Fruitful group discussion with media and SFA members. Source: SFA

03 May Is there room here for gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans Samoans?

What fears and anxieties do our LGBTI children in Samoa live with every day? What are we doing to help them? On the flip side, what are we doing and saying that makes those fears worse?

I attended a media workshop last week hosted by the Samoa Faafafine Association on fair, accurate and inclusive reporting on Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Samoa.

It was a long-overdue discussion and one sorely needed by Samoa media. We don’t have a good track record when it comes to Fa’afafine representation and we can all point to examples where the media has done great harm.

When it comes to improving the way in which we tell the stories of a marginalized community and report on issues which directly affect them – the best thing we can do, is listen to that community and try to understand both their challenges and their joys.

As facilitator Vaitoa Toelupe said, “You think you know our issues, but you don’t. There’s too many assumptions being made.”

The half day workshop was only one step in the right direction of clearing up some of those assumptions, but it was a start.

A key point from the session, for me, was the assertion that SFA is an umbrella organization for LGBTI in Samoa. They are not just seeking to be an advocate for Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama.

This is an important distinction.

Too often, the image of SFA promoted in the media, has been of their flamboyant pageants, as ‘drag queens’ there for our entertainment, and to a lesser extent, their charity work in the community.

What hasn’t been reported as widely, are their activist efforts towards law reform and universal human rights for all in Samoa. SFA’s National Fa’afafine Week late last year was an excellent example of the range of social issues that they engage with and the different ways that SFA advocates in the areas of sexual health, social justice, employment, education and more.

I’m happy to see SFA extending it’s umbrella to cover those who are LGBTI.  Because right now, here in Samoa, who is advocating for them? Especially, who is advocating for LGBT youth?

I know Samoan teenagers who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. They often struggle to reconcile their sexuality within Samoa’s cultural and religious framework.

They are bombarded with reminders from their family, friends, church and media, that there is something inherently sinful and ‘wrong’ with them. They have no role models here to look to, that speak to their experiences and that pattern what healthy lesbian/gay relationships look like.

When you can’t ‘see’ yourself in the community, the school, the workplace, the world that you live in – it’s dangerously easy to start believing that there is no room for you in the world. There’s too many reasons why the suicide rate for LGBT youth worldwide, is so high.  Self-hate messages from culture and religion are leading reasons.

LGBTI children are often also more likely to be sexually abused. When your family, religion (and the media) are telling you that you’re a curse, a sin in God’s eyes – its dangerously easy to believe it. Abusers prey on the vulnerable and too often, it’s our Fa’afafine child, our lesbian daughter, our gay son – who becomes their predatory target.

Time and again, Fa’afafine friends tell us of being abused as children and youth – both physically and sexually. Some were even told by their abusers, that they were there to cater for their sexual needs BECAUSE of their being Fa’afafine.

Many of us have Fa’afafine/Fa’afatama family and friends who have endured bullying, discrimination and mockery. (Hopefully we weren’t the ones doing the bullying and the mocking!) We have also seen LGBTI worldwide subjected to horrific hate crimes.

What fears and anxieties do our LGBTI children in Samoa live with every day?  What are we doing to help them? On the flip side, what are we doing and saying that makes those fears worse?

While there is something of an approved space for Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama in Samoan society (to a degree), there seems to be no room for those who are LGBTI. Often because many say that Christianity has no place for them, unless they ‘repent’ and stop being who they are.

I’m not a theologian. You can throw scriptures at me all day about why homosexuality is a sin – and I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough contradictory Bible verses about Christlike love and #JudgeNot. I would win no religious debates here.

But I am a mother, a parent.  As are many of you.

I’m sure I speak the hopes of many parents for their children, when I say, that all I want for my children is for them to be happy, safe, and to know they are beloved. By us their parents. By their aiga. By God.

Ours is supposed to be a communal society, one where we put into practise that maxim of – it takes a village to raise a child. We all have a part to play in ensuring Samoa’s youth are safe, happy and know they are beloved. Even – no, especially –  if they are Fa’afafine, Fa’afatama, LGBTI in this often cruel world that we live in.

Please lets think twice the next time we feel like mocking or bullying them, preaching or discriminating against them, and in the case of us media, either excluding Fa’afafine/Fa’afatama/LGBTI completely OR mis-gendering and misrepresenting them and the issues that so crucially affect their safety and wellbeing.

Instead, let’s change the words we use when speaking to and about F/F and LGBTI. Check our actions. Ask ourselves, what can we say and do to be better in the way we treat our brothers and sisters? At home, in the workplace, in our congregations, and in the wider community.

We at Samoa Planet are listening and learning, we pledge to try and catch up!

To read more news, thoughts and opinions, go to Samoa Planet.

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