Reconstructing Custom: The politics of homophobia in Vanuatu

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Reconstructing Custom: The politics of homophobia in Vanuatu
Anita Jowitt1

Lecturer, School of Law, University of the South Pacific

This paper examines the ways in which custom is used in certain of the newly independent Pacific Islands countries as a justification for official and unofficial discrimination against homosexuals. The concept of custom has a number of senses. Anthropologically it is used to signify “the conspicuous cultural forms and practices that people talk about and incorporate into their sense of identity.”2 More commonly in the Pacific it is used descriptively to refer to the traditional lifestyle itself. Indeed the Bislama3 term kastom is usually translated as meaning 'tradition'. It is, most would agree, a fluid, organic and mutable concept.
Custom is often employed in South Pacific countries by those who occupy the hegemonic role of defining the post independence national ethos. It is used in a sense that is deeply conservative. It indicates features such as rejection of the central role of the State, anti-reformism, the quasi-mystical reverence for the place of tradition and an incrementalist and anti-rationalist view of social change.
This usage of custom also lends itself to a kind of ideological blending with the principles of nationalism, a factor which disposes it to the manipulations of those who are concerned with inventing the new-post colonial social and political order. It is this usage of custom with which this paper is most concerned. In a world order dominated by nationalism with its concomitant respect for self-determination, the notions that ‘homosexuals’ and/or ‘homosexual rights’ are a Western construct and that it would be ethnocentric to develop or impose international human rights standards relating to homosexuality have significant political force. Invoking custom therefore becomes a powerful rhetorical strategy for Pacific Island nations to use in denying the recognition of homosexuals.
Although custom is used politically by all Pacific Island nations, this paper only examines the ways in which custom is (re)constructed in Vanuatu. Vanuatu provides an excellent subject for several reasons. First its Constitutional structure reflects the difficult tensions between democratic human rights, custom and Christianity that are found in many decolonised nations. Second several incidents involving homosexuality have been reported in its newspapers over the last few years. In Pacific Island countries where it is ‘taboo’ to talk about sex, this media coverage provides a very useful way of examining the role that custom plays in shaping society’s attitudes towards homosexuality. Last, Vanuatu does not criminalise same sex sexual behaviour, so the criminality of homosexuality is not used in debates about the place of homosexuality in society.

The Politics of Custom in Vanuatu
Vanuatu, previously known as the New Hebrides, is a country in the Western South Pacific made up of over 80 islands. It is home to approximately 110 indigenous cultures. Although these cultures are predominantly Melanesian, each culture has a distinct language and variations in tradition. From formal colonisation in 19064 through to Independence in 1980, Vanuatu was jointly ruled by French and British administrations. The influence of missionaries from the 1800’s onwards has been significant, and it is now estimated that around 95% of the indigenous population are Christian.5
The politics of nationalism were first expressed in 1971 by the newly formed New Hebrides National Party. (NHNP) One of its first public statements began
Our aims in forming a National Party are to preserve the New Hebridean people; their culture and their ways of life are in danger of large scale settlement by Europeans.6
Culture was constituted as a reactionary symbol to be used as the basis for political mobilisation for decolonisation. Nationhood, the dominant geo-political world order, was seen as being the end goal of decolonisation, with the national purpose being to protect and project the cultural past. The cultural underpinnings of nationhood, with its ideological insistence upon cultural homogeneity, inevitably affected the political imagination. Despite the fact that the group of islands that now make up Vanuatu did not form a single entity until they were defined as the New Hebrides by colonisers, a single New Hebridean people7 and New Hebridean culture became the justification for the creation of Vanuatu.
On gaining Independence in 1980 Vanuatu adopted a Constitution that reflected the major influences of its past history and its struggle for decolonisation. It is constituted as a sovereign democratic State and as such recognises the individualistic human rights that are at the heart of modern Western democracies.8 The preamble states that the country is founded on “traditional Melanesian values, faith in God, and Christian values”. This triad of concepts (democracy, custom in the sense of tradition and Christianity) forms a contestable and potentially precarious foundation for the country, as the ideologies present in each are not readily reconcilable. Vanuatu’s legal system is similarly problematised by the presence of conflicting ideologies, with French civil law, English common law and customary law all being recognised as equally valid sources of law in Vanuatu.9
Although the foundation of Vanuatu is incongruous, it is, perhaps, politically inevitable. The justification for the creation of the nation of Vanuatu centred around the politically imagined symbol of a common culture/custom which arises from an equally imagined common ethnicity/bloodline. In order to maintain and solidify the national identity this symbol needs to continued, an occurrence best achieved by formalisation. Along with the formal recognition of ‘customary law’, the creation of the National Council of Chiefs or Malvatumauri in 1977 and its subsequent recognition in the Constitution is one of the most notable ways in which the symbol of culture/custom has been formalised. The Malvatumauri is “composed of custom chiefs elected by their peers sitting in District Councils of Chiefs.”10 It functions as the authoritative body of knowledge on custom, with its Constitutional role being:
30. (1) The National Council of Chiefs has a general competence to

discuss all matters relating to custom and tradition and may make

recommendations for the preservation and promotion of ni-Vanuatu

culture and languages.

(2) The Council may be consulted on any question, particularly any

question relating to tradition and custom, in connection with any bill

before Parliament.
The ideology of nationalism, the psychology of decolonisation and the semantic complication created by Bislama11 all contribute to the popular understanding that the ‘custom’ that Vanuatu is based on and that is being upheld by the Malvatumauri and government is the various indigenous peoples’ kastom or traditions. However, in a country of 110 different cultures any pronouncements on a national custom are necessarily inventions; products of the contemporary politics of modern nation States. This ‘custom’ is rather a constructed symbol, used to justify a nation built on a sycretism of kastoms, Christianity and development.

Homosexuality in Vanuatu’s Kastoms

Same sex sexual behaviour does exist in at least some kastom in Vanautu. The most detailed studies that have been made of male same sex sexual behaviour in Vanuatu have focused on the Big Nambas of Malekula.12 Lesbianism amongst the Big Nambas women has also been noted.13 There are also anecdotal reports of same sex sexual behaviour in kastom in other parts of Vanuatu, although little has been reliably recorded.14

The lack of reliable records does not indicate that same sex behaviour is/was absent from kastom, however. Similarly, the literature that suggests that homosexuality is absent from Vanuatu is unreliable. Rather, as Herdt notes, in much anthropological literature “we find homosexual practices either denied, coded as absent or treated as unique.”15 Whether anthropologists’ own prejudices have caused them to see same sex sexual behaviour as aberrant behaviour rather than as part of the cultural context that is being investigated, or whether political motivations have prevented ethnographers from being free to report on same (or any) sexual behaviours without violating the trust of the people they have been investigating, same sex sexual behaviour is undoubtedly underrepresented in anthropological literature.
Similarly literature that suggests the absence of same sex sexual behaviours in Vanuatu is suspect. In the words of Simpson, “there have been too many generalisations about the sex-life of primitive peoples. These often suggest uniformity and stress the natural, uninhibited, utterly “normal” [read heterosexual] nature of native sexual relations – which is not the true picture.”16
Given the noted incidence of male same sex sexual behaviour in other Melanesian countries it is unreasonable to presume that, other than in the documented incidence of the Big Nambas, same sex sexual behaviour is not present in the kastoms of Vanuatu. Whilst not all kastoms in Vanuatu recognise same sex sexual behaviour, it is undoubtedly legitimate behaviour in some of them.

Custom and Homophobia

Despite the fact that same sex sexual behaviours are part of some kastom the position of the Malvatumauri is that that same sex sexual behaviour did not feature in Vanuatu’s past. The Malvatumauri’s response to a group of 40 lesbians coming to one of the resorts is illustrative. This, it was reported in the Government owned newspaper “sent shock waves in (sic) Port Vila – not because it is unusual but because it’s threatening local culture and [is] an embarrassment to the pride of Christianity in the country.”17 The position of the Malvatumauri was clear:

The Malvatumauri National Council of Chiefs said it will not accept any behaviour that is a danger to Vanuatu culture and which contradicts traditional beliefs and custom values. "Has (sic) the management of the resort seek (sic) our approval before the arrival of the guests, we would have given them our disapproval," said Council Secretary Chief Sandy Ishmael. He said the council's message is clear. Homosexuality is immoral and must be vigorously discouraged.
The Malvatuauri’s stance was similar in a report that arose after an episode of domestic violence between two lesbians:18
According to Chief Mariasua [chairman of the Malvatumauri] homosexuality is something foreign. “Custom chiefs hate this kind of relationship and don’t want it to grow.”
He went on to say:
“If a woman wants to marry, marry a man. This system of woman to woman, man to man, is against the creation of God.”
Whilst there are undeniably gender issues also involved in these two incidents, in neither of the reports does the Malvatumauri distinguish between lesbianism and homosexuality in general.
The popularly expressed view also adheres to the view that homosexuality does not accord with custom. One news column asked people what they thought about homosexuals.19 In their responses three of the four speakers referred to the fact that it was not in line with custom.
The question to be addressed then is why is custom reconstructed in such a way as to exclude homosexuality from the national ethnic identity that is expressed through the concept of ‘custom’.
The first point is that kastom Melanesian same sex behaviour does not equate to the Western concept of homosexuality. In the West
Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior andgrogyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.20
Homosexuality as identity is a recent and Western phenomenon. In Melanesia, identity based on sexuality is not a relevant concept. The same sex sexual behaviours recorded are ritualised, serving wider purposes. Herdt notes three modes of sexual contacts:21

  1. Sexual contacts may be culturally and/or individually organised and defined exclusively by the choice of the sex of one’s partner.

  2. Sexual contacts may be defined and organised according to their social purpose.

  3. Sexual contacts may be defined according to the acquisition of a scarce commodity.

Only the first mode lends itself to the construction of identity based on sexuality. However, the second two modes of sexual contact delineate sexual contacts (not only homosexual but heterosexual) in Melanesian kastom.

Kastom is undeniably operating in changed social conditions in the late 20 century, so has changed social significance. The recognition of homosexuality by custom undeniably requires a transformation of kastoms, adapting behavioural standards defined under the second two modes of sexual contact to operate under the first. However, the question of why homosexuality is excluded from the (re)constructed custom remains. The constructors of custom are continually in a process of transforming kastom in light of modern politics. Why has the transformation of kastom read homosexuality as a foreign evil, when just as equally the transformation of kastom could read homophobia as a foreign evil? Given the homophobia of the West, wouldn’t the second interpretation in fact be preferable, considering that custom is cloaked in anti-Western rhetoric?
The Christianisation of custom
The easiest answer to these questions is that, because most of the Vanuatu is now Christian, custom has come to represent Christianity (in its most conservative forms). Indeed, the quotes from the Malvatumauri above, with the use of “immorality” in the first situation and the direct reference to God in the second, support this answer. However, although this answer is superficially plausible, it relies on the unsatisfactory premise that the people of Vanuatu are either conscious of the deception inherent in the construction of custom yet continue to support it or are too unaware to notice the deception.
If, however, one considers the foundations of the nation, a more satisfactory answer can be provided. Custom, Christianity and democracy, the three concepts that form the foundation of Vanuatu form, as stated earlier, a syncretism. Democracy, representing the forces of modernisation and individualism, is ideologically opposed to the conservatism inherent in both (some forms of) Christianity and custom. Using a viral analogy democracy can be seen as an attacking virus on the organisms of custom and Christianity. Custom and Christianity, both fighting off the same disease align themselves into a relationship of symbiosis in order to In order to maintain the symbiotic relationship, both organisms need to adapt. The acceptance of homosexuality by custom would affect its relationship with Christianity. As same sex behaviour is a covert aspect of kastom rather than a conspicuous practice, and is not a universal practice anyway, to risk the relationship in order to transform kastom to support homosexuality would not be politic. On the question of its stance towards homosexuality, custom therefore adopts the conservative Christian rhetoric.
The incursion of the Western family unit into the culture of Vanuatu

Although the relationship between Christianity and custom undoubtedly plays a significant role in the creation of homophobia using custom, there are other influences on the (re)construction of custom. Custom, whilst endeavouring to shape the societies of Vanuatu, must also remain in alignment with the culture(s) (in the anthropological rather than racial sense of the word ‘culture’) of Vanuatu in order to maintain legitimacy. The conservative Western notion of the family unit is becoming the prevalent way of organising society in (at least urban) Vanuatu, and has thus become part of the culture.

The, again conservative, Devlinesque fears of the effects that recognising homosexuality would have on the family and therefore society also become relevant to the culture of Vanuatu.22 Custom, in the sense of conspicuous cultural forms, also Westernises. The ambiguity/mutability of the concept of custom allows the understanding of custom = tradition, somewhat perversely, to Westernise whilst maintain its legitimacy as a symbol of tradition. The conservative Western fear that homosexuality will affect the family unit therefore becomes part of the reason for (re)constructing a custom that is homophobic.

The interaction between the concept of homosexuality and kastom taboos
A further difficulty with the transformation of kastom to create an environment accepting towards homosexuality is the manner in which this would affect other aspects of kastom. This difficulty is possibly the only legitimate (being purely kastom-ary) reason for reluctance to (re)construct custom to recognise homosexuality. As stated above the concept of homosexuality involves (at least in its currently prescribed sense) identity based upon sexuality; sexuality inevitably becomes overt. There are undeniably taboos preventing the discussion of sex in general public (although these same taboos do not operate in a same sex environment). If people are permitted to position their identity around sexual behaviour they will inevitably be threatening the taboos on discussing sex.


In Vanuatu, as in other Pacific Island nations, custom is undoubtedly used as a hegemonic device. However, when one considers the role that custom played in decolonisation, the central role of custom in contemporary politics if of little surprise. Indeed, it could be said that custom is the ideology of the South Pacific. This custom maintains its legitimacy on the stated idea that it the upholder of the common past in modern society. It is, however, an imagined symbol, resting on a constructed common past and incorporating much more than the past into its pronouncements on what custom is/what society should be.

The question that this paper has attempted to address is why custom is (re)constructed in a way so as to create an atmosphere of homophobia. There is no single reason for this, but rather ‘legitimate’ kastom-ary concerns, the growing importance of the Western conception of the family unit and Christianity combine to shape custom.
This understanding of the relationship between custom and homophobia helps to explain the dynamics of sexuality in the contemporary South Pacific. It also provides a way of comprehending the manner in which custom operates to shape other aspects of society. Finally it is hoped that this understanding will be of assistance to those who are engaged in unpicking the layers of rhetoric that surround homosexuality in the South Pacific (an other decolonising countries) as they try to construct a more accepting environment in which people can establish their own identities.

1 I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of colleagues who assisted me in developing this paper, notably Professor R. Hughes and Dr D. Sinclair.

2Lindstrom, L. & White, G. “Cultural Policy: An Introduction” in Lindstrom, L. & White, G. Culture – Kastom – Tradition Developing Cultural Policy in Melanesia (1994) Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific at p 5

3 Bislama, a pigin tongue, is the national language of Vanuatu.

4Colonisation was marked by the signing of the Anglo-French New Hebrides Convention 1906

5Douglas N & N (eds) (1994) Pacific Islands Yearbook Fiji: Fiji Times Ltd

6Van Trease, H. (ed) Melanesian Politics: Stael Blong Vanautu (1995) New Zealand: Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury at p 21

7 The “New Hebridean people” were constructed as singular because of common descent/shared ethnicity.

8 That Vanuatu adopted a democratic structure is in large part an effect of careful preparation by the colonisers and the requirement that the Constitution be recognised by the United Nations, the body that holds the power to grant nationhood.

9 Article 95, Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu

10 Article 29 (1), Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu. The entire structure of the Malvatumauri, based on the concept of ‘chiefs’ and ‘paramount chiefs’ is itself an artificial construction. (see Lindstrom, L. “Chiefs in Vanuatu Today” in Lindstrom, L. & White, G. (eds) Chiefs Today (1997) California: Stanford University Press

11 In the political discourse no distinction was made between culture, custom and tradition, and the three remain indiscriminately mixed. This is at least in part because Bislama, the national language of Vanuatu, itself does not distinguish the concepts. Kastom is used to denote both traditional ways and culture, although the word kalja has recently entered the language. A signifier for the concept of custom that exists outside of tradition does not currently exist.

12 For further information see Allen, M. “Homosexuality, Male Power & Political Organisation in North Vanuatu: A Comparative Analysis” in Herdt, G (ed) Ritualised Homosexuality in Melanesia (1984) California: University of California Press

13 Observations by Tom Harrisson, a reliable source, that “the [Big Nambas] women have developed a parallel pleasure system of their own, much less elaborate than the male” were reported in Simpson, C. Islands of Men (1955) Sydney: Angus & Robertson at p 123

14 Pentecost Island, for example, was formerly known to planters as “the home of homosexuality”, ibid at p123; The Director of the Department of Culture has recently stated that homosexuals have existed in Vanuatu “throughout the centuries.” (“Churches Criticise Henry” Trading Post Issue 441, 21/4/99 at p 9.

15 In Herdt, G. (ed) supra n 11 at p 3

16 supra n 12 at p 123

17 “The Tourist Dollar That’s Being Questioned” Vanuatu Weekly Hebdominaire 22/8/98

18 Reported in “We Respect their Rights but we Don’t Encourage it” Trading Post Issue 386 3/10/98

19 The question was “Olsem wanem long ol man mo woman we oli jus blong mared autsaed naturel wei?” or “what do you think about men or women who choose to marry of the natural way?” (Trading Post Issue 387 7/10/98) The ways in which the language shapes the discourse on homosexuality would make an interesting study.

20 Foucault, M. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 An Introduction (1976) London: Penguin at p 43

21 supra n 11 at xii - xiii

th The question of which is the symbiont of the other, or who is the dominant partner in the relationship, is unclear. Although the immediate answer seems to be Christianity, because it seems to have affected custom more than custom has affected the juggernaut of Christianity, Christianity was not, and could not have been, the central motif for the creation of the nation of Vanuatu. Central aspects of kastom such as ‘the worshipping of false idols’ certainly have remained despite the influence of Christianity, lending support to the idea of a cultural symbiosis wherein each partner adapts its ‘fringe’ principles to ensure that its central aspects are continued.

22 Public comments by Marilyn Tahi, Director of the Women’s Centre Against Violence that homosexuality should not be encouraged because it “does have social implications” (“We Respect their Rights but we Don’t Encourage it” Trading Post Issue 386, 3/10/98) and that homosexuality “would be like afire on our culture” (“The Tourist Dollar That’s Being Questioned” Vanuatu Weekly Hebdominaire 22/8/98) reflect this strain of reasoning.

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