Cook Islands rainbow community on decriminalisation of same-sex relations: ‘It was about equality’

Cook Islands rainbow communities celebrating outside parliament after homosexuality was decriminalised on Friday. Photo: Apa Temata

Cook Islands rainbow communities celebrating outside parliament after homosexuality was decriminalised on Friday. Photo: Apa Temata

The Cook Islands road to decriminalising homosexuality has been a “rollercoaster of emotions” but symbolises the country is maturing, a local LGBTQI+ advocate says.

The nation’s lawmakers made amendments to the more than half a century old Crimes Act on Friday.

The law – which has never been enforced – states the offence of “indecent acts between males” is punishable by up to five years in prison.

People hosting these acts in their premise face up to 10 years in jail.

But those clauses and all others prohibiting same-sex relations will be removed when the amendment becomes law on 1 June.

Cook Islands rainbow group Te Tiare Association president Valery Wichman told RNZ Pacific the change was a big turning point.

“It wasn’t just about changing a piece of our legislation that accepts same sex relations. It was more than that,” Wichman said.

“It was about equality, and most importantly, it was about [the] maturing of our nation.”

Struggle for equality

The LGBTQI+ communities in the Cook Islands have faced multiple road blocks to reach this point.

A draft Crimes Bill penned in 2017 had decriminalised homosexuality, but parliamentarians made a U-turn in 2019 after public concern.

Wichman said, at the time, pride groups were disheartened and it led to some members of the rainbow communities leaving the country.

“It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for myself, for my family, for our organisation. We’ve been anxious, we’ve been on edge,” Wichman said.

Pride Cook Islands president Karla Eggelton said the passing of the amendment meant that legislation would “catch up” with society.

“[The LGBTQI+] is a very loving supportive all-inclusive community,” Eggelton said.

She said the new law makes everyone equal in the eye of the law.

“We can stand, side by side, and hand by hand with our neighbours, with our family, with our friends, to say we are truly being accepted for who we are.”

‘It’s not the job of government to absolve sin’

The government voted in a block to support the bill but had mixed support from members of opposition parties.

Prime Minister Mark Brown said the government must protect the rights of all people.

“This change in law comes from the idea that it is not the governments role to interfere in the private lives of individuals when [sexual] activity is consensual and has not caused harm to anyone,” Brown told MPs.

But Cook Islands United Party leader Teariki Heather had a different view.

He opposed the changes to the law and refereed to his Christian principles for the reason why.

Heather, who also served as the deputy prime minister from 2013 to 2018, said New Zealand had decriminalised homosexuality and down the line also legalised same-sex marriage.

“Do we want to become like them? Do we want to receive the consequences?” he asked in parliament.

“I urge everyone to question their conscience. This bill will open up another door.”

Other MPs who opposed the historic changes also referenced their religious beliefs.

Brown said there were “want to be” reverends in the house.

“It’s not the job of government to absolve sin,” he said.

“It’s not the job of government to tell people how they can or cannot have sex. The government does not have a place in the bedroom of the people.”

Also, in full support was Democratic Party leader Tina Browne, who was wearing a Pride Cook Islands T-shirt.

Browne said supporting the bill meant upholding the Cook Islands constitution.

“Our constitution provides for fundamental human rights and freedom,” she said.

“It prohibits us from discriminating people … it provides that everyone should be treated equally. We are obliged to comply with our constitution,” Browne said.

Protecting rape survivors

Meanwhile, the Crime (Sexual Offences) Amendment Bill also updates the law for rape survivors.

It removes marriage as a defence against rape and mistaken belief of consent, if the belief is unreasonable.

Brown said the Bill would replace the “old stereotype” crimes are committed by men on girls and will now put protection in place for boys who were not recognised in the old act.

“This amendment brings into the 21st century laws that were passed more than 50 years ago,” he said.

“It removes legal language that is no longer appropriate in this day and age.”

Source: RNZ