blog / Free And Equal in the Pacific

Sat, 26 September, 2015

Free And Equal in the Pacific

‘Free and Equal’ is a global United Nations campaign aimed at promoting legal and social equality for LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender & intersex) people. The Pacific version of the campaign was launched last month. Today, we look at what LGBTI discrimination looks like, and why ending it is crucial to both its victims and the wellbeing of our region.


Diversity is something Pacific Islanders live and breathe. In terms of numbers, we are a tiny population - yet the cultural, linguistic and physical diversity amongst us is renowned. In Papua New Guinea, for example, astonishing cultural diversity is a major draw for international travelers visiting this unique region. That diversity is celebrated as a strength - and is a source of tremendous pride.

When it comes to gender diversity and diversity of sexual orientation, however, many Pacific communities have been reticent to either accept or tolerate difference. Yet both exist throughout nature - in over 1000 species of fauna and in all human populations. The existence of a minority of people who are same-sex attracted, or who identify as a different gender to that which was assigned to them at birth, is a natural occurrence.

Despite this, ignorance and moral judgments about human sexuality and gender still persist across the globe. These judgments are codified in laws that criminalise the humanity of people who are not heterosexual, or whose gender expression is perceived as “abnormal”. Judgments are also evident in community attitudes - resulting in bullying, harassment, marginalisation, violence and poverty for LGBTI children and adults alike.

At the same time, the Pacific is still working towards achieving full legal, political and social equality between men and women. Various efforts are underway to transform our region into one in which all gender-based violence is both punished and rare; where men and women have healthy relationships, and enjoy equal access to education and other opportunities.

Given this broader context, opening our minds and hearts to understanding sexuality and gender  - and the ways these things influence how we behave, our expectations of each other, how we judge and relate to one another, and how and why we form intimate relationships - can help us heal our communities of misogyny, anti-LGBTI bigotry, and the more unhealthy expressions of masculinity that harm both men and society.

So, where do harmful misconceptions about sexuality and gender come from?


The European colonisation of the world brought Christianity and European notions of morality, normality, and social propriety to our forebears in the Pacific. Those notions have been passed down through generations - just as religion has become intertwined with many of our indigenous cultures, so too have particular attitudes about sex and gender roles.

And yet, prior to European colonial cultural influence, there is evidence to suggest that for some of us, our ancestors were quite tolerant not just of sexual activity and relationships, but also of LGBTI people. Dr Milton Diamond, from the Pacific Centre for Sex and Society in Hawai’i, told Pacific Scoop that there are many cultures in Oceania where it was once normal and accepted to be gay or a trans person.

But with the arrival of missionaries came the edict - originating from the Middle Eastern tribal cultures from which the religious texts of Christianity were derived - that such dispositions and behaviours were ‘sinful’. “Now LGBTIs suffer a difficult time on most of the islands,” Dr Diamond said. “Their families often reject them and hold the idea of them living in sin.”


Social ostracisation is the foundation of the discrimination faced by LGBTI folks. Our fellow Pacific Islanders in the LGBTI community heroically struggle to overcome the effects of physical and psychological bullying, barriers to health care and employment, exploitation, the threat of jail (in places where homosexuality is illegal), and all kinds of violence (assault, rape, etc). 

Surprisingly though, laws that criminalise homosexuality in Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu are not the biggest issue facing LGBTI people in their daily lives. Dr Paula Gerber, from Monash University in Melbourne, informed Pacific Scoop that no one has actually been prosecuted or convicted under these laws for years.

Rather, it is the non-existence of laws prohibiting discrimination of LGBTI people that impact the most on LGBTI lives:

“What makes life difficult for them is the lack of any laws that prohibit discrimination against them. As things are, they can be denied a job, access to healthcare or housing because of their sexuality or gender identity.”


Thankfully, things are changing in the South Pacific. Joey Jolene Mataele is the chairperson of the Pacific Sexual Division Network and Tonga Leitis Association (TLA). Leiti comes from the English word “lady”, and refers to a male-by-birth living as a woman - in the Western world, this may be referred to as being transgender.

Like all LGBTI people in the Pacific, Joey Joelene Mataele has experienced discrimination and abuse. She told Pacific Scoop:

“It hasn’t been a smooth journey through the last 23 plus years. When I started wearing dresses I was met with a lot of stigma and discrimination, for example from my own family as well as other people in town ... Especially when AIDS came to Tonga in 1987, there was a lot of stigma. People blamed us for AIDS and they didn’t want to be near us.”

But even in conservative, religious Tonga, the level of discrimination against LGBTIs is decreasing. Joey Joelene Mataele said that this was partly due to the humanising effect of ‘Miss Galaxy’, the humorous beauty pageant for Tongan leitis that was established by TLA in 1992. The competition gave LGBTI folk two of the most important tools in the movement for social progress - positive visibility and community influence. 

She explained:

“The LGBTI communities here aren’t protected by any laws and the lack of legal regulation have led to invisibility and lack of influence for us. But Miss Galaxy gave us a way ... The pageant brings in people from faith based organisations and the government, and they see all the good work we do with the money from the pageant, for example how we sponsor scholarships for school dropouts.”

Dr Milton Diamond said that progress towards safety, acceptance and inclusion of LGBTI people, whilst slow, is happening not only in Tonga but across the Pacific too. This bodes well for the wellbeing of LGBTI people - children and adults, siblings and relatives, partners and parents, friends and neighbours  - and for the peace, safety and prosperity of our region.


Human rights are for everyone, no matter who you are or whom you love. You can join people like the President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, and become an ally to the cause of equal rights and acceptance of LGBTI people.

Find out about the Free and Equal campaign HERE

And stay connected to Free and Equal's Pacific Campaign on Facebook HERE.


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.


Photo credits: 

Image 1-8: Stills from Free and Equal's Pacific Campaign videos, available to view on Facebook HERE.

Image 9-10: Memes from the Free and Equal's Pacific Campaign.




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