In 2013, the United Nations held the global launch of its Free & Equal campaign, a public education campaign for LGBTQ equality. Earlier this month, in Suva, Fiji, the UN launched a regional branch of the campaign for the Pacific Islands.
At the launch, His Excellency Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, President of Fiji, reaffirmed his commitment to equality, as illustrated by Fiji’s anti-discrimination laws. Karen Allen of the United Nations expressed that the goal of the campaign is for all Pacific States to decriminalize same-sex relations and pass anti-discrimination laws regarding gender identity and sexual orientation, much like Fiji’s.
The campaign has caused a particular stir in the Cook Islands, one of eight Pacific Island nations (and one of seventy-seven countries worldwide) where same-sex relations are still criminalized. In 2013, when New Zealand passed a law in favor of marriage equality, Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna insisted that his country would hold to its Christian values and not follow in New Zealand’s footsteps. Last week, Puna reiterated his 2013 statement, claiming that marriage equality is not currently an issue in Cooks and that he will not follow the UN unless it becomes one.
The Te Tiare Association, a Cook Islands LGBTI group, disagrees. They believe (as I do) that LGBTI rights are a pressing issue in the nation. Their current plan is to push for an amendment that would decriminalize same-sex relations, followed eventually by the legalization of same-sex marriage. According to Dr. Paula Gerber of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, anti-discrimination laws are the main priority, as laws prohibiting same-sex relations are rarely enforced. Regardless, it seems critical that the latter be abolished in order to pursue the former, if only to establish legal precedent for additional changes in the treatment of LGBTI citizens.
Many transgender and otherwise gender non-conforming Pacific Islanders consider their gender identity to be a part of their cultural identity as well. At the regional Free & Equal launch, Karen Allen noted that many anti-LGBTQ laws in the region are “a legacy of the 19th century colonial powers” and therefore do not align with traditional cultural beliefs. It is important that in the push for LGBTQ rights in the region, we do not allow ourselves to assume that the current state of affairs is the fault of native or traditional cultures. Indeed, it was frequently the case that the influence of European colonialism rejected local concepts of sexuality and gender identity and expression in favor of Europe’s firmly-established cis-heteropatriarchy.
When it comes to LGBTQ rights in the Cook Islands and elsewhere, it is the community and not outsiders who has the right to designate their needs and goals. Te Tiare Association has called for an end to the criminalization of same-sex relations, and so shall we wish them success and support their efforts in repealing the laws.