Pacific nations have been upbraided for failing to make advances on LGBTI rights. But too many overlook the impact of colonisation, the stranglehold of the church and alternate conceptions of gender identity, writes Patrick Thomsen
As Australia flip-flopped over its same-sex marriage vote, retired Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby earlier this month accused Pacific nations of dragging the chain on LGBTI rights.
Kirby, a high-profile advocate for LGBTI rights, asked leaders of Pacific nations to forget their “hobgoblin” fears of LGBTI people and re-evaluate their stance on gay rights and anti-gay laws.
Not-so-subtle racism aside, Kirby’s comments echo a slew of activists for whom the Pacific’s refusal to embrace the growing international discourse around LGBTI rights has rightly created much angst and confusion.
Unfortunately, the lack of resonance around LGBTI rights in the Pacific has nothing to do with “hobgoblin” logic and everything to do with a Western-centric understanding of human rights, inflexible conceptions of sexuality and a complete misunderstanding of Pacific cultures, narratives and histories.
Often the assumption is that human rights are a unifying force that all people aspire to. Therefore, we are all responsible for its preservation and proliferation. But not all human rights are created equal, let alone universal.
Western scholars (Perry, 1997; Wilson, 2008; Donnelly, 2013; just to name a few) have questioned the universality of all human rights, because clearly for human rights to be universal, there needs to be a universal culture.
Well, let’s try defining what that is. A similar question could be: how does one hold a moonbeam in their hand?
For vast swathes of the “decolonised” world, the lingering effect of their historical enslavements is a confused space where reasserting cultural identity is coming hot-on-the-heels of a time where they had no rights at all.
This new epoch in human history roars relentlessly on toward modernity, and this is simply proving overwhelming for many developing countries.
The Pacific is no different. Today, issues like climate change are literally threatening our survival. Our cultures and ways of life are coming under threat as a result, so it’s no wonder that there is a temptation in the Pacific to look inward in the quest for preserving and reviving our indigenous worldviews.
Pacific people conceive of sexuality and integrate sexual minorities within their societies in different ways from the West. In the Pacific context all aspects of our identity are relationally-defined.
Our identity is constructed in spaces of coming together, crystallised by ways in which we interact physically, mentally and spiritually with social and natural objects around us.
The LGBTI label is very Eurocentric and rigid. The Pacific acronym for our conception of minority gender identity, MVPAFF, stands for Mahu Vakasalewalewa Palopa Fa’afafine Akavaine Fakaleiti Fakafifini, and it has no western equivalent.
According to Tim Baice, a Pacific activist who advocates for greater understanding of this outside of the Pacific region, the emphasis is on claiming and redefining as well as practising these identities within a cultural framework first, a sexual identity second.
Fa’afafine, Samoa’s third gender, illustrates this point, rooted as it is firmly in Samoan social and political structures. Although much has changed since the arrival of Christianity, a fa’afafine was, and in many instances still is, held in high regard for their much lauded ability to traverse multiple duties of servitude to their family, village and wider community.
The Samoan Prime Minister is the patron of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association. Samoans do not have a genetic or social predisposition to fear sexual minorities. We don’t possess hobgoblin logic, so to speak. But the legislative frameworks, as in other Pacific states, too, often contradict this.
In many countries in the Pacific, it is still illegal to be homosexual. Up until recently, in Samoa it was still illegal for men to wear women’s clothing. This was a law that was handed down to us from our Christianisation. So systemically at least, we’re capable of change.
This apparent disconnect between Pacific fluidity and LGBTI rights must be understood in its context – as a product of complex and often muddled historical processes. The shadow of the past looms large in the ideologies that inform the decisions of our political leaders and institutions.
Colonisation in the Pacific was fueled ferociously by an unholy marriage of Christianity, Western political systems and social patriarchy. Together, this unshakable matrimony overthrew our matriarchal systems of reverence and dynastic succession, usurping our indigenous religions, reshaping our social hierarchies.
As a result, we have built networks of social dependence around institutions that are centred on the Christian church. Our sense of familial security and social order is unmistakably intertwined with daily prayer sessions, weekly women’s associations meetings, denominational church councils, village youth council meetings. All governed by a wider Council of Churches that has a stranglehold over the Council of Chiefs, parliament and prevailing public discourse as a whole.
The Church is the central pillar of social life in the Pacific, and it, too, is the source of our reluctance to move on LGBTI rights.
Today, we do have bamboozling and often cringeworthy politics in the Pacific. But our leaders face immense obstacles in balancing political stability, this Teflon-like obsession with dogmatic Christianity, stagnant economies and poorly developed infrastructure.
Throw in climate change, add rock solid western denial of culpability, and the outcome is that LGBTI rights fall onto the reform backburner.
These circumstances do not relieve our politicians and leaders from their responsibility to protect the rights of marginalised people within our islands, but this context provides a more useful, prescriptive position than calling us hobgoblins ever could.
Pacific Nations are however, in the process of autonomy reconstruction. The world system that has emerged since the retreat of European empires is one of cutthroat competition where successors to colonialism have an unfair head start through the victory of neoliberalism.
Where our colonisers once took away our lands, global capitalism threatens to take away our culture and commodify it (God bless you, Disney).
To move forward on political reform in the Pacific, we require true decolonisation, not just politically, but economically, culturally and of most consequence, socially. This includes the gargantuan task of dismantling Christianity’s hegemony over our islands.
But we can’t take something away, in this case, the Church, without providing a place for social dependence and social structures to coalesce into inclusive, robust institutions. In essence, we need decolonisation 2.0.