Pasifika and pansexual – “I have learned not to apologise for being born with the ability to love anyone regardless of their sex or gender, because that would disrespect the One who designed me that way…I would no sooner apologise for this than being born Samoan or Filipino. I didn’t choose those and I’m not ashamed of them, either.”
This is the fifth in the Own Voices Pasifika LGBTQI Series here on my blog. Phineas Hartson in Sydney Australia, Princess Arianna in American Samoa, Penehuro Williams in Nevada USA, and Leka Heimuli in Utah USA have all shared their voices thus far. It takes courage to speak one’s truth in a public forum, and I’m grateful to all our guest-writers. Today we welcome Amy Tielu in Auckland New Zealand. Samoan-Filipino (and pansexual), Amy is completing her Masters degree in Creative Technologies at the Auckland Univ of Technology (AUT). Daughter of a minister, she is active in her familys ministry of service at the Papakura Presbyterian Pacific Island Church. She’s also an exec member of the OUT Club – AUT’s network of LGBTQI+ students.
Amy with her sister & parents.
“LGBTQIA+”, a term to describe the community that will not stop until it has collected the entire alphabet. See that ‘plus’ sign? That’s future planning.
When I was asked to contribute to this series, my first instinct was to ask my family if they would be comfortable featuring in an article on Pasifika LGBTQIA+. Their first and only concern was how much it could distract from my studies.
I’ve joked that my parents would sooner freak out about me leaving school or being job-less than for not being heterosexual. I love them for their priorities.
But we didn’t start out this way.
My name is Amy Talingting Tielu. I was born in Canada, the second of two daughters, to a Filipino mother, Grace Tielu, (of Cagayan de Oro) and Samoan father, Apelu Tielu (Moata’a, Salea’aumua, Lalomanu and Sauano). At the time, my parents were in Canada for postgraduate studies, and I spent my earliest years in the multicultural community of Guelph’s university town before following the family wherever studies or work took us.
My Dad has often said our aiga was founded on two principles: God and education. So, it’s not surprising that I’m now a minister’s daughter and pursuing my own postgraduate studies. I’m a business analyst and writer by trade, but when I decided to leave Australia’s Commonwealth Public Service, I was blessed with the opportunity to pursue a Masters of Creative Technologies with the Auckland University of Technology.
My research investigates how we can take our indigenous Samoan form of fāgogo online into the 21st century in a way that celebrates the strengths of our oral tradition and blends it with digital storytelling designed for participation. I’m aiming to finish in October 2016 (lol; pray for me).
When I joined the university and was looking for community, one of the first clubs I joined was the OUT@AUT network of LGBTQIA+ students. With love to my peers, one of my first impressions was #StudentsSoWhite; where were the Asian and Pasifika students? I was surprised how this suggested students might still perceive this as a palagi space, just for Caucasians. As we know, culture(s) is(are) largely to answer for that. Not too long ago, I misunderstood in the same way.
My earliest memory of lingering in hugs from other girls was when I was about five, on the grounds of Robert Louis Stevenson School in Samoa. Everything is innocent at that age, and in the 90’s context of Samoa, we were taught romantic relationships only existed in one way: between a man and a woman.
So, it wasn’t until I moved with the family to Australia, and I started recognising myself in new stories, that I began to worry.
By the time I had a fair idea of what was going on, I was pretty irritated. Wasn’t it enough that I was afakasi: too brown for the palagi, too Western for my Samoan and Filipino communities? God didn’t think it was enough that I was mediocre at every classical instrument; that I was preoccupied living up to academic pressure?
Now I had to realise that girls were beautiful, too?
And not just the kind of “beautiful” where you’re cheering on your girls because they look fierce, they’re kicking goals with grace and humility, and you want them to succeed; but the affection that forms on top of all that where you realise, “I would like to kiss you.”
To make matters worse, I was pretty sure guys were still fair game.
Girls and guys, oh, why me, Lord?
When I finally broke the news to my parents, my confusion didn’t help their initial apprehension. We were a strong Protestant Christian family. Contemporary Filipino and Samoan values effectively mirrored each other when it came to gender and sexuality. It was suggested that I was confused and no doubt influenced by all my Australian friends with their different ways and ideas.
I remember a particular Ash Wednesday service shortly after. I was so sure it would burn when the minister placed the sign of the cross on my forehead. I expected the sacrament to scald my throat. It didn’t.
After a typical childhood of siblings barely tolerating each other, my sister became my unexpected hero. Her Resting Unimpressed Face would become the grounding theme and reality check to my recurring panic: “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re being stupid.”
Through my disavowal of women at eighteen: “You’re being stupid.”
Through my vow to only love women around the mid-twenties: “Why are we still talking about this? Why can’t you just be whatever you are and stop worrying about it?”
For me, it is impossible to talk about my journey without talking about family.
There is no way I would have achieved what I have in every aspect of life, if I hadn’t reconciled all the parts of myself. I couldn’t have found peace of mind without my champion of my older sister who stood and fought for me against my parents before I even understood what was happening; without my parents’ unconditional love that made them dig deep to understand and negotiate their misgivings; without the steadfast support of friends who became the extended family of my heart while all my aiga were abroad.
The source of — and answer to — all my challenges was love; compassion.
How much energy does it take to re-evaluate all your assumptions about an unfamiliar community: the rainbow (LGBTQIA+) community, ethnic circles, the church?
And why would you bother?
I believe that my life is a loan from God, and it’s my charge to leave this place a little better than how I found it. I believe that service and reciprocity are the most underrated and selfless expressions of alofa. I believe that everyone is created equal and deserving in their own right to be safe, whole and happy.
I learned each of these lessons from each of these communities. I learned it was all connected.
I learned not to apologise for being born with the ability to love anyone regardless of their sex or gender, because that would disrespect the One who designed me that way. Apparently it’s called ‘pansexual’ – distinct from ‘bi’ which means ‘two’ and refers to attraction to both male and female genders, but only these two. In contrast, ‘pan’ means ‘all inclusive’, recognising other genders and our peers who flow between genders. Brave new world, right? Well, it’s not new, but our understanding might be.
I don’t worry too much about labels because, who knows? In a few years the language may change again. I won’t. Trust me, I tried. So hard. I tried. Now, I would no sooner apologise for this than being born Samoan or Filipino. I didn’t choose those and I’m not ashamed of them, either.
Some would contest this is all a test of my faith and cultural identity. I agree! A lot of my non-Samoan or non-religious friends also asked why I didn’t just walk away from all the prejudice and intolerance. In answer to all of these people, one more time for those up the back – you can’t choose the soul and mind you were given or where you came from, you can only deny it or work to accept it. The test was set, and I discerned the challenge,
“Can you love yourself enough to accept and learn about yourself? Can you persevere to express Jesus’s love and the love of your ancestors, for all of this opposition: your church, your ethnic communities? Your extended family? Yourself? How much love do you have to give?”
I can’t say I didn’t punch anyone along the way, but we’re all works in progress. Now, I know the source of that love is limitless.
In the Pacific Ocean, while our nations are distinct, our cultures are mutually famous for our compassion, fierce loyalty and hospitality. This reputation is no accident. This is what I want to appeal to, because this is what saved me.
To my Pasifika community: I guarantee you know someone who is too frightened to share their truth for fear of losing you, or fear for their own safety.
We love you. If you truly love us, too, please open yourself to the idea that we could choose kalo or rice, we can even choose not to go to church, but we cannot choose this. It can only be denied and that self-hate is a path to self-destruction that poisons every relationship. Everyone loses in that scenario.
We don’t have all the answers. We’re still learning about this aspect of our identity; I don’t know if there’s an equivalent Samoan or Pasifika concept for ‘pansexual’ beyond simply being human. However, we can’t underestimate how sophisticated Samoan culture is and understood itself before Christianity was introduced. Make no mistake, I love my Lord, but our London Missionaries and the legacy of colonialism have a lot to answer for in displacing the value of our indigenous knowledge. I would not be surprised if cultural studies reveal Samoan aganu’u already understood gender and sexuality in deeper ways, or ways we might think were invented by the palagi (refer: “fa’afafine” vs “transgender”).
Friends and family, I want you to remember any struggle you endured when you were young. Please be the person you needed in your youth. Listen to understand. Think, speak and act from a place of compassion. Ask your questions with patience and consideration. Malo le onosa’i.
It does get better. I’m so blessed to say that, today, my family are closer and happier than we have ever been. We used to struggle to say I’m sorry or I love you. Not a day goes by now that we don’t remind each other we love each other. In spite of expectations, it never gets old.
In partnership with my family in ministry at the Papakura Presbyterian Pacific Island Church, and as a leader now in my university’s rainbow community, I hope my presence and research will help our Pasifika youth find courage to become active in our communities, build their confidence, discover their God-given talents, and live their purpose. Our people are amazing and the world is going through dire challenges, we’re all needed, and we all have something to contribute.
So, to the youth who are still questioning their place: you belong everywhere and anywhere. To the youth wondering what’s wrong with them: nothing — you’re on a journey to know yourself and change is always uncomfortable. Keep going. To the youth thinking of giving up: you’ve survived every day so far, which is a 100% rate of success. You are stronger than you know. You are loved, you are worthy, you are not a burden.
And you were never alone.
And just because Lani thought it would be a good idea, here’s some dating advice (I can hear parents roaring already; peace, and let they who have never needed advice be the first to raise their salu): if you’re bi or pan, and you don’t know if someone’s into you or not… if you’re gay and can’t tell the straights from the fellow gays… just assume everyone’s into you, until proven otherwise. The rest is pretty much the same for anyone, whatever you are (with obvious exception of culturally-specific customs): whatever moves you pull, just let respect guide you. Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking neurotic or abusive relationships are characteristic of the rainbow community. No, that is just characteristic of bad relationships, and you don’t have time for that.
But you’ll struggle to love anyone until you accept and love yourself first (get your own house in order), so that’s your priority. And finish your schooling.
The academic Brené Brown notes that community and dialogue are the antidote to isolation, shame and division. Thank you, Lani, for providing us with a platform to come together and talanoa.
Fa’afetai, fa’afetai tele lava. Ia manuia