10 Jun “Be You, Be Comfortable, Be Beautiful.” Pasifika LGBTQI Own Voices Series

“My greatest challenge was being comfortable with myself and learning to love myself for whom “God” created me to be…”

This is the fourth in the #OwnVoices Series here on my blog where I share the stories of Pasifika LGBTQI from around the world. (Keeping in mind  that the terms LGBTQI are western concepts and do not always ‘fit’ our Pasifika  often non-binary cultural understandings of gender and sexuality.)    Phineas Hartson wrote to us from Sydney Australia, Princess Arianna Auva’a in American Samoa, and Penehuro Williams from Vegas USA.  It takes courage to share our stories in a public forum and I’m grateful for all those who are willing to participate in this series. Today’s guest is Leka Heimuli in Salt Lake Utah, our very first Tongan in the series! I met Leka on my 2015 author visit to Utah, she was instrumental in organizing the SLCC Pacific Islander students association events and official welcome for me, via her role as the then President of the PUA club. I’m thrilled to have them on the blog.

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Alláh-u-Abhá, Malo E Lelei, Faka Alofa Lahi Atu and a big “Talofa Lava”! My name is Tevita Uanga Heimuli but everyone knows me as Leka or Leksi (Beyonce to some and Shakira to some LOL). I prefer the pronouns he/his, she/her/hers or them/they/theirs. I am the oldest child of six and my parents are Sione Kaihau Heimuli of Vava’u, Tonga and Soanataake Malieta Pole-Heimuli of Vaini, Tongatapu. I was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and I am 31 years of age. My religious or spiritual background is Baha’i. I was raised up in the Baha’i Faith (it’s a legitmate religion..lol) in the great of state of Utah, USA where some people believe “only Mormons and white people ”exist – which I find hilarious. All of my family is Baha’i.  I have so much profound love, respect and passion for my religion/spirituality and what it has taught me. Currently I am finishing my studies at the Salt Lake Community College and transferring to the University of Utah. I’m also in  an internship with the LGBT Resource Center at the University Of Utah. I am majoring in social work and minoring in performing arts. My career goals with social work, is to work closely with our Pacific Islander community and the LGBTQI community. My Ultimate dream job would be to work for the United Nations or be an actor!!

About fakaleiti…

Fakaleiti’s in Tongan culture is considered the third gender. I didn’t know that at first and from my perspective growing up here in the USA,  the phrase “fakaleiti” is a term you will hear from time to time used and mostly referred to males who act very feminine and dress in women’s clothes, wear makeup or “act” like a girl  and even refer to themselves as girls or women. Fakaleiti, literally translates to “like a lady,” or “ways of a woman” They take on the certain roles of women in the Tongan society, being the care takers of their family, kainga (aiga), cultural educators, choreographers, designers and all around entertainers.

I realized at a young age that I was different; I didn’t know what it was. But I knew there something that set me aside from the other boys. It wasn’t until me and one of my girl cousins as kids were sitting in her room, listening to Mariah Carey and trying to sing her notes, although we were off tune, I turned to her and said, “You know what, I am supposed to be like you! I am supposed to be a girl, and not a boy.” To this day, I still remember that, being young, and just  coming out of the closet and owning it.  It is true what they say about kids being innocent and just flat out saying the truth, and that was my moment.

10440207_10152751809711917_5096726489574518374_nFakaleiti in the USA…

I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA.  Fakaleiti was a term that was used in a negative manner. For me, every time I heard the term uttered, it made me cringe and angry on the inside because I did not know any history behind the term. Some years later in my teenage years, things started to shift when I met a dear family friend who is like an aunty to me, turns out she was a fakaleiti. Through that auntie, I met other beautiful souls and started becoming more exposed to fakaleiti’s and it made me feel more comfortable to be myself and express myself authentically. In my opinion and I don’t speak for all, I feel that fakaleitis are accepted and not accepted in certain aspects of the Tongan community in Utah. I mean, you can’t miss us, we are the life of party, center of attention and we are fierce and beautiful beings. In all honesty, it depends on how open families and others are about fakaleitis as people.  You have those, that love and adore us, then you have those that just don’t like us, and strongly believe we can be cured, healed from being “SICK.”  Then you have those people who are strictly religious and use that vigorously

Many assume incorrectly, that fakaleiti is the same as gay, but it’s totally different. Again going back to translation of the term fakaleiti is “like a lady or ways of a woman.” Some Tongans  use fakaleiti as a term for  gay and categorizing it in a way that is familiar, where we can comprehend it.  Perhaps because there’s no official Tongan term for ‘gay’! (That I know of.) You can use other phrases like “manako tangata!” meaning “likes boys” or “boy crazy” But even with that catchphrase; there is a whole different implication to it.  I think  in our beautiful vibrant Polynesian culture, fa’afafine/fakaleitis/mahu’s are much more culturally accepted, respected and they are a part of the society. With a gay man it varies depending on how open and willing loved ones are with that individual and also how society views them.

About living authentically…

At first, I identified as a gay man.  But it really didn’t feel authentic to me. It was later, when I learned more about the term fakaleiti that I have come to embrace it and I identify as it.  Even though at times, people would use the term in a derogatory manner to belittle somebody. My Family was my source and my strength and support through some of the difficult times. But some of them did make it hard for me growing up because I wasn’t “MAN’ enough!” or “I need to be a man and do it like a man.” Like where? How? In the beginning I know  both my parents did not like it, somewhere in their mind they hoped it’s a phase and I will grow out of it. As time went on they started seeing that I haven’t changed in that aspect and started being more open to it.  My greatest challenge was being comfortable with myself and learning to love myself for whom “God” created me to be. It took me to attend College at the age of 20 to start realizing and loving myself and living authentically as possible. The other big challenge, I did not want to disappoint my family in being gay/fakaleiti. But I soon realized that if I wanted to be happy, I need to embrace myself. My supporters are my parents, my sisters, brothers, aunts and some uncles.  But what helped me embrace my sexuality more, was having really good and loving friends, who saw me for who I was and loved me regardless.

13417570_10154110889536917_4587160263243972165_nAbout being a student/community leader for Pasifika…

I learned my leadership skills from Tyra Banks, because she is fierce!!! Lol. Okay, on a serious note! I learned my leadership skills from my parents. Because without them, I don‘t know where I would be at this moment in my life. I’ve learned that life is going to be life and we have the power to change it and make it better. But we have to be willing to put the work in to empower, encourage others to be the best they can be.

About dance, choreography, culture…

I can’t tell you, how much, I love to dance! Dancing is my ecstasy!! I come from a family of performers who are also very musically talented as well. I learned dance traditions from my parents teaching my sisters at an early age. I caught on real quick and fell in love with Tongan and Polynesian dancing.  Dance has given me an outlet to express myself and be creative using my body to illustrate the story that the music is telling. Also with dance, it has kept me connected to my roots, the past, grounded in the present and enthusiastic about what the future will bring. Dance has encouraged the importance of a loving nature, respect and reverence and humility.

10427261_10152749517256917_5269796189219072785_nAbout PRIDE…

For the past 3 years, I have participated in Salt Lake City’s Pride Parade and Festival. The first time is when I was competing for Miss City Weekly back in the summer of 2014. Miss City Weekly is a pageant that highlights the craziest, outrageous drag personalities in all of Utah. According to one of the organizers who happen to be Polynesian (Samoan), I was one of the first “Polynesian” queens to come and represent on the Miss City Weekly Stage which was really cool. Although I didn’t win the contest but the experience was awesome and I definitely left an impression on the audience who was in attendance. Then last year and this year, I have marched in the Pride with Salt Lake Community College (#inclusivitySLCC). During the parade I am on cloud 9, dancing and rejoicing. It’s just all about celebrating life and living it authentically. All I can say is it fills my heart with joy to see people who support LGBTQ+ community and come out to show love and support for their loved ones.

My family is very supportive of me and my activism for LGBTQ+, but they are very cautious for my safety.

13312724_10154107000616917_3143760204847654949_nWords for other Pasifika LGBTQI…

My personal motto is, Be you, Be comfortable, Be beautifulWe all need to be comfortable in our own skin regardless of what others might think or say. Love yourself, know your flaws and limitations and embrace them. Let it be your guide and not hinder you from achieving your goals. Don’t let others have the satisfaction of defining you. You set the standards and live by it. Be Beautiful: Treat others the way you want to be treated and take care of yourself first and foremost. Live authentically with dignity, reverence and love. Lastly, always surround yourself with positive and uplifting people who will influence you to be your best and those who bring positive vibes into your life. Be you: meaning, be you to the best of your ability, live and love authentically as you. Keep in mind that you don’t need to put on this disguise or mask or be anyone else. Just be you and own it.

Words for parents of LGBTQI youth…

Not to be fie poto (fia poko)!! I want the parents to keep in mind that there is this stigma that being gay or anything that is not the binary of a female and male is just a phase in life and eventually the youth will come to their senses and “act” right. But that’s not the case here. Parents, please listen to understand and not listen to react. Simple as that! I believe if parents can take this step, it would definitely help ease a lot of tension and it can be a stepping stone for families to effectively communicate and for LGBTQI youth to have a sense of trust, stability and a sense of a safe place

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