Last month, Seuta‘afili Dr Patrick Thomsen led the release of groundbreaking research by the Manalagi Project into the lives of Aotearoa’s Pacific Rainbow+ community. Here, he explains why the research was so important to him, and how it will help others.
- It’s hard to explain
- Inherently it’s just always been strange
- Neither here nor there
- Always somewhat out of place everywhere
- Without a sense of belonging to touch
- Somewhere half way
- Believing there’s no one completely the same
- — “Outside” by Mariah Carey
What is it like to grow up Pacific and queer — or in my case, gay and fa’afafine in Aotearoa-New Zealand?
If I had to describe it in one word, I’d say: “Lonely.”
And it may sound strange to think about research as a way to try to overcome that loneliness, but I can honestly say that this is what the Manalagi Project means to me.
As a child, I was lucky to see so many fa’afafine around me in my household. But most of my days were spent in a Catholic all-boys high school — and while I found friends there who are my lifelong sisters now, we always stood out. And not always in a good way. So even though I went to the largest Pacific boys’ high school in the country at the time, I still felt like I had no place there. I knew in my heart that I was not the same as everyone around me.
I didn’t have the words to describe the loneliness I felt, so I turned to Mariah Carey. Her music is what got me through all those lonely days and lonely nights.
It wasn’t all bad. At other times, life and fortune smiled on me. In 2008, after a chance meeting with a recruiter, I moved to South Korea, initially to teach, and then later to pursue further studies. I completed a master’s degree at Seoul National University in 2013, where my professor saw something in me that I had failed to recognise. He believed I was talented — a word I had never associated with myself.
He pushed me to apply for doctoral studies in the US, and, after a year of working on my applications, I was blessed to receive multiple offers from different universities. In the end, I decided to do my PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle, which I completed in December 2018.
While I was away, I never lost sight of what was happening at home. I stayed connected with all the latest debates around Rainbow+ and Pacific representation and watched as the marriage equality was passed in 2013. And, through social media, I saw the rise of powerful Pacific queer collectives like Fafswag, the thriving queer Ballroom scene led by Pacific house mamas, and cheered on the successes of Pacific queer artists like Yuki Kihara.
I also watched as Phylesha Brown-Acton helped to coin the term MVPFAFF+ on behalf of 50 Pacific queer activists to remind the global queer rights movement that Pacific societies have our own Indigenous terms that position us within our families and cultures.
From the outside, it looked like things were moving and changing for the better. So when I returned to Auckland in 2019, to take up a post-doctoral position at Waipapa Taumata Rau (the University of Auckland), I was excited. I expected to see a community on the up and up.
But Phylesha soon set me straight. She told me that what may appear to be progress on the surface hadn’t been matched by better outcomes for our communities.
For one thing, there was still no data on the social and wellbeing experiences of Pacific Rainbow+ people. What existed in larger surveys often noted that the Pacific response rate was so low that we were collapsed into Māori. Or they didn’t bother to report on us at all.
Despite the many fa’afafine documentaries, news articles and stories in the media, we were no better off.
I came away feeling dejected. And the feelings of loneliness came rushing back.
The lack of data was a major roadblock to progress. Any time Phylesha and other activists pushed for action to help our community, they’d be met with: “Where’s your data? Show us your data.”
Phylesha and I knew that we had to do something. I put together a research funding proposal to the Health Research Council, which gave us the green light, and then I assembled a team of leading Māori and Pacific researchers. Together we designed a research project that aligned with all the values that underpin the things that make who we are as Pacific peoples beautiful. Love, respect, reciprocity, centring good relations, nurturing the vā, cultural knowledge, family and community. And so the Manalagi Project was born.
Manalagi is about raising the visibility of Pacific Rainbow+ people, and putting a stake in the ground. It’s about validation and affirmation. It’s about saying enough is enough — that it’s unjust that our communities continue to be heralded as integral parts of our families and cultures, while at the same time being subjected to abuse, discrimination, hate and erasure.
That erasure means our contributions are often an undervalued part of the Pacific story. It means our unique needs are always secondary to everyone else’s.
It’s lonely waiting here for the scraps and the crumbs, and hearing the utterances of queer admirers who tell us that we’re so brave and powerful. But what if I don’t want to be brave and powerful? What if I just want to live as me?
Manalagi is for the lonely kid listening to Mariah Carey songs in their room trying to grasp any sign of possible validation, willing themselves to believe that they were enough to live in this world like everyone else. The lyrics of songs like “Outside,” “Anytime You Need a Friend,” or “Looking in” cut deep into my soul.
It wasn’t cool to love Mariah Carey then. It’s still not cool to love her now, but I dedicated my PhD dissertation to her (and my mum), because it was her music that helped to keep me alive.
While I felt like everyone else had abandoned me, her voice soared into the heavens as she urged me to “Fly Like a Bird,” and to “Make it Happen.”
Last month, in front of a full house at the Māngere Performing Arts Centre, I had the privilege of releasing the Manalagi survey community report on behalf of our project team. This labour of love has been about using my platform as a university-based, openly queer Pacific academic to send the message to all Pacific queer and Rainbow+ peoples that they are not alone.
I truly believe that this is a much-needed message. Our communities (Pacific and Rainbow+, and Pacific Rainbow+) have some of the worst health ourcomes of many demographic groups in the country.
We know that we have poorer mental health than Pākehā, that we’re more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, and more likely to avoid seeing a GP. And when you combine this with the fact that we Pacific also earn far less that Pākehā, it’s easy to see why life for many within our communities isn’t the easiest.
The Manalagi survey shows that, for Pacific Rainbow+ people, being alone, or feeling alone, wasn’t something that was unqiue to me growing up. In the four-week period in which people took our survey, 80 percent of respondents (Pacific and queer, like me) had felt isolated some, a little, most, or all of the time.
When I was a child, I truly felt that there was no one quite like me anywhere. And this wasn’t the sort of “I know I’m special” type of realisation. It was more: “I’m not the same as everyone else, and I’m terrified of what this is going to mean for my life.”
The data we have from the Manalagi survey validates my inherent fears and suspicions of how society is likely to treat me.
Other reseach has already shown that discrimination is a common experience for queer or Rainbow+ peoples. It’s the same for Māori and Pacific people, as well as Asian and other ethnic and racialised groups. But around 60 percent of Pacific Rainbow+ peoples in our survey reported being discriminated against because of their race/ethnicity, as well as their sexuality or gender identity.
Granted, we asked this question in the context of the healthcare system, but these experiences cannot, and should not, be minimised. There are fewer contexts in life where we are more vulnerable than in front of a healthcare professional.
And if discrimination is taking place when we go to see a doctor or visit a general practice clinic, I’m pretty confident it’s happening in schools, in workplaces, in families. Heck, even when we walk down the street. While we know not everyone lives their life in fear of being discriminated against, the data we have is enough to show that there are far too many who are likely to be doing so.
Discrimination is a strong predictor of a range of poor health outcomes. It’s one of the reasons we know we need a Māori Health Authority, because when a system has racist foundations, no amount of goodwill and inclusion can fix the rotten foundations.
We’ve been talking about creating a more culturally-responsive and safe healthcare system for a while, and Manalagi data adds our voices to the chorus of studies that supports this assertion.
Ninety-two percent of our respondents indicated that their Pacific culture was important to them, with another 88 percent indicating they were proud of being Pacific. Nearly half of our respondents said that they didn’t feel connected to mainstream Rainbow+ spaces, and nearly two-thirds indicated that they felt more comfortable around their own people.
It’s not rocket science. If people around you look like you, talk like you and speak your language, you’d feel more comfortable too.
But that’s not to say that culture and family, as important as they are to our wellbeing as Pacific and Rainbow+ peoples, are always safe havens. Especially when you consider how religious our communities continue to be.
For instance, 63 percent of our respondents who were willing to share, told us that religion and spirituality were important to them. On the other hand, 61 percent also indicated that organised religion had made their lives more difficult as Rainbow+ people.
What this tells us is that Pacific Rainbow+ individuals hold multiple tensions in their lived experience — and more research is needed to better understand how we navigate this.
Sadly, 14 percent of our respondents indicated that they had experienced some form of conversion practice (attempts to change their Rainbow+ identity) — and this had happened most often in churches and in their homes.
So while we’re proud of our cultures, and we rate our families as incredibly important to our sense of overall wellbeing, both are also spaces where we can experience pain and trauma.
Holding all these tensions and complexities has always been my experience. I was a proud Sāmoan kid who simultaneously felt affirmed in my cultural identity and language, while also ashamed at how much violence I saw and experienced in my life.
As a proud Sāmoan academic, I’d always wanted to serve our Pacific communities. And while I never chose to be an academic, I’ve also felt, since returning to New Zealand, completely on the outside of Pacific research spaces for being queer. That is until Manalagi came along.
Manalagi is forward-looking. It encourages our communities to lift their heads high, and to take our rightful place. It reminds everyone in our communities that our mana is intertwined with theirs — and that we uplift Pacific communities through not only our service, but also through our creativity and our dedication to our families, our cultural traditions, languages and wider society.
It’s great that we now have some data, but, of course, Manalagi doesn’t have all the answers. The community report is the first step toward advancing our communities’ knowledge of ourselves, but there’s so much more we don’t know. We’ve only really started to sratch the surface.
But one thing I know now for sure is that I’m not alone. And, as the next generation of Pacific Rainbow+ people rise to demand greater recognition and greater rights, empowering me along the way, you can rest easy, Mariah Carey. You don’t need to protect me anymore.
Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen (Sāmoa: Vaimoso, Vaigagā) is a senior lecturer in Global Studies at Waipapa Taumata Rau / University of Auckland. He is the director of Fofonga for Pacific Research Excellence at Waipapa Taumata Rau and principal investigator for the Manalagi Project funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. He claims the title of New Zealand’s number one Mariah Carey fan.
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