Challenges facing Pacific Rainbow+ community

Family and church are the bedrock of Pacific cultures, but for a significant number of the LGBTQI+ community they are also the site of potentially severe psychological trauma, says Patrick Thomsen

Image of flower common in Pacific, on Pacific artwork

The country’s first study into the health and wellbeing of the Pacific Rainbow+ community, the Manalagi community report, reveals that 14 percent of respondents were subjected to conversion therapy primarily within their family and church settings, with another 4 percent preferring not to answer the question.

This is the first time we’ve had statistics on the pervasiveness of conversion therapy practices within Pacific communities in Aotearoa New Zealand; and if there were any ideas around our Pacific communities being more accepting because of the existence of fa’afafine or other gender liminal identities such as Leiti (Tonga), Akavaine (Cook Islands) etc, these ideas can be safely dispelled.

Conversion therapy, more commonly known as conversion practices, was outlawed in New Zealand last year, a legislated ban protecting everyone under 18 from attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender, to stop them expressing their Rainbow+ identity.

I believe this ban was justified. Conversion practices deploy pseudoscientific techniques that involve emotional manipulation or physical trauma (or both), often gaslighting people into thinking their inherent sexual orientation or diverse gender identity is a physiological or psychological disorder.

For Pacific communities, the ban was highly controversial. Many saw it as an attack on families and religious freedom. Many also feared prosecution over what many saw as necessary conversations between parents and children. This is an unfounded fear. Although prosecution is available, the threshold is set very high, and education before prosecution is the preferred option. The ban was not about prosecuting people, but about preventing long-term psychological harm.

The Manalagi survey showed that the majority of respondents ranked talking to a trusted friend, a colleague, a family member and talking to no one before they even considered talking with a medical professional such as a local GP.

We are a country struggling to meet the exploding demands on and for mental health support services, persistently high suicide rates and out of control levels of anxiety and depression. Research from New Zealand and overseas underscores the strong link between conversion practices and mental health distress.

For Pacific communities, the findings from Manalagi’s community report is cause for concern and reflection. Mental health distress levels among our peoples are much higher than for Pākehā, with racism a common experience for Māori and Pacific peoples when seeking to engage with the healthcare system.

As if being brown wasn’t difficult enough, being queer means we’re less likely to ask for help, as we navigate internal stigma associated with seeking out mental health support. The Manalagi survey showed that the majority of respondents ranked talking to a trusted friend, a colleague, a family member and talking to no one before they even considered talking with a medical professional such as a local GP when experiencing mental distress.

Further, we know that Rainbow+ individuals experience poorer mental health and overall wellbeing outcomes than non-Rainbow+ because of trans/homophobic discrimination.

Imagine how it feels to sit at the intersection of both or many experiences of marginalisation.

Both family and church are identified as the bedrock of Pacific cultures and communities, and what makes this data from Manalagi sting more, is that 77 percent said their overall sense of wellbeing was connected to their families, with nearly 60 percent indicating they were dependent on their families for support.

Our families, who we rate so highly, as important to the core of wellbeing, were for a significant number also the site of potentially severe psychological trauma.

Nearly two thirds also said religion and spirituality were extremely important and in line with Pacific models of wellbeing, that spirituality (often framed as religion) is an essential part of wellbeing. Yet churches and their ministers were named as main locations of conversion practices, and 60 percent indicating that churches made their lives more difficult as a Rainbow+ person.

Much excellent research has shown that pre-colonisation and pre-missionisation, our cultures and families celebrated gender and sexuality diversity. Unfortunately for Pacific Rainbow+ individuals living today, this offers little comfort when conversion practices and discrimination continue to damage their overall mental health and wellbeing.
Culture was also overwhelmingly named as important or very important (92 percent) in the survey – as we know, offering places of affirmation to our diasporas. Why then are some of our families misunderstanding their role in keeping all their children safe – including their Rainbow+ children? Why aren’t our churches looking to find ways to better include and keep Rainbow+ congregation members safe?

It would be easy to blame stubborn religious teachings and stoic interpretations of the scriptures – scriptures that many forget were imported to our region. However, a more intentional answer would be to interrogate the inherent heteronormativity (the assumption that the ‘correct’ sexual orientation is straight) of cultural practices and also our families. This is not easy to write, and for many of our peoples, difficult to hear, but vitally important. We can’t continue to blame colonisation for everything once we know better. And once we know better, we must do better.

Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen, senior lecturer in global studies; director of Fofonga for Pacific Research Excellence and senior research fellow, office of the Associate Dean Pacific, Faculty of Medical Health Sciences.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Conversion therapy ban prevents harm to Pacific Rainbow+ community, 16 November 2023

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