- Gender and Relationships
Gay in the Friendly Islands of Tonga
Having lived in Tonga for thirteen years, I realize it would be a great place for those preferring a trans-gender lifestyle. The Tongan culture, and I also understand some of the other Polynesian islands like Tahiti and Samoa, have populations of males who prefer to dress, act and behave like a lady.
In Tonga these effeminate males are called tangata fakafefine or the more modern term is fakaleiti.
When I first moved to Tonga, I realized that there was a lack of shops selling clothing that I was used to wearing. So, if I saw a dress that I liked, I could take a picture of it to a shop and have one made just like it without a pattern. They would merely take my measurements and in a couple of days, I would have my dress. Most of those that sew these dresses are men who have grown up doing ladies work. They are very talented and intelligent (for the most part). I was always impressed with the quality of their sewing. They also seem to be more business minded than most.
Also, when I went to have my hair done in the beauty salon, most of the hairdressers were men who preferred this job more than women in Tonga. I would, in fact, ask for certain of the men to do my hair, because they were so much better than the women who did my hair there.
Being a fakaleiti in Tonga did not necessarily mean that you were homosexual, but that you preferred doing traditional women's work like sewing, cleaning, cooking, and other activities. It seems that most families in Tonga have at least one male person they have singled out as having more feminine characteristics, and they are designated as their fakaleiti.
These tangata fakafafine (men who behave like women) are for the most part very clean and proper. They take good care of themselves and like to wear dresses while they do their chores and especially if they go down town to shop.
Many of these fakafefines are easily recognizeable, since they often wear makeup, take along big purses, and play up or tone down their feminine behavior. They seem to enjoy the attention that they get, and will sometimes go out of their way by winking or waving their fans to get it.
We must distinguish between these and the male prostitutes that are also in Tonga. Those who are active in sexual activities with foreign visitors and tourists in Tonga are not well regarded. I remember when Aids first came to Tonga. True homosexuals in Tonga are thought to upset the social order because they do not contribute to the society, but rather take away from it. However, the fakaleitis have carved out a niche for themselves as contributing by doing much of the mundane daily work that no one else wants to do.
As most of history in Tonga is oral, there is not a written history kept that indicates when this tradition started. Not only do fakaleitis or fakafafines do much of the housework, they also serve as middlemen from the homes to the market place. They were very free to move around in the society and could haggle and negotiate with the men. To be a woman and do so would be taboo. They also spread most of the news, gossip and became the family or village informant.
Another reason there may be so many fakaleitis in Tonga is because the men's work there consists mostly of working hard in the bush, hoeing, planting and providing the food for the family. They also have to go fishing or raise animals to have protein for family members. Perhaps these males just preferred the lighter cleaning work to the hard labor in the fields every day.
When a small boy in Tonga shows an inclination to like dancing, or housework, he is quickly called a fakafafine and it is difficult to change people's minds about it. Their mothers or grandmothers dote on them and encourage that activity. They usually opt out of it when they begin secondary school. The others enjoy the attention it gets them and so they act out to get even more.
Many gay people claim they were born that way, but in Tonga, it may be more of a choice and a nurturing that helped them to develop their feminine tendencies. Many of the fakaleitis of Tonga end up married with children and even end up in government or in businesses.
Much of this information was taken from a paper written by Kerry E. James at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
One yearly event that usually takes place in the capital town of Nuku'alofa, Tonga, is a Fakaleiti Beauty Pageant. They create an exaggerated femininity as they parade in their elegant gowns. They paint their nails and faces and ornament themselves to amuse themselves and others. Amazingly, many of them can wear high heels and exotic dresses, dance and sing as well as any female. Many of them have feminized their own names. For the most part they stay out of trouble, but those that rock the boat (so to speak) are dealt with usually with the fists.
I do not in any way judge these Tongan fakaleitis, for it seems in their custom that it is acceptable and even encouraged. When we first moved to Tonga, I was very curious about them, but have learned to appreciate their skills and their place in a friendly society.