Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen on the experiences that have driven his research into Pacific Rainbow communities, and what it means to be part of worlds that are often in conflict.
I remember the first time I ever experienced it.
The words were like daggers — digging into my stomach, and paralysing me with their sharp and pointed edges.
They’d been wrapped in the soft, loving voice of a charismatic Sāmoan church minister. They don’t bear repeating — and in any case, I don’t believe them. It may have taken a while, but they truly have no power over me anymore.
At the time, though, I was an impressionable teenager, in the inner sanctum of a Sāmoan community I was visiting for the summer, and the words were deflating and demeaning. I remember feeling the air leave the building, and, despite being surrounded by many people I knew, I felt unsafe. Vulnerable.
The minister had committed my soul to death in front of onlookers who had, moments earlier, shaken my hand with wide smiles and hugged me with outstretched arms. Just hours before, we had laughed together over a game of Sāmoan cricket and volleyball.
I listened, quietly, devastated, as they all clapped and celebrated my eternal damnation.
Needless to say, as a young man who liked the company of other men, and without anyone to say it was okay, this experience was formative and destructive in the same breath.
The church, an institution I had grown up around, and had come to respectfully understand as the centrepiece of every Sāmoan village and community I had ever known, represented so many contradictions to me as a young gay person.
On the one hand, I could find myself the target of religious condemnation — and, on the other, I was donning wigs and make-up and entertaining the church in full (tragic) drag when people needed a bit of entertainment.
I was pretty sure that everyone knew I was gay, and some had even said to me that they knew and didn’t really care because I was their brother (or “sister”) in Christ. Often this was followed by a proposition.
Even now, as a privileged academic in the country’s largest university, I’m still working through the complexities that come with being part of often conflicting worlds — whether it’s through my gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or the multiple lines of whakapapa and gafa that connect me to others in my community.
That reality can force people like me into what I call the in-between spaces — an experience that’s unfortunately still all too common for many of us.
As someone who has lived my entire life in the in-between, I know how the humanity of a person can be lost and marginalised in both deliberately violent and passively dismissive ways. It’s something that can haunt Pacific Rainbow+ people in particular.
A few weeks ago, during Pride Month, I was reminded that the experience of being condemned and publicly shamed is one that continues today despite our country’s laws. A heated confrontation between one of our young Pacific Rainbow+ leaders and Pacific religious youth at Auckland’s Pride March circulated widely on social media.
The confrontation itself was upsetting enough, but the vitriol that came in the comments sections from young Pacific people on various social media sites was demoralising.
We know social media is not the safest place for our people, but this incident is yet another reminder that, in the digital world, our marginalisation is not any less violent, and can even be magnified because of the emboldening that online anonymity can enable.
This lack of acceptance from within our own communities is devastating for our Rainbow+ youth.
But one thing I’ve learned as I get older, is that our Pacific communities aren’t homogenous. I know that Pacific communities do have space and love for us, even if the extremist religious groups seem to have the loudest microphones.
At the same time, for me, it’s these experiences and memories, of not just alienation and exclusion but downright public damnation, that drive a lot of my scholarly passions.
I know we all get told at graduate school (if you’re lucky or unlucky enough to make it there) that academia is about the pursuit of knowledge. That it’s a place to experiment with new ideas and to further the world’s understanding of itself. Unfortunately, this romantic public mural is not enough for our communities.
Creating new knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a privilege that is disconnected from the realities of marginalised peoples in our country and others around the world.
Besides the friendships and daily support from Pacific colleagues, part of what keeps me going in this colonial institution, are the moments where I get to serve my community through the resources that the university bestows on me as a reward for cracking the Pālagi academic code.
To be fair, there are those who do get it and understand that our mission as Pacific researchers is to serve our communities. The Health Research Council (HRC) of New Zealand is one of them.
Last year, with the backing of the HRC, I was given the chance to serve Pacific Rainbow LGBTQIA+ MVPFAFF+ communities through the three-year Manalagi Health and Wellbeing Project. This is the first such project to focus on these communities in our country.
Since the project was launched in December last year, I’ve been blown away by the support and goodwill we’ve already received from wide sections of our Pacific communities. Over the summer, the research team and I have been making great strides in laying the foundations for a project that positions our communities and their voices at the heart of the work.
We’ve just launched the Manalagi website, which, thanks to support from the University of Auckland’s summer scholars programme, now includes a repository on Pacific Rainbow LGBTQIA+ MVPFAFF+ scholarship and publications in an open-access format.
By putting our process on display transparently, we hope we can allow others within our Pacific communities to consider developing their own research projects designed to help Pacific Rainbow+ communities.
The next phase of our research is community consultations. We want to make sure not only that the project benefits our communities, but also that they’re part of the conception, design and implementation of the work — so that our people’s mana is front and centre of the ways we collect information.
In phase three of the project, due to begin early next year, we’ll be documenting the personal narratives of Pacific Rainbow+ people through talanoa.
The need for us to listen to one another is now, more than ever, considerable.
Maintaining our right to exist, as Pacific Rainbow+ people, compels us to fight back, hard. But I also believe that we have to work just as hard to build bridges, connections, and a future that isn’t always married to our traumas.
The legacy I want to leave behind for the next generation is for my life’s work as a researcher to help make the road far less rocky and perilous for the next generation.
As the Manalagi Project moves forward, it’s this desire to build something for those who come after me that reminds me that, as well as being a gay man, I’m a Pacific and Sāmoan man. My connections and mana come from relationships within my communities.
Community is at the heart of this project, but mana is at its soul — and it’s this that we seek to build on over the next three years, and over the life of the project.
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