Leitis in Waiting | LGBT+ and Cultural Diversity

Leitis in Waiting | LGBT+ and Cultural Diversity

Photography and Interview: Anna Wherrett

To many of us, the South Pacific may almost seem like a different realm altogether but paradoxically, attitudes there have an all-too-familiar backdrop when it comes to the subject of the LGBT+ community. This is a story of LGBT+ and Cultural Diversity: The emotional journey of what it means to be different in a society ruled by tradition, and what it takes to be accepted without forsaking who you are.

Ten years ago I flew out to Nuku’alofa, the downtown dusty capital of Tonga, undertaking a photography assignment. The subject of this project was ‘The Fakaleitis of Tonga’. ‘Fakaleiti’ translates to ‘Like a Lady’ – a man who lives as a woman. It is abbreviated to ‘Leiti’, simply ‘Lady’.

The Leitis are predominantly unknown to the rest of the world. Tradition provides that these boys were raised as girls – assigned at birth, for families lacking female children. This was deemed necessary, based on the ratio of males to females on the islands. The story has it, that they were dressed by their parents in female clothes and taught to manage the home: cooking, cleaning, weaving, and eventually caring for the parents in old age; essentially a third gender. However, in modern day, despite many references, it seems that this idea has been somewhat exaggerated and is outdated.

Tonga has its quirks. It may be a third world country, but as the natives themselves will tell you, ‘there is no such thing as a skinny Tongan’. The food is delicious, but sugary, fatty, and often served with the starch overloaded potato fruit. Other than the capital’s Main Street, it doesn’t have any addresses. Getting around then involves using your mental compass, memorising landmarks and the general character of the road – that, I may add, all look very similar. Life, in general, is at a slower tempo. The nation has a very interesting concept of time, which is often referred to as ‘Tonga Time’. It’s also one of the few countries worldwide, where you can take a short flight to the neighbouring country [Samoa] and you do in fact, arrive the day before. The ‘time traveller’ crosses the international dateline, which defines the boundary between the two consecutive calendar dates.

Tongan Family

One of the major universal differences between the Leitis of Tonga and other LGBT+ groups is that they have been integrated into society for hundreds of years in this deeply Christian country.

However, despite them being very much part of the community, it has not been a road without its bumps. Tonga has an often hostile social climate, with discrimination, lack of job opportunities, and inequality being the major issues. One of the Leitis, in particular, was a key figure in the project.

Meet Leiti, Jolene Mataele, who has been catapulted onto the worldwide stage this year. Jolene, known as ‘Joey’, hails from Tonga and is transgender. She is highly regarded in the Pacific and beyond, regularly attending worldwide conventions. Joey is an activist for the rights of transgender women, she is the co-founder of the Pacific Sexual Diversity Network and founder of the c Queen Pageant.

As it transpires, the Polynesian activist has recently featured in the unique photography exhibition Queer Commonwealth: Faces of the LGBT+ Movement. Renowned photographer, Eivind Hansen was commissioned by the Kaleidoscope Trust to do an exhibition of photographs of LGBT+ activists from around the world, who came together to show their colours to celebrate London Pride. On the exhibition, Hansen elaborated: “I’ve always wanted to represent a positive change in the world … I hope the photos can create more visibility around LGBT+ people and their struggle for equality in the countries they come from.”

Joey has certainly been making her mark universally, and 2018 seems to have brought her further victory. Running concurrently to the exhibit, was the screening of the film Leitis in Waiting at the Commonwealth Film Awards. It was held at the British Museum (London), as part of its worldwide tour and won the Special Jury Prize. Leitis in Waiting is the story of Joey – the film’s main protagonist, and the Tonga Leitis, described by the filmmakers, as an intrepid group of native transgender women fighting a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in their the South Pacific Kingdom. It has extraordinary access and interviews with the Kingdom’s royals and religious leaders.

I caught up with the film’s co-director, U.S. based Joe Wilson, who coincidently, prior to being a filmmaker, worked as part of the NI Peace and Reconciliation Programme. I asked – you are from the U.S., what made you decide to do this film?

“My partner Dean and I had different careers for a long time, we were not professional filmmakers. Dean is a scientist, and my work for 20 years involved human rights issues, advocacy, and funding etc. In 2004, Dean and I got married, that was before it was legal in the U.S. So, we actually got married in Canada. Dean put an announcement in the newspaper in his hometown, The New York Times, and we got a lot of congratulating notes. But I’m from quite a small conservative town in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. The local newspaper ran the announcement of our wedding, but it elicited a very negative backlash from the Evangelical projects/churches that we are now seeing in Tonga. That response really disturbed me. It made me look at the environment that I was from.

That reaction in my hometown set us off on a journey. We got a letter from the mother of a gay teen at the time saying, as she described, being ‘tortured’ at school by administrators. So we went back to meet them. That turned into our first film Out in the Silence, looking at how you work towards visibility and acceptance in rural and conservative America.”

That film became a piece used for advocacy and community building. It led the pair to Hawaii, where they made a second documentary film Kumu Hina, about a cultural leader and native Hawaiian – Māhū (or what we would call a transgender woman) who had married a Tongan man. The film depicted a year in their life together.

That cultural connection then led the filmmakers to Tonga. There they met Joey, during the Miss Galaxy contest, which is an annual event held in Nuku’alofa, celebrating creativity, diversity, and talent. It selects the best Leiti.

“We met Joey while we were there … and we witnessed all that was going on. Joey said she had been longing for someone to help tell their story for 20 years … it just unfolded organically. We were inspired by all that they were doing and the community they were building for people that had been rejected from their homes, and building an organisation that was helping to change public perceptions. They were trying to make life better for the Leitis and LGBT+ people in Tonga.”

Many descriptions across the media typically describe Leitis as individuals that were assigned at birth, a third gender, although this isn’t featured in the film.

“From our experience, this is not how many Tongans and many other Pacific island nations describe themselves. Those are explanations that were brought in from outside. Those kinds of explanations have been roundly denounced. It is an old way of describing people. It was not necessarily with malicious intent.”

Leitis in Waiting features footage of Joey live on Radio Nuku’alofa, she protests: “We are still being discriminated against and a lot of problems are still happening. What we want to address is that: all Leitis can aspire to be at present, is decorators, do the dirty errands, clean up the house and help the mothers. When it comes to decision making, we are nowhere to be seen.”

The radio station opened its phone line for the public to participate in the programme. One father explained, “I have a son that is a Leiti. He does most of the chores at home, as he can perform all of the work of women and men.” Another female caller elaborated, “Whenever we travel overseas, we sit and let the Leitis do everything – we don’t do anything. They are given by God to be used as tools by everyone.” An apprehensive male third caller warned, “It is true they are useful, and I commend that myself. But we must not be careless or they will lure men to commit sin, which is prohibited by bible and law.”

Joey Mataele 

Homosexuality is still illegal in Tonga and can result in imprisonment. Although walking around Tonga, the transgender community are highly visible. The laws came into existence during colonial times – even though it was never politically colonised. Wilson stated: “They may not be enforced on a day by day basis, but the fact that they exist helps to reinforce stigma, various prejudice, and discrimination in many different ways, and it can be used as a threat. That is what is happening in Tonga now.”

The film features a series of interviews with a group of Evangelical pastors who are supported by and funded by an American based Evangelical empire.

Pastor Barry exclaimed: “We have always believed it is unnatural – so you are a lady within a man? Here in Tonga, we have always laughed at this kind of lifestyle. They don’t know who they are … they do not have God. They were made to be a man and they have to accept it.”

The series of interviews with the Evangelical pastors makes grim viewing indeed. Reverend ‘Ahio from the Free Wesleyan Church also made a bizarre statement during his interview: “The problem with human rights is that it is unlimited. There is no control. You can go as far as you want.” A frightening sentiment.

Wilson commented on the Pastor’s and Reverend’s interviews: “It spreads these kinds of messages of hate, that is rooted in religion-based bigotry. So when that kind of message is going out on a daily basis, and he himself is taking the prospect of resurrecting these laws, it creates a very tense and problematic environment for people that are just trying to go about their daily lives.”

The Catholic Church in Ireland has certainly softened its attitude to LGBT+ in recent years. It has been impossible to ignore the Irish referendum vote on same-sex marriage, from what is a devoutly Catholic country. In 2013, even Pope Francis responded to questions about a supposed “gay lobby” in the Vatican by reasoning “Who am I to judge,” a remark that caused celebration among liberals and consternation among conservatives.

This brings me back to a Catholic priest ordination I attended whilst working on this project in Tonga. Other than the priest himself, Joey was at the epicentre of the ritual and dinner celebrations. As it happens, Joey’s great-grandparents were among the founders of the Catholic Church in Tonga. They seem to have a much more relaxed attitude towards the Leitis and LGBT+ people.

In the film, Catholic Cardinal Mafi empathised: “In Tonga, we are still finding our way in this modern world, with lots of challenges as well as things to learn. We must stand strong against discrimination and violence, abuse – all kinds of abuse. The good thing about Joey and co. is that they have the courage by persecution, perhaps people saying things against them. I hope there will be a time when people become more loving and tender-hearted.”

Not only do the Leitis have sympathy from the Catholic Church, they also have major support from the Royal Family. Princess Salote Lupepau’u is the patron and ambassador of the Tongan Leitis Association. She explained at the conference: “No matter how high the risk, the social hurdle, I stand with all of our members [Leitis] when I say, that our faith is paramount and unbreakable.”

Tonga is a parliamentary monarchy; in that, they have a fully functioning parliament but it is with the consent of the King. However, there is a lot of push back and forth. I asked Wilson: If there was so much support from the Royal Family, why doesn’t the King just address this and change the law?

“My observation has been, and what the Leitis and the community offer, is that the Royal Family sees itself not as dictatorial in nature and mandating things, but understanding the way that change is created. This is by developing broad public support for changes and the way that they do that and is trying to lead by example. They have been quite good at reflecting their acceptance, their support, and the inclusion of Leitis from across the LGBT+ spectrum in all of the functions. They are hoping that symbolism is seen and followed by society over time.”

There are many men that choose to have relationships with Leitis, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are homosexual. If it becomes known to the public, those men will often be ostracised too. Therefore, the relationship it is often kept under wraps. This in itself creates problems embedded in further problems. Due to the secretive nature of these relationships, Leitis are often in abusive partnerships, and can often be victims of domestic abuse. For obvious reasons, it cannot be reported to the authorities.

Statistics show that domestic violence is as high as 80% in Tonga. Wilson comments: “Like in many cultures, masculinity is kind of revered. This is a particular type of masculinity, where you are not supposed to be with people like that or be allowed to show those actual feelings.”

Pastor Barry echoed this in a further interview: “The idea of men having relationships with other men is disgusting to many Tongans. Tonga society is a society of manliness. Tongan people – they want their voice to be male.” He is not joking either, women still cannot own land in the Kingdom. One of the biggest demonstrations featured on the film was when parliament was acting to pass the ‘2015 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women’ (CEDAW) – which is a United Nations Convention. On that, Wilson commented, “Then there were these Evangelical churches that created a huge outpouring of opposition and they defeated it. So the churches still hold great power there.” It’s not all doom and gloom, he continued: “Fortunately people across the civil society are coming together. So women, youth, the LGBT+/Leiti community are starting to forge a different type of community power. I think we are going to see a shift, a sea change, but I think we are just at the beginning of that wave.”

Was there any aspect that was stand-out or symbolic when making the film?

“Due to my upbringing in rural and conservative America, my hometown and own experience is quite similar to what is happening in Tonga. Three churches on every corner, it’s very small. The ability to make your way, in your own community is all based on the relationships that you have, earning respect and being respectful to other people.

“Even though Tonga is 5000 miles away, from the place that I call home … it really felt like we were home in a way. The important lesson that Joey and her friends were trying to do – what it comes down to, is a question of rights for equality for LGBT+ people. It is seen as a debate on human rights on one side, and people of faith-so-called religious values on the other. What this film shows, and Joey as you know – being a devout Catholic herself, is about faith being a part of their inspiration. It is their right and they want to hold onto that faith which is central to being Tongan – yet, find a way to be accepted and included as well. So we are finding a way of navigating that terrain.”

The struggles of the Leitis and LGBT+ communities in the Tongan islands are not a million miles away from the current struggles of the same communities living on the island of Ireland.

I would like to thank the film’s co-director, Joe Wilson for taking the time out for the interview. I would also like to give Special thanks to Joey, Mergina and the many other Leitis I met, for letting me into your lives and sharing your experiences, with open hearts and minds. Congratulations on your recent success and wishing you luck in your quest for equality.


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