Before colonisation and Christianity came to the Pacific, Pacific cultures were “supportive and reverent of diversity”, writes Emmaline Pickering-Martin: “We have accounts of men sleeping with men, women sleeping with women, accounts of transgender people, and every permutation of human gender and sexuality in between.”
To be Pacific is to be many things. It is, firstly, to be human — complex and diverse and interconnected. To be Pacific is to serve and share and laugh like hyenas. To be Pacific is to be talented and inspiring and powerful.
To be Pacific is not to be homophobic or transphobic or a bigot.
But, over the last couple of weeks, the actions of a few of our sportsmen might lead you to think that prejudice is a pillar of Pacific culture. I’m talking about the Manly Sea Eagles “Pride” jersey debacle where seven rugby league players — six of them Pasifika — refused to wear their club’s rainbow playing strip. They decided to stand down from the game, citing religious and cultural reasons as to why they wouldn’t put on the jersey.
What should and could have been a beautiful moment to support a marginalised community through sport once again turned into an excuse to discriminate.
My question is: What is the cultural reason, exactly? What part of Pacific culture stops someone from wearing a jersey that supports the rainbow community? What part of our culture would stop us from supporting any marginalised community? Why is this the hill our Pacific sportsmen want to die on?
There is ever-present homophobia and transphobia within our communities. We need to be honest and open about how it manifests itself, where it comes from, and why we’re so determined to use our culture as a shield to hide it.
That requires being very real about our Christian faith. Christianity is an introduced religion and it’s a tool of colonisation that was used to control us and our lands.
The introduction of Christianity wasn’t just a case of people on boats turning up and singing hymns with us. It was a methodical and sustained violence towards our people and our knowledge, traditions, and customs.
For instance, Christianity was used as the reason — as Julia Mage’au Gray, from the Makeo people of Papua New Guinea, has described it — to literally cut people’s skin from their bodies, to remove their traditional skin markings.
The rules that came with the introduced god meant all the things that we considered sacred needed to be destroyed, forcibly removed, or left behind and forgotten.
And one of the things that’s been forgotten is that our culture was not homophobic.
In fact, there are multiple accounts from the colonisers themselves that speak about our very own Pacific LGBTQ+ communities, which included māhū, vakasalewalewa, palopa, fa’afafine, akava’ine, fakafifine and fakaleitī/leitī people (or MVPFAFF*).
We have accounts of men sleeping with men, women sleeping with women, accounts of transgender people, and every permutation of human gender and sexuality in between.
There were accounts of the reverence our people had for these diverse communities and how the individuals within them were esteemed for their closeness with our atua and the spirit world.
There are surviving accounts from our own people too. The Kanaka Maoli people have beautiful oral histories about māhū, or “third gender people”, and their place within their society.
So, if there is a generalised way to describe our traditional Pacific culture, then we can say it was supportive and reverent of our diverse communities. Our culture was inclusive.
Where then has this sudden insistence come from, that somehow our culture prevents us from supporting our MVPFAFF community? The simple answer is Christianity. It has been deeply ingrained into our people that anything we believed before the colonisers arrived with their god, was bad.
The rules in the book of the introduced god tell us that we are bad, dark, wrong, and evil if we break the rules. This is colonisation at work. It’s what the introduction of Christianity was meant to do: to break down our beliefs, to subdue and control us.
The stories told to us over years and years have said that the church is us and we are the church. That the Bible is the word of God and we must obey the Bible in order to make it to heaven.
So here we are in 2022, hundreds of years after the introduction of Christianity to our Pacific and still repeating the same rhetoric that’s been ingrained so deeply into our psyche.
But these stories do not belong to us. We had, and we still have, our own stories. We have people in our communities who still whisper these stories for fear of being abused. And so, our stories of the time before Christianity have been all but erased and forgotten.
Our tattooing, our languages, our relationship with our bodies, our dances, our songs — there’s nothing that was untouched by the introduced god. It’s heartbreaking to think about how much we’ve lost.
So, the whole jersey debacle is not about culture. It’s about indoctrination. It’s an indoctrination that causes hate within our communities.
I think the players tell themselves that they’re making a really brave decision to stand up for what they believe in. But I think it’s easier to condemn people than it is to reflect on yourself, on your morals and beliefs, and how they intersect with colonisation and the deep layers of trauma that run through our DNA as Pacific people.
It’s easier to hide behind “culture” and “religion” than to admit you’re homophobic as a result of colonisation. Because self-righteousness is one hell of a drug.
The rainbow community across the globe deserves better, and our own MVPFAFF community deserves better.
Frankly, if we were being true to our Pacific cultures — and to a faith that purports to be about love and compassion — we’d be standing up for our rainbow communities.
It’s time we had these tough conversations within our Pacific communities because we all deserve better.
* MVPFAFF is a collective term coined by Phylesha Brown-Acton and preferred by Pacific rainbow advocates. It refers to māhū, vakasalewa, palopa, fa’afafine, akava’ine, fakaleiti (leiti), fakafifine.
Emmaline Pickering-Martin was born in Suva and raised between Ba and Nadi in Fiji. She migrated to join her whānau in Aotearoa in the late ‘90s, and has three children who share Fijian, Māori, Sāmoan and Tuvaluan whakapapa. Emmaline holds a master’s in Pacific Studies from the University of Auckland where she is now the Pacific media advisor.
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