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Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

ĀteaApril 16, 2019

Goodbye Israel Folau – I’m sad it had to end this way

Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Yesterday, Wallabies player Israel Folau was issued with a “high level” breach notice by Rugby Australia, bringing him closer to the termination of his contract over a social media post in which he claimed “homosexuals” and others would go to hell. For a gay, Pasifika man, it’s not necessarily something to celebrate, writes Patrick Thomsen.

Thursday nights are pretty uneventful at my house. It’s not uncommon to find me laid out on the couch watching the latest show on Netflix so I can tweet my reactions to my cool friends about it later.

Last Thursday wasn’t any different. Except for when my phone started blowing up in the middle of my Adventures of Sabrina marathon. Israel Folau, whose baffling tirades against all things LGBTIQA+ has been the target of much of my writing angst, was to have his contract terminated by Rugby Australia. Basically, his latest brain explosion was understood to be a violation of his contractual obligation to not be a dick to the LGBTIQA+ community.

OK, I get it – people expected me to openly rejoice, crack open a bottle of champagne and toast to the fact that this known homophobe, transphobe, anti-sex before marriage, anti-anything fun guy was going to lose his high-paying, high-velocity, high-visibility job.

But a Pacific Islander losing his job in a very public manner like this does not make me feel in anyway validated.

Read more: Dear Israel Folau – your unchristian comments hurt young, vulnerable Pasifika

Israel represents so much waste. His views and social media posts were undoubtedly a waste of space, but his talent, audience and potential has now also been painfully squandered. As a Pasifika man with that large a presence in a sport that for-the-love-of-me I wish we’d give up (especially as a long-suffering Manu Samoa supporter), he is important. The man has over 100K followers on Twitter alone and that type of reach can’t be easily dismissed.

Palagis like the idea of enforcing rules and regulations that we’re meant to contort our voluptuous and athletic Pacific bodies into. This type of thinking – let’s call it positivism – is all about separating and regulating people’s behaviour and views as single entities. It views them only as individuals. It’s one-dimensional and isolates people from their communities.

Isalaelu’s comments, then his subsequent dismissal (warranted, by the way, please don’t come at me over that) all played out in the theatre of modern-day positivist structures and logics. But the dude’s a visibly Pasifika (more specifically Tongan) person whose fame is based on his ability to represent sport and entertainment for a richer, whiter-looking crowd. The type of uncomfortable power-differential that is in operation here is one that all Pacific people, LGBTIQA+ or not, have to navigate as well. We literally geddit.

When Folau decided to, out of nowhere, post that everyone is going to hell, especially the homosexuals, I didn’t see anything ‘Pacific’ about what he was doing or saying. Homophobia is not a Pacific concept, nor in our cultures a legitimate framework to other and marginalize people. Having grown up in a very Sāmoan household, which also happens to be a very Catholic one too, I have long known that our people at the very worst are indifferent to the gays; at the very best, inclusive enough to allow fa’afafine to dress as their authentic selves and deliver sermons at church.

So, where does it come from? All this hate he thinks is love (go figure). Clearly his extremist views are a product of a loose interpretation of biblical texts that were all gifted to us (how thoughtful) from the missionaries. At its core, his beliefs are just a very wrong interpretation of a text whose creation bears no contextual relation to the one in which our peoples’ worldviews were forged (yes, colonisation).

But the complexity of this situation means that even I – a gay male, a male that is gay, a male that likes the company of other males (happy to draw a picture if you don’t get that I’m gay by now) – still has the future of all my community in mind. Especially our queer Pasifika youth. Folau refused to extend humanity to them, and his comments were oppressive and hateful and were dealt with in an appropriate manner.

But where does his sacking leave us as a community now?

As diaspora Pacific people in New Zealand, the church is important to all of us. To be honest, I don’t believe in the dogma or how the church says I should live my life, but the church as an institution is incredibly embedded and central to our way of life. Pasifika youth, queer or not, will be required to interact with church structures at some point if they wish to stay connected to their wider community.

When Folau’s palagi bosses signalled their intention to fire him on Thursday night (well it was his third strike) what they also did was something I knew was going to happen: they created a martyr. Now queer Pasifika people as well as their allies are being blamed for “letting down the culture”. That argument clearly assigns blame to the wrong postcode, but it’s a logic that was sitting there ready to be exploited by the oppressive mainstream forces that exist within any community, marginalised or not.

So, after I checked the millions of notifications, unmoved by the celebrations that were going on in my wonderful Twitter bubble, I realised that Israel Folau being fired didn’t make me happy. It made me sad (just for two seconds) because nobody won. The expendable brown body was made to go, the pain he inflicted on the marginalised community was being piled on, and meanwhile the “innocent” good white-folk and straight allies got to condemn and show us their woke-credentials for standing up to homophobia.

All this complexity is enough to make your head spin like a spiral passed rugby ball. But at the receiving end of all of this sits the LGBTIQA+ community. For those of you who, like me, are Pasifika and queer, I think it’s OK for you to feel both happy and sad – joy and pity, celebratory and sombre (you get the picture). We’re all a multitude of things, not a singular monolith; it’s our complexity as a people that makes us beautiful.

To Mr. Folau, all the best. I have only ever wanted you to apologise, learn, grow and lead; not get fired. Reshaping people’s minds and the discourse they use to talk about us is important for building understanding between all of us within the community.

But if you can’t or refuse to do that, then maaayte, as you start your new job search, I’ve got nothing else to say to you besides: thoughts and prayers.

Keep going!