Shaneel Lal is an activist for gay rights and an end to conversion therapy. Photo / Dean Purcell
Shaneel Lal has just been named to the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list for her social impact. Vaimoana Mase meets the young transgender activist who was just a teenager when they started their fight to ban conversion therapy in New Zealand.
Shaneel Lal vividly remembers being separated from the other children and having the so-called enchanted bracelets placed on them in an effort to beg the gay man to leave.
“My homosexuality was considered an evil spirit. I was considered possessed or treated like a witch.
“They took me away from girls so that I wouldn’t become more feminine. They took me away from boys so that my homosexuality wouldn’t be transmitted to them.
“As a child, I just wanted to survive. I wasn’t trying to convert anyone else and I didn’t know how – I wouldn’t know how.”
Lal is now 22 years old and juggles a busy life as a university student preparing for a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in psychology; while also being a voice for gay rights.
Despite this, life as a queer and transgender person is still sometimes lonely. Lal also identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns them and them.
In recent years, the young activist has been catapulted into the political spotlight; having been very vocal about the rights of young people who identify as non-binary and those of the LGBTQIA community (lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual).
But Lal is arguably most widely known for his fight to ban conversion therapy practices such as those he experienced as a young child growing up in Fiji.
In mid-February, parliament passed a law that outlaws conversion therapy practices and therefore criminalizes any attempt to alter or remove a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. ‘a person.
Under the new law, it is now a civil offense to perform conversion therapy on a person under the age of 18 or on a person with impaired decision-making capacity.
Punishment could see a person sentenced to jail for up to three years or five years for serious harm, regardless of age.
Have to grow up fast
The passing of the bill had a lot to do with Lal; who gave an impassioned speech at the 2019 Youth Parliament calling for a ban on conversion therapy, before becoming the co-founder and leader of the group End Conversion Therapy NZ.
“I’ll say this with a sigh – I felt I was forced to grow up because I was visible in politics. I never had the opportunity to just be a reckless teenager.
“I feel a sense of nostalgia – like I’ve missed a whole part of my life [and that] I missed crucial experiences as a youngster.”
Many people know this part of Lal’s story, but other aspects of their journey helped make them the person and leader they are today.
Lal and their family are from Fiji and identify as Fiji of Indian descent.
Growing up in Fiji, being gay was not accepted. However, Lal recalls seeing a few people identified as vakasalewalewa or hijra – the indigenous terms for trans women in the respective Fijian and Indian cultures.
Lal also saw how at least one trans woman was once abused and spat on and how society ignored them.
At age 14, Lal’s family moved to New Zealand – a place where Lal thought they would be more accepted. It wasn’t so much the case.
“I saw that the queer community was white. No one in the queer community looked like me.
“I had moved from Fiji where homosexuality was not accepted at all – in fact people were trying to hurt or hurt us – and moved to Aotearoa where homosexuality was celebrated, but it was only celebrated if you were white.”
To try and connect with others like them, Lal signed up for the Grindr app – similar to the online dating app Tinder, but for gay people.
Instead of being included, Lal felt unwanted after many profiles said they didn’t want to meet anyone who was fat, feminine or Asian.
“I meet two of those criteria and have therefore been categorically excluded by so many people in the queer community.
“That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, this community isn’t just defined by whiteness, it’s also very racist. “”
“I won’t let you decide my fate”
In 2018, Lal graduated from Ōtāhuhu College in South Auckland and was named a dux that year – a fact that may give some insight into the work ethic Lal has always had, even since her older days. young age.
Throughout high school—grades 9 through 12—they wouldn’t get the coveted top student award, despite earning high marks every year.
“It pissed me off.”
So, at the beginning of this last year at school, Lal walked into the principal’s office and asked what they had to do to become dux.
“Every year they had used random criteria that I didn’t meet. So (that) year I was like, ‘I’m not going to let you decide my fate. I’ll take control.”
Lal recounts the subjects they have chosen – arithmetic, physics, chemistry, biology and English or the Asian five, as they laughingly describe it.
When asked if they had come out as gay in high school, Lal said it was never something they needed to explain.
“The concept of coming out has always been [astonishing] for me because I’ve always treated being queer the same as being brunette.
“I never had to sit my parents down and say, ‘Mom, Dad, I hope you still love me, I’m brunette.’
“That would be ridiculous. So I wasn’t convinced that I had to do the same for my homosexuality because those were the two very ordinary things about me.
“None of the boys in rugby who are straight have ever had to come out as straight, so why do I have to come out as gay?”
On the day of the interview, Lal reveals a scary situation they found themselves in the day before.
“Just had one of the rudest interactions on the bus.”
An older man already on the bus got up and sat down next to Lal before proposing sex.
“He basically said, ‘Oh, what are you doing? Do you want to have fun?’
“I wanted to jump off the bus. I’m a very confident person and I can handle very difficult situations, but it just sent a shock through my body.”
The man got off the bus – at the Lal stop – and followed them. Lal said they didn’t know how long the man had been following them, but they just wanted to report the incident to the police.
A message of encouragement and hope
Lal is working towards bigger goals, including what should be a thriving modeling career and at least two big projects that can’t be mentioned yet – as well as finishing college.
These will stem from what Lal has already achieved so far, including being featured in fashion magazine Vogue and being named to the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia list for his social impact last week.
Their journey of self-discovery also continues as a young vakasalewalewa – with whom Lal officially identifies.
Lal has a message of encouragement for these young people, especially Pasifika, who are struggling with their sexual identity or orientation to maintain hope.
“I’ve been there – I feel like you’re absolutely on your own and nothing will ever get better for you.
“Hang on and keep going because things change and they often change for the better.”