“Pacific people are born into a multi-dimensional flow life, enhanced and protected by relationships. We do not create relationships, we continue relationships. … We are relational beings who are more than the assumed individualised self.” – Upolu Luma Vaai.
When Rugby Australia said it was firing Israel Folau last Thursday, much to my surprise, my battered and bruised gay-being didn’t leap for joy like I thought it would. As one of his most vocal critics, I had expected to feel relief, even a little bit of spiteful satisfaction, that finally he had gotten his just desserts.
But instead, I was overtaken by a type of numbness that I put down to age and a little bit more life experience — knowing that whenever someone loses their job, the ones around them suffer. And that Folau’s family, friends and immediate community are also affected.
Why should I care, you may ask? I was, after all, the author of one of the most widely-shared take-down articles against Folau’s stance, not once, but twice over the past couple of years.
The answer is simple: as a person who sits in the Pacific and LGBTIQA+ margins, nothing’s ever that simple.
You see, I’m not just a gay male, I’m also a Pacific Islander, Sāmoan to be exact, who came from a working-class background, much like Folau does. I have spent lots of time learning, reclaiming, and re-centering a Pacific–Sāmoan way of being and of knowing the world.
My itulagi (worldview) emphasises my relationships to others. I am not Sāmoan and gay, I’m a gay Sāmoan. There is no “and”. I am both at the same time; not simply one at one moment, nor the other in another. These parts relate to each other. They constitute each other.
I have never doubted that Folau represents the dreams and aspirations of one massive part of my community. This narrative is part of all Pacific people’s tapestry of experiences. But his insistence on attacking the LGBTIQA+ community represents violence and a willingness to harm another part of my community.
Folau’s homophobia is well documented, and the social media post that forced Rugby Australia’s hand was first and foremost transphobic. Yet this post was so horrendously high up on the moral high-horse that even the most devout-of-the-devout would not be able to make it through the pearly gates according to him.
The questions of morality aside, Folau’s demise is one that I can’t fully celebrate as a gay Pasifika person. It’s not out of empathy for him, which so many people seem to think I’m trying to drum up support for. Trust me, I’m totally with Rugby Australia on this one. It’s because his demise is also partially our own demise.
As a marginalised ethnic group living in settler colonies, a lot of us, as visibly brown bodies (like Folau), are dispensable to the needs of the dominant groups. As a collective, our community suffers and navigates difficult issues related to race and class and their merging together, that contribute to our lowly positioning in many fields. We all work together to try and overcome and resist our marginality.
Within this collective, however, there exists diverse views and stances — on interpretations of the Bible, religious beliefs, the melding of indigenous ways and modern ways — and differing prescriptions of how we should live our lives.
What holds us together, though, is our ability to respect the vā, the relational space that places all Pacific people in a myriad of vital relationships with each other. Folau’s inability to respect this vā, and extend and maintain the relationship between him, his church, and his sport with the Pacific LGBTIQA+ community, to me amounts to a rejection of a Pacific itulagi.
So many have said to me that it’s not my job to feel sorry for a homophobe/transphobe. But that completely misinterprets what I have been lamenting. He represents to me the re-entrenchment of colonised thinking. Transphobia is an imported construct to the Pacific.
Moreover, people’s willingness to focus on burning Israel Folau at the stake represents the dominance of western thinking. One that posits that an individual is made by free will alone and is not a product of their community and environment as well.
Pacific queer and gender-diverse people — fa’afafine in Sāmoa, as an example — are integrated into our cultural frameworks, our churches, and given important roles and responsibilities.
Folau’s position is one that also exists in opposition to this. But with a Pacific itulagi, we emphasise harmony, for if someone else’s mana is diminished by my actions, so too is my own.
Thus, inclusion of all is prioritised over free speech that’s used to undermine others, even if their way of life isn’t one with which we agree. Granted, the extension of this logic requires contextual nuance, but when it comes to excluding a group out of hate, it’s clear where a Pacific itulagi stands.
Had Folau been true to this, he would have chosen to respect differences and his own immense mana with his silence. And now the source of his vocal hate is his own restrictively ossified interpretation of Christianity, whose emphasis on inclusivity and love for all is a message lost on him.
As a Sāmoan gay male, much like many within my community, the Sāmoan part came with a very Catholic part as well. I attended church regularly, and when I go to Pacific functions, a Christian prayer, and a Bible reading here and there, doesn’t go amiss.
Thus, contrary to what many will have you believe, most gay Pasifika people have skin in the Christian game. This is a complexity many non-Pasifika gay people find difficult to comprehend. But when you understand the nature of relationships from a Pacific itulagi, it begins to make more sense.
My biggest fear was that Folau would become a martyr for the ignorant many. This seems to be happening. On social media and in the discussions I’ve been privy to within our community, LGBTIQA+ Pacific people are bearing the brunt of the blowback. Many are accusing us of killing Folau’s livelihood and the freedom of speech of Pacific athletes.
This is disguised trans and homo phobia and we need our allies to stand with us in rejecting this framing wholeheartedly. Folau is no Christian prophet. He is a fundamentalist and his views are extremist.
I maintain that Israel Folau is no hero. But I also lament all that he could have been, while I continue to support the LGBTIQA+ community who are left to pick up the pieces of his failed attempt at gaining intellectual relevancy.
In a Pacific itulagi, silence in certain contexts is valuable — not empty, not neutral, but a sign of wisdom.
Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Auckland as the first Sāmoan and New Zealander to receive his PhD from the University of Washington — Seattle, Jackson School of International Studies. He was also the first Sāmoan to receive his MA in international studies from Seoul National University in South Korea, where he had lived for nine years. He was born and raised in South Auckland and is from the village of Vaimoso in Sāmoa.
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