Opinion: Don’t blame Pacific Island cultures for queer fear, blame colonisation

Six of the seven players who refused to wear the Manly Sea Eagles rainbow jersey in their match on Thursday night are from a Pasifika heritage. 

I’ve been working alongside wellbeing and education with the NRL since 2010. My involvement includes counselling NRL players, supporting mental health policies and programs, and promoting diversity and inclusion approaches. 

Jason Saab, Christian Tuipulotu, Haumole Olakau’atu, Josh Aloiai and Josh Schuster are five of the seven Manly players who have withdrawn from Thursday’s clash with the Roosters. 

I have facilitated Pasifika cultural workshops with all the clubs across the game. This involved everyone across the whole NRL club at all levels, including Pasifika and non Pasifika players, coaching staff, administration and management. Part of this workshop was to create a safe space for Pasifika players to feel better understood within their clubs. 

With just over 45 percent of NRL players identifying from a Pasifika heritage, it is important that we understand and celebrate cultural diversity and their differences. 

The players say they can’t wear a gay pride jersey for cultural and religious reasons. I’m assuming, similar to what we saw with Israel Folau, that such staunch views against diverse sexualities is based on conservative family values and a deep commitment to the Christian faith. 

From a wider community perspective, we may view Pasifika cultures as being homophobic — full of fear for the queer. But this was taught to us by white, Western attitudes brought with colonisation. 

Before the missionaries visited our beautiful island homes in the period of colonisation during the 1800s, sexuality among many Pacific communities was fluid. Men would have sex with men without fear and shame. Sexuality was seen as an expression of connecting socially and relationally with others. 

From various written accounts by missionaries, they were appalled with how comfortable we were with our nakedness. They saw our nudity as lewd and forced us to cover up. They saw men expressing affection for other men as morally corrupt and dangerous. 

Over time, we learnt to repress our natural sexual desires and regard our physical bodies as sinful. This has then carried over into our modern Pasifika cultural values, perpetuated by Western and white conservatism. 

As a result, Pasifika cultures have been influenced to maintain this line of sin and shame to our detriment. We don’t discuss or express any form of sexuality, seeing sex exclusively reserved for a married straight couple for procreation. 

We abide by our religious leaders’ directives in upholding respect for our elders and never question or critique such rules and regulations. This translates to the respect we show our parents and broader family, where our individual identities are inextricably connected. Questioning such views would be to question your own family and your connection to them. 

In essence, our ability to care and connect within our families is a cultural strength; something I relish and cherish. Our lives revolve around caring and supporting each other; everyone is part of the collective and has a role to play across the family and the community. 

However, if we are taught to uphold unhelpful religious views and values that come from conservative Westernised world views, we may limit our ability to truly embrace diversity. 

As part of my workshops for the NRL, I would ask players to reflect on how they would celebrate ethnic, religious, and sexual diversity. Most players would giggle at first when I encouraged them to think about sexuality — but this was also encouraging them to think through their own sexual expression without shame or stigma. 

Overall, players would then engage in a proactive conversation around supporting each other irrespective of how one may identify with their sexuality. My aim was to create scope to promote a sense of connection and community in which cultural diversity and its difference is seen as a source of celebration rather than a barrier. 

If we are truly going to support diversity to thrive in all shapes and sizes, whether based on ethnicity, religion or sexuality, we need to continue to create a shared conversation across NRL clubs that allows players to share their views and values without fear. 

However, to create a genuinely inclusive culture, we need a shared approach to diversity. If we, including Pasifika people, expect to be respected for our diversity, we need to also genuinely respect others for their own. 

Pasifika people need to be proud of our pre-colonial views of queerness and reclaim such views as part of our ability to love our neighbour as ourselves. 

Such relational and fluid views on sexuality can also be something white and Western societies could learn from traditional Pasifika cultures. We could all benefit from demystifying the shame and stigma we place on sexuality – and allow people to live their lives where we embrace diversity and its differences. 

By doing so, we allow multiple worldviews to be welcomed, which allows everyone to contribute to a truly multicultural, multi-faith and queer-friendly game.

This is an Opinion piece by Jioji Ravulo, Head of social work and policy studies, University of Sydney

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