The great hall of the basilica in Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa hasn’t seen many crowds since the Covid restrictions were introduced a year ago.
But on Thursday night, people from all parts of society filled every inch of available space in the venue, dressed mostly in black and in the traditional ta’ovala woven dress.
Tonga authorities have granted an exemption to the 50-person limit on indoor gatherings so that people from across the Pacific country can gather for a candlelight vigil in memory of LGBTQ + activist and humanitarian Polikalepo “Poli” Kefu.
Kefu, 41, a beloved leader in Tonga, was killed on Saturday on a beach near his home in Lapaha. Police have charged a 27-year-old man with his murder. The death has shocked the small country and through its LGBTQI + community, who hope it will spur action to address homophobic attitudes and repeal discriminatory laws in the country.
Among those who have come to pay tribute is a member of the country’s royal family, Princess Frederica Tuita, who struggles through tears as she talks about her close friend of nearly 20 years.
“Being Tongan means living like Poli, embodying the values of love, humility, respect and loyalty of our society,” Tuita said.
As diplomatically as she can, considering her high profile position, Princess Tuita proceeds with an indictment against Tonga for allowing Kefu’s death to occur.
“Our society has yet to assume the responsibility necessary to truly engage with those [Tongan] values and implement them where necessary. “
Tuita suggests that what counts is the increased protection of Leitī people against the threat of hate crimes.
The Tongan word leitī is one of many descriptors in the Pacific region to recognize the diverse sexual and gender expressions in their populations.
“It’s more of a comforting word for the LGBTQ + community. We just call everyone leitī, whether you’re trans, lesbian or whatever you identify yourself, ”says Joey Joleen Mataele, founder of the Tonga Leitīs Association, who passed his presidency to Kefu in 2018.
A man surrendered to the police on Monday and has been charged with Kefu’s murder. Tonga police have not commented whether they believe Kefu was the victim of a hate crime or not.
The #JusticeForPoli hashtag has remained in trend as communities across the South Pacific come together to host their own vigils. Specifically, the justice that Pacific LGBTQ + groups are demanding is a radical reform of the law, including the repeal of Tonga’s Criminal Offenses Act, which punishes sodomy with up to 10 years in prison.
These legal issues are not unique to Tonga. In popular tourist destinations such as Samoa and the Cook Islands, homosexual sexual acts carry a prison sentence.
Samoa, which has hosted femininity – understood in Western terms as the non-binary third gender – beauty pageants since the 1970s, only repealed laws that criminalized the “impersonation” of women in 2013.
According to Phylesha Brown-Acton, a fakafifine (a Niue gender identity designation) A woman and CEO of F’ine Pasifika, these discriminatory laws empower some members of the community to feel comfortable acting hateful towards Leitī people.
“He gives people permission to treat leitī worse than dogs. Sorry to say, but in Tonga, Tonga has a Dog Law. Dogs have veterinarians and doctors who take care of them. There is absolutely nothing for the leitī, we are seen as a lower class of animals, like a dog, ”said Brown-Acton.
Ymania Brown, co-secretary of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA World), works hand-in-hand with LGBTQ + groups in the Pacific to help lobby for law reform.
“There are many, many variables to successfully changing laws and some of those variables include the cultural attitudes of different countries, which are different among Pacific nations. Knowing what is right for Papua New Guinea is not right for the Solomon Islands, Tonga or Samoa, ”Brown said.
‘The police told me it was my fault’
The police of most Pacific nations do not specifically record hate crime incidents, so it is difficult to obtain conclusive data on how often these cases occur, but Brown-Acton has its own heartbreaking story about the bad. What can be.
She says that in 2007 she was the victim of an attempted gang rape by a group of about 10 men.
She says they pinned her down and tried to rip her pants off, but she was able to free herself and run for help. Brown-Acton immediately went to police to file a charge, but says his complaints were met with ambivalence.
“Basically, the police were saying, ‘This is your fault, you should never have been there.’ Nothing happened. No one was held responsible, ”Brown-Acton said. She believes that she was attacked because she is a queer and that the police did not take her seriously for the same reason.
“I am not isolated from being the only person who has experienced this, leitī endures and experiences violence, day after day”
Tonga Police Deputy Commissioner Tevita Vailea said she was not aware of this particular case, but invited Brown-Acton to come forward to provide more information on the incident.
“The Tonga Police have come a long way in their attempt to build our capacity and the development of the Tonga Police,” Vailea said. “And part of that is treating the people in our society in a more just and equitable way. So we are doing everything we can to encourage all crime victims to come forward and report it. “
By all accounts, the police work on Poli’s death has been thorough and efficient. The accused murderer is in pre-trial detention and is due to appear before the trial court on May 19. Investigations into the death are ongoing.
‘We must win our battle against the church’
Beyond vigilance, Brown-Acton says the strained relations between Pacific Island nations and their LGBTQ + communities stem largely from the introduction of Christianity to the South Pacific beginning in the 18th century.
Before the missionaries arrived in the Pacific, all Pacific cultures were known to have a wide acceptance of leitīs, fa’afafine, and many other sexual identities that make up the Pacific.
For religious institutions, which are a fundamental pillar of life in the Pacific Islands, the road to accept these cultural practices has been long and complicated.
Joey, the founder of the Tonga leitīs Association, and a trans woman, recalls the shock on the congregation’s faces when, in the late 1970s, she plucked up the courage to wear a dress to a crowded Sunday mass. As far as she knows, she was the first leitī to do so in Tonga.
“It was an electric blue pleated dress and I remember when I saw that I turned a lot of heads, it was the biggest show of the day,” Joey said. “I don’t know if he was trying to make a statement, but he just wanted to be me.”
Today, the leitī in Tonga can feel free to dress as they please in church, and are receiving recognition from some religious institutions.
At the Kefu vigil, Cardinal Soane Patita Paini Mafi, Catholic bishop of Tonga, spoke of the community that “mourns together with the association of leitīs.”
ILGA World’s Ymania Brown says that while there may be some progress, there is a long way to go.
“We need to win the battle against the church before we can win against the reformers of the law, because if we win it against the clergy, they will stand in front of us. In fact, they will defend our inclusion, ”said Brown.
Meanwhile, the Tonga Leitis Association and several other LGBTQ + groups are seeking to push for urgent reforms in the legal system.
“It is difficult for me to say, yes, the death of Poli is going to result in radical changes, because a lot of that does not depend on us, because we are ready, it depends on the legislators and parliamentarians in the Pacific to stand up and develop a column vertebral. They need to care enough about humanity to say, yes, this is a group of people who need protection and then we can have change, “Brown said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism