“I made it my mission to oppress the shame….trying to satisfy every expectation and hope my parents had for me. I became the first person from my family to graduate from University. I took up the piano so I could play for our church. I strived to be the best netballer in the Men’s game as well as in Australia. I took on leadership and social roles in the EFKS Church Space as well as in my University space. I tried my best in all things and sought to fill the need for my parents to have their “golden child”…But oppressing and suppressing your truth can only last so long. You only delay the inevitable and start to hate yourself in the process. I hated who I was in the mirror…”
This is the 8th in the Own Voices Series where I share the stories of Pasifika LGBTQI from around the world. (Keeping in mind that the terms LGBTQI are a palagi world construct and don’t always fit the varied Pasifika concepts of gender and sexuality.) Today I welcome my awesome friend Junior Levi from Brisbane Australia. The Telesa Series brought us together – he was on the Komiti that helped organize one of my Griffith Univ book launches long time ago – and after my telling him he’s the tallest (7ft+!!) Daniel Tahi lookalike I’ve ever met, we’ve been friends ever since. Junior is Samoan, born in Auckland NZ and lived there until he was ten, when his family migrated to Australia. After graduating from Corinda State High, he did a Business degree in HR and International Management at Griffith University. He was President of the Griffith Pasifika Student Association. A brilliant athlete – he plays netball for Queensland and is also on the Australian National Netball team, helping to win the most recent Netball World championship. (My first time having a World Champion on this blog woohoo!) Junior is also an exceptional musician (his band is amazing) and he’s a self-described “singer/dancer hybrid extraordinaire.” Thank you Junior for accepting my invite to participate in the Series.
There was never a moment of realisation that I was “gay” growing up, I wasn’t suddenly blinded by some light as God blinded Paul in the New Testament, and told I would forevermore be attracted to men. I didn’t dream of rainbows and beautiful men riding on unicorns and I definitely didn’t wake up some morning making the choice to be gay. I was however, conscious early on that I wasn’t sexually attracted to women. Yet I loved to be around them all day, loved to watch my sisters in their daily workings, admired the domestic goddess my mother was in her wisdom and stern hand and through my schooling life, I made little cliques with proud respectful girls.
There was realisation though and this realisation I associated mostly with shame. Not shame of my sexual orientation but that of the worlds view on sexual orientation, my world’s view. My conservative Samoan household with my “word for worse than conservative” Church Minister Father and beautiful but deadly authoritarian Mother – my world said “NO TO GAY”, said no to anything outside the nuclear family construct of marriage between a Man and Woman. Those who were attracted to the same sex were painted as outsiders to society, aliens of the norm and were shamed.
Brené Brown defines shame as an intensely painful feeling and believing that you’re flawed therefore unworthy of love and belonging. I remember one day when I was quite young, I walked past my mother in the hallway and she smacked me and said not to walk like that, like a “faafafine” (a man who has feminine qualities). That small interaction snowballed into feelings of internal shame. On the exterior I showed none of this, coming from a proud family I would shrug it off and carry on in life but inside the “shame” seed was planted and growing at an alarming rate.
Brown goes further comparing guilt and shame, guilt means “I DID” something wrong, whereas shame says “I AM” wrong, with me this was nothing but truth.
Growing up with this truth I then made it my mission to oppress the shame. I did this by trying to satisfy every expectation and hope my parents had for me. They demanded a scholar who excelled in the arts and on the sports fields too. I became the first person from my family to graduate from University. I had always sang but I also took up the piano so I could play for our church. I strived to be the best netballer in the Men’s game as well as in Australia. I became a presence in the community, speaking out and taking leadership and social roles in the EFKS Church Space as well as in my University space. I tried my best in all things and sought to fill the need for my parents to have their “golden child”. And why not? I love my parents. I dont believe unconditional love exists but what I have for them is close enough.
But oppressing and suppressing your truth can only last so long. You only delay the inevitable and start to hate yourself in the process. I hated who I was in the mirror. I started to wish with all my might that the “gay would go away” as I imagined that everything about me would be better if I wasn’t gay. I had visions of bringing home a beautiful woman and introducing her to my parents and completing their “golden child” needs. I never contemplated suicide but came close to it at times. I gained a lot of weight. I was very unhappy. Being the youngest of 4 children I watched my elder siblings go through life all married with children young, make questionable decisions and I didn’t want this for me, I wanted to give my parents the son of their dreams and a part from my sexuality I was about to give them all this but that’s not how life works. Everything came to an inevitable boiling pressure point when I graduated from Uni. I could no longer distract myself from the fact that it was time to make decisions towards the rest of my adult life, like a family and a love life.
I finally decided to play it old school. I wrote a letter to my parents, telling them about my shame and my homosexuality, telling them I wouldnt return and bring that shame upon them. My netball team was going out of state for a national tournament and I had the letter delivered after I left. My plan was to leave home and start my life away from my parents. I figured that way, I would never have to face the shame of being gay in front of them, I would never have to face the failure my life had turned out to be.
My plan backfired (as everything in my life seemed to do at the time!) After the tournament, I found at least 100 missed calls to my phone and numerous messages and emails from family and friends all worried about my safety. It wasn’t that easy to disappear off the face of the planet!
I decided to speak to my father over the phone and after a week away I ended up at home, facing the reality of coming out. My parents weren’t the most receiving but they understood, and for a moment put their views aside to consider me. My family had been so worried about me and were just happy I was safe. I don’t think they understood what a huge weight was lifted just by them knowing. It didn’t matter so much how they felt, only that I was no longer living a lie. “Coming out to the world is nothing, its coming out to those who matter that does”. Life hasn’t super progressed, but I’m happy living in my truth and being open with my parents at the very least, baby steps for now but I’m glad God has given me this chance and I can only wait and see what’s in store.
I never felt like sharing the above until the Orlando Massacre. This blatant senseless attack on the lives of innocent people regardless of their sexual orientation should never ever be tolerated and not only America but the entire world needs to do a lot of soul searching, what do we stand for and as Humans what will we not tolerate? Reading through articles and watching viral videos online I went through a rollercoaster of emotions – anger, sadness, anxiety and emptiness – all running through my mind, in the end feeling empowered to do something. Perhaps sharing my story can help someone out there?
It saddened me that some media channels focused on the attacker, his life, culture, beliefs and motives behind the attack. I choose not to acknowledge him as to do this gives power to his cause, gives him stance. Instead I focus on the lives lost, the importance of LGBTQI rights and the right for anyone to live their truth and not feel afraid because of it.
When we talk about empowerment, we often think about our “Role Models and Icons”, everything from the parents who brought you into this world, to those who we use to help create our social construct. We rely on them to be our social and cultural compass. But rather than ‘role models’, I prefer to consider everyone in life a “possibility model.” The beautiful trans woman Laverne Cox says – that rather than modelling our lives on someone else’s, we should instead live our truth out loud and by so doing, we can present to others, another possibility, hopefully for a better and brighter future.
In the wake of Orlando it’s important that as individuals consider the possibility models that are before us. We must consider our choices and how others will look to us as a possibility if they make the same choices. As a community it’s important we stand up and give back and it can be something big like protesting, to something small like just being you EVERYWHERE. Having the courage to stand up and live your truth. Never be afraid to be the real you, especially in public. Be a possibility model to encourage those that can’t and educate those that don’t know.
Remember the impact you have on others is often the most valuable currency there is.
If you’ve reached here, sorry the above is so long, but I hope you’ve taken something from it that might be useful! Take every small and every large realisation in life and learn from it, while living in your truth remember that others have their truth too so respect that.