Phylesha Brown-Acton is a respected trans activist who’s been fighting for Pacific Rainbow communities in Aotearoa for nearly 30 years. She identifies as fakafifine and was a key part of the groundbreaking Manalagi research released last month.
Here, she talks to Teuila Fuatai about her experience as a long-serving Pacific Rainbow rights’ advocate in Aotearoa, and why research about her community is so important.
The Manalagi research project started when Patrick Thomsen (who became the lead investigator) came back from overseas assuming things must be great for Pacific Rainbow people in Aotearoa because we had civil union and marriage equality.
I laughed and told him that wasn’t the case — and to let me know what he found once he’d done some research.
Patrick had no idea that Pacific Rainbow people living in Aotearoa were still invisible. We had no social data on our experiences, and even though we’d been included in research projects, our sample size was always too small. So, really, any findings or data didn’t reflect what was happening in our community.
The reality of that, which took Patrick only a few days to see for himself, was the genesis of the research we have today. What it’s achieved is a critical development in the ongoing fight for our rights as Pacific Rainbow people in Aotearoa.
In the 27 years that I’ve been an advocate for our community, I’ve been told repeatedly: “Well, there’s no evidence to support what you’re saying about the needs of your community.” The lack of evidence has been a constant barrier to getting the change, resources and awareness we need.
I remember a particularly disappointing experience with WINZ about 20 years ago.
At the time, I was really into netball and played in the New Zealand men’s and mixed team. I was also a mentor to a number of young Pacific Rainbow, queer-identifying players. They were our up-and-comers, and I was their “Aunty Phy”.
Some of the girls were having problems with WINZ case managers who expected them to look for work even when they felt unsafe and uncomfortable in public. When they couldn’t find work, they’d have their benefits cut. That meant no money for food and basics.
When I told my mentor Mama Tere Tahere-Strickland, she knew we had to do something about it. Mama Tere was a Māori and Pacific Rainbow rights’ leader. I’d known her since I was 18 — that was when sex work became a part of my life. I got to know her well because she was also a sex worker. We’d see each other out in the night, and Mama Tere always looked out for me. Over the years, she became an important person in my life and a much-loved friend.
Mama Tere and I initially worked with about five young adults who identified as trans, and who needed help with WINZ. We started by contacting the department’s Māngere office. We were told all the department’s staff were open and inclusive and the girls weren’t telling the truth. Eventually, we ended up organising a meeting with WINZ, and the girls spoke for themselves. That resulted in an apology, and from then on, the girls got to work with case managers they felt safe with.
I’ll never forget that interaction. We were only believed once the right people heard for themselves how the girls were being disrespected and discriminated against. We also knew it wasn’t a one-off situation. We started a small support group, and worked with local case managers who we knew were trustworthy, and things started to improve. We also came up with the name Ine for the group. “‘Ine” is a play on existing words — akava’ine, fa’afafine, fakafifine. And in the Cook Islands translation, Mama Tere said “‘ine” was often used as a question. “‘Ine? What?” It’s inquisitive.
‘Ine was the first iteration of my current organisation F‘INE — which is a Whānau Ora provider dedicated to working with Pacific Rainbow people and their families. Through ‘Ine, Mama Tere and I explored what an organisation led by our own, and grown by our own, looked like. Within the wider Rainbow community, our Pacific voices were very much a minority. Over and over again, our needs were overlooked, sidelined and excluded. We were a minority within a minority.
I saw exactly how that played out when I worked at a mainstream organisation. I’d been brought on to help the organisation connect with Pacific people and communities, and that meant challenging the internal attitudes toward Pacific people and communities. But, no matter how hard I tried, I could never shift the organisation to a more holistic way of working with our people. It meant that Pacific people and our needs continued to be disregarded and sidelined.
Things really came to a head over an initiative we ran with another advocacy organisation to support sex workers. As someone who’d worked on the streets, I knew that if you went all night without getting a job, you’d be standing there hungry. So we put the word out that, once a month, girls could come in and have a bite to eat. And we called the initiative Street Feast.
All the women who came were Pacific. Some would eat and we’d just have a talanoa. Others would stay for a bit, and not really say much. Others would grab a bite and then take the free condoms which we supplied for them.
I thought it was a beautiful way of working with our people. Even though the advocacy organisation was designed to support these girls, some of them hadn’t been in for months because they felt mistreated or disrespected by staff. Street Feast provided a safe space for them. It was also a way to connect and understand what else was going on in their lives, and the types of support they needed beyond things like condoms and one-off meals. We all viewed it as a Pacific initiative that had positive impacts for us.
But the feedback from management was that it was a waste of money. They didn’t see its worth and ultimately shut it down.
It was the last straw for me. I didn’t want to work with a service that just gave people the basic necessities and said “good luck”. I also didn’t want to be part of an organisation that further marginalised Pacific people and made us more invisible.
So we took all those lessons and built them into F‘INE.
Of course, getting F‘INE up and running wasn’t a linear journey. It was years in the making. Along the way, I lost one of the most important people in my life. Mama Tere passed away in August 2013 while I was working on a short-term contract in Australia. We’d planned to dedicate all our time to establishing our Pacific Rainbow service when I returned.
Even now, 10 years on, Mama Tere’s death is hard to think about. I still feel her absence, and the fact she never got to see where we are today. For me, Mama Tere was that ride or die person. Everywhere she went, I went, and everywhere I went, she would go.
Through our experiences and work, Mama Tere showed me how to serve our people, and how to put our needs and worldviews first. She was the person who first talked to me about a service like F‘INE. It’s also because of her that I never gave up on it.
Back then, the feedback around establishing a dedicated Pacific Rainbow service was always: “No, that’s too risky, we can’t support that.” “I don’t think our community’s ready for that.” Or, “I don’t think our board would accept that because they’re very conservative.”
I spent a year knocking on many doors looking for support. Even people I’d worked with previously turned me down. It wasn’t until 2014, when the Whānau Ora model around health and wellbeing was introduced that we got our big break. The model allowed us to work holistically, alongside a person’s family, and to see them as part of the wider collective they belonged to. It was exactly what our people needed.
But it’s only now, in 2023, that we’ve finally got solid data which underscores all the issues we were trying to address during our years getting F‘INE off the ground.
The Manalagi research shows that 60 percent of Pacific Rainbow people experience discrimination when accessing physical healthcare services. And 46 percent of us don’t get healthcare because of cost.
Manalagi involved 750 participants from around the country. Of these, 482 identified as a member of the Pacific Rainbow+ community. It’s the largest research survey that’s focused specifically on Pacific Rainbow voices. Before this, the University of Auckland’s Youth’12 report was the biggest research base we had. And of the 8,000 students involved in that, only 102 identified as Pacific Rainbow.
The Manalagi research gives us the ability to hit back at the naysayers who continually cite a lack of evidence as a way to deny our problems and unique experiences as Pacific Rainbow people. It gives us the evidence to show that our healthcare services have a long way to go before they’re competent and safe for us. It also shows they need to be affordable and accessible for us.
I also think that after all these years of fighting for our place and rights, the research has had a healing component. It’s allowed us to look from the outside in — to reflect on where our community is at today, and on our relationships with our families.
Through the research, we want to improve policy and equity in government responses to Pacific Rainbow communities. I and the team see Manalagi as the first part of many Pacific Rainbow research projects. Hopefully, we end up with a huge knowledge hub of writers, researchers, academic scholars who continue to spotlight what we’re facing.
Most importantly, it’s allowed us to look ahead, and to dream of what will come next.
Phylesha Brown-Acton is a Pacific Rainbow advocate who was born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau. She identifies as fakafifine and is from the village of Fineone Hakupu, Atua in Niue. In 2015, Phylesha established F‘INE, a Pacific Rainbow Whānau Ora provider. The organisation was born out of the work and vision that she and her beloved mentor and friend Mama Tere Tahere-Strickland shared.
As told to Teuila Fuatai. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.