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A time to shine for Tonga's silenced leitis

 Joey Mataele, a long-time activist for the rights of transgender women in Tonga. [Photo: Supplied]

Nuku'alofa, TONGA — The struggle for more acceptance and tolerance of transgender and LGBT communities within largely religious and conservative Pacific communities has been highlighted in a new film winning the hearts of global audiences.

Leiti is short for the term fakaleiti, a term that describes a person who is born as a male, but who acts in a feminine way, just like a lady. Debate still flourishes over whether leitis are born female, or are nurtured to be that way.

But despite their integral part in Tongan culture leitis face innumerable struggles, particularly against discrimination which, they say, has been brought upon by the rise of outside influences.

This uniquely Pacific concept of gender, and the leiti experience, is documented in Joey Mataele's film, "Leitis in Waiting," which has been winning awards at film festivals around the world, but to little fanfare back in Tonga.

It follows a year in Mataele's life, documenting her glamour and personality, but also her battles and struggles.

"This has been a long time dream of ours to have our stories recorded and used as an advocacy tool. There are so many untold stories. If we had to actually record on audio the untold story of everything leitis have been going through we would have a library like the room of George Washington," she laughed.

For centuries, leitis have been involved in Tongan life to the highest level, often called upon to serve the royal family and churches. In this film, viewers are taken to celebrations for the 90th birthday of the Queen Mother, Halaevalu Mata'aho, in Nuku'alofa, where they feature prominently, as well as the Miss Galaxy pageant.

But beneath the glamour, life for leitis is often a struggle, which Matele said could be seen in the muted reaction to the film at home, despite its success abroad. While leitis are an ancient part of Tongan culture, who have been around longer than the church, they often come under fire and face regular discrimination.

"It is like locals here don't recognise it. The culture and taboo often just puts this big wall up and we can't move beyond that wall to tell our stories," she said. "We are often more worried about our extended families and background, rather than thinking about yourself spiritually, physically and mentally."

Matele also made the distinction when being asked if fakaletis were more accepted or tolerated in Tonga compared to a lesbian or gay couple. He said they were both the same and accepted when it comes to things like domestic chores, or decorating the church but talking about the bedroom and same sex relationships, is still very much taboo.

"But it is actually ruining your life, when you don't get to talk about these things."

Around the Pacific, transgender people face difficult lives. Bullied, discriminated against, persecuted and, sometimes, murdered, the stories of leitis, fa'afine and transgender people across the region is one of struggle and strength.

That is true for Mataele and the members of the Tonga Leiti Association, for whom the film is dedicated.

"Everybody thinks I come from a good family, like money and all that, but people don't know what I really went through in life. There are some parts that did not make the movie that... well, put it this way. There are scars there," said Mataele.

"Some people just say we are nothing and throw them into the dogs or the pit. It is really disheartening to take those awful comments."

Mataele, and many others, have faced cyber abuse and other harassment from their own people, including stars. When the rugby player Israel Folau recently made comments on social media that gay people would "go to hell," that, again, tore open the wounds.

"I don't hate Israel Folau. I just wish that instead of hating gay or LGBT, pray for them. The world is too small for hate. I only wish there will be a day where I can sit down with him and share our stories."

For many leitis, including Mataele, watching the film dredged up some of those difficulties and picked at those scars. But at the same time, she said, it was liberating to tell a story that needed to be told, to shine light on the struggles they face.

"It does bring back a lot of hardship that we went through but at the same time it feels great to be able to open up about the life we go through."

-- "Leitis in Waiting" screens in Wellington on 19-20 May and in Auckland on 26-27 May.