Bibliophile: Shaneel Lal shares their story in ‘One of Them’

One of Them
Shaneel Lal
Allen & Unwin

Shaneel Lal is not a household name in Australia, but in New Zealand they have been a prominent campaigner against conversion therapy and a leading voice for transgender rights.

At 23 years of age, they just published their autobiography detailing their childhood in Fiji, their teenage years as an immigrant in New Zealand, and their entry into activism, politics, campaigning and public life.

The book is also an account of survival. They document their own experiences of conversion therapy, racism and homophobia. It’s a compelling and confronting account that demonstrates that these things are not experiences from a bygone era, they are fresh and raw experiences of people born this century.

Earlier this year Lal was named Young New Zealander of the Year, the first transgender person to be given the honour. When thousands of people protested against British anti-transgender campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen appearing in Auckland in March, they were front and centre at the protest.

In this captivating memoir Lal recounts their early years in Fiji where they encountered racism as they are descended from Girmitiya, indentured labourers from India shipped during colonial times. They also recount they own realisations of their gender and sexuality which do not go unnoticed by the religious leaders around them.

Lal identifies as vakasalewalewa, which describes the traditional transgender people of Fiji. But as a child village elders raised concern about them having too much feminine energy and they were subjected to superstitions, social isolation and physical abuse.

As a teenager Lal’s family relocate to New Zealand, a place where they find the freedom to be more open about their sexuality and gender, but as a person of colour they still encounter racism, including from within the queer community.

As a teenager they joined the youth parliament and when they gave a speech about conversion therapy it quickly went viral on the internet, kicking off a campaign to change the laws.

Quickly they were added to LGBTIQA+ advisory bodies and found themselves giving speeches about trans rights and appearing on discussion panels.  At university they began studying law and found themselves out the front of Pride parades, all the while continuing to campaign for laws against conversion therapy.

The recollections of their early life in New Zealand are engrossing reading, and his thoughts of racism within the queer community are confronting and brutally honest. His writing gives a human face into the immigrant experience and pause for thought.

There are sections of the book that you have to wade through, they say never show how sausages or laws are made, and a blow by blow of the battle for conversion therapy laws might be a struggle if you’re not familiar with plethora of Kiwi politicians it features.

There are also moments where Lal is a somewhat infuriating character, they are complex and bravely discuss some of their personal neurosis – although they might leave older readers rolling their eyes.

It’s a fascinating insight into the thoughts of a non-archetypical angry young trans-person, and as Billy Joel almost sang, there’s always a place in the world for them, with working class ties and radical plans.

One Of Us is available now.

Graeme Watson 

Do you need some support?

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