Lesbians Non-Existent in Tonga?
January 15, 2013 Leave a comment
– Peace Corps Volunteer
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 firstname.lastname@example.org