Born in Samoa in 1950, Fuimaono Karl Pulotu-Endemann always knew he was different. However, it was only when he came to New Zealand, age nine, that he was first exposed to the idea that these differences were something he was supposed to be ashamed of.
“I was already established as a Samoanfa’afafine very young, well before I came to New Zealand, when I was brought by my grandparents to be educated.”
“The term fa’afafine to me means born biologically a male but having the spirit of a woman. In the islands, I was brought up to feel rather special, that I could dance, I could sing. But here it was frowned upon. I was a quite a feminine boy, and my mother said to me, ‘New Zealand boys, they don’t walk or talk like that.’ And I thought, well, what’s the matter with how I am?”
Growing up in West Auckland in the 1960s and ‘70s, Karl experienced a double whammy of racist and homophobic bullying – but he says he never let it make him question who he was.
“In school I wore a lot of abuse, I got called everything you can think of. But I have never, ever in my life been a victim. Despite the homophobia, despite everything else.”
Drawing strength from your identity
Karl credits this early mindset of resilience to the strong foundation he has always had in his culture and identity.
“There are two things about me that I don’t compromise on: I’m Samoan and I’m fa’afafine and my culture and my sexuality are very interlinked – I can’t separate the two. It’s non-negotiable.”
“Fa’afafine is distinctly Samoan. In Tonga, in the Cook Islands, in Tahiti, there are different names. We’ve existed historically in the Pacific well before the others came, and there was a name. Where there’s a name, there’s an identity. And it’s a very positive name.”
“I came from Samoa already knowing who I was. You see, if your foundation is very strong then you really know who you are, and those things can’t affect you as much.”
In fact, Karl believes that bullying often comes from those who aren’t quite sure of their own identity, and project that out onto others.
“When I look back at the ’60s and ‘70s, I found that the homophobia I got was generally from people who were not very clear in their sexuality. Or were troubled with their own identity culturally. Some of them I wonder if it was curiosity, because they had never seen someone so openly flamboyant but very secure.”
Building your own support system of family and friends
Karl is one of eleven children, including two brothers and a sister who also identify as LGBTQIA+, and says his family were very supportive of them all.
However, he acknowledges that for some rainbow Pasifika youth, family might not always be supportive – or even if they are, they can’t come with you to school. That’s when the importance of good friendships comes into play.
“Most of my friends were straight girls – because we could talk about boys!” he laughs.
“I always noticed what people like myself need, and that is to have friends.”
“For me, there were school teachers at my primary school that weren’t very keen on me, and there were students who were wary of me,” Karl recounts. “But there was one little palagiboy - he was called Podgy – and he just befriended me. His parents freely opened their home to me. I learned then there were some very special people that I could be with. That meant a huge deal to me.”
Striving and succeeding
Education was the reason Karl came to New Zealand, and it soon became a way for him to rise above the bullying he faced. “The more I got harassed, the more I strived in my education,” he says.
This attitude is something he sees as a common thread through the lives of other people in the rainbow community.
“I’ve now mixed with a lot of high-achieving rainbow people, and there’s a trend – to succeed, you have to go beyond what’s in front of you. You know that racism and homophobia and sexism are going to be there, but you focus on yourself.”
After leaving school Karl worked for many years as a psychiatric nurse with a specific focus on the mental health of Pasifika – including creating his own model of care entitiled ‘Fonafale.’ He is now an esteemed name in his field and a hugely-respected leader in the Pasifika community. He holds the title Fuimaono, given to an ali'i or high chief of Western Samoa, and in 2001 he was awarded Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for Public Health.
Despite all his various accolades, Karl rejects the notion of being anyone’s role model.
“I’ve been very open with my journey and I’ve had a lot of people say to me ‘Karl, you’ve inspired me.’ But I don’t believe in heroes.”
“I think it’s very hard to try and live up to somebody else. It should be about believing in yourself – we should be working with people to let their own greatness come out. Families, friends, teachers, mental health professionals in support services, they can help people fulfil their own wonderfulness, their own uniqueness.”
Turning 72 years old this year, Karl is still working in communities – most recently with low-decile schools in South Auckland, helping to facilitate conversations with students on how COVID has impacted their mental health and wellbeing. With this work, he’s keen to stress the extra layer of difficulty felt by rainbow youth.
“There’s a whole other issue with this – if you’re stuck at home as a rainbow kid, and your family isn’t very supportive, that’s going to be really hard.”
Looking to the future, Karl is keen to see an Aotearoa where everyone feels accepted and safe being who they are.
“The future for fa’afafine, and for everybody, is just the ability to walk down the street feeling safe. That to me is the ultimate – when you can walk and feel safe, and you are safe, from the mental and the physical abuse.”
Walking tall and finding your special people
While Karl doesn’t want to be called a hero, it’s hard to dispute the impact he has had, and continues to have, on many people throughout his lifetime – and his philosophy on life is something many of us will find inspirational.
“I am just slightly over 6’ tall, but everybody in school thought I was 6’4, because I’ve always walked tall. That’s the way I was taught. You walk tall and very proud.”
To try and adopt a similar mindset, he urges Rainbow Pasifika, and anyone facing bullying in general, to ask themselves: “What is the thing that’s very special about you?”
If you’re having trouble naming something, then look to the people around you for help.
“There’s a saying that comes to me: ‘the art of walking on water is identifying the stepping stones beneath the surface.’ It’s the little steps that you do that will take you to the bigger steps. It’s your family, it’s your friends. Those special people are there.”