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International Transgender Day of Visibility: Interview with Joleen Mataele

March 31st marks International Transgender Day of Visibility (IDTV), a global event dedicated to celebrating trans people and raising awareness of the discrimination that is faced by trans communities across the world.


The event was founded in 2009 as a reaction to the lack of LGBT festivals that specifically celebrate trans people. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a space to mourn the trans people who have lost their lives, many to transphobic violence, but IDTV is a time to celebrate the diversity, strength and perseverance of the trans community.


As a founding member and Secretariat of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), a network made up of 46 LGBT organisations representing 44 countries, we know how important it is to amplify and celebrate those within our community whose voices are heard less frequently, including trans and non-binary people.


Paul Dillane, Executive Director of Kaleidoscope Trust, says: "IDTV is a vital opportunity to acknowledge the ongoing struggle of trans people globally and celebrate the achievements of trans activists. It is also a chance for allies to stand in solidarity and reflect on the actions we can and must take to create a truly inclusive human rights movement."


"Kaleidoscope Trust is dedicated to creating positive change with LGBT activists around the world. During the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting we look forward to welcoming the largest contingent of LGBT advocates ever to participate, including many trans activists, to London so their voices and demands can heard by those in power."


Our work to advance equality and human rights for LGBT people globally has brought us into contact with inspiring trans activists, including Joleen Mataele, an LGBT activist from the South Pacific. Joleen has been working as an activist in Tonga, where homosexuality carries a prison sentence of up to ten years, since she was fourteen. In 2007, she 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. 


Tonga is one of the most socially conservative and religious places in the world. 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. Yet the leitis have long been marginalised from society and excluded from key decision-making roles.


“When it comes to gatherings, you sit together, you eat together and we’re the ones who do the cooking and decorating,” Joleen explains. “But when it comes to decision-making we’re no where to be seen. If we seek to make decisions or fight for law reforms, that’s when the barrier comes.”


Despite occupying a unique space in Tongan culture for generations, 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 abroad, present particular challenges to Joleen’s work. “They’re the biggest test for us. They shout and curse at you right in front of your face,” she says. “But that’s what motivates me to fight for what I believe in.”



In response, the Tonga Leitis Association, which Mataele co-founded in 1992, is working with PSGDN to develop strategies to address the inequalities that stem from this increasing prejudice and discrimination. Joleen’s journey has been captured in a new film, Leitis in Waiting, which premiered earlier this year at the International Oceanian Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. The film, directed by couple Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, will have its European premiere in April during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018.


The film follows Joleen as she organises a trans beauty pageant, provides shelter for sexual and gender minority youth and rallies against Tonga’s anti-sodomy and cross-dressing laws. It is a powerful display of the resilience and tenacity of LGBT 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,” explains Joleen. “Now we can use this document to advocate and make sure our voices are heard nationally but also internationally.”


The fact that the film centres around a trans person, discusses trans issues and follows a trans-led organisation is highly unusual, even in countries where trans people are more protected under the law. “We’re the ones who are out there on the field, facing the same problems all the time. We’ve been cutting all the barriers that we’ve grown up surrounded by.” Says Joleen, continuing:


“It’s very powerful to tell your story without concealment - to tell it like it is.”


Joleen believes that the film may be able to change hearts and minds. “We don’t really believe in doing banners and shouting on the street,” she explains.


“We believe in talking directly. We believe in going to the decision-makers who impose barriers and sitting down with them. Having that documented in a film is a bonus for us, not just nationally but internationally.”


This is the third film by Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer that explores issues surrounding sexuality and gender identity. After the announcement of their marriage in 2004 caused controversy in Wilson’s hometown, they were forced to explore how you look for change in challenging environments. After settling in Hawaii, the pair were struck by the more inclusive understanding of gender and identity.  “It’s so important to have these stories told, particularly in places like Tonga,” explains Wilson. “Because the dominant narrative is often coming from outside Tonga, from places like New Zealand, UK and Australia. It’s important to challenge this.”


Following the film’s release, the pair is committed to working with Joleen and other groups across the South Pacific to make sure its impact is felt at a local and international level. “Colonial era laws are still on the books in eight Pacific countries. We want to bring more awareness to these issues across the Commonwealth.” Says Hamer, continuing: “It’s so important to shine light on the Pacific is a distinct place with cultures that need to be recognised.”


Moving forward, Joleen’s primary focus is spreading positivity and acceptance. “I will fight until the day I die for LGBT rights, especially for the trans community.” She explains, concluding:


“We should all have love in our hearts, not just love on a personal level, or for the people you are with, but for everyone.”


Leitis in Waiting premieres in London on April 15. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with directors Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, as well as Joleen Mataele. Buy tickets here.


Discover more about The Commonwealth Equality Network and The Pacific Sexual and Gender Diversity Network 


Main Image: Kike Arnal