Pasefika Issue: In/Visible

This article is also published as part of Fightback’s special Pasefika Fightback magazine issue. Article by Luisa Tora, luisa.k.tora@gmail.com.

I’ve been asked to discuss why the visibility of the Pacific lesbian community is important to me, and why I think this community is invisible. I’ve also been invited to speak about an exhibition that I am co-curating of emerging artists who identify as lesbian, bisexual, and queer. I feel it’s important to include the brief given me as I believe that sometimes questions inform us as much as the answers we receive. This is not in way intended to shame the person who asked me the questions. I appreciate this opportunity to unpack some of the themes and issues surrounding Pacific lesbian visibility.

I’d like to start the talanoa by placing some limitations on the discussion. Not to censor the talanoa so much as to sharpen its focus. I can only speak to my experience as 42-year old Fijian woman who has lived in Aotearoa for the last seven years.

I came out when I was a precocious 17 years old Foundation student at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji. Even though I dived headfirst into my new lifestyle with my newly acquired girlfriend, I didn’t come out to my parents until almost two years later. It was my Mum who coaxed it out of me saying that she and Dad would love me whatever my sexuality was. My then girlfriend lived with us and our families were friends. Three decades later I can’t remember why 17 year old me didn’t just tell my parents. Perhaps I was afraid. Perhaps I thought it was obvious. Perhaps I thought it wasn’t anybody’s business. Perhaps I was just a self-centred 17 year old and it didn’t occur to me that I had to ‘come out’ to anyone.

Whatever the reason, I was out and my family and friends totally ran with it. My parents have invited scores of queer friends into our family home and their hearts. I’ve spoken on occasion about having a gay army in Fiji. We’re everywhere. I didn’t really think about it until I came to Aotearoa and had to start from scratch. (My sister and I were heartened to see these same people at both my parent’s funerals.) When my sister came out, they invited her girlfriend(s) and friends home. I remember my parents and I going to a girlfriend’s home once for a party. Mum told me later that she and Dad had a heart-to-heart with my girlfriend’s parents about their only daughter’s sexuality. She told them “You either love her as she is or you will lose her. It’s your choice.” I remember going to a drag night with a girlfriend and my Dad another time. My usually stoic father (unless you got to know him) told a homophobic heckler, “We’re here to enjoy ourselves. If you don’t like it you can leave.” Mum would introduce me and my girlfriend to new people – This is my daughter, and this is her partner – and embarrass us no end. My extended families on Mum and Dad’s sides also embraced mine and my sister’s lifestyles and girlfriends. When we both started volunteering then working with non-government organisations, our extended NGO family embraced us and the LGBTQI+ issues that we championed.

I share this brief insight to start to answer the first question about why Pacific lesbian visibility is important to me. My sister and I were blessed with a supportive family, social, and professional environment. Thanks to our parents, families, and friends, we were able to live open lives at home and to carry the confidence that comes with that grounding outside our home.

However, that sentence is not accompanied by a video clip of goat kids frolicking in a sun-splashed meadow as birds chirp in the sky as we eat mangoes and cast beatific smiles at people walking by. There’ve been some horrific break-ups and broken hearts, and girlfriends’ families haven’t always receptive to the idea of having a daughter-in-law instead of a son-in-law. Friends have been bashed and raped by male family members to remind them of their ‘place’ as women. Gay male and transgender friends and acquaintances have been murdered by homophobes. We’ve had to defend our constitutionally protected LGBTQI+ rights in the media, before parliamentary committees, in the international arena against an array of adroit Fiji governments playing political football. We’ve been kicked off and excluded from national HIV committees and called dissidents. All of this happened between and during cyclones, coup d’états, and so many poetry readings.

All the reasons above and more are why the visibility of the Pacific lesbian community is important to me. The love you find in relationships with lovers and family, the support and laughter and shoulders to cry on and lean on that comes from your community and those who support you, the role models and crushes that we make for those who are closeted or curious to pass on the street or read about in the newspaper, the good, the bad and the ugly poetry we write and inspire, just so you can say ‘cheers queers!’ at a party, not having to explain why you like girls or why you only like girls who wear fades and cable knit sweaters or girls who wear glasses and can’t look you in the eye, being able to speak about your own culture to someone ‘like you’ in your own language or bits of your own language, seeing someone from your own culture at a lesbian party even if you spend the rest of the night avoiding each other, because it’s nice knowing you aren’t literally the only gay in the village.

I think about why lesbian Pacific islanders aren’t more visible around Auckland. I’m not the most social person, but I try to be conscious of the people around me when I am outside. Also, I live in South Auckland so the chances of me seeing Pacific anything is much higher in my neighbourhood. But still, we are few and far between. Or we are really good at blending in? Which begs the question: what does a Pacific lesbian look like anyway? I once read a paper about migrant lesbians who live with their families in the diaspora and how their sexuality is subverted by their dependence on their families for family, immigration, financial, and language support. Many women either decided to conceal their sexuality or did so under threat of being ostracised or being sent ‘home’ if they didn’t conform to heterosexual norms. The struggle is real for ethnic minorities who are also sexual minorities living in the diaspora.

This in a small way brings me back to the question or the framing of this conversation. My experience aside for now, is it necessary for people to come out or to be visible? Is the lesbian experience enough? Do we need to be visibly and audibly lesbian? I am intrigued and a little disturbed by pressure from some LGBTQI+ circles for people to ‘come out’ as well as shaming people who don’t or can’t come out and therefore live life on the DL. If some of us are happy to stick our necks out, does this somehow make up for those who draw theirs into their shells?

Which brings me to the exhibition I’ve developed with Molly Rangiwai-McHale and Ana Te Whaiti featuring artists Tasi Su’a, Jamie Berry, Sangeeta Singh, Emma Kotsapas, and Kerrie-Anne Van Heerden. The exhibition statement states: “‘When Can I See You Again?’ offers a public invitation into a private, contemplative space. This multimedia, multicultural, and multi-regional exhibition of emerging artists explores female sexualities, desire, power, and safe spaces. This collectively curated gathering is an attempt to build what bell hooks calls “a community of resistance”1. A “central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives” (206).

Women’s voices and bodies are privileged and amplified in new works created by Ana Te Whaiti, Emma Kotsapas, Jamie Berry, Kerrie Van Heerden, Luisa Tora, Molly Rangiwai-McHale, Sangeeta Singh, and Tasi Su’a. ‘When Can I See You Again?’ is strategically aligned with Auckland Pride Festival 2017.

‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness’ from Yearnings: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics (Routledge, 1989).”

To bring it back to the talanoa before, another aim of this show is to ‘build our own archive’ as discussed by Dr Teresia Teaiwa. If you are missing from the narrative, write your own then share it with others. If you are missing from the landscape, insert yourself into it. I am reminded of a young woman I met once when I was neck-deep in the LGBTQI+ lobby in Fiji. She quietly introduced herself and told me that she’d read an interview I’d done in the local media. She said it was the first time she’d seen the word lesbian discussed in a positive way in the newspaper. We hope that this show will provoke some interesting dialogue about all things lesbians. I would be happy if a quietly lesbian woman of any ethnic descent inputted gay woman/lesbian/queer/LGBTQI in Aotearoa/New Zealand into a search engine and quickly pressed enter – and then she found us. Kia kaha!

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