I was born in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (PNG) on the 4th of September 1987. I am proud of my heritage and culture but this is a story of growing up different; of coming into my own and learning to live in a country where society tells you that your very existence is immoral and unnatural.
You see, I am gay. I knew this from a young age and have always known it, even though the road to self-acceptance has been a struggle. There have been many positives from growing up gay, the people on my journey who made it more bearable and showered life and laughter into my heart, but for the most part, the journey was a constant struggle to stay afloat.
The early years:
In my early years, I didn’t know any different and I suppose this is not unique to PNG because I’ve read and heard similar stories from gay people around the world. I grew up going to a good school with children from all walks of life and from around the world. I gravitated to the girls more and in this little world of mine, there were no issues with playing with girls and chasing the boys around the playground. However, as I got older it became apparent that this did not fit into the reality of what Papua New Guinean society considers to be “normal.” While the other boys became interested in sports and in hanging out with each other discussing cartoons and video games, I was content to be “one of the girls” playing with dolls and catching up on the latest soap opera.
Somehow at this young age, it was taught to me that this was “wrong” because I began to feel guilty for being who I am. I lived two different lives as a result.
(1) At school I was allowed to be who I wanted to be, with teachers never correcting my feminine ways; and
(2) At home, where I had to be a “normal” boy and not be so flamboyant.
Needless to say, I was always very happy to be going to school and to spend time there. School became my refuge and every day I looked forward to it. When the weekends rolled around, I was that weird kid eagerly awaiting Monday mornings.
When I reflect on the early years of my life, I realise that they were the years that life was easiest and I believe most probably because people think that you are going to grow out of that “phase” so there is no hassle to be anything other than who you are at that point in time.
I was in 6th grade when I knew with certainty that I liked boys. So naturally what does one do when they have a crush on someone? They confess their “love” interest to their best friend. Big mistake and there obviously needs to be a different rule book for gay people because this is clearly not what you should do. At least this is what I felt back then. After admitting my first crush to my best friend, I was ridiculed and ostracised by both the boys and girls. I instantly regretted those few minutes of confession because the boy I liked was then made fun of and it was made evident by his friends and mine that there would never be anything between us. He liked girls and I frankly was not one.
Childhood friends are supposed to be the ones that have your back for life but I think I lost a lot of my friends in such a short space of time. I was told that I shouldn’t like a boy and that it was wrong. Kids can be quite mean without realising the impact they have on you. Having people treat you like you have a contagious disease, to refuse to touch things that you have touched or calling you names stays with you for a very long time. I recall it now to this day and as much as I’ve moved on I remember the hurt it caused me and how easy it is that tears fall freely even after all this time. But what was so wrong with me? Why was I born this way? The questions you start to ask yourself are deep and daunting. It is really hard to tell a child that who they are is WRONG and immoral. My bubble had officially burst.
High school was some of the toughest years of my life. Being young, with hormones and going through the motions is hard enough on its own, but to do it all while you are learning more about being gay added another level of complexity to my adolescent life. In addition to that I changed schools, and boys taunted and teased me more, I got bullied a lot, which made me feel like each day of my life in high school was a daily battle. In Papua New Guinea, young boys are constantly fed with garbage for their egos of what a real man is supposed to be. This was something that I am glad I did not grow up believing or being taught but I did have to put up with this nonsense from the boys in my peer group.
“Who’s that girl” a song by Eve became a regular theme song for me whenever I walked past a particular group of Papua New Guinean boys every lunch time. It got to a stage where I started going the long way around just to avoid the teasing. Funnily enough they were all stronger in groups and would say what they wanted but individually would never utter a single word or say so much as a hello. Also weirdly notable was that whilst the expatriate boys were obviously uncomfortable with my sexuality (by not being any more friendly than polite), they never once made taunting or teasing comments.
One of the hardest things in high school was the day I was physically assaulted – A busted up lip, pushed back teeth and a black eye. No, this was not because I had got in a fight or caused trouble. This was because I had done the right thing. I remember the day clearly as though it was just yesterday. It was study period in the library and I sat alongside my friends in a group not really doing much studying but instead chatting about our mundane lives. From memory we had not been sat there for very long when we noticed a drunk and disorderly student causing a nuisance. Being the senior students and goody-two-shoes, two of my friends and I set off for the office to report this. What happened next was that the student was removed from the library and suspended from school. In the process of removal however, he had made his way back into the library, and tipped off by god knows who that I had reported him, came directly up to me from behind and began assaulting me. This was a moment of truth for me on what a lot of people thought of me. The reason I bring this incident up is because it irks my soul that Papua New Guinean men will not intervene when gay men are being assaulted. There have been many times that I can recall witnessing and experiencing situations where straight men stand idly by and spectate instead of standing up for injustices done for the disenfranchised. The two young men sitting at the same table as I was, stood by and did nothing. Not one thing to help me. It was my friend, a girl that came to my defence by pulling my attacker off of me. I will never forget that day or what she did for me. I have seen recent videos and read stories of gay men being beaten, sometimes to death in PNG, and it makes me think back to my own incident and question why there aren’t enough straight men willing to speak up, stand up and say something for their gay brothers?!
If I thought High school was hard, University (uni) was something else altogether. I had attended private schools my entire schooling life, primary and high school, where my peers had at least been exposed to the outside world of MTV, George Michael, Elton John, etc. I would not say they were gay advocates but they were tolerant to a certain extent. At least that was my hope and reasoning for having experienced somewhat of a tolerant behaviour from my grade school peers. All of a sudden I was in a public university with people that had come from rural areas and did not take a liking to me. Rumours and threats of random men I had never even met wanting to assault me, for no real reason other than by me simply walking past them, would constantly come back to me. Each time, I would question how these men were affected by my existence? How did me walking through a public forum warrant me being threatened?
Going to the male toilets, walking campus after hours and using public transport were some of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I took to using a bathroom reserved for lecturers that was rarely used and would often ensure that I wasn’t on campus on a Friday when many male students saw fit to wander the campus intoxicated. Many a times, I feared for my safety, particularly when using public transport to and from uni. I recall one day being followed by a seemingly straight man from the bus stop and down my street, with constant wolf calling and sexual remarks. On the way, we passed many who chose to ignore the situation. I recall this incident most because the constant what-ifs bother me; if he had decided to pull a knife on me and drag me down a nearby drain or into some bushes I don’t know what would have happened.
Every morning on my way to and from the bus stop to uni, I would pass a service station where the male attendants would taunt and tease me. A common remark would be “Sister, how are you?” or “Sister yu naispla ya” (Sister, you’re so nice). What had I done to warrant this? NOTHING! And as much as I tried to walk a straight walk and to keep my hands by my sides, I was not able to hide my identity.
Ironic though, is the fact that two straight men in PNG can walk down a street holding hands and this is not in any way deemed homosexual or immoral?!
I made it through university with the support of some pretty amazing friends. Friends that drove me to and from uni many times, friends that sat with me when I could not go into the girls’ dorms and because I had nowhere else I could be and even walked me to and from the bus stop. To those people, I thank you, if it weren’t for you so much of uni would have been unbearable.
Building a career
One of the greatest things about the end of uni, was the beginning of a career. I started work in a bank on a graduate program and once again whilst it was predominantly straight male dominated, I managed to hold my own. The thing about being gay in Papua New Guinea is that people do not expect you to be anyone or do anything. People expect gay men to be the cliché feminine gay male who lives in a village and lives a less than average life getting by with help from their family and any man willing to pay them for sex. Why? Because society does not give gay men the opportunities to thrive and so they take a backseat in life. I am fortunate to have an education, which is my foundation for success, and to have been taught from a young age that I could do whatever I wanted to do. I also became quite vocal when I left university and became quite outspoken. It hadn’t served me well in my earlier years as I had always wanted to keep a low profile and just get by but I realised when I started my first job that I would need to speak up or else risk letting people walk all over me in the process.
My first job turned out to be a great learning curve and I made so many friends in that first year. I believe working with people that were all older than me was a big factor of why this job worked for me. I was the youngest in the office and they were all more experienced in life so a gay employee was the least of their worries. Yes, I would have the occasional douchebag that I would encounter but I had thick enough skin by then to ignore it. I say ignore it because if there’s anything I’ve learned it is this – you must pick your battles. When something is going against you, of course you should speak up but if someone is just aiming to belittle you or attack you then most times it is best to walk away.
Moving on to my next job was a different experience. I had joined a firm that was globally recognised and I expected no drama and to be treated as equal as any of the other employees. I would not stand out as much and if I did, surely this was a global firm where people knew that they needed to accept everyone was different. Result – for the most part, I could hold my own however, I came to find out through a male colleague much later, after getting to know me, that it was a running joke when I had first started that any of the males I spoke to I was “hitting” on. My response to that: “Puh-lease they weren’t my type and not even blips on my radar”. One thing that I know from discussions with my gay friends is that straight men have an ego that they are fed with bullshit about gay men wanting to turn them and jump into bed with them. Umm Honey, you might want to check yourself before you wreck yourself!
Growing into my own
So life went on, I gained a circle of close friends, got into the social scene and spent my early twenties sipping cocktails and dancing in clubs until 4am. Who doesn’t right? As usual though it was with “my girls” and the only men that were ever interested were never willing to publicly express their interest. This is why so much of the gay scene in PNG is underground and secretive.
With getting into the scene comes the late-night driving, the trips to the clubs and excursions around Port Moresby – a city that’s severely unsafe for anyone but particularly for gay men and for women. If you aren’t worried about your safety from criminals, you are hoping and praying that the minority of corrupt law enforcement officials aren’t going to find some reason to single you out. I remember, every time I would have to pull over at a road block, hoping and praying that the officer wouldn’t hold my gayness against me. Many a time, they would pull me over, look at my license for the longest time and question me about where I was going or who’s car I was driving?! On one night that stands out, I pulled up to a roadblock (what we call a standard random police road check) and the officer approached my window asking me to roll down the window. He had a large gun in his hand and while this was a routine roadblock with other cars being pulled over, I had a nagging feeling something would not go well. After rolling down the window a short distance and handing him my license, I recall being asked where I was headed to which I replied home. He walked around my car, shined his torch in the windows and then handed me back my license. Phew what a relief right? Uh-uh as I drove off and before I could wind up the window, he called out “Ok sexy, goodnight.” Any other country, I would have filed a complaint and given him my two cents worth but in this case my window was up and I was well on my way. The fact that an officer had the nerve to say this to me?! Had it been a straight man, would he have been called “sexy” in a derogatory way????? NO!
I have many a tale from Papua New Guinea of the troubles of being a gay man but I feel the turning point in which I knew I needed to leave the country was the night I was stabbed during a carjacking. On my way to an event, I turned onto an empty street only to have a man with a gun step onto the street from out of nowhere. I panicked and went into reverse but ran into a car that I did not know was behind me. Deciding it was best to leave the car, I got out to run leaving all my belongings in the vehicle. What happened in the process was the carjacker came up to me and stabbed me in the process of me running away. The actual stabbing details I do not remember. I just remember pushing someone away and running for my life. It wasn’t until a few minutes later at a nearby friend’s house that I was informed that I needed to be taken to the emergency room. Again, people had come to my rescue. When you feel like your life is being threatened you really do think about what it means to be alive and of everyone that’s important. I’ll never forget the support that I received after the incident and it was once again my girls that pulled me through.
Whether or not I was stabbed because I was gay remains to be determined. My attackers could have been high on drugs or just angry at the world but I personally feel that this was a hate crime and that had he not realised I was gay, he would have just taken the car without any hesitation.
Experiencing the world
Leaving PNG has been one of the hardest things in the world yet one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. You leave behind the friends you’ve made, the family that’s been your backbone and you start at zero. Moving to Australia has opened so many doors for me, I have been able to openly express myself and to dress the way I want to and talk or walk the way I want to. I can walk down the street swishing and swaying like I’m on a catwalk in Milan and not an eyelid is batted. In the workplace, there are LGBT rights and support groups and nobody ever crosses the line. I also feel safe walking down a street and know that I’m not going to get singled out and if I do that there will be people to speak up against it. Yes, there is the occasional idiot but for the most part it’s an open and accepting world out here. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel further than Australia to see the world (Thailand, Italy, UK, USA, France, Germany, and more) and in each of the countries, I have seen just how accepted LGBT people are.
Coming from a country that would frown upon two men kissing in the street, it was a shock at first but now something I, myself, look forward to doing one day with my partner. Why should I have to hide public displays of affection and what rule says I can’t have a husband and five children. Ok so maybe not five children, but you get the idea!
As a result of moving away and growing into my own skin, I have been able to fully come out to my family. Their immediate reaction not one of shock or disbelief but more of an “about time” response. Since then I’ve received an overwhelming sense of support and I think that it would have been a very different story had they decided not to accept it. The fact of the matter is, they knew me from day one and this wasn’t something I just woke up and decided one day. Nothing about me has changed, I am just more open about who I am.
Papua New Guinea will always be home for me and while it was hard growing up as a gay man there it taught me many valuable life lessons. There are a multitude of issues that need to be considered and rights fought for. Homosexuality need not be taboo, the conversations need to happen and this needs to start with more education about what gender is, sexual orientation is, and awareness on why it’s ok to be gay/lesbian/bi/transgender. This has to begin with same sex acts being decriminalised.
“Gay rights are human rights” – Hillary Clinton
Somewhere out there is a young man or woman struggling to come to terms with their gender or sexuality and this blog post is for those people. There is an overwhelming sense of support for so many worthy causes such as cancer cure research, HIV cure research but what about this issue? Isn’t it just as worthy as any other? Think about it Papua New Guinea, you all know someone in your family or life who is gay. How have they impacted your life? We are just everyday people, we are human just like you are, existing in this world so why should we not have the same rights as you?