As politically fueled bigotry, fear and violence divide our troubled nation and the world, many are searching for ways to navigate the turbulent waters of the Trump Era. Joey Joleen Mataele, the leader of an intrepid group of transgender women in the deeply conservative Kingdom of Tonga, suggests, “Our Pacific ways of doing things are more genuine, more loving ways of doing things.”

Her comment is directed at her fellow leitis, as gender and sexual minorities are known in Tonga, but could just as easily be in response to the Trump administration’s latest assault on transgender people in the U.S.

Last month, it was reported that Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services is pushing for a reinterpretation of existing civil rights law that would define gender as “either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.”

The proposal would erase existing protections for transgender people, who identify with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, from federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace, housing, schools, and health care.

Joey Joleen Mataele, dancing at a royal event in the Kingdom of Tonga. From “Leitis in Waiting.” Qwaves LLC

In effect, Trump, motivated by his Christian fundamentalist base, is denying the very existence of transgender people. Three years after Time magazine declared a “transgender tipping point,” conservatives want to force Caitlin Jenner back in to the shadows and return to being Bruce.

Joey is no stranger to this type of backsliding. Leitis have long been integral to Tongan society, especially respected for their role in serving the royal family. But their status has been eroded by a recent influx of U.S.-funded televangelists who have brought the harsh judgments and incendiary rhetoric of Trump and his base to their small Pacific Island nation, even threatening to resurrect colonial-era laws that criminalize LGBT lives and would subject them to arrest, whipping, and imprisonment.

Turning Point

As documented in our new film “Leitis in Waiting,” the turning point for Joey and the leitis occurred last year when Joey had had enough of the threats, and announced that the Tonga Leitis Association would hold a national consultation on human rights rather than the entertaining annual Miss Galaxy Pageant. Their approach for this consultation and now all of their community-building work is talanoa — a method of reconciliation known across the Pacific that relies on the respectful sharing of truths in communal dialogue.

Telling our stories without concealment is telling the truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God,” says Joey, herself a devout Catholic. “We have been able to use that methodology in our advocacy because we do not believe in just staging rallies, or making loud noises. We sit down with elected officials and church leaders and actually talk to them, giving them the real picture of what’s happening to our community.”

The results of this approach are notable. A prominent member of parliament has proposed that gender and sexual minorities be included in Tonga’s existing Family Protection Act, members of the Royal Family are speaking out publicly to show their support, and the Catholic Cardinal of Tonga has made pleas for all in this tight-knit nation to become “more loving, gentle, and tenderhearted.” A campaign for full decriminalization has even been launched.

Could this approach work here in Hawaii and across the United States, particularly when it comes to the divisiveness that dominates current political discourse? It might seem unlikely, but there’s no way to know until more sincere and concerted efforts are made.

Similar to talanoa, the traditional Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness known as hooponopono should be our guide, inspiring us all to reach out across disagreements in our communities to talk story with one another in ways that help forge creative new paths forward.

An opportunity to see how it is done in Tonga, and to talanoa about the Pacific way of doing things with Joey Mataele herself, takes place in Honolulu on Saturday, Nov. 10, at 6 p.m., when “Leitis in Waiting” screens in the Hawaii International Film Festival.

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About the Authors

  • Joe Wilson
    Award-winning documentary director/producer Joe Wilson got involved in documentary filmmaking through his social activism on human rights issues. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional organizing and advocacy, he picked up a camera with hopes of reaching broader audiences with stories that would inform and compel people to act. In addition to Kumu Hina, Wilson's filmmaking work include Otros Amores and Out in the Silence.
  • Dean Hamer
    Dean Hamer is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, New York Times Book of the Year author and NIH scientist emeritus. He formed Qwaves with partner Joe Wilson to produce insightful and provocative documentaries about often overlooked social issues. Their films have been supported by Sundance, ITVS and Pacific Islanders in Communications, won awards at over 100 film festivals across the world, and used as outreach and educational tools by a wide range of community and educational organizations.