Gillio Baxter is a Ni-Vanuatu trans-woman who is more popularly known as GG. She has featured in Wan Smol Bag’s TV series Love Patrol and has worked alongside NGOs such as the UN to advocate for LGBT rights. GG shares the hardships she has faced in a society engrained with Christian, Melanesian and patriarchal values. She also discusses how the LGBT community can be protected from discrimination if awareness of their rights were raised and policies were put in place to support them.
I am from Pentecost but was raised in Luganville and Port Vila. As with with every Ni-Vanuatu family, I was raised in a religious family but we focused more on values rather than religious teachings. When you love, you love someone more than yourself, and when you give, you give more than you had. By doing so, my family thought it helped you grow and understand yourself, as well as strengthened our bond, especially because we came from two different tribes. We had to learn to compromise and sacrifice.
Traditionally, the most influential people in my life should have been my uncles – they are the ones who are supposed to give advice and dictate important decisions. But being a LGBT person, that influential person was instead my Great Auntie Hilda Lini, who was my grandmother’s sister. She was someone who respected and appreciated culture. I learnt about kastom stories of LGBT warriors that were called Horohoroi who were strong fighters and believed to be the ones who could communicate directly with the tagaro, the ancient god. But when Christianity came to Vanuatu, they were no longer reverend and the stories have been lost. I believe that I am proof that the Horohoroi did exist.
Homophobic Bullying in High School
I think the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to face was bullying in high school. It was so horrific I couldn’t complete my studies. Back then, there were no counselors, no laws and even the police didn’t do anything. In saying that, if I didn’t go through that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It empowered me to want to make a difference for those who are LGBT. I don’t want them to go through what I did. The homophobic bullying forced me to stand up to the discrimination and has led me to do the work that I do today.
It started when I played a role of an LGBT person with Love Patrol, the Wan Smol Bag series. Although many people perceived it as amusement, I was delighted that it created a dialogue about the LGBT experience. It also encouraged more people to come out and we are more visible now. We even have established a LGBT association, VPride Foundation and we have about 50 members. Although it’s a step forward, we are still fighting for our rights to be recognized. Raising awareness can be tough as we face a lot of discrimination in the name of Christian or Melanesian values.
There is a lot of work that needs to be done. There is no structure in schools to deal with homophobic bullying, let alone awareness campaigns about LGBT, and even if there is, I highly doubt they are implemented. It is also hard to mobilize LGBT people. Even though there are many in high government positions and in the private sector, they still don’t feel comfortable identifying as an LGBT. I think they believe it will affect their job or create tension in the workplace or put a barrier in moving up in their career.
There are no words in Bislama to generate discussion of LGBT
I think one of the things that could help propel our movement is to create a language that everyone understands. Being a male dominated society, we are either classified as male or female. The discourse of LGBT is not part of the Bislama language, so it’s difficult to create a discussion and unfortunately for us, it’s not as simple as being male or female. In Samoa, a man who is like a woman is called a Fa’afafine. In Vanuatu, we don’t have those terms. If a male is a bit more effeminate, we call him ‘Sista’ but some people don’t identify as a woman despite having feminine characteristics. It’s complicated. Sexual orientation and the spectrum of gender is complex and if we don’t have the correct terminology, it’s hard for people to comprehend who we are and we are left with stereotypes, which are generally not true representations.
It’s hard being a trans woman in Vanuatu as one stigma we face is that this is a lifestyle I choose or that I’m adapting ‘western’ values at the expense of Melanesian or Christian values. This is not true. We are no less Melanesian or Christian by being LGBT. I know my Pentecost roots. I know the tradition, the deliverables, I know the culture in respect to birthdays and marriages and other ceremonies, I know roles in custom, I speak my dialect fluently. I am proud of my culture. And I am proud to be a trans Ni-Vanuatu woman.
We want our rights recognized and policies in place to protect SOIE (LGBT) from discrimination
I am slowly establishing a relationship with the Anglican Church since I am Anglican. I want people to understand that just because we are lobbying for our rights, we are not asking for same sex marriage. That will probably happen when I die or through the next generation. It’s not a priority – we just want to be recognized as people who have rights, just like any minority including women and the disabled. I shouldn’t be afraid to be me. My biggest fear is violence and being an LGBT person opens me up to that.
I would like to see government ministries including the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education to come together to implement changes in the policies. We try doing our part too. By doing peer education about issues such as public health or human rights, we indirectly raise awareness about LGBT by desensitizing the community about our issues too.
There are two things I’d like to see – rather than the term LGBT, we’d like the term Sexual Orientation and Identity Expression (SOIE) to be included in our gender policies. And I would also like a legal structure to protect SOIE from discrimination. We have even heard stories of LGBT people being discriminated in health clinics and that’s not acceptable. Despite the long road ahead, I can see that as a society we are becoming more open. The fact that we are talking about it is evidence enough.
Photo credits: Patricia Stafford