Shaneel Lal is many things. An indigenous and queer immigrant studying a conjoint of Bachelor of Arts and Laws at the University of Auckland. A vocal and respected intersectional activist and advocate for Indigenous folk and LGBTQ+ communities. An anti conversion therapy campaigner. And a representative of the new breed of ‘influencer’, using their platform (25.3k Instagram followers) in a positive way to educate and disseminate information and opinion. Shaneel has an opinion; it’s highly likely you’ve seen one of their snappy carousel posts shared somewhere on your feed.
At 20-years-old, Shaneel already has a prolific background in politics and Human Rights advocacy, last year co-founding the organisation End Conversion Therapy NZ. Compounded with their own lived experiences, they have also worked as a youth MP for Manukau East and as part of a Global Youth Taskforce with Amnesty International NZ.
On Monday, Shaneel celebrated a huge win with the news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is committed to a ban on conversion therapy in New Zealand. After years of lobbying from activists and survivors, the policy is momentous; Labour also plans to invest $4 million into Rainbow youth mental health services, to work with schools to provide gender neutral bathrooms, and to ensure healthcare is responsive to the needs of trans, intersex and gender diverse people if the party is elected. The news arrived just days after the commencement of early voting, but years after the consistent advocacy of Shaneel and many others.
Fijian-born and raised, Shaneel is a force at the intersection of a range of marginalised groups, and like many of our young community leaders, is creating and inspiring change on the ground. This includes working closely with folk in person and employing platforms like Instagram and Twitter to dismantle white supremacy through education; all while holding prejudiced individuals and groups, politicians and haters accountable. Shaneel is unapologetic in their existence, a quality that is easy to fabricate but difficult to truly embody as they do.
We have followed and supported each other on Instagram for a while, meeting in real life for the first time at the Black Lives Matter solidarity march in Auckland in June. Despite its downfalls, the social media platform has enabled us both to make meaningful connections with like-minded individuals.
I wanted to talk in more depth with Shaneel, so we connected again over Zoom during lockdown Level 3, round 2 for Auckland, for a wide-ranging conversation about religion, Eurocentric beauty standards, the present and lasting impact of colonialism, the current elections and the importance of voting.
With photographer Hohua, we met again a few weekends later - exploring Shaneel’s South Auckland home of Otahuhu. We quickly realised, with each look and shot, that despite Shaneel’s high-energy spirit, they could not be put in a box.
EXISTENCE IS RESISTANCE: Shaneel wears their own tapa.
Lofa: How would you introduce yourself to your ancestors?
Shaneel: I think I could never be as fierce as my ancestors. They literally ate the coloniser. Our generation is the lazy generation - we don’t eat the coloniser any more. They set the bar so, so, so high that now, we are envious of the things that they did. How do we achieve or how do we do more than what our ancestors did? I think that this is always a constant challenge, but it’s a good challenge because it’s always making us do better. I hope that when the generations after us come, they feel the same way about us and know that we fought as hard as we could. So when I introduce myself to my ancestors, they will know and not be disappointed - they will know: that’s one fierce bitch! They did everything possible.
I’d be like, ‘hey girl! How you doin’?’ If they are in heaven... I mean I don’t think any indigenous people go to heaven. ‘Cause if you look at it from the coloniser’s point of view, all of us aren’t meant to be in heaven. That’s if heaven even is real.
Lofa: Wow. I never thought of it like that. I reckon there is a high possibility though that they are all together in paradise - where there’s like no... colonisers.
Shaneel: By definition, that is what we call paradise for indigenous people.
Lofa: Yup, yup. Like… the islands untouched, in all its beauty, in all its amazingness - heaven.
Shaneel: Yeah! In Te Ao Māori they would say a place that is wai tapu, a land that is so sacred to them. And for indigenous people particularly with ancestors from the islands, who didn't - before colonialism - believe in Christianity, but were spiritual people and had relationships with their indigenous Gods… I think it is disrespectful for our generation to then say, ‘Oh you might be in heaven, you might be in hell’, because they didn’t believe in that. I think for us to impose our new colonial ways onto them is quite disrespectful and we dishonour them by doing that.
Lofa: Oh my goodness your mind! I am gonna have to take that away and really think about it, unpack it and question.
Shaneel: I grew up with three religions cause I went to an all Christian school, so we read the Bible everyday. That was part of the school curriculum, we sang a hymn in the morning and every afternoon. It was just part of our life. So Christianity became very ingrained into my life. My family were hardcore Hindus and were married to a lot of Muslims, so there was this cluster of religions. I grew up with knowledge of all the religions, but I grew out of all of them.
But now I’m trying to see - what could be the benefit of Christianity to certain people? I think people really find it helpful, but then again there’s this really helpful quote: ‘Read your Bible like you eat your fish: take all the meaty parts that serve you well - but don’t choke on the bone.’
Lofa: There’s something that you said before about our ancestors and how it would be dishonourable to them. Can you expand on that?
Shaneel: I’m not sure if it’s Tongans or Samoans who have their indigenous Gods - I think maybe Tangaloa - and then in Te Ao Māori they have Papatūānuku , Ranginui and their children too who were the Gods of different things.
Indigenous people had a spiritual connection to these Gods and this was before Christianity was introduced to Aotearoa. Those were the ancestors of Māori and the same applies to Fiji - ancestors that lived before colonialism did not believe in Christianity. They did not know the story of Jesus and this white God who people worship now.
For us to say that they would be judged by the colonial standards that were introduced to us - we dishonour them because we disrespect their beliefs and we actually deny ourselves the truth and experiences of our ancestors. I do really believe that a lot of indigenous people no longer have any connection to their indigenous Gods but have a relationship with this colonial concept of religion.
Lofa: Yes! Despite that, do you feel there are any similarities in terms of values? I know for Samoans there is talk about how everything that came with the teachings - at least all the good stuff - we have always had that. We didn’t need the missionaries to tell us and it wasn’t necessarily written, it was known in our stories and everything. Do you feel like there are positives?
Shaneel: Yeah... I mean there are definitely positives. My friends are religious people, my friends are often brown women - men are not my friends [laughs]. Lots of my friends are brown women who come from faith-based families - a lot of those women are really phenomenal. Of course there are good parts - I mean if these women who grew up with religion turned out to be so incredible, I think religion is there. We do not take everything that is given to us. We are critical, we question it and we see what is important to us. What serves the purpose, because the world is evolving.
We look at tikanga Māori - the first law of New Zealand and the second law which was brought in through colonialism was religion - made on the integral basis of destroying the indigenous laws of the Pacific. We find ourselves in a situation where we value these colonial concepts more than we value our indigenous concepts. We need to go back to our indigenous practices and say what is similar with religion and these are the things we can continue to follow. And what things do not align with our indigenous beliefs - for example we do not believe that women are less than men. We do not believe that queer people are going to hell. Those are things we don't believe. When you look at the Bible - you read that… You can say I’m not gonna believe in this part.
Lofa: Yeah well the Bible was written by men right? I’m pretty sure they took out all the Books written by women before the Bible became what it is a collection of writings bound together. Men had full control over the Bible - what was to be a significant historical document that would ultimately shape Christianity. The less stories there were about women well…. It doesn’t get more patriarchal than that.
Shaneel: Definitely. I read this thing by Alice Walker, a black, queer feminist. She calls herself a womanist and wrote The Color Purple. She calls herself a womanist because feminism is so white and a lot of these feminists are right-wing conservative religious women, or left-wing women who only care about themselves in the workplace. But for women of colour, Black and indigenous women, their intersectional identity compounds them.
In her book, Alice talks about Black Jesus and how she worships the Black Mary because that is her source of empowerment. She never sees how Jesus who has all the characteristics of Black people and people of colour is suddenly a white person.
Lofa: I think the genesis of feminism - if there are only white people there at the beginning of an idea or movement… It doesn’t count for me.
Shaneel: Biology literally says we all come from a Black woman so…
Shaneel: It’s quite ridiculous how right-wing conservatives are like… 'facts over feelings', but their feelings are hurt when you give them the facts.
Lofa: Absolutely! Now, I wanted to talk about something more personal with you. Growing up, did fashion and beauty have a strong place in your life?
Shaneel: I did an interview recently, where I explained that growing up, I would have given anything to look like Snow White.
Lofa: Really? Out of all of them you chose Snow White?
Shaneel: Yup. But now I wish I could give her a tan. That bitch is pale!
Lofa: She’s cold! She’s freezing!
Shaneel: The sun don’t shine for her! I mean now, my idea of beauty has really changed. But growing up I was entrapped in this idea of the skinny nose, perfect skin defined by whiteness. Beauty was defined by whiteness - anything else that did not meet that standard… There was really no point in trying to find value in all of the other things that you had. If you’re not white, do not even bother.
My idea of what it meant to be beautiful began to change when I started to explore my queer identity. That is because my great grandmother - who people have never seen, we didn’t have a camera or a phone when I lived in Fiji so there are no pictures. She said that queerness was inherently and fundamentally indigenous not in English of course, she didn’t speak English.
She said that indigenous people cannot exist in systems that were anti-queer, because queerness was indigenous. An attack on queer people was an attack on indigenous people. I started exploring my feminine side. I realised that everything about my queer identify was actually indigenous. For my Fijian context, being indigenous is not being white, for many Fijian people it is about being black. For other people who are mixed race, it may be being brown.
That is something I had to learn before I could actually explore my identity or my image of what it meant to be beautiful. Over time it’s grown exponentially. Radical self love! I have nothing to apologise for and if my brown ass makes someone uncomfortable? Good.
Now, my idea of beauty is defined by absolutely everything. As indigenous people, who are known to be of big bodies, heavy bodies, black bodies, brown bodies, of big noses, curly hair… We need to start appreciating those things because does a skinny nose define beauty? Does white skin or straight hair define beauty? No because I ain’t got none of that.
Lofa: It sounds like your great grandmother had a huge impact on the way you see the world. It’s similar to my Nana and her wisdom. I find myself latching onto it and I think it’s so special that she was able to instil that in you. It sounds like you wouldn’t be the person you are today for that wisdom that she shared.
Speaking of beauty, your recent Instagram post about hair spoke to me and so many others. I can relate to the experience of hating my hair. I remember in high school I thought, if I cut it short, it would somehow grow magically straight. I remember being so frustrated and there was a time when all I did was straighten it.
Other Pacific Islander girls did the same, we know that now that it damages it. But I remember my Nana would always braid it in primary school: she would put coconut oil in it and it was always beautiful. Can we talk about your hair and your relationship with it - in particular your recent IG post?
Shaneel: Of course! The idea of hair - a lot of people don’t understand how important that is to indigenous people. I posted about that because I was sick of white people grabbing my hair or asking to touch it. You don’t ask to touch my hair - the action is different but the intent is the same.
People simply compliment me for having straight hair or telling me it looks pretty only when my hair is straight, not in its natural form - I got sick and tired of it. I thought, I’m going to put an end to this. No one is going to touch my hair or ask either.
It really annoyed me when indigenous people as a whole refused to allow men to grow their hair or what they consider their idea of who a man should be in regards to his hair. As indigenous people, for men, hair was very important. The length and quality of your hair signified your strength and power as a man back then. What colonists used to do was shave their head and strip their hair as a war tactic.
So, indigenous people need to realise that our hair signifies power and not weakness and not this idea or characteristic of being feminine. Men need to realise that these feminine characteristics they have actually signify power - it makes us better
The relationship we have with our hair is so sacred particularly because our hair is part of our head. Our head is so sacred - it stores the knowledge of our ancestors and connects us to the people who came before us and the people who will come after us. Our hair is the physical extension of our thoughts and knowledge. Every time someone grabs it, it is actually an attack. It is an attempt to steal our knowledge and appropriate our thoughts.
That’s why I say - do not ever fucking touch my hair! If someone does and they have done it innocently, I’m still not going to be nice about it.
Lofa: It’s your crown essentially!
Shaneel: The funny thing is, we love to put oil in our hair right? Growing up, white people in general would be like 'OMG, why is your hair so greasy and sticky'? And then they end up slapping that same oil on their face and like calling it a face mask? You are really gonna use my culture as therapy?
Lofa: Let’s talk about your platform on social media. How do you feel about the response or reaction to your social media posts - both positive and negative?
Shaneel: I think in 2018, 50 likes would be like… What? ‘Wow, 50 people liked my post.’ Well, it’s grown to the point that I’m getting 3,000 likes but my personal identity has not changed because of that. I do not feel any more satisfied with more followers or likes. I do not think social media can ever really satisfy you based on the amount of attention you are getting. That’s just... not where you should be looking for validation of any kind.
However, over a period of time, I have seen more and more people label me as an angry brown gay man. I think it’s the same for any brown activist that is outspoken, fearless and does not take shit from anyone.
I think how I respond to the idea of decorum, respectability or civility… Who created those words and concepts? Who does it benefit? They were created by white men in a system and institutions that work for the benefit of white men and subjugation of indigenous peoples of BIPOC. They did not want us to exist or thrive in those systems. So when people like me show up in these spaces, when people like you show up, people like us? We ruin it for them.
Lofa: We are too loud!
Shaneel: Absolutely. Those colonial concepts are used to cancel us. We have been cancelled for a very long time. For me, I refuse to be silent or respectable so that a bigot can be comfortable. I refuse to be civil with my oppressor, there is nothing civil about oppressing me. I refuse to be civil or respectable with someone who refuses to acknowledge my full identity. I do not have the luxury or privilege.
Lofa: I understand. Similar to when you enter a corporate workspace, you are expected to fulfil a certain level of “professionalism”... but to their standards. Social media is fucked but without it, I wouldn’t have met people like me. I wouldn’t have met you, people like Anatola Finau [an amazing sexual health expert and Tongan goddess]. I wouldn’t have made all these amazing connections. But do you ever feel pressured to have a perspective on everything on social media?
Shaneel: I think I am expected to have a stance on everything. But that's just not practical, there are so many issues that I’m not aware of. There are so many things that I do not have the academic ability, intelligence or knowledge to speak on. I have to just... look at someone else’s work. So I’m expected to, but I’m telling myself more and more that I do not have to speak on every single issue, that’s just not possible for me and it is detrimental to my wellbeing.
I speak on as many issues that I am capable of speaking on. I find myself in a very interesting position right now, because of trying to be an ally to marginalised communities that I’m not a part of. I hear two very different narratives and one is: “You can’t speak on behalf of us.” Which is a very valid point.
The other one is, “why the fuck are you quiet? Why aren’t you speaking about this?” It’s from the same community too, one person will say one thing and another person will say something completely different. I’m like, what the hell am I supposed to do? If someone is making an attack on queer people, I’m like okay, I’m definitely gonna speak out.
But if people are just simply going to share my post on their story and leave it there… It doesn’t actually do anything besides get me a wider audience, which actually exposes me to more homophobic, transphobic people.
I think people need to add their support from their own creative thought or originality. For example if someone shares my post - they must be able to add support or encourage their audience to do the same. I feel like if you have a wide audience, you’re bound to have people that are not accepting of queer people. If you just share the post on your story, you’re leaving it there ambiguous for people to make their mind up.
Lofa: Or to just swipe past it…
Shaneel: Yes exactly. So my belief is that people should be speaking up to add to those voices, but also add to it in a way that doesn’t take over the narrative. That’s something I’m learning how to do effectively. I know I have been guilty of speaking on behalf of other people. That’s also a tricky balance for me.
Lofa: I think we are all learning that one. I had an interesting conversation with my friend last night, and she was saying how she’s sick of the question that she gets: what is the Pacific perspective? What does the Pacific think about this? What is the Pacific lens on this issue…
She finds herself getting frustrated because she knows her responsibility is to represent our people in the workspace that she’s in conflict with, because she knows our people are not the same in our experiences, in our thoughts.
Shaneel: We are multifaceted people - marginalised communities have multifaceted people with different needs and different wants. You probably can’t meet everyone's needs and wants, but you can do your best to meet them. The idea of the marginalised person on the table having to speak is so messed up. For example, in Rainbow Youth - I sit on the board for Rainbow Youth - we made it clear in the beginning that if an issue regarding Māori, or Pacific people came up, it is the responsibility of the whole board to research that problem and then make educated arguments. It shouldn’t fall on the marginalised person to advocate for themselves.
Lofa: I want to touch on the topic of burnout and what this is like for you. You do so much - thank you - but how? What do you do to take care of yourself and stay energised?
Lofa: What does that look like for you?
Shaneel: I’m joking about therapy - only white people can do that. The burnout is so so real. I haven’t actually figured out how to cope with that. There’s this thing on social media where you just deactivate and disappear for a bit. But I don’t feel like I’m in a position to do that. There’s this really weird obligation on me to not do that.
I haven’t found a way to re-energise or to look after the burnout because I haven’t had the time to properly understand what my burnout is. Also when I do have free time, I have to keep busy because it’s like, oh no - my mind is doing things to me now. There’s this other idea where your value as a person isn’t determined by your productivity.
I think all activists should be taken off this pedestal. We - every activist that is out there - we are all just human. This idea that activists or people who are in the presence of media should have extensive or newly developed coping mechanisms is quite backwards. There is this assumption that these people know better or are doing better, but no, these people are going to mess up. Sometimes they are going to be really really messy and you’re not going to like that. That’s just a part of being human.
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Lofa: Let’s talk about the upcoming election and referendums - and youth voting. Why does your voice count as an indigenous queer person?
Shaneel: Voting was between white men and the government. Māori had to fight for their rights to vote and then women had to fight for their rights to vote. For us as marginalised people, voting wasn’t given to us as a right. It has been handed to us by people who fought for us because of privilege. It is important for me to exercise that privilege and to honour the people who fought for it.
However I think this tactic of shaming people into voting is not okay. That you should vote because people have fought for you, because your ancestors did this for you… It doesn’t work because you’re basically telling people to buy into that system. That is actually just traumatising people that the system doesn’t work for. What we need to do is, really listen to their concerns and address them and really understand how voting can address those concerns.
In the current situation, I think the Parliament that we have will never actually serve indigenous people in New Zealand. What we need is indigenous sovereignty and Māori lead for us to truly get equity and equality. Voting is important so we can keep fighting this system until we get what we want.
Lofa: I agree. I don’t think anything - true change - can be achieved until we have indigenous sovereignty. The answers to every issue has always been with indigenous people, we are the solution.
But how would you encourage youth to use or see value in their vote? I hear you, but there are so many who are unsure or find it difficult to engage with.
Shaneel: The only time all of New Zealand is actually equal is when we vote. A millionaire has one vote. You have one vote. All of a sudden at the election booth - your voice is equal to every other person in New Zealand. Your voice is not just one voice, it is a voice that is equal to every voice in New Zealand. You need to have a say.
I’m telling you - I bet your ass all the millionaires will vote. That is why their voice is the one that has always been the one listened to. They get their people into Parliament and we don’t vote because we think it’s not going to work and our people that are actually running? The people trying to get in, create change - they don’t get the support. I think it’s our responsibility to support them.
Lofa: What does life after lockdown and even COVID look like for you on a personal level?
Shaneel: Have I planned anything...
Lofa: Maybe not this time next year, or in the next few months...
Shaneel: I think what COVID has done is amplified these issues and disparities between communities that have always existed for us. And now we are like: these problems have always existed and NOW you will acknowledge it!
If the government can lock every person down and say ‘okay, now we are gonna give you subsidies’, I’m pretty sure we can eradicate poverty when everyone is in their workplace. We didn’t pull this one out of thin air. We know we have the resources and the money. We have what is needed to solve these problems.
On a personal level… For me, I feel like this is never going to end. We are gonna come out of lockdown and someone is going to mess it up again. I’m just like, can we stay in lockdown until we have zero active cases, robust checks. I would honestly hate to get out of lockdown and then have to get back into it for a third time. It’s definitely made me way calmer though.
Lofa: What does life after lockdown and even COVID look like for you on a communal, national level? Where do you want Aotearoa to be within the next couple years?
Shaneel: First of all, the elections are going to be so significant. It’s going to be a big one and I hope they go in our favour. It will determine everything we are able to do. For example, a lot of my work around conversion therapy just kind of stalled because it’s not a priority for New Zealand right now.
My current mindset is that we just need to get out of COVID. It’s quite difficult to think of things beyond COVID actually because we’ve kind of been accustomed now. The first lockdown went for a while, our mindsets have kind of been limited to life in COVID. I’m going to have to live a life without COVID to be able to think about those kinds of things.
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT: Jimmy D top, $205 (available from end of October).
Photographer: Hohua Ropate Kurene
Stylist: Lofa Totua