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It’s time to heal the inner child

"Realizing I was queer made me more anxious as it led to a lot of bullying and death threats from both kids and adults alike. I rarely stood my ground or found myself proud of who I was."

Caption: Reflecting on his journey, Anfernee Nenol Kaminaga during a photoshoot in the Marshall Islands. Picture: Supplied/Chewy Lin

This is the story of 27-year-old Anfernee Nenol Kaminaga (indigenously known as Aelōñ Kein Ad) of the Marshall Islands, who shares his journey of rejection, pain, sacrifice, and self-realization.

Nenol, as he prefers to be called, is a LGBTQI activist in the Marshall Islands and identifies as pansexual, genderqueer.

The devoted community worker says for the LGBTQI community, life on the island is one that involves a lot of "fighting back" for acceptance, where people don’t want to talk about anything sexually-related, and sadly, anything from the LGBTQI community is deemed sexual and promiscuous.

Here's Nenol’s story through the Q&A:

When did you realize you were different and unique?

I was a kid when I had the realization that I was different. I was born in the RMI but left when I was young and moved to America. The area in which I was living was predominantly Caucasian, and my family made up the only "Pacific Islander/Brown/Other" population.

How difficult was it growing up as an LGBTQI person?

It was hard growing up in America as a brown kid, but then realizing I was queer made me more anxious, as it led to a lot of bullying and death threats from both kids and adults alike. I rarely stood my ground or found myself proud of who I was.

What challenges did you face as a young LGBTQI person growing up in the Pacific?

I moved back to the Marshall Islands just as I was hitting puberty, so I was an emotional wreck from leaving a familiar home and friends, moving thousands of miles away, and having to deal with hormones as soon as I landed. I went to a private school with a heavy religious background, so I was always the butt of the joke for everyone. I was also never intentionally trying to stand out; I just wanted friends. It’s because people in the islands don’t want to talk about anything sexually related, and sadly, anything from the LGBTQI community is deemed sexual and promiscuous.

How did you react to these challenges—how did you feel about them, and how did it affect you?

I was frustrated because I didn’t know why I deserved to be an outcast when I had to prove how "Marshallese" I was upset because there was a lot of self-denial, and I was depressed because I felt that this was going to lead me down a road to realize that maybe no one cared enough or I wasn’t deserving of love.

How were you treated at home, by your family, in public, at school, etc.?

Both my classmates, relatives, and neighborhood kids alike made me feel bad for who I was when I was still trying to understand myself. There were more sad moments than I’d like to admit.

How did you overcome these challenges?

I looked into myself a lot and wrote in a journal. If I felt unwanted or abused, I would get up and just walk around. I spent a lot of time with myself and my head in books, just wishing to be elsewhere. But along the way, I made some friends who kept me occupied and loved me. The time alone was spent with books and movies that got me more exposed to the facades of a queer person’s life. I changed when I entered high school. I was in a new school with kids who were still annoying but allowed me to be myself for a bit. I forced myself to stand out more and just be curious. One example of this was when I spent time with an NGO, Youth to Youth in Health, and got condoms from them. I would take leaflets about teen pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and STIs and make a bracelet of stapled condoms, then go around campus telling my classmates to practice safe sex. Teen pregnancy was at an all-time high in my high school (that’s where my mom went and became a teen parent), so I just wanted to encourage my classmates to learn more about safe sex and that the choice is always theirs. There’s a funny saying that when a queer person goes through trauma, they change their image as a way of growth or self-empowerment, and I always dyed my hair or bought some weird accessory to stand out.

What inspired you to become the person you are today?

The thing that kicked off my urge to want to embrace myself as a queer person came from what I saw on social media and in the media in general. Lady Gaga inspired me heavily (paws up) during my teen years and even now because she’s not just an ally but bisexual. A lot of musical women who embraced sex or one’s sexuality heavily influenced me to be daring, e.g., Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, La Roux, Janelle Monae, Keke Palmer, Kesha, Natalia Kills, and Left Eye Lisa Lopes, to name a few. These women made me feel great about my femininity, as it had been used against me for a long time, but I felt invigorated listening to them. Some men who also inspired me were Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, and Frank Ocean. A lot of these influences are heavily based on American mainstream media, and that’s because the Marshall Islands has close relations with America. That’s where we consume most media.

What sets you apart from others?

I honestly can’t say, as this is something that’s always changing. Maybe it’s that. Usually nothing is consistent with me, and I like to allow myself the curiosity to try something new. I embrace change now and look forward to how it affects me. My nerves – "laugh out loud" I have the audacity to do it sometimes.

When you look back at your journey, what do you see?

When looking back on my journey, the one thing I’ve seen the most is growth. Growth, not only from me but also from others around me. That growth is also attached to a lot of happy moments, some sad, but more embracing. There’s a kid who didn’t think of himself as much, but now he’s been able to do more than he could have ever imagined.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m still figuring that out. There’s a lot I put myself into, mainly because I just like trying something new, but in the meantime, I would like to get back to doing something for my LGBTQI community in the Marshall Islands. It’s never certain what I’ll do, but I can name a few things that I have been a part of so far. A feature in the "We Have a Dream" book by World Dream Project in Japan, "The Healer Stones" and #PacificPortraits exhibit at the Bishop Museum in Hawai’i by Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong and QWaves Productions, my poem "This Land I Call Mama" out on YouTube with NDC Partnership and the nuclear justice video I produced with MISA4ThePacific called "My Fish is Your Fish". I want to do more with media and the arts, so something will come along.

What’s your message to other LGBTQI individuals who are facing similar challenges?

Your journey can start whenever you’re ready, and if you feel like you need to hit "redo," that’s okay. One thing I like to do, and I encourage you to do it as well, is to not look forward to the end of your journey but to look back at the journey itself. Look at the achievements you’ve been able to make, the places and people you’ve been able to meet, and the person that’s grown from the experience. You will not only heal the "sad" or "confused" you of the past, but also others who will be touched by your life. One speech I always look back on is the Harvard Commencement speech made by Natalie Portman back in 2015.

What’s your message to society at large?

Allow the youth to grow into themselves, provide safe spaces, and talk to them. So many LGBTQI people grow up thinking they’re bad people when in reality they’re just trying to understand what they like and don’t like. Putting too much pressure and energy on queer youth to try and figure it out is a waste of your time, especially if you want to change them. We’re entering a whole new age where there’s intergenerational dialogue taking place and being recorded on our phones and screens about queer culture. It's time that we encourage ourselves to understand one another and heal the inner child of many queer individuals. It’s time we stop belittling and start encouraging the rainbow.

Copyright - This blog has been produced by the Pacific Sexual & Gender Diversity Network.

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