• ‘Leitis in Waiting’s Joey Joleen Mataele. (SBS)Source: SBS
Meet Joey Mataele, the leader of an intrepid group of 'Leitis' (Indigenous transgender women) who are fighting a rising tide of religious fundamentalism and intolerance in Tonga.
Kate L Munro

4 Mar 2019 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2020 - 10:14 AM

Joey Joleen Mataele radiates a staunch and unrelenting presence of love and acceptance for everyone; as cliché as this sounds, it is a deep truth that is obvious to all who engage with the gentle Tongan fakaleiti or leiti (meaning a transgender woman or person like a lady in the Tongan language).

Ms Mataele is both the striking and unrelenting force behind multi-award-winning feature-length documentary Leitis in Waiting; directed and produced by Joe Wilson, Sisi’uno Helu, Dean Hamer, and Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu.

Mataele is dedicated to human rights and the rights of her fellow leitis and this film passionately expresses the lives and plight of a vicarious, open and giving people. Leitis in Waiting is both a powerful and provocative documentary film taking a striking look at a year in the life of Joey Joleen Mataele.

The voices of the leitis are staunch and direct yet calm with an articulate softness.

Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom that encapsulates over 170 small South Pacific islands, is unique in that it has never technically been colonised and has always ‘governed itself.’ This is despite being consistently exposed to outside influences and pressures including organised religions and political persuasions. These outside influences have interfered with a strong and continuous pacific island culture; one of calm, acceptance and inclusiveness.

“We still keep our culture, we still keep our language. We are very proud of who we are,” Ms Mataele says in the film.

The leitis have long had a ‘place’ in Tongan culture, particularly with regard to large social events, where they will host and serve the community and additionally with regard to the Tongan Royal family where, at official royal gatherings the leitis are a vital part of ensuring the smooth running of significant ceremonies.

Yet despite the leitis’ important roles within Tongan society; abhorrent discrimination, bullying and consistent judgments are thrown their way, often by a group of evangelists of evangelism; a preaching religion that’s only come to the ancient Polynesian community in recent years due to globalisation. It’s also particularly soul destroying when this abuse sometimes comes from their own families.

“What is my purpose in life? Why was I made like this? Why can’t I be the person everyone wants me to be?” Mataele says as she reflects on the inner torture she used to face daily. 

She speaks about gaining her truth and strength in the film.

“When I put myself together, I got strong. I will be someone. I will never bend my life to anyone’s policy,” she laments.

Mataele, who co-founded the Tongan Leitis Association in 1992 with a royal patron who is none other than Princess Salote Lupepau’u Tuita of Tonga and further spearheaded the establishment of the island’s now well-known Miss Galexy Queen Pageant, consistently fights for the rights of letis and all LGBTQ community members, by insisting on on-going discussions and education with those that judge and vilify them.

“I don’t [ever] want leitis to feel like Tonga is not a place for them,” Mataele says.

“I think the majority of these evangelists follow whatever comes from their funders and their mindsets are all fixed with one belief,” she told NITV.

Leitis in Waiting was launched last year garnishing an overwhelming response worldwide winning multiple awards including the ‘Audience Award’ at the Festival of Commonwealth Film 2018 in London and the ‘Best Documentary’ award at the Twist Film Festival in Seattle, USA.

Since the airing of this phenomenal documentary Mataele says there has been “a lot of attitude change, especially with our Tongan community overseas and everywhere we’ve screened the movie.”

“We’ve had people responding well with positive comments,” Mataele tells NITV.

“We’ve shown it twice here in Tonga, and we haven’t heard one single negative comment from the public,” Mataele said.

Growing up close with the Royal family of Tonga, Mataele says that their support is paramount to the leitis’ cause.

“It means so much [to us] as [their support] cuts down the barriers and they are also very vocal on our issues,” she said.

Mataele, who is also a talented entertainer and stunning singer, is a staunchly brave and articulate soul who does an immense amount of public speaking and has travelled abroad promoting both the lets’ cause and the film.

Mataele tells NITV that the Tonga Leitis Association is focusing on legislation changes in Tonga this year and are currently working on the Female impersonation and cross-dressing bill. And as for Joey Joleen Mataele, there is a melodic and soulful collection of music to look forward to.

“I plan to finally release my first album!” she says.

The creation and participation in this film has been hugely cathartic for Mataele who tells NITV she feels ‘a whole huge burden has been lifted from my shoulders.’

“I feel our voices have finally been heard.”


Leitis in Waiting airs Saturday, 22 February at 7.30pm on NITV. Catch up is available after broadcast on SBS On Demand