We Are Here: Pasifika Pride in NYC
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
Author: Dr Anne-Marie Tupuola-Plunkett, Interviewee: Henry Aho
New York recently hosted the World Pride March in conjunction with the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Thousands took to the streets in NYC in solidarity and in support of LGBTQ+ rights and to celebrate LGBTQ+ lives and communities. The importance of such occasions cannot be understated nor taken for granted. The opportunity for LGBTQ+ communities to celebrate their sexualities and to display pride in who they are is not always available nor warmly embraced.
I’d like to introduce Henry Aho, a young gay Tongan man living in NYC who also spent time living in New Zealand. Henry participated in World Pride in NYC and in our following interview sheds light on the complexities around LGTBQ+ realities. I thank Henry for his courage and candidness in speaking out about issues that are sensitive and for allowing us into his personal world.
HA: My name is Henry Aho, my preferred pronouns are he/him/his. I am one of the Directors of the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance NYC (UTOPIA NYC) and former President of the Tonga Leitis Association. I am a gay man from the Kingdom of Tonga now living in New York City.
AMT-P: What shaped you into being open and confident about your sexuality?
HA: While I have always had an authoritative streak, I was never really confident with my sexuality growing up in a very heavily indoctrinated Christian household. I had feminine tendencies when I was a child and remember my older brother and father constantly reprimanding me with words “Talk like a man! Walk like a man!” When I was about 12 I started developing same sex attraction. This I struggled with and for a whole year could not share with a soul fearing condemnation since I had grown up reading the Bible where this to me as a child was clearly an abomination. In a time before the internet and without adequate resources in our high school library on homosexuality, it truly was a confusing time. However, I was very lucky to have friends who along with their parents embraced my slight femininity and curiosity about my sexual orientation and never made me feel guilty for it. It wasn’t until I moved from Tonga to New Zealand to finish high school that I was able to research and come to better understand sexual orientation. With my new found knowledge and a great supportive group of friends, I was able to be more open and confident about my sexuality.
AMT-P: Can you describe some of the challenges that you have faced within your own communities and how you have responded to them?
HA: As a Tongan I am constantly faced on social media and in person with religious counters to what they perceive as a lifestyle choice I have made and abhorrent to Christian fundamental values. While I am an atheist I still believe, based on the experiences of so many of my fellow activists in the Pacific, that there is a place for diverse sexual orientations within the Pacific Christian framework. This is nurtured utilising universal Pacific virtues of mutual respect, kindness and compassion. My response to people is to live and let live, love and let love.
Another challenge is that, on some level, people readily embrace leitis or effeminate males in Tongan society, appreciating the comedy and assistance at social events. However, any discussion of sexuality and the subject is cast off as taboo and deferred to biblical guidance and archaic legislations on its criminality. Being part of Tonga Leitis Association based in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, we were able to launch a national consultation on reviewing current legislation and raising awareness of the abuse leitis face within their own families and communities. Through public dialogue forums with members of parliament, community and church leaders, we established a platform of mutual respect, dialogue and understanding - where leitis are no longer just helpers and comedians but decision makers, deserving of recognition for the issues they would like addressed.
AMT-P: Support systems are important. You are a member of UTOPIA NYC. How important is UTOPIA NYC to you and your Pacific peers and why?
HA: UTOPIA NYC’s mission statement is to provide a safe space by strengthening the resilience of Pacific Islanders with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities through cultural stewardship, volunteerism, outreach and advocacy while building alliances. This is important for the very few Pacific Islanders living in New York City who, like me, are far away from home and family. It’s an opportunity for us to connect to other like-minded individuals to let them know that whatever they’re going through, they’ve got family here in the city. There is mana in these connections.
AMT-P: Recently UTOPIA NYC marched in World Pride which also marked the 50th year commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in NYC. Can you describe the importance and significance of UTOPIA NYC’s participation?
HA: This is the first time World Pride has been celebrated on US soil. With the world celebrating in one location and also commemorating 50 years since the Stonewall riots, it was only right to leave a Pacific imprint. It was the right time and place to stand tall, bring our members, friends and allies together to march. To lift the flags of our small Pacific nations and wear our traditional costumes with pride. It was important for us to say “We’re here with you” - we marched to celebrate how far we’ve come and we marched in recognition of how much more there needs to be done to truly honour the movement that started at Stonewall. There was a moment in the march as we passed by Stonewall where we bowed in respect and left flowers by the road, and through teary eyes in solemnity prayed, “We are here.”
We didn’t just march for ourselves in representing our islands and the giants in our own national movements on whose shoulders we now stand. We marched for those here in the US and around the world who do not have our courage and strength to live their truth openly - we marched for them. On the draped trains of tapa cloth we dragged down Fifth Ave, we carried them with us, in hope that one day they too can march with us.
AMT-P: What message is UTOPIA NYC and their supporters conveying to their NZ and Pacific communities by taking part in such a public and global event?
HA: World Pride NYC 2019 is a celebration of humanity, our ability to recognise our differences and embrace that diversity. UTOPIA NYC’s participation in this international event hopefully speaks to our NZ and Pacific communities that we have more in common than we have differences. We are all family, tied not by blood but by the oceans that connect us. We share the same values within our own respective cultures, of respect, humility and kindness.
AMT-P: Can you share some of the feedback that UTOPIA NYC received from their peers and communities following the march?
HA: Overall the responses on several social media platforms were very positive - the main reaction was to the visual artistry of the tapa cloths worn by a few of the marchers, as the “Wow” factor - and having Polynesian finery on 5th Ave was, simply put, quite amazing.
One tends to ignore very few negative comments, usually from keyboard warriors who would otherwise not have the courage to say it to our faces. There was comment about how we shouldn’t have worn the tapa because we didn’t understand its significance. My response to anyone who is otherwise not happy with our cultural display of pride, I say “We are Pacific Islanders too and the culture belongs to all of us.”
AMT-P: What can be done to embrace LGBTQ+ communities more and how can allies best assist and support LGBTQ+ communities?
HA: Sexual orientation and gender identity are quite diverse - don’t assume anything; questions help you learn. Ask. Knowledge is key. Learning about LGBTQ issues is vital to understanding the members of the community. Hang out with your LGBTQ friends or family members or, better yet, volunteer at any one of the many organisations throughout New Zealand and the Pacific. Get to know someone different than you, and you’ll be amazed at just how similar you really are.
AMT-P: Thank you. Do you have any closing thoughts?
HA: We are truly grateful for the generous support of our friends and allies from throughout the Pacific, NZ, Australia and the US. Thank you for choosing to stand with us, to march with us and to celebrate with us. Malo ‘aupito.