21 Aug 2017

Cooks bill puts spotlight on Pacific's anti-gay laws

11:26 am on 21 August 2017

In Solomon Islands, being gay could bring Lachlan Demarchelier a jail sentence of up to 14 years.

A Solomon Islands' cultural performer blows a conch shell to announce the arrival of Pacific leaders for the RAMSI farewell events. June 2017

"As the country became more westernised, gay people began to have a negative connotation around them," said Solomon Islander Lachlan Demarchelier. Photo: RNZI/ Koroi Hawkins

The Solomon Islander moved to Australia in 2005 to study. He's able to live there openly as a gay person.

But not so in Solomon Islands where he keeps a low profile on short visits home to visit family.

"I feel sorry for my friends back in the Solomons who are gay. I know people who are verbally and physically abused for being gay on a daily basis.

"They even get threatened that they'll be arrested and have the law thrown upon them," he said.

Homosexuality is illegal in Solomon Islands for both men and women, but in Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, anti-homosexuality law applies only to men.

The Cook Islands could soon wipe such laws off its books with a draft Crimes Bill in the consultation stage.

The bill has excluded sections in the current 1969 Act, which ban consensual sex between two men.

Convictions are rare but Paula Gerber of the gay rights lobby group, Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation, hopes the law change will have a domino effect on other Pacific countries.

"There are still far too many countries in the world that treat consensual homosexual conduct as a crime and we're starting to see that change."

"The Pacific is a bit at the forefront with making those law reforms," said Professor Gerber.

"Vanuatu and Fiji were one of the first to decriminalise, but more recently Palau and Nauru have gone down that path and now there are the Cook Islands who are on that journey," she said.

Whipping is still on the law books in Tonga, as well as up to ten years in prison for male homosexuals.

The Tonga Leitis Association (TLA) is working towards reform.

TLA Rainbow AND Tonga Leitis Association

Tonga Leitis Association. Photo: Supplied/ Tonga Leitis Association

The TLA President, Henry Aho, said male homosexuals were particularly targeted in the country's provisions against sodomy.

"There is a new wave of evangelism that's coming with an agenda to put an end to any plans the transgender communities in the world have."

"Not touching the current laws leaves the door open for these groups to use that against members of our community in Tonga," he said.

In Samoa, sodomy between men could mean a jail sentence of up to seven years and there has been criticism in the past, particularly from church leaders, at efforts to change the law.

Tim Baice, a member of the Samoa Fa'afafine Association, said for Samoans, homosexuality is still a relatively taboo topic, despite fa'afafine being an integral part of the country's culture.

Samoa Fa’afafine Association Incorporated

Samoa Fa’afafine Association Incorporated. Photo: Supplied/ Samoa Fa’afafine Association Incorporated

"If you were to think about homosexual law reform, marriage equality, those are things that apply specifically to the western and universalised framework, where people openly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual now."

"It'll be very rare for you to go to Samoa and meet someone who openly says 'I'm gay' or 'I'm lesbian' or bisexual," he said.

Professor Gerber is optimistic about the latest move in the Cook Islands, but she said decriminalisation is only the beginning of a long road ahead.

"There are still a lot of other things that have to happen before we get a society where LGBTI rights are fully respected."

"One of the things that must be done after you decriminalise is have anti-discrimination laws, so that one cannot discriminate against a person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity," she said.

Professor Gerber said countries needed to adopt a holistic approach.

Paula Gerber

Paula Gerber Photo: Supplied/ Paula Gerber

"Education and awareness campaigns are key factors and I think it should begin at school."

"It should be teaching children that everyone is equal and that everyone is deserving respect, regardless of how they might be different from them, whether it's skin colour or faith or sexual orientation," she said.

Lachlan Demarchelier said a lack of education in the Solomon Islands was to blame for harsh discrimination against homosexuals.

But the Brisbane hair salon owner said it had not always been so discriminatory in his homeland.

"Back in the day, gay people were seen as helpful people in society, for example bringing up young children and doing chores in the villages."

"As the country became more westernised, gay people began to have a negative connotation around them."

"It will be a massive change for the Solomons to have law reform for homosexuals," he said.

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