Challenging laws and changing perceptions in Kiribati

Feb 13, 2024

Tebeio Tamton is the Co-Founder of Boutokaan Inaomataia ao Mauriia Binabinaine Association (BIMBA), an LGBT+ advocacy and activism civil society organisation that is a member of The Commonwealth Equality Network. BIMBA works to end violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) in Kiribati. Here, Tebeio shares his personal motivations for founding BIMBA and promoting the rights of LGBT+ people in Kiribati and the Pacific.   

In Kiribati, legislation prohibiting same-sex relationships between men has existed since 1892 when it was introduced during British colonial rule. While there has been no recorded enforcement of this law in recent years, its existence still threatens the rights of LGBT+ people and could be seen to validate violence and other forms of discrimination against them.  

Creating a broad-based platform for rights 

Growing up in Kiribati as a binabinaine (in i-Kiribati this refers to gay boys/men, bisexual boys/men, and transgender girls/women) in the 1990s was challenging because of the verbal and physical bullying, discrimination, and stigmatisation I experienced at home, at school, and in local villages. 

These experiences motivated me to establish BIMBA as a vehicle to, first and foremost, alleviate and eradicate all forms of violence based on SOGIE. In setting up BIMBA, I was inspired to end the criminalisation of homosexuality in Kiribati. As a collective, BIMBA aims to amplify the voices of all binabinaine, advocating for their rights and dignity, and increasing their prominence and visibility in local communities. 

Taking campaigns to the community

The activities and operations of BIMBA mean a lot to me and our members in different communities across Kiribati. Although we operate without a budget, our campaigns and advocacy work has achieved significant reach, and enabled us to connect with people both in the LGBT+ community and beyond. This work is thanks to our generous and supportive allies/donors at the national, regional, and international levels.

As Co-Founder and pro-bono Advisor and Coordinator, my role encompasses many responsibilities. Applying for small grants to support campaigns, monitoring and reporting on the impact of activities, and utilising our member network to manage activity delivery are just some of areas in which I work. Sustaining BIMBA’s volunteer-led activities is particularly challenging because most of our members are school drop-outs with limited knowledge and skills of project management, which is critical to acquire funding for advocacy, awareness, and action campaigns.

Despite these challenges, however, BIMBA has delivered some landmark activities in recent year, including a multi-stakeholder sensitisation workshop on SOGIE. This workshop ran in tandem with SOGIE training for family and friends of BIMBA members, as well as in-country allies and supporters. 

We have developed a range of information, education, and communication materials about binabinaine awareness which have been distributed in various settings. To reach wider audiences, we have also broadcast information on local radio and television, and utilised social media, including Facebook and YouTube, to boost awareness campaigns.

These campaigns are aimed at sensitising wider communities about the lived experiences of binabinaine, as well as showcasing BIMBA members’ success stories. Through our campaigning we hope to build working relationships with allies and stakeholders who play a significant part in our growth and development as an organisation.

Beauty, performance and expression

In 2018, BIMBA held its first beauty pageant to promote LGBT+ visibility and engage people from the local communities in a performance celebrating SOGIE. 

As a long-time follower and mentee of Joeleen Joey Mataele, Vice-Chair of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) and co-founder of the Miss Galaxy Queen Pageant in Tonga, I was aware of the impact that an event like this could have for BIMBA’s work. Although I was initially sceptical because beauty pageants relate more to western culture, the success of the Miss Galaxy Pageant, which plays a significant role in our advocacy in Kiribati, eventually inspired our decision to launch BIMBA’s own beauty pageant. 

Supported by the newly established Ministry of Justice in 2018 as part of its official launch, the pageant provided an important platform to showcase beauty, cultural performances, talents, wisdom, and, of course, advocate for causes close to BIMBA’s work. 

For some contestants, the pageant offered a moment for acknowledgement rather than acceptance, and visibility rather than recognition. For others, though, being on stage was a time to be truly open about their sexual identity and, for the transgender community, a chance to be heard, to be seen, and to be understood.  

The pageant was live streamed for audiences outside Kiribati to increase exposure and, despite some homophobic comments, the overall response and engagement was positive. 

Partnering through TCEN to end discrimination laws

Building partnerships and connecting with other LGBT+ rights organisations is important for BIMBA’s work, both in Kiribati and internationally. In 2023, I attended the The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN) Pacific Regional Convening, a meeting place for similar organisations advocating for LGBT+ rights in the Pacific. The Convening provided a critical opportunity to share our work, hear from others about their advocacy challenges, and strategise on eradicating discrimination, stigma, and violence against people based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

At this year’s Convening, decriminalisation and law reform were key priorities among regional TCEN members representing countries where homosexuality is illegal. This was a significant outcome from the Convening alongside the commitments to strengthen regional advocacy and identify opportunities for strategic collaboration. 

As we look towards the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Samoa in 2024, we hope to build on the work that TCEN has begun by showcasing Pacific cultures, identities, and vulnerabilities in the context of climate change and LGBT+ rights. I am excited to be part of the TCEN regional working group that has been formed to take this plan forward. 

Empowering the next generation

One of BIMBA’s defining missions is to educate and inform the next generation about SOGIE. 

At BIMBA, we believe that children and youths who grow up acknowledging and knowing that binabinaine or people with diverse sexual orientation, gender identity and expression exist, within their local communities, could make more informed leadership decisions. 

At the end of the day, our advocacy, awareness, and action campaigns are not just intended for us, they are also for the future generations of binabinaines. It is my hope that as our advocacy and campaigning continues to grow, we can create friendlier and more accepting environments for young people, so that they don’t have to experience the challenges and suffering that we did.

This article first appeared in Issue #15 of Common Knowledge, the magazine of The Commonwealth Scholarship Commission.