Pride Month Talent Talk with Andre Afamasaga

Tell us a bit about how you started your career and the journey that led you to your current role.

Working in human rights represents my third career change and I feel very fortunate for that. My first job after high school was working for IBM which I enjoyed for a few years, but I still had a lot of growing up to do. After some life changing events, I moved to my second career which was being a church pastor and chaplain and I did this for 11 years. On one hand, helping people and communities was profoundly rewarding but during that period, I was also actively supressing my sexuality through conversion practices (also known as “conversion therapy”). This was not sustainable and led to feelings of depression and worse. So, by 2017, I felt I had no other option but to resign, (although I didn’t disclose my reasons). This became my pathway to begin a journey of self-discovery and accepting my sexuality. In 2018, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission was advertising a role which I applied for, and in addition to the standard professional competencies they also asked for lived experience. At my job interview, they wanted to know more about me. I started by saying “My name is Andre, and I am a gay, Samoan man”. Until that time, I had never uttered those words out loud. At first, I felt scared and almost ashamed. I’m glad to say that I now say those words regularly, but now with pride and confidence. 

Since securing that first role, I’ve worked hard and applied for subsequent opportunities that have allowed me to grow and contribute to my organisation. Today, I’m the Manager of the Commission’s Conversion Practices Response team, and I’m also currently the Acting General Manager of our Advisory, Research and Engagement team.

Unfortunately, my situation does not reflect the experience of many rainbow people. One of the most common complaints we receive at the NZ Human Rights Commission in relation to discrimination in employment is on the ground of sexual orientation. A significant percentage of people in our community, do not feel safe to be open about their true self or fear discrimination either at work or when applying for jobs. They often conceal their identities or partners for fear of discrimination if these details are disclosed to others in their work environments.

Pride month is celebrated to honour the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York and although the world has come a long way since then what do you feel still needs to be done to create a more inclusive and equitable world/or working world?

The right to work is an essential human right and is inherent to a dignified life. It’s also crucial for accessing other human rights. It encompasses the right to be treated fairly at every point of the employment process, whether it is getting a job, fair pay, or promotion pathways.

More broadly, in New Zealand, we have only just passed the legislation to ban conversion practices, so there’s always more to do in terms of progressing rainbow human rights.

In my personal view, outside of the work domain, there are two areas where we need to do better: first, inclusion of and healthcare for trans people and children. Their very existence and wellbeing are under threat due to popular, fear-based narratives and transphobic tropes promoted globally, and then picked up and repeated domestically.

The second area is support for those at the intersection of being rainbow and indigenous or a person of colour. Discrimination is compounded for the rainbow person who also experiences racism. Existing access barriers to employment, health and housing are exacerbated. Unfortunately, many of us who are people of colour can also feel excluded and isolated from within the rainbow community, so it can be disheartening and a struggle to find a safe community to belong to. Sometimes, it’s not explicit exclusion but rather the cues and signals that tell me if I belong or not. As a Samoan, I can’t always relate to many of the popular images or assumed experiences upheld as the norm by other gay males in the rainbow community.

So how do we address this? Well, I’d call for anyone who doesn’t experience transphobia or racism to educate yourself on these matters. There are a lot of great books and online articles and videos. Don’t expect those groups of people to teach you. And then become an ally by applying your learnings. 

Have you ever experienced or feared discrimination because of your sexual orientation or gender identity in your career?

When I was a Pastor, I was treated very well by my employers and fellow colleagues. However, because of the entrenched ideologies and traditional interpretations of the Bible that prohibit homosexuality, I knew that my faith community could never endorse me, a gay person, to practice as a Pastor. So, I kept that part of my life mostly secret. I wouldn’t call it discrimination, but I lived with the daily fear of being “exposed”. Fear of losing my job and the respect of my colleagues and feeling responsible to those who looked up to me, also weighed on me daily. It ultimately kept me in “the closet” for a long time. By the end, I wasn’t in a good headspace.

I have been fortunate to make it out to the other end but I recognise that there are many others, regardless of the work industry, who do not fare so well. Sadly, the cumulative burden of stigma and pressure can sometimes lead to harmful consequences for that individual and their families, such as poor mental health and strained relationships.  

What advice would you  want to share with someone struggling to express their true self in the workplace?

I acknowledge it’s not for everyone. Some people prefer to have a strictly professional life and keep their personal life separate. You shouldn’t feel pressure to come out or be more visible, everyone’s situation is different. And even if you do, you shouldn’t have to feel as if you must educate your workplace on rainbow matters. However, for those who do want to express themselves but lack the confidence, seek out advice from other rainbow people you respect. Or speak to a therapist either through an Employee Assistance Programme or in your own time, to learn about, and to process some of your fears. If you feel safe, join a professional rainbow network in person or online, and learn from others in your line of work, who have been in your position before. It may seem scary and full of unknowns, but in my experience, these fears are far outweighed by the rewards.    

What does inclusivity in the workplace mean to you and what negative effects can a non-inclusive workplace have on someone from the LGBTIQ+ community?

For me, inclusive workplaces are environments where rainbow people can thrive professionally and personally. It means respect and recognition of people’s pronouns; and inclusive images in and about your workplace; respectful language in formal and informal conversations that are free from judgement or stereotypes. Inclusivity is also visible - from access to gender neutral bathrooms or dress codes that aren’t prohibitive to one expressing their true self. At a systemic level, it means policies such as equitable access to opportunities to grow and progress, free from unconscious bias 

and other barriers. 

I’d suggest that any workplace that is not intentionally looking at how they can make their workspace more rainbow inclusive, risks becoming a “non-inclusive” space by default, whether they know it or not. Don’t forget, most of our historical workplace systems and cultures assume that workers are either heterosexual or cisgender. So, it seems sensible to me that workplaces should consider key actions and resourcing to ensure they are truly becoming more inclusive, rather than assuming the status quo works for all.

Statistics show that diverse teams are more successful. In your opinion, what are some of the approaches businesses should be taking to build a better workforce for the future?

There’s lots of literature and evidence to suggest that having rainbow-inclusive workplaces and workforces not only add to better employee wellbeing and a more attractive place to work, but also adds to the bottom dollar of the organisation. I mentioned above some of the approaches businesses can take, but you don’t have to do it alone.

Ask your rainbow-identifying staff for their suggestions. There are some great external programmes and organisations that can help you improve your practice, and how to attract and maintain rainbow “talent” by creating safer and inclusive spaces.

To learn more about rainbow people’s human rights, relevant to the workplace, see the following: