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UN launches campaign supporting gay rights in the Pacific


One of two UN videos produced for the Pacific campaign.

The United Nations has called for action in a new campaign against homophobia and transphobia in the Pacific Islands. The campaign has been well received, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism.

Pacific Scoop:
Report – By Ida Brock

Her eyes are fixed on the video camera. Her expression is serious. In a short moment the woman’s eyes switch to the ground until they meet the lens once again.

“I was assaulted by six prefects from the school. I missed an entire school term,” she says.

The woman is a transsexual living in the Pacific and has been the victim of discrimination because of her sexuality and gender identity.

She is also featured in a video the United Nations unveiled earlier this month as a part of a new campaign promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) rights in the Pacific.

“We hope the governments in the Pacific will adopt laws to protect LGBTI people from discrimination and active measures to make sure attitudes change, for example by working closely with schools and health care facilities,”  says Toiko Tõnisson Kleppe, human rights officer at the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR).

“Educating them to be respectful of the rights and needs of LGBTI people to prevent any form of stigma or harassment.”

Lack of anti-discrimination laws
Currently there are 77 countries where it is illegal to engage in any sexual activity with a person of the same sex. Eight of these countries are Pacific nations – Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Tuvalu.

But the laws that criminalise LGBTIs are not the biggest issue in the everyday life of gay and transsexual Pacific Islanders, says associate professor in human rights Dr Paula Gerber from Monash University in Melbourne.

“Decriminalisation is not the priority for the locals. No one has been prosecuted or convicted under these laws for years.”

“What makes life difficult for them is the lack of any laws that prohibit discrimination against them. As things are, they can be denied a job, access to healthcare or housing because of their sexuality or gender identity.”

One of the people who has experienced the discrimination first-hand is the chairperson of the Pacific Sexual Division Network and Tonga Leitis Association (TLA), Joey Jolene Mataele, who is a leiti living in Tonga. Leiti comes from the English word “lady” and refers to a man-by-birth living like a woman.

“It hasn’t been a smooth journey through the last 23 plus years. When I started wearing dresses I was met with a lot of stigma and discrimination, for example from my own family as well as other people in town,” she says.

“Especially when AIDS came to Tonga in 1987, there was a lot of stigma. People blamed us for AIDS and they didn’t want to be near us.”

Missionary influence
But the natives of the Pacific Islands actually used to be more tolerant towards sexual relations between gays and other LGBT people, says Dr Milton Diamond from the Pacific Centre for Sex and Society in Hawai’i.

“There are many cultures in Oceania where it was normal and accepted to be a gay or trans person.

“But then the missionaries came and said it was wrong; now LGBTIs suffer a difficult time on most of the islands. Their families often reject them and hold the idea of them living in sin.”

However, the level of discrimination against LGBTIs in Tonga is decreasing according to Joey Jolene Mataele. Partly because of the humorous beauty pageant for Tongan leitis, Miss Galaxy, established in 1992 by the TLA.

“The LGBTI communities here aren’t protected by any laws and the lack of legal regulation have led to invisibility and lack of influence for us. But Miss Galaxy gave us a way,” Joey Jolene Mataele says.

“The pageant brings in people from faith based organisations and the government, and they see all the good work we do with the money from the pageant, for example how we sponsor scholarships for school dropouts.”

Dr Diamond says that the discrimination of LGBTIs are decreasing; not only in Tonga but in the rest of the Pacific too.

“It is on the way back to the tolerating days but it is a really slow process,” he says.

‘Free and equal’
In an effort to speed up the process of decreasing discrimination against LGBTIs, the UN has tried to frame the “Pacific Free and Equal” campaign in a way that catches the Pacific Islanders’ attention. For example by speaking to people they recognise, like the President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau.

“We’re also lucky that the Methodist Church of Fiji has taken a very clear stand. The religious message is important in the Pacific because it’s a very religious area,” says Kleppe from OHCHR says.

And that approach will make a difference, says Asian-Pacific coordinator Ging Christobal from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) says.

“For the LGBTI community to be seen as one of the marginalised groups that the UN supports can be a big push in the right direction,” she says and is backed up by Dr Gerber:

“In many countries, people refuse to talk about gays, lesbians and transsexual people. So these videos specifically targeting the Pacific is a great way to start having a dialogue,” she says.

Now, the next step is to start discussing anti-discrimination laws, Dr Gerber believes, and she would like to see Fiji showing other Pacific nations the way as they have already implemented those laws.

Ging Christobal from IGLHRC says that it would also be a good idea to start documenting discrimination and violence against LGBTIs in the Pacific more frequently.

“In these cultures the usual explanation from the governments as to why they aren’t focusing on LGBTI issues is that there is no discrimination or violence against them. But if we have concrete details to back up our stories, they can’t say no and ignore the facts.”

Ida Brock is a Danish student journalist reporting for the Pacific Media Centre and the Pacific Scoop on the Asia-Pacific Journalism Studies paper.