It’s been a tough year for New Zealand Labour MP Louisa Wall who has come to Rarotonga to find healing in its waters.
“I lost one of my brothers this year, (who was only) 46 years old, to cancer. That’s really tough so we’ve come here because we do believe that this is the place for healing and a place that’s got a lot of love.”
A proud wahine Maori and staunch human rights advocate, Wall carries herself with mana. And she certainly has the accolades to show for it.
In 1989 she was named in New Zealand’s National netball team, the Silver Ferns at just 17 years old. Ten years later she would go on to make the country’s national women’s rugby team, the Black Ferns and help New Zealand win their first Women’s Rugby World Cup.
She is relaxed and softly-spoken when I sit down with her in the lobby of the hotel where she’s staying in Muri. But you can feel the determination she has to be a “voice for others that can’t be a voice for themselves.”
“My parents always said to me you’ve got to look after your younger brothers and sisters but also you have to look after others.
“If you see something that’s happening before you and it’s not right, well if you don’t do something about it then it means you agree with it and I can’t sit there and not say anything if somethings happened.”
For the openly-lesbian politician who successfully campaigned to legalise same-sex marriage in New Zealand, that means speaking up about the Cook Island’s controversial debate over decriminalizing homosexuality.
Current laws state that gay men and lesbian women who are found to have consensual sexual contact with people of the same-sex could be sentenced for up to seven years imprisonment.
Although the law itself has never been enforced, Wall says it is in breach the Cook Island’s own constitution which allows the “right of the individual to equality before the law.”
“For me and I think people who are law-makers, now that we know that we have a responsibility to ensure that the laws of any country do not breach constitutions but also do not stigmatise and further discriminate against what I see is a very vulnerable group within our societies.”
“Our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth (LGBT), our young aka vaine, aka tane, takatapui are four to five times more like to self-harm and to suicide so that means that our young people are growing up thinking that something’s wrong with them.”
It’s these figures that motivate Wall to change the attitudes and laws of institutions that oppress or reject LGBT. But when it comes to life and death, Wall says they must be held to account.
“I think they should be asked to think about their role in preventing our young people from harming and killing themselves.”
“That’s what I would like to ask them; is the outcome of what you teach to harm and to kill because we now know that that is what happens when our young people who are LGBT are told that there is something wrong with them, that they’ve got the devil in them.”
In November Cook Island MPs made a u-turn on promises to decriminalise homosexuality due to pressure from the churches. The Homosexual Law Reform is now before a select committee that has been granted an extension to report back to Government in up to six months.
Wall says “In some ways for the community it’s been a good opportunity to educate the whanau (family) here about what the law reform is actually proposing.”
“Many people don’t realise that it’s a crime in the Cook Islands to be homosexual and essentially the crimes bill wants to say that homosexuals shouldn’t be criminals and we shouldn’t go to jail.”
For Wall who grew up in Te Haahi Ratana or Ratana Church, a Maori religious organization, she knows all too well the experience of “coming out” but is grateful for the support from her family, particularly her mum and dad who gave her the “affirmation” she needed.
“My father challenged me about being happy because he knew that I would face discrimination, stigmatisation - that people would use it as a rationale for not supporting me and that life would be challenging because I’ve chosen to be takatapui.
“That’s when I said ‘Dad, I haven’t chosen this. This is who I am and I embrace it and I accept it. I’m not going to hide because I’m not ashamed of myself.’
“For me this has always been an expression of the gifts that my tupuna (ancestors) gave me just like my sporting gifts and other gifts and so he just said ‘Well if that’s how you feel, we love you.’”
It’s an issue she’s vowed to see decriminalised globally before she retires as a politician, which could be a way off.
There are 73 countries across the world where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in same-sex consensual contact are criminalised. In 12 of those countries, same-sex consensual contact is still punishable by death.
But Wall believes that there is a place for indigenous and Pacific communities like the Cook Islands to set an example and join the 28 that have decriminalised same-sex relationships and marriages.
“I think the example that Cook Islands would be able to set is actually going through the process of understanding the colonial context, going through the process of where this sits within the constitution, going through the process about how historically we embraced aka vaine, aka tane, takatapui and actually reclaiming something that is fundamental to who we are as a peoples.”
“From my perspective we’re all born as seeds of our ancestors and our ancestors, our tupuna, our atua (gods) made us perfect” says Wall.
Although the laws of the country may not be in favour of its LGBT community, Wall says she does not support calls to boycott the Cook Islands which would also impact them.
Instead she’s calling for local businesses to throw behind their support.
“I want the people of the Cook Islands to know that I am here because I do support. I think that’s a more positive way and I think it’s the way that we should interact with each other.”
And it’s that interaction that has bought her here to the Cook Island’s to find healing.
Because at its heart, that’s what makes the Cook Islands special to the people from all walks of life who come from across the ocean to visit her.
“That’s what we want to see. We just want for this beautiful Cook Island to fully embrace and love all of us.”