Moana Vā - nagivators of Pacific Pride

Lana Shields, and her daughters, Alex Faimalo (centre) and Selina Faimalo.

Coming out as a member of the Rainbow+ community can be incredibly difficult. And for young Pacific people, who face a range of cultural, religious and societal expectations, it can be even harder, says Lana Shields, Co-ordinator of Moana Vā, an organisation which supports Pacific Rainbow+ communities and their families in Ōtautahi and the wider Waitaha region. “Pacific people are often worried they won’t be accepted if they come out and are scared they are going to be banished from their family, church or community. Homosexuality is not talked about openly in most Pacific communities, and even if people have come out to their immediate families they often find it difficult to be open publicly.”

Lana’s daughter Alex Faimalo, who is 30, has been an “out and proud” lesbian since she was a teenager. Alex says she was sure of her identity from a young age and was lucky to have the support of her mum. “I told my mum when I was about nine or 10 years old that I thought I liked a girl at school. She was fine with it but said I was young, and it could be a phase so not to put myself into a box just yet. When I was 13, I told her I definitely liked women and she said she thought so too, and if that’s how I identified it was fine by her. There was no judgement.”

Alex came out to her Dad, who was a former professional rugby league player also living in the UK, when she was 16. “Dad was fine about my sexuality but in the beginning, he found it challenging that I cut my hair and only wanted to wear masculine clothing. Now he accepts me 100 percent for who I am.”

Alex is married to her wife, also named Alex, and they have an adorable eight-month-old daughter named Navy. She is aware that her positive story of coming out and starting her own family isn’t the norm for many young Samoan or Pacific people. “A lot of members of Moana Vā have really traumatic coming out stories, which is one of the reasons I wanted to be part of this organisation, creating a support network in a safe space. I also wanted to show that it is possible to live a happy life as an open Pacific Rainbow+ person.”

Lana says many Pacific Island cultures have traditional beliefs and practices that view homosexuality as taboo or sinful and can create an atmosphere of fear. “In Samoa you can still go to prison for being homosexual.”

Fear of harrassment, rejection and being isolated, while trying to navigate the strict gender roles and expectations in some Pacific communities, can also stop some young people from coming out.

After hearing the challenging stories of many young Rainbow+ Pacific people in Ōtautahi, Lana and Alex were convinced to help establish Moana Vā, alongside its founder Vui Suli Tuitaupe, a friend of Lana’s, who had faced significant challenges himself, when he came out as a young Samoan gay man. “Vui Suli was a Sunday School teacher and interacted with a lot of young people in the rainbow community. He was worried about what sort of support they were getting and saw a need to do something. He didn’t want them to go through what he had as a child and young man,” says Lana.

Two years ago, a few like-minded people started Moana Vā, gathering for monthly meetings in each other’s homes and workplaces. Today, the fast-growing organisation provides support, advocacy and mentorship of LGBTQIA+ MVPFAFF+ (mahu, vakasalewa, palopa, fa’afafine, akava’ine, fakaleiti (leiti), fakafifine) communities in the Canterbury Region. It has recently moved into its own premises, with its new landlord Te Putahitanga o Te Waipounamu, also hosting a lot of the group’s early meetings. Lana has just become Moana Vā’s first full-time employee.

Lana says Moana Vā is a conduit for connection, sharing aspirations, goals, stories and creating narratives to be heard and passed on to future allies. As well as being a support group, the organisation runs numerous events, and is a provider of information and access to services which address the needs of the community.

Moana Vā’s monthly Koko Nights are hugely popular. Held at Arcadia at 204 Barbadoes Street the events are a great way for members of Pacific Rainbow+ communities, their family members, and allies to gather in a super supportive space, to meet new friends, socialise, play games, enjoy refreshments, and maybe even have a whirl on the karaoke machine!

Lana says many of the Moana Vā collective members are straight allies, which can be an advantage when advocating for rainbow friends and family members. “We’ve realised that straight people are sometimes the best advocates, to prevent rainbow people having to relive trauma in certain situations.”

She says Pacific values come naturally at Moana Vā and are a special part of the organisation. “We are hospitable and loving and pride ourselves on being whanau and aiga led. We accept everyone, including the families of our rainbow community members, who value the support and information we provide for them too.”

With gender and sexuality now so fluid, the importance of good information has perhaps never been greater, says Lana. “Since we’ve been doing this work over the last two years, we’ve noticed a growing awareness around gender and sexuality fluidity among families of Pacific rainbow people. Even those who were very set in their ways are starting to come around slowly and be more open.”

As a strong, proud lesbian woman, Alex has some great tips for any young Pacific person who might be struggling with their identity or sexuality. “Get some advice and seek help if you need it. At Moana Vā, we provide loving support, whether that is coming to one of our events, reaching out to us for some advice, having a coffee, or connecting with us via email or social media. It’s important that someone is listening to you. We are a family first and even if your family or community don’t accept you right now, we will.”

How to contact Moana Vā (open Monday to Thursday)

Level 1, DMC Building
2 Dundas Street
Mobile: 021 416 347