Rua'ine, health promoter at the NZ AIDS Foundation's Hamilton HQ, was sponsored by the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation to co-facilitate a training workshop as well as attend the launch of the island's support group for the 'queens' of Rarotonga.
Rua'ine has a strong whanau link to the islands: "My mother is Maori and dad a Cook Islander," he explains. "Because of my family connection, I identify as Takataapui (gay and Maori) as well as Akava'ine (gay and Rarotongan)."
The Te Tiare Association â€“ the first real social and support group akava'ine had even seen, began with a large gathering on Saturday 21 June, before the three-day workshop. Representatives came from all over the region, including Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands and Aotearoa.
"The main thing was to get the queens together and to have an actual support group, where they can come together and have events, or get some counseling, in a sisterly way."
Over 500 people attended the launch, bringing together parents, grandparents, children, and whole extended families, Rua'ine says. â€œThere was a real mixture of people coming to support us, because every one of them had some sort of connection with one of the akava'ines who was on the stage.
"It was a busy time on the island, and our pride was shining over the whole week. For me personally, I was just blown away by the whanau atmosphere. The strength and bond of the sisterhood crossed all islands."
THE CHURCH AND CULTURE
"Culturally, akava'ines have been around for centuries. And they've always been part of the family, part of the village, and part of the tribe. But when the missionaries came, things changed quite dramatically for everyone in the Pacific Islands, and the Cook Islands were no exception. In the 1800s they started bringing in homophobic and transphobic attitudes.
"There is still some homophobia on the island, and some queens do get bashed up. There is verbal abuse. But mostly, the queens have strong peer support, and have strong family support. A lot of them do good work within the churches as well."
Often akava'ine are seen as real show-offs and entertainers, he reflects. "People who can make everybody laugh. You're made fun of sometimes, but it's all in good fun."
Rua'ine reckons that fa'afafines and akava'ines are born to be that way. "We are who we are, and we're not going to change, so our families just have to accept it. And if the whanau is supportive, they will be raised that way, with love and support. A lot of the queens do have that.
"There's quite a nice balance here â€“ working with family and community is a really big part of living in the islands. So if you don't have a good relationship with your family, then you're pretty isolated, so you start looking for that bond with people like The Te Tiare Association â€“ that's the importance of the peer support group. It's for the young ones that don't actually have that family support."
HELPING OUR SISTERS STAY HEALTHY
"The workshop was about bringing people who have done good work in their home country to share their experience and knowledge in order to help Te Tiare move forward," Rua'ine explains. "But really its main objective was to help guide the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation's strategic planning in their work with sexual minority groups who are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS."
The conference was also an opportunity to map out the future of support for up-and-coming fa'afafines and akava'ines â€“ because there will always be another generation, he says.
Rua'ine found that there was much debate over the terms people used to describe Pacific Island 'sisters'. "Some of these terms we use, like MSM for 'men who have sex with men' are very Western, so a lot of the discussion at the workshop was about appropriate cultural language to use when we're talking about our identity."
The workshop split terms into three categories â€“ 'I hate it', 'I can stand it' and 'I love it'. Hated terms were 'Queer', 'Third Gender', Poofter', 'Faggot', 'Laelae', 'Marginalised' and Faka'leiti'. Acceptable terms included 'Lewa', 'Mala', 'Transgender', 'Gay', and 'Akavaine', while terms that were loved were 'Leiti' (lady) 'Takataapui', 'Fa'afafine', 'Lewage', 'Queen', 'Drag Queen' and even 'Girl'. A representative from Samoa said "often psychologists and anthropologists label us with terms that we don't like".
HIV/AIDS is now a concern for the Pacific, because the islands are now seeing the effects of the epidemic for the first time â€“ and the virus is particularly winning in Papua New Guinea. "Whereas in Australia and New Zealand we're very much up the front because we're statistically the most at-risk group, in the Pacific it's known as a heterosexual epidemic, with men who have sex with men left out to the side. That's changing though, and some really good health programmes are starting."
Joey Mataele of the Tonga Leiti Association sayid his team tries to promote safer sex, but there's a long way to go in changing attitudes. "Most of them don't like to use condoms" he told the workshop. "And the church denies what is happening, the families deny that their children are acting like that. It puts us in the position of being blamed. Because of the taboo leiti (Tongan queens) face in our culture, we cannot speak out, many of us live in shame.
"So the bishop allows me to promote safe sex by putting the youth in workshops about health issues, but not doing it publicly," Mataele explains.
Nikki Rattle from the Cook Islands Red Cross concluded: "So the door is a little open, but not totally open."
A workshop by the Pacific Islands AIDS Foundation is happening in Tonga this week. Representatives from the Foundation will also attend the Pan Pacific Gathering for HIV+ People in Auckland this September.