By: Brian Favorite, RPCV U.S. Peace Corps Alumni
I started service in Nov. 2004 in the Kingdom of Tonga which you may have heard recently lost their King in September at the age of 88. He reigned for 41 years. Tonga is the smallest kingdom in the world, never ruled by another country. The late king was as well the largest King to date (over 400 pounds a decade back). This all makes this a unique place in the middle of the Pacific. Democracy has been on everyone lips in the last 2 years as “commoners” are looking for better living conditions, pay, and opportunities overall.
My story though involves a small contingent of the overall Tongan population which numbers only 120,000 worldwide (scattered on169 island groups and internationally). Fakaleitis translates “like a lady” and are estimated at about 300 coming in various shapes, sizes and temperaments. We would describe them as transgender.
Tradition provides that these boys, raised as girls, were a necessary evil for families lacking female children. These were taught to manage the home: cooking, cleaning, weaving, and eventually caring for the parents in old age. Most fakaleiti are gay and cannot marry men but have sex with men. The men they have sex with are not considered gay and generally there is no stigma in being a fakaleiti. Generally they fit into Tongan culture quite well. However, some are straight and do marry and have children. There are no translated words for gay and lesbian in the Tongan language, so fakaleiti is a catch-all term for gay. There is no term for lesbian. Fakaleiti life in Tonga is challenging in that the straight partners they find can be abusive and often lead a double life with a wife and family as well. So, we find a kind of closet in Tonga as well.
When I came to Tonga for training in early November 2004, I discovered I was the only out gay trainee, soon to be volunteer, that had come here in recent memory. Tongan staff said for at least 15 years. This was not really true, but I believed it, and also soon discovered that staff was not quite sure what to do with me. I was told not to tell anyone about being gay beyond Peace Corps, especially at the primary school where I was to teach, as well as at my secondary project, which was an NGO health service, a pivotal central core with anything dealing with healthy life choices. In 6 months I could then “reveal” myself once co-workers and villagers got to know me. I thought it was the right thing to do as well, even though I felt lost, and not supportive in this one important way. Luckily I found a home with the fakaleitis.
Since I have years of video production experience, one of my goals was to make a documentary about the varied experiences of being fakaleiti in Tonga. This has been very difficult to accomplish. I confronted technical problems, lackadaisical attitudes by those interviewed, transportation and money issues and yet I never gave up trying to complete this project.
Once a year the ladies get together to dazzle with a 3 day gala. It is the biggest fundraiser in Tonga, all for various causes the ladies support. This is their chance to be seen by a large audience. They’re outlandish, and raise awareness showing the excellent work fakalietis do. They show that they are proud and caring Tongans. I was able to videotape backstage (including a Minnie Driver appearance!) and came back with gold. This footage, eventually sprinkled with interviews, I hope will give my documentary audience a real feel for what it takes to be a “real” lady in Tonga.
Fakaleitis have a reputation for excelling in their work, being called on to assist with major events in Tonga. The eldest granddaughter of the recent King is their patron, and so they were busy doing a great deal of the decoration and food preparation for the King’s funeral. This ability to excel in such a wide variety of skills makes them so cherished by their families.
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