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Sharing the Cook Islands’ human rights story at World Pride event

Saturday 18 March 2023 | Written by Matthew Littlewood | Published in Local, National


Sharing the Cook Islands’ human rights story at World Pride event
Valery Wichman, left, with other panel members after talking to an audience about LGBTQI issues in the Cook Islands. SUPPLIED/23031742

Val Wichman was a special guest at Sydney’s World Pride earlier this month. She talks to senior journalist Matthew Littlewood about the experience, and what Te Tiare Association, the Cook Islands LGBTQ+ advocacy organisation, wants to see happen in the Rainbow Community here.

There is still a long way to go for the Anuanua community in the Cook Islands towards realising full equality.

That’s the sentiment of Te Tiare Association president Valery Wichman.

Wichman was a special guest at Sydney’s World Pride Event earlier this month, where she joined panels to discuss the status of the Anuanua community in the Cook Islands.

At the moment, same sex relations are still considered a crime in the Cook Islands under the Crimes Act 1969, although it is expected a new Crimes Bill removing that definition, will go to Parliament later this year.

Wichman, who has been involved with Te Tiare Association since its inception in 2008, says the Sydney event reinvigorated and empowered her.

“I guess it was about making all the positive connections, both internationally and regionally,” Wichman says.

“I learned about all the different stages other nations were at in their journey to promote human rights.”

Wichman says she was particularly impressed with the presentation by former New Zealand politician Louisa Wall, who spoke about her efforts to support and lobby for the community.

As an MP, Wall introduced a bill to parliament legalising same-sex marriage, which became law in New Zealand in 2013.  

“It’s all about empowerment and educating our future,” Wichman says.

Sydney World Pride, which went from February 17 to March 5, was the first time the event had been held in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The next such event will be held in Washington DC in 2025.

Wichman says events such as this are always intensely political.

“Everyone there has specific challenges and agendas within the broader Rainbow Community,” she says.

“In such a big event it is about being strategic in getting your voice out there. I think we were lucky to get on a number of panels over the week, sometimes I was the one Pacific voice on the panel and was happy to amplify our challenges.”

Thousands of people attended the event, and Wichman says there was an “incredible energy” associated with it.

“You feed off it, and you realise you’re not alone when it comes to representing Rainbow Communities who are facing challenges. It couldn’t have been more positive in that regard,” Wichman says.

For Wichman, ensuring legislative change for equality comes through is just the beginning.

“That is obviously a priority, and not just because we’ve waited so long, and have been promised it by the leaders of the major political parties in the Cook Islands,” she says.

“Other areas of priority include being counted and understanding the size of our community. There needs to be more research done on the needs of the Rainbow Community in the Cook Islands. At the moment, we are not incorporated in our Census. So, there is a need for data.”

Wichman says she feels optimistic about the Rainbow Community in the Cook Islands.

“A big part of it is ensuring our Rainbow youth feel like they can belong here,” she says.

“Young people are more confident when they have role models to look up to.”

It was also clear from her experience at Sydney World Pride that any assistance from other countries and communities needed to properly match the priorities of the Cook Islands and the communities.

“We have to follow our own path and priorities,” Wichman says.

“If development partners want to work with us, then they need to work with us.”

Building a relationship and dialogue over the years with our respective churches in the Cook Islands has also been a challenge, Wichman says.

“I have seen a positive shift in the majority of churches in reflecting Christian values of love, kindness and respect for each other when it comes to the debate for equality.”

While she enjoyed the Madi Gras atmosphere of Sydney World Pride, Wichman says it might not translate to the Cook Islands just yet.

“It would be great to have a Madi Gras in Rarotonga, but let’s remove Cook Islands’ discriminatory laws first,” Wichman says.

“What I want to see happen is that we leave a legacy for future generations, ensuring the nation is in a better place.”