Tonga activist proud to be "like a lady"

Invisibility seems like an unlikely problem for Joey Joleen Mataele. Radiating both strength and warmth in equal measure, she was one of the most striking figures at the second Asia-Pacific Rainbow Families Forum, a meeting of delegates from 27 countries hosted once again last year in Hong Kong.

Three decades ago she founded the Tonga Leitis Association, an advocacy and support group for leitis – an appropriation of the local word “fakaleiti” literally meaning “like a lady”. Leitis most closely correlate to transgender women as they are understood throughout much of the world, but with an important but subtle difference – leitis are part of an old local cultural tradition encompassing men whose gender expression do not conform to stereotypes and take up roles usually reserved for women in Tongan society. Leitis are, and have always been, at the core of the island community.

A woman wearing a white top with a purple jacket smiles into the camera. In the background is a neighbourhood street with trees and white picket fences.
Joey founded the Tonga Leitis Association, an advocacy and support group for leitis – an appropriation of the local word “fakaleiti” literally meaning “like a lady” © Pohiva Tevita Tu’amoheloa

Joey says her priority is changing people’s attitudes before changing the country’s laws. “If you don’t think positively about the future,” says Joey. “Then nothing will work.” And by the looks of things, the situation for Tongan leitis is improving. “When I was 14 and went to church in my blue dress it was the talk of the town,” she says, recalling the stir she made and how much things have changed. When AIDS hit Tonga in the 1980s the first victim was a member of the leiti community, and for years thereafter the group was synonymous with the condition, with people even calling them “AIDS” in the streets. But no more.

This change, she says, is the result of concrete action by leitis themselves. Every year the group hosts the Miss Galaxy Pageant, a beauty contest and celebration that has become a fixture of Tonga’s annual calendar, and celebrates its 25th anniversary last July.

Aside from this successful yearly event, leitis regularly make themselves known in the community. Every weekend, leitis can be found in churches up and down the island preparing floral arrangements for Sunday’s religious services. Other days they handle the cooking and decorating for conferences and offer classes on floral arrangement and food preparation for underprivileged villagers. Community-based organising, according to Joey, is the key to building trust and changing attitudes. “People know about the work we’ve done,” she says. “We’ve earned their respect.” Through these acts of visibility and resilience, Tonga’s leitis have worked their way into people’s hearts.

A woman in a purple dress talks to two other women at a party.
Leitis regularly make themselves known in the community. They help in Sunday’s religious services, and offer classes on floral arrangement and food preparation for underprivileged villagers © Pohiva Tevita Tu’amoheloa

Even among Tonga’s church leaders the leitis have made inroads. Although some still preach against them – largely parachute evangelists aloof to the larger community – Joey is welcome at the Catholic church where she worships. The priests, she says, are “more concerned with my contribution to the church community than my fashion sense.”

Joey admits that much remains to be done when it comes to safety and acceptance within societal institutions. Many leitis continue to be thrown out of their homes due to homophobia and transphobia and end up at a safehouse set up by the Tonga Leitis Association. And although more leitis feel empowered to come out to their families, Tongan law, influenced by that of Great Britain in the previous century, still officially regards same-sex relationships as a crime.

Recently, Pacific Island countries such as Fiji, Vanuatu, Nauru and Palau have repealed such outdated colonial-era provisions. The Cook Islands are also in the process of doing the same. These changes are part of a welcome trend towards greater equality and legal protection for LGBTI people in the Pacific Islands. With the determined efforts of the Tonga Leitis Association and others, Tonga may well be the next to repeal legal provisions that violate the human rights of LGBTI people.

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