In the wake of the Manly Sea Eagles jersey debacle, Pacific communities — both the players and LGBTIQ+ folk — have once again become collateral damage, writes Andre Afamasaga.
As sporting administrators and fans continue to try to make sense of last week’s Manly Sea Eagles saga, it’s crucial that Pacific religious and cultural leaders in New Zealand and Australia do the same.
So far, debates about the human rights of Pacific people in sport have been about us, rather than by us.
Is it appropriate that western Christianity has unrestricted authority to judge and exclude our LGBTIQ+ family members? It’s time we engaged our communities. A mature and informed conversation about the impacts of colonisation and religion on our community is overdue. One that recognises that our inclusive Indigenous values are a strength, not a barrier.
This is the not first time this issue has been debated without our voices. And it probably won’t be the last. When the Israel Folau saga hit the headlines in 2019, we saw the same complex pattern of interconnected events and dynamics.
This familiar pattern plays out like this . . .
Pacific athletes feel compelled to demonstrate that their religious and cultural beliefs are incompatible with their team’s inclusive stance on homosexuality.
As a result, they experience public vilification from the mostly non-Pacific masses. It affects them, their families, and potentially their finances.
As if to recognise their courage and sacrifices, the athletes become co-opted by (mostly non-Pacific) influencers. Regardless of consent, they become celebrated poster boys for religious liberty, free speech, and, notably, for bravely opposing the so-called “gay” or “liberal” agenda.
Pacific people then observe how their role models are treated on social media, which brings up lifelong memories of their own experiences of stigma and discrimination because of their ethnicity and skin colour. To show both solidarity and agency, some will staunchly back the athletes. Homophobic and transphobic rhetoric veiled as humour will be thrown around, including hinted threats of violence, because “LGBTIQ+ people are too soft to handle God’s truth”.
A technical term to describe this behaviour is lateral violence, where members of a marginalised community turn on each other instead of their oppressor.
These debates mirror those happening in non-Pacific circles, which are also replete with anti-gay stigma and blame. Human rights “arguments” — free speech and religious freedom — will ignore the reasons why LGTBIQ+ people first needed their rights recognised and respected. And much-needed diversity initiatives are mischaracterised as threats to religious and traditional values.
Again, Pacific queers will feel further excluded by their own friends, family members and leaders, and ultimately afraid to accept themselves. Consequently, their safety risk profile will increase and be compounded. Since they will feel that being queer, unlike tackling racism and inequality, is a burden they can no longer share with other Pacific people, this leads to further exclusion and potentially fatal impacts. Queer and Pacific youth are already more susceptible to suicide harm than the general population.
This is why initiatives like the Manalagi survey, New Zealand’s first Pacific rainbow health and wellbeing survey is critical in helping us understand this community’s unique experience — and that includes celebrating our many strengths and contributions to our families and respective communities.
And, as for the sporting body at the centre of the saga, they will sincerely struggle to do the right thing in their attempts to balance human rights and competing stakeholder expectations. Their intent to promote inclusion has become a footnote lost in controversy.
There are zero winners.
But, under all scenarios, Pacific communities suffer the greatest consequences. Our social fabric is frayed and kinship links with our queer family members are damaged.
The framing of these debates as “pro-players’ rights” or “pro-Pride” disguises the fact that Pacific people are doing the heavy lifting in these public debates. The accumulated harm on our community must not be underestimated.
Ideological point-scoring is for the privileged. Why must we bear the collateral damage in this struggle between corporate bodies and lobby groups? Our hard-earned resources, reputations, and cultural resilience must be protected.
What I saw last week was a flashback to what I’ve seen and experienced around the Israel Folau saga in 2019.
At that time, because anti-gay rhetoric and sentiment had intensified in Pacific communities, I felt compelled to come out as a gay in a column in the Sydney Morning Herald. Then, as now, I wanted people to see the bigger picture:
The unseen casualties in this controversy are LGBTIQ+ people from Pacific Island and Christian communities. This saga reveals a homophobia deeply rooted in religious beliefs and cultural values. Folau, a Christian of Tongan descent, is merely a product of his environment.
I wanted to press home the point that our inherited colonial beliefs are man-made constructs. They should serve our communities, instead of the reverse:
Lines between church and culture have converged into a set of untouchable rules and assumptions. Pacific diasporas living in Australia or New Zealand cannot decipher where today’s accepted norms originated from and why. A strain of fundamentalism has hijacked Pacific culture and Christianity, in a manner that exhibits united disgust of all things gay.
Three years on, it’s hard to see any signs of progress towards inclusion in our religious and cultural circles.
Yet we Pacific have the solutions for balancing our religious and cultural beliefs. Instead of being swept up in these predictable debates, we have agency. We are leaders not victims. We are also master conciliators who analyse issues holistically, including how it affects the collective. We must have the courage to start a nuanced “whānau conversation”, whether that’s in our families, friend groups, or churches.
These conversations must be evidence-based, not fear-based. In this situation, some commentators have accused religious people of hypocrisy for permitting sponsors logos that promote gambling or alcohol — but not one that advances LGBTIQ+ inclusion.
This, despite, plenty of evidence of the profound, negative impacts of gambling and alcohol on Pacific communities. By contrast, accepting rainbow people reduces many types of harm. This perception of a selective or inconsistent moralism that likely underpins the moral stance taken by some athletes, are the types of issues our communities need leadership with.
I know that my Australian human rights counterparts and other authorities have the jurisdiction to deal with any relevant human rights matters across the ditch.
But, ultimately, the answers for making these rights real for everyone in Pacific communities falls on our non-LGBTIQ+ leaders.
We need visionary Pacific leaders to develop an inclusive, Pacific version of Christianity. But this will only happen if empathetic church members and rainbow allies put forward compelling arguments — specifically to prioritise the safety and dignity of rainbow people, over the influences of biblical literalism and western ideologies of sexuality and gender.
When individual leaders on both sides of the Tasman are ready, I implore you to reach out to our many Pacific thought leaders, academics, theologians, and MVPFAFF+* community activists who are either advocating for change or are already implementing inclusive practice.
And please don’t leave us Pacific rainbow people out. We are people, not an ideology for debate.
* MVPFAFF+ is a collective term coined by Phylesha Brown-Acton and preferred by Pacific rainbow advocates to reflect Indigenous Pacific worldviews. It refers to māhū, vakasalewa, palopa, fa’afafine, akava’ine, fakaleiti (leiti), fakafifine. In this piece, for brevity, it is used interchangeably with LGBITQ+ and queer.
Andre Afamasaga (Sāmoan: Afega, Fasito‘otai) is a former pastor who now works at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission. This is his personal opinion. He dedicates this article to his uncle, the Reverend Elder Taeipo Savea Malifa in Sydney, who he dearly loved and respected, and who never judged him.
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