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“Another troubling frontier for Fiji: equality for the LBGQTI community” (FT 13/4/2019)

13/04/2019

Another troubling frontier for Fiji: equality for the LBGQTI community (FT 13/4/2019)

Professor Wadan Narsey (Adjunct Professor James Cook University and former Professor of Economics, USP)

Last week, Fiji witnessed another “storm in a teacup”, when Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama made public his personal opposition to same sex marriages in Fiji, which he portrayed as his Government’s position (FT 9/4/2019) (although I doubt if it was ever discussed in Cabinet).

I say “storm in a teacup” because the debate soon died down, instead of being tackled by all Fiji in  a “calm and responsible” way as the Director of HRADC called for.

But sadly, for progressive social change to occur when opposed by those in power (whether kings, dictators, or elected governments), it helps enormously if there is a “hurricane” or “typhoon” of a debate, in this cases led by members of the LBGQTI community who are otherwise prominent in society, and not afraid to be publicly identified as “gay”.

Fiji’s LGBTI community might want to learn from the recent Australian experience where a Malcolm Turnbull government, already lagging in the polls and dreadfully afraid of political repercussions, undertook an enormously costly (and many say totally unnecessary) national referendum, to justify their allowing a vote in parliament to sanction same sex marriages. Before the referendum there was some debate, mostly calm but some acrimonious  and hurtful to the LBGQTI community.

Unfortunately, such a calm debate will not happen by itself, and Fiji should learn from all the other social barriers to equality, which our people have successfully overcome in the last hundred years, some of which I list below.

The PM’s Opinions

Prime Minster Bainimarama has clearly come out with great force, mostly with statements of opinion, opposing same sex marriages, while male female marriages have been legally allowed under all the previous and current laws of Fiji.

Bainimarama has alleged that:

* same sex marriage will never be accepted in Fiji (his personal opinion, to be tested)

* same sex marriage will never happen in Fiji (his personal opinion to be tested)

* there were “ungodly beliefs of certain Christian religious groups in Fiji” (whether they are “ungodly” are his personal opinion which cannot be tested).

Bainimarama made no reference to the 2013 Constitution which he himself imposed on  Fiji, in which all are supposed to be treated equally regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

He made no reference to his frequent claim that his new Fiji is supposed to be “secular”, not Christian (which allegedly condemns homosexuality) or any other religious denomination (who stayed silent).

And I presume that he did not consider the anomaly that the Prime Minister felt the need to speak on the matter in the indigenous Fijian language, which his own 2013 Constitution bans from Parliament (just as he speaks to the army only in Fijian).

Social leaders

It is regrettable that the Director of the FHRADC, Ashwin Raj, the very person who is paid by taxpayers to fight for the human rights of all Fiji citizens and rightly calling for “calm debate”, chose not to do so himself.

Instead he supported the Prime Minister’s position by alleging (in obtuse language), that

““as long as de facto couples in Fiji … have the same legal rights as married couples in Fiji, there is no breach of the right against discrimination for same-sex couples”.

What an utterly ridiculous and contradictory statement.

Of course, by not being allowed to be legally married as do men and women,  same sex couples are being denied discriminated against and their basic human rights denied.

It is regrettable that Raj even alleged that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) provided a “benchmark” (standard?) to justify that “there was not an absolute right to same-sex marriage”. Oh dear.

Raj even threw in a red herring by alleging that “Our priority must be towards addressing everyday structural violence and discrimination faced by the LBGQTI community whether it be an interdiction of their rights as arrested and detained persons, hate speeches and cyber bullying, ability to secure gainful employment, discrimination in the health sector, workplace or in schools, intolerance and unacceptance by family and communities often leading to depression, sufferance and ultimately suicides”.

Of course, all these problems listed by Raj ought to be also tackled, but these are not “either/or” problems.

The right to same sex marriages is equally important and legal recognition would of course signal to society that the other forms of discrimination are not acceptable either.

It would signal that that same sex couples (and their children, adopted or biological) should be afforded the same degree of protection in all respects as other couples involving males and females and their children (whether biological or adopted).

The real social leaders

It took real social leaders like Shamima Ali (FWCC head who labelled the Prime Minister’s comments as homophobic and disappointing) and Nalini Singh (FWRM head and Chair of the Fiji NGO Coalition on Human Rights (NGOCHR) to bravely subject the PM’s statement to detailed scrutiny.

Nalini Singh pointed out the contradictions in the Prime Minister’s position that

* the 2013 Constitution prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression.

* The LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex life) community was already marginalized within our society

* and that such homophobic comments made by someone in authority, such as the Prime Minister, were extremely dangerous and only exacerbate the existing discrimination against members of the LGBTQI community.

She could have also pointed out the many derogatory terms and phrases often used in Fiji society to ridicule members of the gay community, such as “poofters” or “fairies” and too many others to list.

But societies the world over, including neighbors like Australia and NZ,  are changing and social frontiers are being crossed.

So also has Fiji been crossing many social frontiers, however hard it may be for some current political leaders to acknowledge this particular frontier of equality for the LGBTI community.

Other frontiers

Fiji Times readers, including the leaders of all religious denominations, might remember all the other social frontiers that Fiji has successfully battled since colonial days, some with the support of the law and some because of military might:

Once upon a time:

* mixed race people were considered inferior to whites and called “part Europeans” of “half-castes”;

* non-whites (both indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians) were considered inferior to whites and Chinese and discriminated against in parliament, economy and commerce and boards (oldies, remember those days?)

* indigenous Indo-Fijians were considered inferior to indigenous Fijians until a certain military dictator (Voreqe Bainimarama) silenced those discriminatory voices, by declaring that all citizens in Fiji, of whatever ethnic background, were equal. Fiji has since then had an Indo-Fijian prime minister for long periods (even if only Acting) and even an Indo-Fijian Minister of Land, without the sky falling in.

* commoners were considered inferior to chiefs (how many chiefly children suffered because they could not marry commoner partners of their choice)

* Colo or hill tribe Fijians were considered inferior to Bauans or Lauans

* Hindustani were considered inferior to Gujaratis

* “lower caste” Indo-Fijians were considered inferior to “upper caste” Indo-Fijians

* South Indians were considered inferior to North Indians

* women were considered inferior to men in all kinds of arena, but not publicly any more (even if discrimination continues unabated on many fronts).

All these ethnic and gender barriers were broken only after many warriors took up the cudgel on behalf of those discriminated against.

Warriors against racism included a long line of political leaders like Swami Rudrananda, AD Patel, Jai Ram Reddy, Mahendra Chaudhry and any number of academics.

Gender warriors included Amelia Rokotuivuna, Suliana Siwatibau, Esiteri Kamikamica, Taufa Vakatale, Imrana Jalal, Shamima Ali, and any number of academics.

Not that any of these social barriers are gone forever, even if few people publicly signal their displeasure.

But where are the prominent citizens today who openly fight for the full equality and public recognition of the rights of the LBGTQI community?

Learn from Australia.

The prominent LBGQTI warriors in Australia

I have found it fascinating here in Australia to observe the national political discourse on same sex marriage.

Already, all over Australia, same sex “marriages” were being celebrated even in Christian weddings, accompanied by exactly the same kinds of  festivities and ceremonies as marriages between males and females.

But what elevated the political discourse in Australia from that of a “storm in a teacup” to a veritable national “hurricane” that could not be denied any longer, was that many prominent and “responsible” members of  society openly and bravely declared their love and commitment for same sex partners and same sex marriage.

There were prominent Christian clerics and leaders who came out in support of same sex marriage.

Perhaps the most remarkable to me was that many prominent Members of Parliament (like the ALP Leader of the Opposition in Senate, the formidable Penny Wong) not only publicly declared their support for same sex marriage, and indeed had for many years, “come out of the closet” and declared their love and commitment to their same sex partners (even if they must have feared some political backlash of some voters).

These MPs also publicly declared and practiced their commitment to bringing up children in their loving family environments, just as heterosexual marriages did.

Interestingly, I notices that all kinds of television programs have been quietly giving out messages of the “normality” of same sex marriages- like a recent episode of “Grand Designs Australia” which showed a large double bed in the Master bedroom  of a house being built for a same sex couple.

There are also many TV programs, such as SBS’s Insight which publicised how many parents there are in Australia who not only tolerated their children’s LBGQTI inclinations but lovingly embraced them and their partners. Just as is slowly happening in Fiji too.

FT readers all know that Fiji also has had many prominent and respected members of society who have had (and some continue to have) same sex partners (I am sure readers can draw up a pretty long list).

This list will drawn on all ethnic groups, classes, genders, and professions including the highest levels of politics and judiciary in Fiji.

Most of these relationships were never publicly declared or celebrated, but carried on “in the shadows”, thereby also giving the signal to society that there was something “socially undesirable” about them.

This is not to deny that many parents do genuinely fear that their children (both boys and girls) may become victims of some gay sexual predators. But then, but then their children can also become victims of some heterosexual predators, no differently.

Australia shows the way forward

The recent Australian experience was interesting to me in that for quite a few years now, opinion polls had been showing that the majority of ordinary Australian people were in favor of same sex marriages.

While the Australian Prime Minister was himself personally sympathetic and Opposition Parties had long called for a free parliamentary vote of conscience, the Turnbull Government last year insisted on a costly $150 millions national referendum- which, as predicted by experts,  told the country exactly the same thing  that the opinion polls had been saying: that the majority of Australians would accept that the laws should allow same sex marriages, whether they personally liked it or not.

Once verified by the Referendum, the Australian Parliament went through the formality of  “voting” to legalize same sex marriages, of which a flood soon eventuated.

Even though there are still large numbers of people and religious organizations which still oppose same sex marriages because of the literal interpretation of their religious texts.

What Fiji can do is to have a free parliamentary vote with the MPs representing their constituencies’ views, although that may well now be impossible to verify with one national constituency for all MPs.

Of course, as did Australia, Fiji can also have a “national referendum” but I would suggest that instead of wasting a huge amount of money on a special referendum, it would be simpler to have an additional piece of paper at the next election, which asks people to vote YES or NO to same sex marriages.

That would also allow the public enough time to have the calm rational discussions and debates that the Director of HRADC is calling for, and maybe even have a cheap Tebutt Poll or two to monitor what the people of Fiji are thinking.

Such a national vote would also allow the Prime Minister of secular Fiji, whatever his personal religious beliefs, to humbly absolve himself of all personal responsibility for the final decision, whichever way it goes.

Hmmmm.

I wonder if there is any other most influential piece of legislation which has never been passed by any parliament that the people of Fiji should have a referendum on, requiring a majority of 75%.

Hah. Dream on.

Post-script

Some members of the LGBTI community may have been surprised and disappointed at the lukewarm and indeed obtuse reaction of Ashwin Raj who has previously come out with guns blazing at perceived enemies of the state and abusers of human rights of all kinds.

But on this issue where a principled stance by the Director of HRADC would have required him to politely rebut Prime MInister Bainimarama’s unilateral and dictatorial declaration that there would never be any same sex marriages in Fiji under his watch, Raj instead came out with a convoluted defence of the Prime Minister’s position.

Cynics can be forgiven for thinking that Raj’s  personal convictions and inclinations were trumped by realizing on which side his bread was buttered (and a lot of butter evidently).

How sad for Raj’s personal reputation and for Fiji whose scarce taxpayers’ funds are used to fund this person’s salary.

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