Article Title:GLBTI lives: Chris Olwage
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Published on:23rd January 2016 - 12:05 pm
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Story ID:17818
Text:Next up for our summer series we talk to Chris Olwage, New Zealand’s very own Black Swan, about his life in the spotlight and working in the LGBTI community.   What was it like for you growing up, when did you come out? Growing up for me was a difficult transition. From being a care-free child to a fully realised adult is fraught with trials and tribulations, a gauntlet of experiences that I guess formed me into the person I am today. My adolescence was not easy; growing up in South Africa and being a part of a very religious Christian community meant that I was brought up in an ultra conservative environment. When puberty hit and my unusual homosexual attractions became prevalent, I began a slow and steady path of self destruction. I used to feel that something was wrong with me and that I was going to go to hell. I attended a zealous Christian college and every day was started with morning Bible class. And every morning our pastor and Principal used to talk about demons that caused lustful attractions, devils that tempted us away from Christ's path, and how we could become possessed if we acted on these temptations. Well, it seemed I must have been born evil because I had never acted on my attractions ever! I ate to quell the anxiety of being found out, then ate because I was being teased for being effeminate, and then I ate even more because I hated myself. It was a vicious cycle. Soon depression sunk in and I became reclusive, that's when the suicide attempts occurred. I felt that there was no one like me to whom I could talk to, and I was too afraid to approach my parents or any other adults for the fear of being berated and abhorred. Luckily, amidst a daze of pills and stomach cramps I decided to choose life, and to make a better life for myself. to not care... and forge my own way (albeit in secret) until I felt that it would be a safe time to come out. It would be another 5 years or so until I felt safe and empowered enough to tell my friends and family. In that time I had made some choices about my life that drastically effected my health for the better, also, my family and I had moved to New Zealand. This, truly being the breath of fresh air that I think I really needed, a clean break as it were. It was not until my first year of uni that I felt strong enough to fully admit to my friends that I was gay, and then in my second year (when I was 20) I came out to my Family. When did you first get involved in the LGBTI community, what led you on this path? Gosh to be honest I am not really sure how it all happened... after coming out I went a little gay CRAZY! I was everywhere, pushing my limits to see where in the spectrum of gay I was. Soon though, NZIHF brought out the nation wide search for Safe Sex Poster Boys, and I thought that this would have been a great campaign to be a part of because having grown up in South Africa, the HIV and AIDS epidemic was huge. I have always been involved in community minded groups, at school i was chair for the Environmental group and the International Students Clubs, I was also on the North Shore City Youth Council and even as a youth representative on my local Community Board. In short, partaking in the NZIHF campaign allowed me to be useful to my new found community. From then on, I have just gone on from strength to strength and eventually following causes that I felt needed more representation. What issues do the LGBTI community need to address and what are the biggest barriers to acceptance? Haha, this is when I am likely to put my foot in my mouth! There are many issues that face our community, some internally and some externally. With the advent of Gay Rights, Civil Unions, Marriage Equality etc, we Gender and Sexually Diverse (GSD) people have been given much media attention. In a large part it has made us more visible as a community and somewhat more mainstream... a recognised minority deserving of standing. But, this does not mean that our rights to be are recognised at the grass roots level. Children are still being bullied, adolescents committing suicide, and acts of prejudiced discrimination are still occurring throughout NZ and the World. What we need to do is create greater dialogues and visibility to inform and educate the masses. Introduce queer stories, discussions and support from primary school level and upwards. We need to teach future generations that everything we know is on a spectrum and we need to be tolerant and respectful towards everyone regardless of how they identify themselves. Externally... Education is the key! Now, Internally (ahem)... I have traveled the globe; I have been to places where homosexuality is punishable by death, but I have also been to countries that lead the way on GSD rights. What I have noticed in these places is that when there is a cause to fight for i.e. the basic right to be LGBTI* openly, the community is stronger, close-knit and cohesive. In countries where LGBTI* Rights have been in practice for sometime I have observed the splintering of the L, B, G, T, Q, etc, everyone is in for themselves and much community mindedness has been lost. Gays are often the worst for chastising other gays... maybe it is a lingering self preservation reflex or a means to appear to maintain control, but it is tearing our community apart. We have begun to focus so much on our label/'identity' that we now begin to isolate ourselves from the rest. I mean if the ultimate goal is to be in a version of sexual orientated Apartheid then we are paving the way! What I foresee (and maybe not even in my time) is a place where Gender and Sexual Diversity is not a 'thing' it is merely a facet of yourself, and you are greeted and accepted as you are, the label no longer relevant. Why is it important that the LGBTI community has allies and who is your biggest ally? It is no secret that behind every gay man is a wonderful woman who helped him find his way. Of course having allies is important, because allies teach us how to stay in touch with the greater community of peoples outside our bubbles. Also, because allies help educate others. They understand our side and campaign for our causes, allies are the evolution of the world. I guess my greatest allies would be my family and close friends. What LGBTI community achievement are you most proud of? My greatest achievement so far, I think, is having presented and danced my Black Swan Project at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. I was able to show my story through dance and then present a speech at a Youth Forum about my life, its challenges, and the steps I took to overcoming hardships and how I found self-acceptance. Furthermore, I was able to inspire others to keep on following their dreams and hopefully made an impact that will be lasting. (So I guess in part, putting my story out there is ultimately my greatest community achievement, but it is not a moment or event that has ended, it is ongoing and so is not yet complete... so I believe it is still achieving. Creating awareness and empowering others... these are the continuing goals of my mission. Why is community so important? Community is like extended family, you may not like all of them, especially the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving, but you know that they are people who accept you for who you are, and foster general well-being. Community creates a safe haven, places to connect, people who will support and events to explore and be free. Community is important because it makes us all relevant to each other and knits us together in a massive tapestry of diversity. What kind of future would you like to see for LGBTI people in New Zealand? This may sound funny, but the future I want for the LGBTI of New Zealand is the same that the Straight people already have. When one does not have to come out because it was never and issue to begin with, when youth do not feel ashamed or afraid because they realize that they are different to others, and when others accept the spectrum that is Gender and Sexual Diversity, with all its protections of the law and full equality and rights. When the L, G, B, T, I are denominations that do not isolate or create barriers, but are mere facets of us, and our community is seen as a of celebration and not a political statement. Should New Zealand take a bigger role in advancing LGBTI rights in the Pacific? Yes, I feel it should. Colonialism has had a lot to do with the legislation of homophobic laws and regulations, and as such we should address the wrongs of times past and start educating and informing those countries that are still trapped in those draconian ways. We are not truly free until we are all free! Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Who inspires you? This is a particularly hard question because I do not have a single person in mind, I have several! There are people who have inspired me from the past, present and even in my daily life. Kindness shown in random situations is inspirational and totally anonymous! Mothers looking after children, having the ability to care for a new life, this is absolutely inspirational. Seeing happy couples is inspirational (Mostly because I seem to be forever single haha), and then there are those that have chartered the course of change for the better, the archetypes of inspiration like Nelson Mandela, et al. This is a great question and I cannot fully list all, so I shall leave it with this thought: I feel inspired just to be alive, to wake up and see the endless opportunities of life and you have another day to seek them out! What are your future plans and goals? To be inspirational! As aforementioned I want to give back to my community, help empower others and keep on creating dialogues that challenge, inform and educate myself and others too. I am currently figuring out how to bring together my artistic passions to create works that will hopefully bridge the gap between perception and reality and bring all a little closer to that day when fear no longer rules the decisions of our GSD youth. In the meantime though, I plan to work hard at my job, live in the moment, be mindful and caring to others, and just try to be the best human that I can be today.     - 23rd January 2016
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