Pacific News Minute: Tonga’s Leitis “We Cannot Be Silent Anymore.”

May 24, 2018

Flag of Tonga
Credit Wikimedia Commons

A new documentary screening in New Zealand this week focuses on the lives of the leitis of Tonga, transgender women with traditional roles at court and in church. The film, called “Leitis in Waiting,” shows that they also face discrimination and even punishment. We have more from Neal Conan in today’s Pacific News Minute.

“Leitis in Waiting” follows Joey Joleen Mataele, who was born into a well-connected family with close ties to Tonga’s royal family. She identified since childhood as a fakaleiti (leiti for short) whose part in Tongan society dates back centuries.

Mataele told the Sydney Morning Herald, that a leiti is born male, but “acts like a lady, lives like a lady, talks like a lady and dresses like a lady.” She says they are generally accepted in jobs as caregivers, hair dressers, chefs and decorators, but that no one talks openly about sex. And, “when it comes to decision making,” she said, “we’re nowhere to be seen.”

Tonga is a conservative, religious community where both cross dressing and sodomy are crimes. The film shows a meeting of the Tongan Leitis Association where, for the first time, the group publicly called for decriminalization.

Director Joe Wilson told ABC Australia that American televangelists have sparked a new campaign against the LGBT community in Tonga; “It’s creating an ugly division,” he said. 

While in London for the premiere of the documentary, Joey Joleen Mataele received a Commonwealth Points of Light Award – an honor presented by the British Government and endorsed by the Queen, but not recognized by Tonga.

“At the end of the day, it’s just a small island,” Mataele told the ABC, “and if they think they can move us out to little secluded islands because of our sexual orientation or gender identity, I think they need to wake up.”