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Leitis in Waiting

Organising a trans beauty pageant in conservative Tonga

Leitis in Waiting chronicles the lives of Leitis, the sparkling transgender community in the Pacific

“My father never liked me wearing dresses,” says Joleen Mataele, an LGBTQ activist from Tonga.

Tonga, a Polynesian sovereign state, is one of the most conservative and religious places in the world, where homosexuality carries a possible prison sentence of 10 years. But it is also home to the leitis, a visible community of trans women who play an important role in service to their families, churches, and the monarchy.

The leitis have long been marginalised from society and excluded from key decision-making roles. In a hyper-masculine culture that revolves around tradition, progress can be painstakingly slow. “I walk as woman and I live as a woman every single day,” says Joleen. “But if we seek to make decisions or fight for law reforms, that’s when the barrier stops us.”

Joleen’s struggle for acceptance began at a young age. “My father was a member of parliament,” she explains. “He thought I was putting him to shame.” At age 14, she left school to escape bullying that left her contemplating whether life was worth living. “I just couldn’t take it,” she says. “I didn’t have a sense of belonging. I thought I would end up suicidal if I stayed any longer.” The same year, Joleen was sexually assaulted by a man she knew. When her father found out, he blamed her.

Experiencing this marginalisation and rejection from a young age made Joleen even more determined to fight for change. “I promised myself that I would be somebody and I would never bend my life to anyone’s policy. I knew I needed to do something for my community.”

In 1992, Joleen founded the Tonga Leitis Association, an organisation that celebrates the contribution of leitis in Tonga and improving their rights. A year later, she founded the Miss Galaxy Queen Pageant, an annual event to celebrate the diversity and creativity of the leitis and LGBTQ+ Tongans. After originally starting small-scale, the pageant has become a major attraction for Tongans and tourists. The event is held over a three-night period and attracts crowds of up to 5,000 people per night. “We add humour into the pageant, but at the same time we’re sending messages with our talents,” Joleen explains. “It brings our stories into public view”.

But despite occupying a unique space in Tongan culture, a new wave of imported religious fundamentalism is threatening the leitis’ standing in society. These new evangelical groups, which are often emboldened by funding from overseas, pose a particular threat to LGBTQ+ Tongans. “Everyone thinks that Tonga is such a beautiful country,” she says. “But the things that are happening over here are horrific.” In response to these challenges, Joleen co-founded The Pacific Sexual and Gender Diversity Network (PSGDN), a trans-fronted advocacy group that represents the interests of LGBTQ+ people in the Pacific region. 

“There’s no substitute for putting your story out there without concealment. We’re telling it like it is”

With her safety and security far from assured, a new film follows Joleen’s life over the course of a year. Leitis in Waiting, directed by couple Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, captures her as she organises the Miss Galaxy pageant, provides shelter for sexual and gender minority youth and rallies against Tonga’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws. It is a powerful display of the resilience and tenacity of LGBTQ+ people, revealing what it means to be different in a society ruled by tradition.

“I’ve always wanted to have a document of the work that we do,” says Joleen. “This film can help us advocate and make our voices heard internationally. There’s no substitute for putting your story out there without concealment. We’re telling it like it is.”

Leitis in Waiting follows trans women while platforming a trans-led organisation, something that's still quite a fresh, largely unusual idea, even in countries that may be considered more accepting. The film captures the leitis’ deliberately collaborative style of activism that sees them reaching out to those on the other side and attempting to find common ground. “We don’t really believe in protesting loudly and taking to the streets,” she explains. “We like to talk directly, to go the decision-makers who impose barriers and start conversations with them.”

This is the third film by American couple Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer that explores sexuality and gender identity. The pair were brought towards filmmaking from science and human rights activism in 2004, when the announcement of their marriage caused controversy in their local community. “That forced us to explore how you look for and create change in rural environments,” explains Dean. After moving to Hawaii, where they currently reside, the pair were hugely impacted by the island’s “inclusive and hopeful understanding” of gender.

Dean believes that film can be a powerful vehicle for creating change. “People assume that life has to be as we know it - men and women - because that’s the way it’s always been,” he explains. “But it’s really important to show the stories that haven’t been heard. When we talk about trans issues in America it’s about toilets. But for people to see there’s a place like Tonga where trans people are respected by the monarchy, it’s very powerful.”

America’s role in fanning the flames of division in places like Tonga is laid bare in the film. It follows an American-financed evangelist spouting a western notion of gender, advocating for the criminalisation of the leitis and spreading the message that their lives are sinful.

Challenging this narrative, one screening at a time, is one of the pair’s main goals. “It’s really interesting how film screenings work,” says Joe. “Of course you hope the other side see it and are empathetic, but it can be a great gathering tool for allies and to bring people together. Just having these stories played out can be a powerful tool for raising awareness.”

Yet with a background in human rights advocacy, Joe and Dean are mindful that awareness is not always enough. Following the film’s release, they are committed to working with LGBTQ+ groups across the South Pacific to make sure its impact is felt both locally and internationally. With colonial-era laws restricting LGBTQ+ people in eight Pacific countries, there’s plenty of work still to do.

Outwith the Pacific region, 36 Commonwealth nations currently criminalise homosexuality. “We want to bring more awareness to these issues across the Commonwealth and challenge the dominant narratives,” says Dean. With this in mind, Joleen, Joe, and Dean opted to stage the London premiere of the film during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Joleen attended the meeting, where new Commonwealth projects and priorities are agreed, as a representative of the Commonwealth Equality Network.

Moving forward, Joleen’s focus is to continue building on her four decades of activism. “I will always fight for LGBTQ+ rights and the trans community,” she asserts. “Growing up I promised myself I’d ‘be somebody’, and now I can say I feel like somebody. But I want everyone to feel that way and have love in their hearts.”