Meet Valen Wichman
Girl bosses who brunch is a series which seeks to celebrate the achievements of incredible Pacific women. All of my chats with the various girl bosses take place in a café and we discuss anything and everything ranging from their journey to success to how many people they pashed on the weekend (jokes, kind of). It is my hope that in sharing stories about successful women, this will inspire others to do better and be better.
Kia oranaaa! This Girl Boss is a proud akava’ine (transgender – equivalent to the Samoan term, fa’afafine) hailing from the beautiful of island of Rarotonga. She graduated from the University of Auckland with a conjoint degree in Arts and Law and moved to the Cook Islands to work for the Ministry of Health. I managed to catch up with Valen on her way back from London, where she received the prestigious Queens Young Leaders Award for her incredible work in establishing the Cook Islands’ first ever, LGBTQI Assocation, Te Tiare.
I haven’t seen you in so long (Valen and I went to uni together), apart from travelling across the world to receive an award from my sis Queen Elizabeth, what have you been up to?!
So I’m working for Ministry of Health in the Cook Islands. I’m the Manager for Policy and Research and Monitoring and Evaluation. I’ve been working there for 4 years. I’m in charge of developing policies and strategies for the Ministry. I’ve worked on nationwide policies, like the mental health and well-being policy and suicide prevention policy.
Wow! You must be so busy because in addition to having a full on career, you’re also responsible for setting up the very first LGBTQI association in the Cook Islands, which is amazing! What’s your association called?
The association is called, Te Tiare, which means, the flower. Flowers are integral to our culture, they’re colorful and represent the different personalities and characters that we work with. We have around 70 members in Te Tiare.
Manea! Can you tell me a bit about the work that Te Tiare does?
Well we have two campaigns; advocating to decriminalize homosexuality in the Cook Islands and raising awareness about LGBTQI in our community. There are some young people that get kicked out of their homes because of their sexuality. Our association helps to accommodate these people. We have a network where volunteers offer their homes to take people in and if they’re struggling without the financial support of their family, we help them to find jobs. The next step for us is to try to get into schools to let young people know that we are there to help.
To have your work recognized and acknowledged through the Queen’s Young Leader’s Award must have been an amazing experience as well!
Who would of thought that a small time person from the Cook Islands would be recognized for their passion! I got to meet the Queen, Prince Harry, David Beckham, Commonwealth representatives and corporation leaders from all over the world. I feel assured that there are so many people who support the vision of a world where we are equal and a world where everyone does not live in fear because of who they are.
That’s incredible! I think it’s so inspiring to see young people taking such positive initiative in their communities. When you first established Te Tiare, what was the response like from your community?
When I first started it was hard. I had to talk to my family first. I told them, ‘I’m going to be doing this campaign, I don’t know what the repercussions are for all of you’. Luckily, my family were really supportive. I’ve had threats. People ring me up and say ‘stop it, I’m going to kill you’, they call me names and they harass me at work.
When I first acknowledged that I identified as an akava’ine, I think I was quite lucky because I had a family that sort of already knew. It wasn’t a big thing for them. But I have felt the stigma and in a sense, the discrimination, ever since I was little. I’ve just learned to live with it.
That’s honestly so horrible. I’m glad that it hasn’t deterred you because your courage and perseverance has clearly helped you to change lives. What about your campaign to decriminalize homosexuality? What are some of the barriers you’re facing in relation to that?
The whole conversation around the decriminalization of homosexuality in the Cook Islands is difficult because there are a lot of people, including the government, that do not see it as an issue. The main opposition is from the religious advisory council because of their beliefs. The purpose of our campaign is to raise awareness and let them know that we may not have the same beliefs but we have the same values, like love and respect.
There are a lot of misconceptions around our campaign. People think that we are trying to create new and special rights, but it’s about having the same rights as everyone else. I guess, what we’re trying to do is demystify and correct these misunderstandings.
So in light of these issues, what are your plans for the future of Te Tiare?
I want it to be a sustainable organization so that it will always be there to support people who need help. I’m also working on securing funding so that we can employ a part time worker and also provide a safe space, because at the moment, the Te Tiare headquarters is my house. We have meetings in my backyard! (Laughs)
So exciting! I am sure Te Tiare will continue to grow and have such a positive impact on everyone that comes through. As a confident and successful akava’ine, you felt really lucky to have the support of your family. But what about those that haven’t been as fortunate? What advice do you have for people that are struggling with their sexual identity?
I think it’s important to talk to someone, whoever it may be, especially if you feel like you’re isolated. You need to know that you’re not alone. There are millions of people around the world that are going through the same thing, talk to someone.
And most importantly, any final words for people that do not believe in the importance of recognizing the rights of people who identify as LGBTQI and do not see the incredible value that you all have in our communities?
We are normal people, we are a part of your community, your families and we deserve to be treated like humans.
Yes, yes, yes! Thank you Val for speaking with TSW! Wishing you all the best as you continue to advocate for our LGBTQI brothers and sisters and support you 100 percent. I feel so proud to know you, thank you for your fierce spirit and courageous heart.
If you would like to lend your time as a volunteer or lend your wallet to the cause, please join Te Tiare’s facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/groups/tetiare/.