Leiti is a Tongan word to describe transgender women, it comes from the English word “lady”. In Tonga the transgender community is organized by the Tonga Leiti Association (TLA), and with the support of Tonga Family Health Association (TFHA). Together they are educating people to help stop the discrimination and stigma surrounding the Leiti community.
Leilani, who identifies as a leiti, has been working with the Tonga Leiti Association, supported by Tonga Health Family Association to battle the stigma surrounding the leiti and LGBTI+ community in Tonga. She says "I started to dress like a leiti at a very young age. Being a leiti in a Tongan family is very difficult because being a leiti or having a son who’s a leiti are considered shameful, so for the family (it) is very difficult to accept us. Many leitis run away from their families."
Frequently facing abuse
Access to health care and sexual and reproductive health service is another difficulty the leiti community face: going to public clinics, they often face abuse and are more likely to be ignored or dismissed by staff. When they are turned away from other clinics, Leilani knows she can always rely on Tonga Health Family Association for help.
'I think Tonga Family Health has done a lot up to now. They always come and do our annual HIV testing and they supply us (with) some condom because we do the condom distribution here in Tonga and if we have a case in our members or anybody come to our office we refer them to Tonga Family Health. They really, really help us a lot. They (are the) only one that can understand us."
Tonga Family Health Association and Tonga Leiti Association partnership allows for both organisations to attend training workshops run by one another. A valuable opportunity not only for clinic staff but for volunteers like Leilani. "When the Tonga Family Health run the training they always ask some members from TLA to come and train with them and we do the same with them. When I give a presentation at the TFHA's clinic, I share with people what we do; I ask them for to change their mindset and how they look about us."
Overcoming stigma and discrimination
With her training, Leilani visits schools to help educate, inform and overcome the stigma and discrimination surrounding the leiti community. Many young leiti's drop out of school at an early age due to verbal, physical and in some cases sexual abuse.
Slowly, Leilani is seeing a positive change in the schools she visits. “We go to school because there a lot of discrimination of the leiti's in high school and primary school too. I have been going from school to school for two years. My plan to visit all the schools in Tonga. We mostly go to all-boys schools is because discrimination in school is mostly done by boys. I was very happy last year when I went to a boys school and so how they really appreciate the work and how well they treated the Leiti's in the school."
In February, Tonga was hit by tropical cyclone Gita, the worst cyclone to hit the island in over 60 years. Leilani worries that not enough is being done to ensure the needs of the Leiti and LGBTI+ community is being met during and post humanitarian disasters. "We are one of the vulnerable groups, after the cyclone Gita we should be one of the first priority for the government, or the hospital or any donations. Cause our life is very unique and we are easy to harm."
Despite the hardships surrounding the leiti community, Leilani is hopeful for the future, "I can see a lot of families that now accept leiti's in their house and they treat them well. I have a feeling the future will be better. Please stop discriminating against us, but love us. We are here to stay, we are not here to chase away."