Big Story 10

After cyclone, transgender Tongans hope movie will help build acceptance

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A movie about transgender women fighting for acceptance in Tonga hopes to bring about change in the Pacific island nation - and help local activists start over after a cyclone smashed their main office, a leading gay rights campaigner said.

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Leitis in Waiting, which has its European premiere at the Festival of Commonwealth Film in London on Sunday, follows Joey Mataele, a prominent transgender activist, as she organizes a beauty pageant amid growing pressure from religious groups.

Gay sex and cross-dressing are illegal under colonial-era laws in Tonga - one of 36 Commonwealth members that criminalize same-sex activity, according to the Commonwealth Equality Network.

The legislation is rarely enforced but remains a threat to the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in a country where homosexuality is largely taboo, said Mataele, who is in London to promote the film.

“I believe that the importance of having this movie is to be able to change the minds of people,” said the 54-year-old, who has close ties to the Tongan royal family.

“I (also) hope it will take the message to the British government - or even straight to Queen Elizabeth - that they are the ones that brought that colonial law we are suffering from to the Pacific and they should do something about it,” she added.

Transgender women, locally known as fakaleitis, are culturally tolerated in Tonga, having historically performed household and ceremonial duties. But acceptance stops at the bedroom door, said Mataele.

Transgender women have taken the lead in campaigning for change in legislation, but face staunch resistance from conservative Christian evangelical groups - something that has created a poisonous environment, she said.

“We are residents of Tonga - we have a right to express what we are going through; we cannot just be doormats all the time,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Directed by U.S.-based filmmakers Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, the documentary won the special jury prize at the International Oceanian Film Festival in Tahiti in February and is to be released in Tonga later this year.

“Films like Leitis in Waiting help humanize the lived experiences of LGBT people and challenge negative social attitudes,” said Paul Dillane, executive director of LGBT rights group Kaleidoscope Trust.

Mataele hopes it will also boost donations to the Tonga Leitis Association.

The rights group was recently forced to spend most of its budget on rebuilding its center, which also serves as a shelter for LGBT people shunned by their families, after it was hit by Cyclone Gita in February.

“We (only) have half a office now!” she quipped.