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‘It’s been years of dreaming’: Tonga’s transgender community fights for visibility in Pacific Kingdom

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External Link: The new documentary Leitis in Waiting has been released has been released in LondonRelated Story: 'A man is a man': Controversy over transgender New Zealand weightlifter at Commonwealth GamesRelated Story: Meet Australia's first transgender priest

Transgender women and gender-diverse 'leitis' in the conservative Pacific Island Kingdom of Tonga say, "they cannot be silent anymore" about their fight for visibility.

Key points:

  • Leitis often identify as women or men who dress and behave in a feminine way
  • Tonga's Civil Offences Act criminalises cross dressing and sodomy
  • Tonga is known for being one of the Pacific's most conservative nations

Joey Joleen Mataele is one of many in Tonga's island chain who identifies as a 'fakaleiti' or simply 'leiti', which translates roughly from Tongan as "like a lady".

"The role of leitis in our society is more of a housewives role, a domestic worker, we're known in the public eye in our churches and for helping the youth programs, but when it comes to our personal choices, that's when the barriers start," she told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.

Leitis often identify as women or men who dress and behave in a feminine way, but mainly don't identify as either men or women.

Ms Mataele is the President of the Tongan Leitis Association, a group at the centre of a new documentary released at the weekend in Londoncalled Leitis in Waiting, a year-long exploration of what life is like for transgender women in the country.

"It's been years of dreaming that our story would be recorded and be heard and be distributed to the world," she said.

"I think this is a great achievement for us to be able to do this. And it's a tool that we will be able to use."

Tonga's leitis outlawed, shunned and face jail time

Joe Mataele and Salote Lupepau'u Tuita sit together

Ms Mataele's father was a politician and a member of Tonga's elite, and her family has a close relationship with the country's royal family.

In the documentary, Tonga's Princess Salote Lupepau'u Tuita describes her mother's relationship with a young Joey:

"One memory my mother has is of when Joey was a toddler and he had very, very feminine features and really, really curly hair.

So my mother had a life-sized doll as well and she said 'you're prettier than my doll' so she put the dress of her life-sized doll on Joey and put his hair in ringlets and would take him around.

It was completely, it was you know, it wasn't to mock him or anything, she just loved it.

Since then, he's always been that special and close to her."

Joey Mataele puts a plate of food in front of a young boy.

Yet despite her connections in the upper echelons of Tongan society, her place within the community remains a struggle.

While in some cases leitis are accepted as caretakers and workers, they are also outlawed, shunned and even face jail time.

Tonga's Civil Offences Act criminalises cross dressing and sodomy, with both carrying jail terms of up to 10 years.

Ms Mataele said people remained uncomfortable talking about the issue.

"I think it's time to talk about it, we cannot be silent any more, I mean if we keep silent about this, it's not healthy, it's not mentally and physically healthy for all of us," she said.

Leitis in Waiting culminates with a meeting organised by the Tongan Leitis Association, where the group publicly push for decriminalisation for the first time.

Tongan 'leitis' pose on the beach

The documentary's director and producer, Joe Wilson, said the dichotomy of Tonga's identity is part of what drew him to the story of the leitis.

"It is probably the most religious country I've ever been to, which makes the story of how you work for change when it comes to how LGBT people are viewed very interesting and very challenging, but also very hopeful because in this case the Tongan leiti community is also very well integrated into their church communities," Mr Wilson told Pacific Beat.

"So they're accepted on some levels but not on other levels."

'It's creating an ugly division'

A group of people from the Tonga Leitis Association National Consultation pose for a photo.

The push for decriminalisation and the rising public presence of the leitis comes at a time of heightened religious tension in the country, with American-funded televangelists fuelling a new campaign against the LGBT community in Tonga.

"It's creating an ugly division that I don't think had really existed in Tonga prior to the emergence of this kind of approach," Mr Wilson said.

But Ms Mataele continues to be an avid church-goer, and won't be swayed from either her faith or her gender identity.

"The more they preach against us, it doesn't really make me angry, it actually makes us all a stronger person," Ms Mataele said.

"At the end of the day it's just a small island. You cannot move without anybody noticing 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."

In London for the premiere, Ms Mataele was awarded a Commonwealth Points of Light Award — an honour given by the British Government and endorsed by the Queen of England.

The award commended her for, "using song, humour and dance to promote issues which affect the transgender community".

While the award is not recognised in Tonga, Ms Mataele said she dedicated it to everyone who had helped "fight this fight".

The new documentary will tour worldwide.

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