The city of San Francisco is beloved for its steep rolling hills, cable cars and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a Historic place deeply rooted with liberal attitudes and the rise of movements of peace, sexual revolution, anti-war oppositions, and is the center of gay rights activism.
“It was there I first met Neo Ve’ave’a in the late 90’s,” reflects Taffy Maene-Johnson, Executive Director of UTOPIA Washington in a telephone interview. “Neo was already known in the Pacific Islander Community. He was very involved and passionate about activism and advocating for the PI gay community as well as one of the founders of UTOPIA San Francisco. When I moved to Washington State, I began work in organizing and community service and I chose the name UTOPIA for our organization in 2009. United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance retiring “Polynesian” for Pacific to be inclusive of all Pacific Islanders. I contacted Neo, and Julio Muao who created the UTOPIA acronym for their blessing. I believe it is an honor of high respect to receive blessings from those before us, our pioneers and our elders. Neo is now over 60, many of the original members of UTOPIA San Francisco have passed on and some prefer the quiet life, Neo is the only one still active today. He is a hardworking, kind and a genuine human being. I only hope I can carry the torch as long as he has.”
Neo was born Iereneo Tauailauti Ve’ave’a to father Motu Ve’ave’a and mother Maurie Auau Tauoa, his father was in the air force and his family was stationed in Riverside, CA. “The teachers could never pronounce my Samoan name correctly, so the name Neil for some reason was on my 6th-grade report card. My mom thought I told the teachers to call me by that name, but they took it upon themselves to change it, and eventually in High School, I started telling people to call me (Neo).” When his father retired from the air force, he moved his family to American Samoa in early 1965. His parents built a home in his father’s village of Leone with the help of his mom’s family who lived in the village of Nu’uuli. His hope was to raise Neo and his sister in Samoa. But Neo’s father was abusive to his mother and domestic violence was prevalent in their home with alcohol triggering many of his outbursts. “He would beat my mother so bad she was hospitalized for weeks with broken ribs, broken nose, clumps of hair pulled from her scalp, and multiple bruises throughout her body” recalls Neo, “It was at that time that my sister and I were hidden at several locations on island till she was released from the hospital.” His Mother soon planned their escape from the abuse. It was a traumatic experience for young Neo and his sister. There would be several attempts only to encounter their father and his family at the airport waiting out to see if they were escaping the island. They were lucky on their third attempt, Neo, his mother and sister finally boarded a Pan American flight to San Francisco. “I remember my mother crying and carrying my sister and holding my hand so tight and frantically running to the stairs to board the flight, we were the last ones on and I recall hearing the jet door close and my mom just sobbing. We were now free of the violence and trauma,” Neo recalled. Arriving in San Francisco they took shelter with his mom’s sister Vaililo Tauoa Falo, and husband Rev. Faigata Falo and their five kids. They lived with the family for a year before his mother secured a housing for the three of them in the Sunnydale Housing Projects. “Divorced with two kids in town was unheard of for a Samoan woman. To be so bold to leave her marriage at a time when support services for women was nonexistent to most of the country. The church, family, and friends were her only support and the consensus then was she was wrong for leaving a good man, and many men beat their wives those times,” Neo remembers.
At the age 9, Neo began being aware of his attraction towards boys. Having no close confidant, the only individuals he could closely identify with were the fa’afafine. “Even that was something I couldn’t relate to because the term fa’afafine was always used as a negative term when referring to me,” said Neo. “I would hear family members refer to me as a fa’afafine and laugh.” At the time, Neo thought that perhaps he was transgender and became domesticated; cleaning, cooking, help his sister get ready for school, make lunches, and became his mom’s right hand. When he first heard of the transgender celebrity Christine Jorgensen, he thought to himself this was his destiny. Many times, he was told he would burn in hell for liking boys and being feminine. The fa’afafine Neo saw in the Samoan community growing up were either seamstresses, caretakers, or jokesters and very flamboyant. “I really didn’t identify and was confused but I knew early this was not me.” He said, “Why would God make me this way? I would pray and cry many nights to take this feeling away and let me be ‘Normal.” Neo said the bullying carried on with family members and eventually in school being called a ‘fag’ or queer. “The term Queer was used as a form of oppression then and I eventually could not deal with the name-calling and occasional slap and getting beat up. In the 8th grade, I beat up a kid in front of my friends for telling everyone in school that I was gay. “To this day I regret beating him up, but this was the only way I knew that the name-calling would stop. Being ‘Samoan’ the reputation of masculinity and strength has always saved me when it came to defending my ‘Gayness’ no one really wanted to fight a Samoan,” Neo recalls.
When Neo was 16, he was sent to live with his dad in Samoa because he was out of control and was not attending school. His father was teaching History and Band at Leone High School and he attended there. “Back then many disobedient youths were sent to Samoa to learn the ways of Samoa” said Neo. It did teach me many valuable lessons of my Samoan culture and values. My father and I grew very close.” Neo lived with his father for a year before he was able to return home. His Mother worked at San Francisco Joseph Hospital as a nurse’s aide to support him and his sister. His mother eventually remarried Neo’s stepfather Alex Tolai. “I came out at 16, I told myself I will never let anyone degrade or bully me ever again. When I came out to my father, he just looked at me and said, ‘Son you are going to have a hard life, be strong, I love you.” My Mother and I never really talked about my being Gay but I always felt she did not care as long as my feaus (chores) were done. At one point she did say to my sister to keep my brother away when I would dance around the house like a ballerina. LOL.” It was around this time his sister also came out to Neo. “I was devastated at first. My mother only had two biological children,” Neo reflected. “Here we are both Gay and Samoan and I could hear the gossip amongst family saying my mother has been cursed. But my mother wholeheartedly accepted us in her own way and loved us.”
In 1981, Neo realized there was no representation or an influential figure of ‘Gay Pacific Islanders’ in the community. He befriended the few PI’s that were around him, and he met them mostly in the gay clubs and eventually about 15 became his friends. “In the ’80s, gay people were rarely ever acknowledged or even out” so he formed a group to march in the 1982 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade. Neo’s Mother was the first person to donate to their efforts gearing up for the 1982 parade, she also cooked for them while they had dance rehearsals at the house. “She was always supportive of my work in the LGBTQ community up until her passing in 2009,” Neo remembers. It was also during this time that the Gay Cancer was making waves in the community, it was one of the original terms given to what we now come to know as HIV/AIDS. “We marched up market street, hearing the cheers was not only emotional but gave us a sense of acceptance and pride as we danced to Samoan music with our Taupou (Mark Mageo) leading the way,” Neo recalled. His group wanted to make it look as authentic as possible with a Samoan Taupou complete with a tuiga. Neo sought out advice from the Samoan community leaders and was told it would be an insult for a fa’afafine to wear a tuiga (traditional Samoan headdress) and represent the Samoan community, but it only fueled his passion and they marched anyway. “We marched barefoot and by the end of the parade we all had blisters on the bottom of our feet and none of us cared we were so proud to represent our Gay Samoans,” remembers Neo. In 2018, documentary filmmakers working for NBC television discovered footage of that march and went in search of the PI’s marching in the 1982 parade. It brought them to Neo. “Out of the 13 that participated in 1982, 3 of us are alive today (2021)”, Neo reflected.
They marched several more years after 1982, before the AIDS epidemic began ravaging the gay community. “We thought it was a white gay disease until our Pacific Islander friends were getting sick. It pretty much pushed us back into the closet. The fear we all had of AIDS was real. Family members stopped coming around my family home, they would not allow their kids to be around me or my friends. If you were gay in the Samoan community, it was the assumption you were infected or had AIDS”, recalls Neo. I had family members say to me they didn’t want their kids to be exposed to those types of people who might have AIDS. I witnessed many friends in the PI community who was dying and families would turn their backs on them. Some would die surrounded by friends and not family. Hard to believe as a Samoan this was happening, but AIDS really brought an ugly stigma to our gay community. The experience of rejection and being stigmatized pushed Neo to become an advocate for the community. He spoke to community groups, Samoan Flag Days, Aloha Fest, High schools, City Colleges, and Universities, whatever Polynesians could be found, he set up shop and never let an opportunity go by. “I talk to anyone who would listen and educate about the transmission and ways to protect yourself from the disease. I set up booths at community events with free condoms, lube, along with resource packets that I would put in a large tanoa (Samoan ceremonial ‘ava bowl) because I felt that people would identify with the ‘Ava bowl and what a perfect opportunity to talk to them, however, many Samoans also felt this was disrespectful using the tanoa.” Neo was also longing to become a father, in 1994 he was given that opportunity after adopting a son name Alesana from Samoa. It truly takes a village to raise a child with the support of his partner, Mother, family and friends, his son had an awesome support system. “I was an openly gay parent and participated as a PTA President throughout my son’s school years, this also gave me the opportunity to interact with parents and allowed them a better understanding of me as a gay Samoan dad with a loving partner”, said Neo.
In 1998, Neo received a call from one of the original marchers Julio Muao who marched in 1982 and suggested they come together again and form a Pacific Islander group now that breakthrough medicine had the AIDS epidemic under control. Julio had a dream that the group should be called U.T.O.P.I.A. “United Territories of Polynesian Islanders.” A few years later the word ‘Polynesian’ was removed and ‘Pacific’ was added to be more inclusive of all PI’s”. With around 20 members from Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, Cook Island, and Fiji. In 1997, The API Wellness Center offered to take U.T.O.P.I.A. on a retreat to help organize and elect their first officers they were Neo Veavea – President, Amisone McMullin – Vice President, Roy Muao – Treasurer, Iyanne Paongo – Secretary, and honorary position Sergeant at arms, Miki Kupu. “I never want our young people to feel they are alone, may we uplift them to be who they are and feel empowered and celebrated, to not let religion, family chastise you for being you.” said Neo. “I spent many nights crying to God as a kid to not let me be different. I keep with me those memories and moments as a reminder to be a strong leader and mentor for the voices that are not able to be heard for fear of rejection from family and friends, I will be that voice for them. I am reminded of the many Pacific Islanders that lost the battle to the AIDS crisis, I’m reminded of my trans sisters beaten and left for dead.”
Neo recently retired from working 9 to 5 life but his routine hasn’t changed much. “I wish I can say, I’m fully retired” says Neo. “I still participate in speaking engagements at schools, universities, and many organizations who want to hear about my journey with the co-founding of U.T.O.P.I.A. San Francisco. Nowadays with technology, I’ve had Pacific Islanders individuals reach out to me on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok, and gay social media to thank me for my work, or just wanting advice on coming out to family, or just to answer questions. It’s very humbling and this lifelong work has given me so many amazing opportunities to talk with our straight community with parent groups and have conversations with our faith leaders as well. It’s an honor not for me but for our PI-LGBTQ to have a voice and a seat at the table. I see the work that I’ve done here in San Francisco, and the new independent chapters of UTOPIA across the country and pacific and am so proud, it’s really like seeing your children flourish and grow. In the 6th grade I attempted suicide but it was not to be, my purpose here isn’t done yet… I’m still here.”
One thought on “I’m still here: trials, lessons and triumphs of a lifelong champion.”
I love this so much! Unko Neo is one of my heroes, & I love LOVE LOVE to see him getting all his well deserved flowers 💐
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