A new documentary seeks to spur change in the island kingdom of Tonga: Leitis in Waiting, which screened at London’s Festival of Commonwealth Film last weekend, follows trans activist Joey Joleen Mataele as she fights for acceptance in the former British protectorate, where homosexuality and cross-dressing still carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Transgender women like Mataele (called “fakaleitis” or “leitis”) are accepted privately as caretakers, houseworkers, and even ceremonial servants to the church and royal family, but not in public. Leitis in Waiting sees Mataele organizing a trans beauty pageant, mentoring a young leiti rejected by her family, and battling fundamentalist Christians over the country’s antiquated laws and attitudes.
“I think it’s time to talk about it,” Mataele, who leads the Tongan Leitis Association, told ABC News Australia. “We cannot be silent anymore… It’s been years of dreaming that our story would be recorded and be heard and be distributed to the world. I think this [film] is a great achievement for us.”
Director Joe Wilson was drawn to the leitis community because of the dichotomy these women face: “It’s probably the most religious country I’ve ever been to, which makes the story of how you work for change when it comes to how LGBT people are viewed very interesting and very challenging, but also very hopeful… [Leitis] are accepted on some levels but not on other levels.”
Mataele would like to see the film fuel the UK to speak out against the law, a remnant of its colonial influence.
“I 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 told Reuters.