Tonga is distinguished for being the sole monarchy in the South Pacific. This unique status has been a blessing for the indigenous transgender community in the archipelago. Adopting the local name of ‘leitis’, members of the community have long enjoyed honored positions as helpers to multiple generations of the royal family.
However, there is new pressure from US-funded evangelical preachers to end the social acceptance leitis have enjoyed and enforce colonial-era gender presentation and roles in place in neighboring countries.
This struggle is depicted in the new feature documentary “Letis in Waiting.” Created by Dean Hamer, Joe Wilson & Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, the film features Joey Mataele and an intrepid group of native transgender women fighting a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in their South Pacific Kingdom. “We want to center our work in our own cultural context, not just to adopt things from the international arena,” notes Joey. “As I say in the film, our Pacific way of doing things is more genuine and more loving, and that's what I want our leiti community to embrace.”
As this gripping film spreads the word of the leitis determination to be respected to festival audiences around the globe, they are working daily through the Tonga Leitis Association (TLA) to demand greater inclusion and protection for LGBTI people throughout the South Pacific.
“We are deeply connected to our sister organizations in neighboring countries, including Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, and others. We are working in partnership with the Pacific Human Rights Initiative, F'INE Auckland, ILGA Oceania, and the Asia Pacific Transgender Network to assert our voices and perspectives in global conversations about human rights and dignity for all,” says Joey
Tonga Letitis Association is asking everyone who supports LGBTI equality across the South Pacific to sign and share their #DecriminalizeLGBTI petition.
Leitis aren’t the only targets of gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination in Tonga.
Family rejection of LGBTI children has also increased as religious challenges have grown. TLA operates a drop-in center and temporary shelter for young people with nowhere else to go.
“We see it every day as more and more young people come to our center seeking safety, security, and simply a place to call home. We are here for them as we work for a better future for all,” says Joey