Gender is defined by sexual roles, not sexual objects, but never so much as it is in Tonga. Men go to the bush, farm, make the umu for cooking, build houses, drink kava, mow the grass, do household repairs, fish, drive and preach. Women weave, cook, clean, sweep, take care of children, do the laundry, and iron. Tongans have big families, in large part to help with these various roles. When I was in Ha’apai, if my host father was not home, it fell to the eight-year-old boy to go to the bush and collect root crops for dinner or to fetch coconuts. The eldest daughter took care of the infants as much if not more than the mother. You are either a man or a woman, and must do your corresponding man or woman roles. If a man is needed to do a woman’s activities, it does not fit in these strict definitions of gender. A third gender was conveniently created by situations when there is not an even gender distribution in the family—the fakaleti.
Traditionally, when parents did not have any female children to help with household chores, they would choose one of the male children to fulfill those duties and the child worked like a girl and was considered a fakaleti, a label that directly translates as “like a lady.” Such a term did not equate with homosexuality necessarily. Fakaletis were expected to fulfill the role of women in the home they grew up in, but were still presumed to marry a woman once reaching adulthood. It was not a stigmatized gender until recently, when Christian missionaries began equating fakaletis with homosexuals, determining them equal and thus sinful. Parents no longer choose their child to be a fakaleti in most cases; such a choice would go against God’s order and now holds a tremendous stigma. It is the child who now decides to fill that roll, but what is crazy is the child usually must decide at the age of three to five. Obviously many children make that decision as the evidence of large Tongan men in miniskirts and fake boobs attests, but how do so many know their sexuality at such a young age? Now that the association has been made, fakaletis are now pretty universally considered the Tongan homosexuals.
Fakaletis act more like western stereotypes of women then Tongan women. Whereas traditional Tongan women will wear long skirts and shirts covering their shoulders, fakaletis dress scandalously with short skirts and stockings, swinging their hips as they walk. They do have to work on that facial hair—far too often they seem like cross-dressing rugby players with lipstick and five o’clock shadows—but so do many Tongan women, so maybe it is a purposeful fashion statement. Fakaletis are now widely considered the homosexuals in Tonga, although they would probably be categorized as trans-gendered in the United States. What is interesting is that when it comes to sexual acts, they are not the only gay or queer people based on western standards. In the west if you kiss, have sex, or even fantasize about someone of the same gender, you are considered gay, queer, or at least bi-curious. The actual sexual act does not determine the orientation, but instead it is a question of your sexual object and that of your partner. Fakaletis in Tonga, on the other hand, are simply bottoms. For a man to have sex with a fakaleti does not make him gay as he is having sex with someone considered to be fulfilling the woman role, but this also means that to be a top, still a man having sex with a person with male sexual objects, does not equate being gay. In Tonga, sexuality is explicitly about the sexual role, and since tops have sex with men who are “like a lady,” it is OK, even straight.
Sodomy is illegal however in Tonga with laws based in Christian dogma, although obviously it occurs. Because of the spread of Christian doctrine about sexuality, fakaletis have become stigmatized like sodomy itself, causing most to move out of the small villages to the more cosmopolitan and international centers of Nuku’alofa and Neiafu where fakaleti communities exist and provide a pseudo safe haven. Those same Christian morals that made being a fakaleti into a sin also ensure that all expressions of sexuality remain a taboo. No public affection is allowed between a man and woman, let alone a man and man. Even if a couple is married, public kissing or holding hands is considered ostentatious and disrespectful. If a girl slept over at a guy’s house, rumors about their wicked sex life would spread throughout the village like wild fire. If a man slept over at a woman’s house, she instantly becomes a whore. (The weirdest thing is that the biggest taboo is two siblings of the opposite sex sleeping under the same roof, but discussing why that may originally be is just as gross as the presumption that would make such a situation taboo.) In Tonga, simply texting someone on the phone makes the person your “moa”—your boyfriend or girlfriend—and thus if a man was to date a man, it would actually be easier to sleep together, as two men sleeping in the same room or same bed or same floor is normal. Two men holding hands in public is even normal as it is not considered sexual. Fakaletis are probably the only people who are at all publicly sexual. They dance up close to the people with whom they are dancing, and walk and talk flamboyantly and suggestively. They still act pretty tame based on western standards, but they are the only people where one’s sexual being is even mildly suggested publicly.
Lesbians do not exist in any visible or talked about way in Tonga. There are not women dressed as men fulfilling the men’s role, but one would presume they are out there, somewhere, if natural laws of humans are taken into consideration. And Tongans do not understand the idea of bisexuality, as a Peace Corps staff made very clear during training. “Tongans have just gotten used to the idea of gays,” she said eloquently, “but they still do not understand the bisexuals,” as if it were a new and unique spice arriving on the latest ship from the New World. In Tonga, it’s pretty much Fakaletis, or straight men and women. There are no gray areas. Performing more than one role is traditionally unheard of.
The King of Tonga is presumed by many in the populace to be gay. This may just be because he is not married. He does have a child out of wedlock meaning he has to have had sex with at least one woman, and he is restricted by the fact that he has to marry someone of royal blood which practically would necessitate a family member as there are not that many Tongan royals, but maybe all that means is he is not gay, he just feels restricted. Or who knows, he could be that impossible to understand bisexual category? Or maybe Tongans began to say he’s gay because he is the first king not to fulfill his societally prescribed role held to be of utmost importance—starting a traditional family? Or maybe he is gay? He is not a fakaleti, or at least does not act so publicly, although I really wish he would. Imagine a cross-dressing monarch in a mini-skirt and ample bosom showing up for his kingly duties at church or when foreign dignitaries arrive. The fact that rumors spread about the king being gay without him being a fakaleti shows that ideas of sexuality are becoming slightly more modern. The fact that people believe he could play a man’s role—the king—and still be a homosexual does not fit into the clearly defined gender roles Tongans have held onto for so long. Maybe it means mindsets are changing, but there is one thing that is clear. In this Christian society, fakaletis, bisexuals, lesbians, gays, queer people however one wants to define them, are certainly going straight to hell. And it’s going to be a big gay party.