathway she had, she went south. It's harder out there, it's a lot harder out there. But she's done good out there."

"Tere's done bad things. But so have all of us. But I've been there many times where she's made the girls do things to better themselves." Mullins says there are stories doing the rounds about Strickland putting girls out to work because there was no food because she spent the rent money, but no mention of things she witnessed such as the girls coming home "glued off their faces" making holes in the walls.

"Every time she has done something good, there are these ones in the background bringing up the things that they know nothing of. All they know is what they've heard. When you're out on the streets you live by the law of the land. It's a survival thing. We've all done things that we're not proud of. But we have done things we are proud of."

Mullins is angry at the outpouring against Strickland on places such as the forum. "These ones that are bringing up the past, that weren't even there, I think they've got a cheek," she says.

"The language they are using is disgusting. And I bet they are all very educated people. We're not – we're from the streets. Now these people with these educations, they're talking about her 'black hole', and all these disgusting things.'

Mullins says Strickland attends many public functions and people should stand up and confront her with their claims there.

"I just find it nasty that these people from many miles away have a lot to say. Yet she's not the one asking for the award."

Mullins questions why the NZAF would be giving a life membership to someone they don't believe deserves it. "Isn't it ridiculous that they're trying to give her an award and all she gets is flak?"

"I don't stand up often, but when it comes to things like this, oh, I feel sorry for my sister."

Mullins thinks the NZAF should have asked people what it thought about giving Strickland an award before it decided to honour her. "I think the NZAF's gone about this the wrong way and to me it's a bit of a set-up to my sister."

"It's not about who we were. It's about who we are now," she finishes.


The NZAF is currently considering a formal complaint about the decision to give Mama Tere Strickland, who is on the Maori advisory group to its Trust Board board, a life membership. It says it's taking the complaint very seriously and will not comment further until it has made a decision.

The complaint comes from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, which raised concerns about Strickland's history of violence and standing over street workers.

However the NZPC's chief concern has been Strickland's ferocious lobbying against the rights of trans street workers.

Strickland aligned herself with the far-right anti-glbt Christian 'Think Tank' The Maxim Institute when it opposed the 2003 Prostitution Law Reform Bill. Its proponents, including public health authorities, legal and social agencies, claimed the law change decriminalising prostitution would make life safer for prostitutes, including vulnerable transgenders who frequently have very limited other avenues for generating an income.

Misinformation spread by Strickland at this time regarding the numbers of prostitutes working on on Auckland streets and an impossibly high HIV infection rate amongst them were dismissed by the Law Review Committee considering the Bill as patently inaccurate. Strickland campaigned in the media against the law change and sat with crestfallen representatives of Maxim in Parliament as the ultimately successful vote was taken.

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Jacqui Stanford - 18th October 2010