Joe Wilson’s fascinating new documentary sheds light on a threat to the very existence of a small LGBTQ community the other side of the world that makes for very compelling viewing. It is set in the tiny island Kingdom of Tonga, where the locals are very proud of the fact that theirs is the only Pacific Island chain that was never colonized or invaded, until now that is.
Although they are essentially a conservative nation, they are also a very a tolerant one too. Their population has always included the culture of ‘fakaleit’ or simply ‘leiti’ which translates into ‘like a lady’. They identify as men or women who dress in a feminine way, but mainly don’t think of themselves as either men or women.
Wilson bases his film around Joey Joleen Mataele the very self-assured President of Tongan Leitis Association, and it is she who explains in detail the very exact role that they have always played in society. They are very well known in public circles for helping run churches and youth groups, and they function like housewives doing very domestic work like serving up meals. The latter they also actually do for the Royal Family who not only happily welcome their contribution, but one of the Princesses is very involved as the Association’s Patron.
It has been a very harmonious situation until now and the emergence of American-funded Evangelical Churches who are fuelling a very voluble campaign against the leities. They are making a big deal that the country’s Civil Offences Act actually criminalizes cross-dressing and sodomy and that the Authorities who have turned a blind eye and let everyone live in harmony, should be forced to enforce the law., even though it technically carries jail terms of up to 10 years.
The Establishment, including the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church, have no issue at all with the status quo of the leitis, and on camera are happy to sing their praises. However, the upstart Evangelicals who use the Bible like Google just quoting the parts that suit their blatant homophobic rants are determined to upend this decade’s old culture. They have however met a very determined opponent in Ms. Mataele who is seen taking the fight for equal rights to the United Nations Assembly.
It is by new means a new story, we saw it only last year in the documentary Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things. Here the INUIT people in the Northern Territory of Quebec in Canada were doing just fine for centuries until the Canadian Federal Government forced most Inuit families to leave their traditional Nunavik area in the 1950s to inhabit this newly established Territory. They then imposed their own rule of law on them, but far worse than that until Christianity took a stranglehold on the nation, they had always been a traditional culture that was all-embracing and non-judgmental and now that sadly all disappeared and was replaced by intolerance and outright hatred.
People in Tonga maybe uncomfortable talking about the issue, but Ms Mataele is insisting on maintaining a very public dialogue on the whole issue, She has right on her side, plus the Royal Family, and Wilson’s film leaves us hoping that is enough. It is a fight that all of us should be concerned about. Sadly as we have seen in other countries the self-righteous and bigoted Evangelicals are a determined foe., and they have money on their side.