Something is changing in Tonga for the LGBT+ community
29 June 2021
Something is changing in Tonga for the LGBT+ community
Fakaleiti, or leitis as they are more commonly known, are a modern reflection of a long Polynesian tradition of gender diversity in Tonga. Also known as fa’afafine in Samoa or mahu in French Polynesia, leitis are individuals with male sex assignment at birth whose gender identity and expression does not conform to male gender stereotypes and who can take up roles usually reserved for women in Tongan society. Leitis are an indispensable part of island communities and continue to play a key role in Tongan culture.
The Tonga Leitis Association is the only civil society organisation in Tonga that directly addresses the issues and concerns of leitis and other LGBT+ people in Tonga. TLA was founded in 1992, with the support of a former member of Parliament, Mrs Papiloa Foliaki, who became its first President.
However, the colonial legacy is still very present and prejudices of the colonial past have very real consequences to the LGBT+ communities in Tonga today, severely affecting the people of this small country. Leitis and other people who identify as LGBT+ continue to experience prejudice, discrimination, and violence within Tongan society. Τhe Criminal Offences Act, a law inherited from the British colonial era is only part of the reason why same-sex consensual relationships between male adults are criminalised in Tonga. Indicative of the rising concerns of LGBT+ Tongans, in 2011, Tonga became the only country in the Pacific to not sign or express support for the 2011 Joint Statement on Ending Acts of Violence and Related Human Rights Violations Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Systemic discrimination brings out the worst in a society
Criminalisation of the LGBT+ community affects people’s lives often in brutal ways. Tonga is currently mourning the loss of Polikalepo “Poli” Kefu, president of Tonga Leitis Association (TLA) and one of the most renowned and beloved LGBT+ human rights advocates in the country and across the Pacific Islands, who was allegedly murdered on 1 May. Losing Poli highlights the urgent need for more progress on legal reform and a change in social attitudes to ensure that Tonga, and the Pacific, is a safe place for all LGBT+ people.
Co-founder and Executive Director of the TLA, Joey Joleen Mataele, said the organisation is committed to continuing Kefu’s advocacy: “Not only was Poli an activist, he was one person who would never be satisfied until the matter was solved. The only thing we can do is stand in unity with everybody, this is the time to push for change. We need the government to recognise we have the right to be protected.”
Incidents like this have further galvanised TLA with passion and commitment to bring public awareness to the discrimination and violence faced by LGBT+ Tongans, and to raise their voices and advocate for better legal recognition and protection. Some of TLA’s important work has been supported by several UK-funded programmes, including the Equality & Justice Alliance (EJA) and the Commonwealth Equality Project (CEP). Kaleidoscope Trust remains an enthusiastic partner of TLA, both through the administration of the EJA and the CEP, and through our role as member and Secretariat of the Commonwealth Equality Project.
What is changing?
To strategically address the existing legal barriers for leitis and other LGBT+ people in Tonga, TLA has drafted recommendations for the amendment of the discriminatory Criminal Offences Act 2015, in consultation with other civil society organisations and the government. The fact that so many high-level government officials have actively engaged in reviewing and inputting the draft recommendations proposed by TLA and the Anti-Discrimination Committee, as well as the commitment of the Minister of Justice to present the Amendment Bill to Parliament, strongly indicates progress in their understanding of the rights of LGBT+ people and the negative impact of discriminatory laws.
How Kaleidoscope Trust and the Westminster Foundation of Democracy help LGBT+ activists in Tonga to win their rights
As part of the FCDO-funded Commonwealth Equality Project (CEP), Kaleidoscope Trust has been able to partner with, and continues to support, TLA’s legal reform work. However, the contribution of Kaleidoscope Trust and WFD to the work of TLA goes back to 2018, when the EJA provided several capacity-building opportunities for TLA to strengthen their knowledge and skills in advocacy, law and policy reform and intersectionality. EJA also supported TLA to strengthen its skills on designing and implementing evidence-based and strategic advocacy.
This was further supported by Kaleidoscope Trust under CEP, resulting in engaging with 76 representatives of civil society organisations and government officials, and supporting the drafting of recommendations for the amendment of the Criminal Offences Act 2015.
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