2 Sep 2020

Cooks Islands rainbow community lobbies for constitutional rights

1:39 pm on 2 September 2020

The Cook Islands LGBT+ association is citing the country's Constitution as it seeks to stop laws discriminating against gay men.

Te Tiare association's Pride Cook Islands symbol

Te Tiare association's Pride Cook Islands symbol Photo: Te Tiare

Section 64 of the Constitution protects people against discrimination, and guarantees freedom of thought and conscience.

However, the Crimes Act outlaws sexual acts between men who could be imprisoned for up to seven years.

While the laws were not enforced, their existence means they could be.

The Cook Islands' Ministry of Health's Valentino Wichman

Valery Wichman Photo: RNZ Pacific Sara Vui-Talitu

With parliament due to review the Crimes Act at the end of the month, the President of Te Tiare Association Valery Wichman wants to ensure homosexuality is decriminalised in the Cook Islands.

"Firstly, it's about aligning our laws to our actual constitution which enshrines certain fundamental rights which are guaranteed under Part 64 which is the starting point in this legal battle or argument," she said.

There have also been misguided views and misinformation from conservative Christian groups that the association was seeking gay marriage rights, according to Wichman.

However she said their Pride Campaign to decriminalise homosexuality was about "love, respect and acceptance for everyone" - not marriage equality.

She added that since November 2019 when the Crimes Bill select committee recommended maintaining homosexuality as a crime they began lobbying for change.

The result was Te Tiare's Pride Campaign which resulted in "an injection of enthusiasm" to have homosexuality decriminalised, she noted.

"From the get-go there's been some misunderstanding about what our campaign has been about.

"From the religious sector we have had push-back because the belief that we are talking about marriage and that's not the case here. We're talking about equality first."

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Photo: Te Tiare

Wichman said the association had been heartened by support for their Pride campaign from the wider community.

The association had been holding community events to humanise those suffering discrimination and to help others understand the issue of inequality.

The Pride Campaign included a record breaking golf ambrose tournament for the country.

"We had over 50 teams participate and that was a beautiful day filled with colour, music and also food," she added.

A Pride quiz night attracted over 40 teams last month and they held the country's first queer film festival, which featured a transgender story and a lesbian tale.

"The final night we'll be looking at a gay man's story in a rugby team.

"So there's a lot of things happening but that's how we have planned our campaign and the messages that we want in our community, humanising the issue and making sure that they understand that this is about equality."

Quiz night's winning team

Quiz night's winning team Photo: Te Tiare

It was important people understood "we're all a part of families, our villages, our islands and our nation" added Val Wichman who said it was essentially about "anau e tu aro'a" or family and love.

Petition for change

Meanwhile Cook Islander Sonya Apa Temata organised a petition seeking support to decriminalise homosexuality in the Cook Islands.

Temata, a former Auckland Pride board member, had been instrumental in organising Pasifika participation in Pride parades across Aotearoa New Zealand over the summer. Colonial era laws banning consensual sex between men were still active in the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu, and both men and women in Solomon Islands.

The petition appealing against the laws in the Cook Islands was just shy of the 5000 signatures Temata targeted having garnered support locally and internationally.

"It is important to acknowledge the historical influences and devastating impact of colonisation and early settlements by missionaries and its impact on indigenous knowledge and understanding of gender, sex and sexuality," she said.

Sonya Temata said it's important to grasp how these colonial era laws had shaped social attitudes across the region where members of the LGBT+ rainbow community experienced high rates of discrimination, stigma, homophobia, violence and suicide.

The petition would be presented to Te Tiare association when it received 5000 signatures. It was likely this would coincide with the Crimes Bill going before parliament for review.

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Sonya Apa Temata prior to Auckland Pride's OurMarch in February. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

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