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Taboo topic, but some see hope for Pacific change with marriage ‘equality’ in NZ

Gay marriage NZ

A demonstration in support of gay marriage rights in Auckland, New Zealand. Image: GPJA

In Vanuatu, gay people can face legal challenges such as not being eligible for the same legal protections available to heterosexual couples.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Vivian Gan

Some Pacific Islanders living in New Zealand are hoping this country’s stance on marriage equality will push its Pacific Island counterparts to follow suit.

With strong religious ties in the Pacific, homosexuality remains a taboo topic.

Levi Joule has strong ties with both his Vanuatu and New Zealand family and believes the time has come for marriage equality.

“I am hoping there will be a change and more rights given to homosexuals – not just in Fiji but all over the Pacific.”

“I’m hoping New Zealand can put pressure on the Pacific Islands to improve treatment and also improve their human rights record when it comes to gay people,” says Joule.

In Vanuatu, gay people can face legal challenges such as not being eligible for the same legal protections available to heterosexual couples.

Vanuatu stance
Since 2007, consensual sexual activity became equal regardless of gender. But Vanuatu does not recognise same sex unions of any form.

On July 26, NZ Labour Member of Parliament Louisa Wall’s bill to legalise marriage equality in New Zealand was drawn from the parliamentary ballot.

The Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill will allow LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people to marry whoever they wish, regardless of their sexuality or gender identity.

Prime Minister John Key said he would vote in favour of the Bill at its first reading.

On August 1, a Radio New Zealand Morning Report “straw poll” of NZ MPs found 58 were in support of the Bill for its first reading. Sixty one votes are required in order to continue on to the second reading.

Family First New Zealand is a group based on Judeo-Christian values which acts as a voice for families in the media.

It aims to promote advance research and policy supporting marriage and family as being the “essence of a strong and enduring society”.

20,000 signatures
It organised a petition and collected more than 20,000 signatures opposing the legalisation of same sex marriage.

Legalise Love campaigner Bonnie Hartfield says there was a lot of debate over the Bill which was great to see.

She hopes the Bill will come into effect by the end of the year.

Legalise Love is a group that campaigns for marriage and adoption equality. It aims to put an end to homophobia and transphobia.

“There are still barriers to acceptance for LGBT people, the Bill says they are equal to everyone else which boosts that acceptance,” says Hartfield.

In 2005, Australian tourist, Thomas McCosker had consensual sex with a Fijian male, Dhirendra Nadan. Both were tried and jailed under the nation’s sodomy law, but the conviction was overturned by the nation’s highest court for violating civil rights under the Constitution.

Since February 1, 2010, private, adult, consensual and non-commercial male and female homosexual consensual sex is legal under the Crimes Decree 2010.

No campaign
In Fiji, there is no organised campaign to address LGBT rights and discrimination of LGBT people continues.

On May 17 this year, Fiji police cancelled a planned march against homophobia in Suva to celebrate the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Fiji police said the march was cancelled for safety reasons. However, march organisers claim that the Fijian police received an order from the Ministry of Defence to cancel it.

The march had been given pre-approved by the Suva City Council.

Jonathan Selu was influenced by his upbringing in a Samoan family.

He believes the fact that “New Zealand is taking the stance that it is ok for same sex and trans marriages to happen might start to change the opinions back home [Samoa]”.

He works with young people and also in the community and has seen first-hand the kinds of mental health issues that can take place if LGBT people are alienated.

Common issues
Drug, alcohol and self-harm are among the most common.

“The state saying marriage equality is ok, then says to queer and questioning people in general that it is ok to be the way you are,” says Selu.

He speaks of a third sex in Samoan called fa’afafines who are a recognised and integral part of traditional Samoan culture.

The tradition follows that some boys in a family are raised as a girl in order to play an important domestic role in Samoan life. Fa’afafines are born biologically male and have both male and female gender traits.

In Samoa, homosexuality is illegal, according to the Samoa Crimes Ordinance 1961.

“In New Zealand, we refer to fa’afafines as being part of the whole rainbow community, a lot are in favour of marriage equality because it forwards them rights but also forwards a lot of their friends the right to marriage if they wish,” says Selu.

Outside agenda
Last week, the Samoa Observer reported the Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA) would not back a same sex marriage bill if Samoa decided to introduce one.

SFA president To’oto’oali’i Roger Stanley was reported saying the association’s stance on gay marriage in Samoa was something far from their agenda.

“It’s not forthcoming or something that we would advocate for,” Stanley said.

Samoa Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, “scoffed” at suggestions that Samoa could follow in New Zealand’s footsteps in legalising same sex marriage.

Asked if Malielagaoi would support a movement if marriage equality comes to Samoa, he responded saying, “You are dreaming”.

In New Zealand, Labour MP for Mangere, Su’a William Sio also said he is opposing the bill when it is voted on and has called for his colleague Louisa Wall to withdraw her Bill.

Mangere is one of three critical Labour electorates in South Auckland, which is mostly made up of Pacific Islanders.

Sio believed the wide opposition towards the bill from his constituents would diminish Labour’s votes for the next election.

Vivian Gan is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.