Lesbians Non-Existent in Tonga?

– Peace Corps Volunteer

Tonga Flag

Tonga Flag

To start, I want to comment on how much I appreciated LGBT RPCVs and Brian Favorite’s three articles on Fakaletis (men who live and dress as women) in Tonga. The fact that the LGBT community is embraced by the Peace Corps and that a forum exists gave me much-needed support before accepting my invitation. I hope this contribution will also be helpful for somebody else considering serving in the Peace Corps.

Now, here is a little about me and my life here in Tonga.

I am in my mid-twenties, identify as queer/lesbian and have dreamed about being a Peace Corps Volunteer since I was a kid and pronounced the “s” at the end of Corps. I am currently living on the main island known as Tongatapu and serving as a TEFL teacher in my village’s government primary school. I have been living here for about five months now and am still learning so much about my new community.

For those of you who have read Brian Favorite’s articles, you will know that Tonga is very conservative and Christian. I jokingly compare Tonga to a conservative, southern town in America. There are churches on almost every corner (and then some), filial piety and respect of elders is paramount, and homosexuality is taboo. According to the laws here in Tonga, homosexual acts are illegal. However, Fakaletis generally are not seen as gay. Therefore, they tend to “slip through the (legal) cracks”. In Tonga, there are only male Fakaletis and no known female equivalent to the sub-culture.

When I read the details about Tonga from the infamous blue invitation packet, I was concerned by three things. One: Lesbians are a non-existent group here in Tonga. Two: Female PCVs in Tonga have felt uncomfortable by some Tongan men’s unwanted advances. Three: Tongans can be intrusively curious people. These three facts didn’t bode well for me, an openly gay and proudly feminist woman.

As with most scary things, a lot was built up in my mind before arriving to Tonga that was unwarranted. While all three concerning facts are true, it is completely manageable to be happy here. For starters, if you serve in the Peace Corps, inevitably some behaviors will have to be toned down out of respect to your community. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with these rules, but there is a sort of unwritten expectation of compromise. To me one compromise is “if you don’t go around talking about your girlfriend or have obvious same-sex relationships with women, we will stay out of your business”. Another helpful tactic is to use the Tongan gender-neutral term for girlfriend/boyfriend, kaumea. I have been asked by all sorts of Tongans if I was married or if I had a kaumea. When I was in a relationship, I would reply in Tongan in the affirmative. Easy peasy.

With this being said, I certainly do feel a sense of diminished freedom in Tonga. While my PCV group and some of the Peace Corps/Tonga staff know that I am gay, there is a feeling of isolation. Most of my friends from America are LGBT. Currently in Tonga, I am the only openly gay person that I know of. That fact is tough. When I go out with my friends here, I know that I can’t meet or date women. Since many are too shy to say it, I will: two years of celibacy sounds really daunting.

In closing, if you are a LGBT Peace Corps applicant, trainee, or nominee and are feeling weary, it is okay. The staff will be very accepting and will provide you with the support you need to adjust to your new life. There will be times where you feel completely out of place, but other volunteers will be just as supportive of you as you are with them. In all likelihood, other people in your community and Peace Corps groups are feeling the exact same way. Good luck!

This volunteer can be contacted at lgbrpcv-news@lgbrpcv.org

An Update – Documentary on the Fakaleitis of Tonga

– Brian Favorite, RPCV

Editors note:

Three years ago Brian Favorite, then a recent RPCV from Tonga, wrote a compelling article for our website about his experience with the transgender Fakaleitis of Tonga, Tongan boys raised as girls, many of whom chose to dress and live as women for the rest of their lives. Other Polynesian cultures have similar transgender members of their communities. His article includes a YouTube video he had taken of some of the Fakaleiti friends, including footage of the Miss Galaxy contest, which is a yearly beauty and talent pageant held to raise money and awareness for the Fakaleitis of Tonga.

 It was Brian’s aim to produce a documentary about his new friends, Like a Lady, the Fakaleitis of Tonga. Tonga is a very Christian and conservative society and has mixed feelings about the Fakaleitis. They live and work openly in the islands, but we would describe most of them as living at the lower end of the social ladder. Brian now brings us up to date on the making of his documentary and his return to Tonga for more interviews and footage.

It has been quite a journey with Like a Lady and I am halfway to completion.  I was warned by documentary professionals (with a playful smirk) when I first considered taking on this project, that it could take up to ten years to complete a documentary by a first time director. Inside I scoffed at them saying to myself… not me! I have years of experience in production in LA and beyond and can quickly figure out the ins and outs of such an endeavor. Opps!

Let’s begin where I left off in the summer of 2008. Since then, I did return to Tonga with a cameraperson and completed 60 hours of interviews and footage of the subjects doing everyday activities giving an idea to the viewer of what Tonga is like for the 15 Fakaleitis I interviewed.  What a challenging adventure it was. We were pretty much intruding upon a group of folks at all hours of the day and night, who were spread over miles of land and sea, and culturally not inclined to value the importance of keeping a schedule. I purposely planned the shoot for five weeks during July and August of 2008 when the coronation of the new King and the 15th annual Miss Galaxy Pageant were to take place. There was also scheduled a reunion of sorts for any and all alumni of PC Tonga with as many as 25 RPCVs returning to Tonga for the festivities. It was a very exciting and proud time for me to be there with a camera in Tonga and the video footage shows it.

After a long and exhausting five weeks with the various mishaps and drama in front and behind the camera, I came back to Chicago where I was living at the time to take on the daunting task of fundraising for the completion of the project. I had raised sufficient monies before leaving for Tonga to complete the production part of the film including flight costs, equipment costs, rental, insurance and expenses while there. I was now at a point where I needed to fund the editing cost, which is in the ballpark of $48K for a professional picture and sound editors, etc. and much more than what the production cost me.

While in Tonga, my strategy was to shoot as many of the Fakaleitis who were willing to be on camera, then after the first week narrowing down which subjects were most available and committed and who spoke from their hearts. In the second week it was becoming more clear as to who among the Fakaleitis were invested in being in the documentary and from there, I had to figure out a story arc for each of them with an eventual and gradual conclusion to their storyline. Much of the work was propelled with faith hoping I was there at the right time and place. I hoped when I set up a camera, amazing things would occur. They did.

My plan was to shoot like crazy, eventually come home to the editing room, organize what I had and work in cooperation with a professional editor to piece together four diverse, compelling, thought-provoking stories from four Fakaleitis, picking the Fakaleitis with the strongest story arcs out of the fifteen I followed. This did happen. I was delighted to have much to choose from and it was clear I had my four. Mergina is a city girl who runs her own hair salon and goes out to the bars most nights. Joey, the queen bee of the Fakaleitis, organized the Miss Galaxy Pageant and helped design and decorate the King’s banquet preceding the coronation ceremony and is the founder of the Tonga Lady Association. ‘Epi Pola competed in the Miss Galaxy Pageant and is studying to be a tourist representative for Tonga Tourism. Hapakoki lives way out in a small village and works in a small resort preparing food while dreaming of marrying his Kiwi boyfriend while planning his eventual move to New Zealand where their marriage would be legal. Possibly other Fakaleitis will be in the final documentary in some form yet to be determined.

Each of the four stories would run twelve to fifteen minutes in length and inter-cut each other, so to fill the anticipated required broadcast time frame of 58:40 minutes (for commercial breaks) or an hour-long television broadcast time slot.

I continued my research for funding, applying to the foundations and institutions aiding the completion of independent low-budget documentary work and was told time and again, your film is compelling but this is a very depressed and a competitive time for independent film production funding, but please go ahead and still apply. You may be a reader who is savvy to the art of writing a good grant, who can understand the magnitude of time and effort it takes to crank out one of those babies. It is time-consuming, committed work. Most include a summary of the film with a one-line description, a detailed spent and projected budget down to the dollar, a survey of your anticipated audience demographic and why they would be interested in this subject. Why this subject matter is important for us to fund? Why did you take on this project? Who are you and who is your crew (bios of everyone)? Include a video sampling of what you shot or anticipate shooting and other work you have done. Now imagine having various grants being due at the same time (each asking for this information in different formats) and you can understand the challenge of keeping your focus and energy level intact while moving forward in the face of rejections while your regular life commitments, including a full time job (I was working six part time jobs when I returned from Tonga.) I realize this sounds like a pity party, my point being, it truly is hard work and on many an occasion I had to rustle up my determination and commitment to see this through to some sort of completion.

So now with all this footage and an idea of how to compile it, I realized after writing a few grant proposals; there was something lacking in the story. I wasn’t clear as to how I envisioned the film. This lead to my waning interest in the project. I came to a halt, but I felt I needed to let the project “breath”, as well as for myself as well.

Then a fellow filmmaker suggested I contact the amazing story consultant Karen Everett, a lesbian filmmaker and professor of documentary at UC Berkeley, who suggested I include my story of being in the Peace Corps and openly gay but who was asked to go back in the closet while in service, at least for the first six months. This would make the story overall more accessible. The Fakaleitis journeys were now through an American Peace Corps eyes. My story also is the thread to pull their stories together. Karen’s input turned everything around.

I did not intend to have my story included in the film, so I was at a loss for any footage of me in Tonga. Finding visuals to accompany my narration, I pulled together my Peace Corps photos, and sent out a request to fellow volunteers to send me photos to include in the documentary, Luckily I also made a short video of myself narrating a tour of my village after one year of service. More was needed. I had an animator friend incorporate visuals to my narration and storyline. Tess Martin and I agreed that an animated “puppet” of her design, of me, should look nondescript, invisible. A clear, plastic figure of me gives the analogy of my feeling ‘see-through’, not complete as a person since so much of who I am had to be kept secret from my fellow villagers. Our collaboration helped get my momentum moving again. When my project feels fired up, I ride that wave of productivity and push myself as hard as I can to complete as much as possible before that wave moves out again.

Check out Tess and my collaboration:

LIKE A LADY: THE FAKALEITIS OF TONGA trailer with animation by Tess Martin

At this juncture in the project, I have slowed down on the grant writing (the rejections wore me down) and have decided to apply for a master’s degree at the San Francisco State University using this documentary as my thesis project. My hope is that documentary theory and writing classes will require me to dig deeper within myself to pull out a richer narration. Before I went into the Peace Corps and served my assignment, I would not have dreamed years later I would be producing a documentary on a transgender community in the South Pacific. Funny how the Peace Corp cannot only affect the 27 months of your tour, but inspire you to continue work that first came to you while being there.

You can reach Brian Favorite at bjfavorite@yahoo.com for questions or ideas about film grants, raising funds, and comments.

A Documentary on the Fakaleitis of Tonga

-Brian Favorite, RPCV, Tonga

Some of you may have read the November 2006 article I wrote in this fine publication about my experience in service with my friends, the fakaleitis of Tonga.

Traditionally, fakaleitis are boys raised as girls, called upon to manage the home when no daughters are available. As they grow up they may feel more comfortable in dresses and flowers in their hair. Today’s Tongan society has mixed feelings about their place, while Christian and conservative majorities frown upon them. Most are gay and have sexual relationships with men, but cannot marry men. We would describe them as transgender.

Like many of us, I had a challenging time being gay and fitting in to a country where the word gay does not exist. The fakaleitis were my refuge and sanity. I would cling to them when I needed a break from the straight milieu of Peace Corps volunteer or village events. With inexpensive camcorder in hand, I surreptitiously shot the “girls” capturing what I could of their experiences as well as candidly interviewing them seeking to uncover interesting truths. I carried these videotapes home knowing they would be the key to something very special one day.

After service for me ended in January ‘07 and attempting to get back into television work, I was at a networking film event at Chicago Filmmakers and began talking to professional filmmakers who thought the idea of the fakaleitis so interesting, unique and most importantly, feasible as a film. That dialogue reinvigorated my desire to see a documentary project to completion.

Chicago Filmmakers, among a handful of other such organizations, gives independent film producers the opportunity to receive fiscal sponsorship (tax exempt status) for donations and lends much-needed hand holding to get projects not usually able to be made, made. Through their support I am taking the opportunity to tell my friends’ stories in a one-hour documentary coming out in 2009.

Various foundations such as Frameline, Sundance, National Geographic, Playboy, PBS set aside funds for small, individual film projects with the desire to tell stories about people without a usual means to be seen or heard from remote parts of the world. I am sending proposals to such organizations to return to Tonga with a fellow filmmaker in mid-July for one month. During that time we will canvas the Tongan islands capturing the experience of some of the fakaleitis interested in being filmed.

In addition, two very important events also occur during our time there.

His Royal Highness King Sioasi Tupou V’s coronation (after a 41-year rule left by the death of his father last year) is in early August. The fakaleitis have been given partial responsibility of various tasks for the four-day event including food preparation, decoration, entertainment and costume design. The decision of the government to entrust these important tasks to the fakaleitis at this most historical event acknowledges and commends the arduous struggle the Tongan Leiti Association has achieved for self-respect within the Tongan community.

And just days after the coronation, the Air New Zealand 15th annual Miss Galaxy Pageant commences, still considered the most viewed and talked about event in the Tongan calendar. This very lucrative extravaganza generates funds for the Association’s reputable causes: HIV prevention and awareness, gay youth concerns and the promotion of dignity for the fakaleitis of Tonga.

Both novel events are a remarkable cinematic opportunity to expose the bona fide fakaleitis at their best (and possibly worst!) during a most momentous historical time in Tonga.

While in service I captured video of village life and interviews of some fakaleitis, primarily focused around the Miss Galaxy Pageant of 2005. This has been edited into a short trailer now on youtube.com. Use the link at the end of this article to see the trailer.

I believe documentary film gives an incredible opportunity to showcase people and places not generally seen in today’s entertainment medium. As Peace Corps volunteers, we know the sensation of being out of our element and the thrill of experiencing something unknown. While currently in the middle of producing “Like a Lady: The Fakaleitis of Tonga,” that thrilling tremor of excitement is back for me again so much like my first day of training in Tonga.

For more information about the project and an opportunity to donate much needed funds as well, please also see: www.indiegogo.com/likealady. This is an independent film site for getting the word out about independent film projects.

Here’s hoping “Like a Lady” educates, entertains and uplifts.

All of you nascent film producers and film buffs can contact Brian Favorite at bjfavorite@yahoo.com.

My Friends, the Fakaleitis of Tonga

– Brian Favorite, RPCV

I started service in Nov. 2004 in the Kingdom of Tonga which you may have heard recently lost their King in September at the age of 88. He reigned for 41 years. Tonga is the smallest kingdom in the world, never ruled by another country. The late king was as well the largest King to date (over 400 pounds a decade back). This all makes this a unique place in the middle of the Pacific. Democracy has been on everyone lips in the last 2 years as “commoners” are looking for better living conditions, pay, and opportunities overall.

My story though involves a small contingent of the overall Tongan population which numbers only 120,000 worldwide (scattered on169 island groups and internationally). Fakaleitis translates “like a lady” and are estimated at about 300 coming in various shapes, sizes and temperaments. We would describe them as transgender.

Tradition provides that these boys, raised as girls, were a necessary evil for families lacking female children. These were taught to manage the home: cooking, cleaning, weaving, and eventually caring for the parents in old age. Most fakaleiti are gay and cannot marry men but have sex with men. The men they have sex with are not considered gay and generally there is no stigma in being a fakaleiti. Generally they fit into Tongan culture quite well. However, some are straight and do marry and have children. There are no translated words for gay and lesbian in the Tongan language, so fakaleiti is a catch-all term for gay. There is no term for lesbian. Fakaleiti life in Tonga is challenging in that the straight partners they find can be abusive and often lead a double life with a wife and family as well. So, we find a kind of closet in Tonga as well.

When I came to Tonga for training in early November 2004, I discovered I was the only out gay trainee, soon to be volunteer, that had come here in recent memory. Tongan staff said for at least 15 years. This was not really true, but I believed it, and also soon discovered that staff was not quite sure what to do with me. I was told not to tell anyone about being gay beyond Peace Corps, especially at the primary school where I was to teach, as well as at my secondary project, which was an NGO health service, a pivotal central core with anything dealing with healthy life choices. In 6 months I could then “reveal” myself once co-workers and villagers got to know me. I thought it was the right thing to do as well, even though I felt lost, and not supportive in this one important way. Luckily I found a home with the fakaleitis.

Since I have years of video production experience, one of my goals was to make a documentary about the varied experiences of being fakaleiti in Tonga. This has been very difficult to accomplish. I confronted technical problems, lackadaisical attitudes by those interviewed, transportation and money issues and yet I never gave up trying to complete this project.

Once a year the ladies get together to dazzle with a 3 day gala. It is the biggest fundraiser in Tonga, all for various causes the ladies support. This is their chance to be seen by a large audience. They’re outlandish, and raise awareness showing the excellent work fakalietis do. They show that they are proud and caring Tongans. I was able to videotape backstage (including a Minnie Driver appearance!) and came back with gold. This footage, eventually sprinkled with interviews, I hope will give my documentary audience a real feel for what it takes to be a “real” lady in Tonga.

Fakaleitis have a reputation for excelling in their work, being called on to assist with major events in Tonga. The eldest granddaughter of the recent King is their patron, and so they were busy doing a great deal of the decoration and food preparation for the King’s funeral. This ability to excel in such a wide variety of skills makes them so cherished by their families.

Brian Favorite should be back home in December. He can be reached at bjfavorite@yahoo.com.