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Tonga’s transvestites fight for a future

Photo by Carlos Orti Hernandez.

Margina doesn’t give an inch. In a very soft but secure way she assures us not to take more photographs before she completes her exhaustive make up. The previous day was Latsa who didn’t want to pose before to thoroughly clean her already spotless hairdressing salon. Both of them are corpulent, nice, surrounded in perfumed clouds and they wear tight shirts with bright colours which matches their bracelets and necklaces. The leitis (the transsexual community in Tonga’s archipelago, the only monarchy in the Pacific) are fighting to be more respected in the traditional islander society. They are consolidating their presence in the rural field (tailoring, small farmers,…) as in cities, where it is possible to see them in shops, offices, hotels, schools and churches. Some of them are even connected with the omnipresent Tongan real house.

It is calculated that there are currently around 80 leitis in Tonga, a territory which consists out of 169 islands and 120,000 inhabitants. Tonga is the symbol of the paradisiacal image of the southern sea, a postcard dazzling painters as Gauguin, writers as Stevenson or sailors and explorers as James Cook, who called these islands “the friendly islands”. The neighboring Samoans usually say that their prettiest women are men, something that could as well be said in Tonga. When men are in a relationship with a leiti, it is usually the result of incompetence to seduce women. Although in a culture where the chastity of girls are strongly protected by brothers and parents and where infidelity is considered a sin, leitis give men the opportunity to satisfy their needs without feeling  guilty. It serves as an escape for many of them.

Leiti splendor

The next competitor is Miss Lady Boutique! 20 years old, coming from Vavau, body weight 68 kg and her hobbies are dance, netball (typical sport from Oceania) and fishing! Who knows what she wants to catch!

Photo by Carlos Orti Hernandez.

For leitis, the best day of the year has a name, Miss Galaxy Pageant, a competition to choose a Miss leiti and where a lot of transsexuals from different countries participate. While the host shouts at the top of her voice to present the candidates, Lady Maria Boutique is sitting down at the zenith, away from those harsh looks that this community is still arousing in an essentially conservative society.

In a public letter, Joey Mataele, Vice President of the Tonga Leitis Association and founder and director of this competition, assures “Even thought we have made strides with Miss Galaxy, we are often challenged by public misconceptions and the lack of financial support for this pageant”.

Mataele explains that being a leiti in Tonga involves being in the community and to participate in social activities when is needed to assist in execution of certain tasks which may involve cooking, decorating, entertaining and cleaning. “In spite of all, there is a huge population of leitis that are basically homeless and have no family or economic support” she explains.

The same problems are suffered by other leitis with different names (mahu in Tahiti, faafafine in Samoa), they live between a private esteem based on their own recognized opinions and a publics contempt, figment of the confronted feelings in some areas of the population.

There are enough testimonies about leiti’s sweetness and affection. A crew member of the famous “Bounty”, James Morrison, was living with the mahu from Tahiti for 8 months. The “Bounty” is not just the story of a mutiny. The paradise has always been a sensual idea, even sexual, not just in the real life but also in movies, starring  Marlon Brando. The hot genitals of  both crews (the originals and the ones from Hollywood)  achieved epic ranks, including venereal diseases. It would not be strange that sailors and actors were seduced by leitis.

Current women

An obvious proof of leiti’s social esteem, with some exceptions, is Sione, a leiti included in Niko Besnier’s study in 1997, anthropologist in California University. Besnier explains that Sione, an extraordinaire worker, is constantly visited by women who need her advice to tell them how to dress, and by men who leave her their clothes to be altered. Work hardly leaves time to Sione for sex and love, who had a strong relationship with a boyfriend from a good social standing and who left him after she found out he was with another leiti.

Some people in the tongan population think that leitis do “women” jobs better than the women themselves. Sometimes the leitis steal the boyfriend from some of those women. Most of the leitis aspire to emigrate to USA, New Zeland or Hawai because they believe that leitis communities in those countries have more opportunities to prosper.

Photo by Vicente Orti Hernandez.

None of the leitis like to be called by the group’s full name: fakaleitis (faka: how; leiti: woman). They prefer the shorter word because of the similarities between facka and fuck. They don’t like drinking kava neither, the traditional liquor drunk by men when they have finished work, and they don’t like the typical rough women from rural areas either. Leitis want a modern life full of glamour and sophistication.

There are not many of them but they are ready to make a standing in the society. Margina will keep putting her make up on with gentleness and working as the most tireless man. Latsa will keep leaving her hairdressing salon (one of the leiti’s favorite places) spotless. Both of them are good examples of glamour, femininity and will, in these islands with unbelievable twilights.

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