Reflections from the Intersections
By Patrick Thomsen
When your job literally is to question the ways in which society portrays groups of people through various representations, being positioned at the margins gives you unique insights into the ways in which words shape and form people’s positions in this world. But it also condemns you to a life where you’re pummeled by relentless attacks on social and mainstream media.
Some people would say that I’m a victim of my own inability to overcome the “Oppression Olympics.” That all the hate speech that I encounter against minorities is because I seek it out myself.
I can assure you that they’re most certainly wrong.
No one in their right mind would ever choose this life. To sit in the shadows of intersections, where multiple forms of social exclusion conspire to drain you of not only your self-confidence, but on particularly bad days, your will to live.
As a Samoan kid who grew up poor, gay and unfortunately brown in the sense that he couldn’t pass as palagi, or “straight-acting” meant that mainstream New Zealand couldn’t house me neatly within a heteronormative ¼ acre backyard.
And by a cruel double-whammy of transnational migratory colonial trickery, Samoan diaspora society wouldn’t house me either. The pulpits of their magnanimous churches may have been lined with bricks that were paid for by the sweat and blood of my forbearer’s factory money, but there was no room for deviant sexual identities like mine.
Borrowing from Kimberlee Crenshaw, I’m what you might call an intersectional minority. I, like a great deal many others, built my identity along an axis of class, race/ethnicity - being brown and Samoan in this case - which combined with my gay sexual identity, making for an interesting mix of marginalizing life experiences.
And where the koko Samoa plot thickens, is when we factor in the extra experiences of exclusions that come from within our own communities. As a Samoan, we experience the quite unusual situation of growing up in a culture where diverse forms of gender/sexual identity that are part of our gafa (i.e. fa’afafine/fa’afatama), is juxtaposed quite violently against systematic homophobia, thrusted upon us through Christianity.
This has created a cacophony of confusion (auola). Mainstream media run comments from rugby stars like Israel Folau as a representation of a “conservative” Pacific community, when within our own families fa’afafine and fa’afatama are leaders, hold matai titles, raise what Westerners would call ‘de-facto families’ (we just call them families) and some are even preachers in church congregations. Yet, the platforms are always given to religious zealots in New Zealand and Australia to be the voices of the Pasifika community.
Unfortunately for people like me, having our communities represented by someone like Folau is jarring in the worst sense for multiple reasons. It reminds me of how mainstream society excludes Pasifika sexual minorities as fully-realized members of our community, as he speaks over us, and is an even more painful reminder of our exclusion by our own communities. This two-pronged attack brings into question our very existence, something that many of us, even at the ripe-old-age of 30-something (that I find myself at), have struggled to cultivate over the years. Pasifika youth in NZ have the highest rates of teenage suicide, with LGBTIQ+ youth having the highest incidences of mental health risk and are at most risk of self-harm of all. I can tell you now that growing up I saw this all around me and have struggled with this my entire life.
You know, the attacks don’t stop there either. As an intersectional minority, my concern is not just for the gay community, it’s also for my ethnic community. As mainstream New Zealand has intensified its racist attacks and microaggressions on Maori (shout out to Taika) and other ethnic communities lately (Chinese sounding last names anyone?), this also represents an attack on my right to exist as a Samoan (What have we ever done for NZ Mr. Hosking asks?). Defending my people’s contribution to Aotearoa on social media required me to pull receipts out from another bag of knowledge housed in a different part of my identity framework. It was no-less painful than having to defend my sexuality. That was my community’s legacy, their blood, sweat, tears, that was undermined by a single flippant question.
And now the latest round of attacks (I say latest, because they’re on-going) that have been brought onto the trans community that has been launched from all sectors of New Zealand’s cisgender society has seen a large following come from within the Pacific Island community, has complicated things for me even more. These attacks on Laurel Hubbard have been based on misinformation and wonky science that was orchestrated by a poorly-written TVNZ headline that firstly demeaned Samoan weightlifter Feagaiga Stowers by refusing to name her, and then using Laurel as bait to bring out the TERFs.
Trans people are marginalized people, they may not all be our kinfolk through blood lines, but trans people are part of our community. There are many trans Pasifika people, they are my sisters and brothers in arms who have struggled against mis-gendering, mislabeling, misunderstanding, deliberate hatred as well as religious and pseudo-scientific attempts at their invalidation, yet stood their ground bravely in their truth.
I’ve had fa’afafine (not the same as trans by the way) and trans women become central parts of my family over the years, growing up in a single-parent home meant that mum got help from people who came from all walks of life. This teaches you that irrespective of where someone comes from, what their gender or sexual identity is, what lays at the heart of every human being is a spirit whose goodness isn’t determined by a bible verse. As a supporter of trans rights and Pacific empowerment I was doubly betrayed by mainstream media that day.
Then there’s the poor thing. I grew up in in Manurewa, went to school in Mangere, and hung out in Manukau, Papatoetoe, Otara, Otahuhu etc. and I feel as connected to South Auckland and Middlemore hospital as I do to Apia (I told you it was a cruel transnational colonial trick that brought me here). Watching the walls of the hospital that I was born in literally become lined with shit, has not only been infuriating, it’s been soul-destroying to be reminded that once again, your people just don’t matter.
Back in 2015, when I returned from Korea, I needed to have an emergency procedure performed on my stomach. It was off to Middlemore I went. The hospital was clearly not in a good state and when I sat in the emergency room with magogi sosogo wafting through the corridors (that’s piss smell for all you non-French speakers), I had a rather large needle sticking into my stomach, the very palagi doctor felt it the perfect time to avail herself of the frustrations she felt at working in my “dirty community.” One that was full of “fat, brown lazy people” who wouldn’t do anything to help themselves. I almost took the needle out of my stomach and inserted it into hers.
As a one-time budding academic who believes in my practice as my form of activism, which aims to reshape and re-form narratives and structures of exclusion, these are the forces that I commit to confronting merely by existing. You may call it the “Oppression Olympics,” but they are my reality not by choice, but by necessity.
So, the point is this, for the Pasifika community, we may indeed be marginalized as a collective, along class and ethnic lines, but within that collective, there are individuals who are being made invisible by our inability to see the diversity that exists within us. There are other intersectional Pasifika people like me, who aren’t academics, but they’re artists, they’re writers, they’re athletes, they’re your brothers, they’re your sisters, they’re trans and a great deal many other identities. They suffer like I do, daily, the same and different struggles as well. They see the things that I do, they grapple with prejudice, ask why people hate us from so many different angles, they navigate these online spaces wearily, they hear what you say, they see what you write, they feel it in their core and it hurts deeply.
For me, I envy those who are lucky enough to have a limited focus in academia and are relieved of this burden. There are many who can be “just” an indigenous studies scholar, or “just” a gender studies scholar. But as an intersectional scholar, there is no “just”, it’s everyone, everything or nothing. Which is why I can’t commit to being just a Pacific studies scholar or just a Korean studies scholar like everyone seems to think I should be. I don’t think I can even commit to being in academia in the long term as there isn’t space for intersectional scholars just yet.
But like the adage says, if there’s no space for you, make your own, which is what I intend on doing, whether that space is academia or not, remains to be seen. What I do know for certain is that now that I have dared to leave my intersections, I have no choice but to fight for my truth as an intersectional Samoan.