Oceania has an appalling LGBTQ rights record, and it is one that you never hear about. The region is often overlooked in regards to its human rights record, with the mainstream media preferring report on the natural beauty and splendor of the continent rather than it’s downfalls of inequality.
In this piece, CrowdH explores the gritty reasoning behind why so many island nations in the South Pacific still keep archaic sodomy laws on their statute books, and how it demonstrates how far behind the region is in LGBTQ rights.
A continent at Odds
Behind the sheen of a tropical paradise there exists an appalling LGBTQ rights record that is ignored by the international community.
The continent of Oceania is divided up into four different regions; namely Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Of these very distinct regions, LGBTQ rights records vary quite drastically, despite every single island being under colonial subjugation during the 19th and 20th century.
Australasia for example, usually defined as just Australia and New Zealand, were British settler colonies and thus governed under English Common Law; inheriting the Buggery Act of 1533 which was passed during the reign of Henry VIII, which criminalized “the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with Mankind or Beast”.
“Buggery”, an archaic term for “anal intercourse”, was an act punishable by death in England. Such ideas of vice were brought to the New World during the Age of Discovery. Shown here are Bishop Atherton and his homosexual lover steward John Child executed for the crime in 1640.
With the advent of the post-war permissive society, both Australia and New Zealand gradually repealed their sodomy laws during the 1970’s and early 80’s, following the example set by the United Kingdom in the 1960’s.
Although Commonwealth possessions existed in other parts of the pacific, the repeal of sodomy legislation has been either incredibly slow, or non existent. Countries in Melanesia such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have restrictions on same sex activity, with the latter explicitly allowing for discrimination and advocating incitement to harm LGBTQ citizens in their constitution, removing “sexual orientation” in the nation’s anti-discrimination law.
Anti LGBTQ Rights Laws
Similarly, the tiny Micronesian nation of Kiribati denies LGBTQ rights across the board for males in an act of state-sponsored homophobia with those engaging in same sex acts facing up to 14 years in prison. Anti-gay fervor in Kiribati has been so strong, that the country attempted to expel Vitit Muntarbhorn; the United Nations independent expert on sexual orientation, failing to do so in the process.
One sub-region of Oceania, Polynesia, has a more scattered record in relation to LGBTQ rights. Despite being a self-governing territory in “free association” with New Zealand; a nation which has taken a liberal approach to human rights, the Cook Islands also have extremely harsh penalties for male homosexual acts. There is no recognition of same-sex unions, a complete ban of any same-same marriage and no protection over hate crimes.
As mentioned previously with other nations in the Pacific, many colonial-era laws have been inherited and not amended since the post-war liberalization of morals seen in the western world. Alongside these colonial laws, European missionaries often from evangelical sects were prominent in the 19th centuries, looking to ‘civilize’ the inhabitants of Polynesia and Melanesia, ‘saving’ them from their apparently beastly ways.
LGBTQ Rights: The Power of the Bible Bashers
“Onward Christian soldiers into heathen lands, prayer books in your pockets, rifles in your hands”
The Cook Islands Christian Church remains a legacy of missionary activity in the territory, and this plays a large part in the continued criminalization of sex-same activities. Over half of Cook Island’s 21,000 inhabitants are active congregants, whilst many thousand more are non-practicing evangelicals, meaning that the church has a powerful role in influencing both government and society, condemning homosexuality, cross dressing and public displays of affection.
Similarly, missionaries made their impact on the island of Tonga, where male sex-same activity can be punishable by up to ten years in prison. On top of the threat of imprisonment, LGBTQ Tongans could also face the threat of flogging.
Curiously, Tonga does have a third gender culture called Fakaleiti, in which a male is brought up and subsequently behaves in an effeminate manner, usually to compensate for a lack of girls in a family household. This unique identify remains untouched by any theological doctrine or homophobic administration; truly proving that the colonial legacy in the Pacific region is the most prominent reason behind why island nations such as Tonga lack progressive protections for LGBTQ citizens.
With the continued imposition of colonial laws and 19th century Christian “virtues”, large parts of the Pacific remain behind the rest of the western world in LGBTQ rights. Ironically, it was the western world that gave Oceania the foundations to discriminate against non-heterosexuals, and it may seem hypocritical that these former colonial powers would now dictate to less developed nations on human rights. It is however, a righteous hypocrisy in a region that is stunning in it’s diversity of people and scenery, yet tragically lagging behind in securing rights to all of it’s citizens.
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