For Shaneel Lal, this was their reality from the time they were five. Growing up in a tiny, traditional village in Fiji, Shaneel always knew they were different. Still, for the first years of their life, it was idyllic — playing dress-ups in saris with their sister, and hiding under their neighbour's house, playing games with dolls.
But from the time Shaneel started school, they faced condemnation from their family, and then 'therapy' from conservative elders in their village. The elders tried to 'free' Shaneel from the evil spirits they thought were making them queer. Shaneel was kept away from the girls to stop Shaneel from becoming more feminine, and from the boys to stop Shaneel's queerness from spreading to them. Eventually the 'therapy' escalated to beatings and torture.
After escaping Fiji and moving to New Zealand as a teenager, Shaneel tried to keep their sexuality — and gender — to themself, but gradually found the courage to come out.
One day, while Shaneel was volunteering at Auckland's Middlemore hospital, a church leader came up to them and offered to 'pray the gay away'. It was a lightbulb moment for Shaneel, who could not believe that the same practices that had scarred their childhood in Fiji were operating — and legal — in New Zealand.
Determined to ensure others wouldn't have to go through what happened to them, Shaneel founded the Conversion Therapy Action Group, which lead the movement to ban conversion therapy in Aotearoa. In 2022, thanks to Shaneel and other activists' work, New Zealand banned conversion therapy.
This is a story of one person's fight for the right to live their life as they deserved — and their extraordinary work to protect other young New Zealanders.
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