Miss Galaxy Pageant blazes a trail for acceptance of trans women in Tonga
Pageant has grown into a key platform for promoting LGBT rights and raising awareness of HIV in the remote Pacific island nation
As a result of widespread social stigma, discrimination, violence and abuse, transgender people are often pushed to the margins of society and are unable to access the social services, including health services, that they need. As in other parts of the world, these conditions are present in the Western Pacific — including the small island nation of Tonga.
Since 1993, the Miss Galaxy Pageant has become a trailblazer for breaking down barriers in society and building acceptance of transgender women, or Leitis, in Tonga.
We recently sat down with Joey Joleen Mataele, the Executive Director of the Tonga Leitis Association and Director of the Miss Galaxy Pageant, and Angela Patolo Fineanganofo, the HIV/STI National Programme Coordinator at the Ministry of Health, to talk about this year’s Pageant and the impact it has had and continues to have in raising awareness of HIV and trans women rights and equality in the Pacific island nation. The Pageant, held 17–18 July 2019, was supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP).
Joey Joleen Mataele, Executive Director of the Tonga Leitis Association and Director of the Miss Galaxy Pageant
A pageant as a platform for advocating for rights and HIV awareness
When we started the Tonga Leitis Association in 1992, we didn’t have resources to fund the association and some of our projects, especially our HIV awareness programmes. We had to find something that would resource the work that we wanted to do.
So, we started the Miss Galaxy Pageant in 1993 as a platform to advocate for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people — especially the trans community who were the ones that started the committee behind the pageant — and as a way to raise funds.
When we started in 1993, we saw that it not only brought people to the pageant through humor and using the talents of our girls, but it was a way of showing the talents that they have in designing creations, their sense of creativity and what they do best.
But most of all, it was to actually educate our people on what HIV and AIDS is all about and how important it is to know your status. And how important it is to educate not just our LGBT community, but to educate our general public.
When the first case came to Tonga, we were named ‘AIDS’. We were called by that name. So, not just being labeled, but we were stigmatized and marginalized.
So that’s why we thought it was a better way of voicing our concerns.
Having Miss Galaxy is a way for us to give back to our own community. Not just using the platform for advocating for full rights, but educating people on how to look after themselves, to improve their well-being.
The pageant is also one of our association’s biggest platforms for our condom promotion campaigns. This is the time of the year when we distribute the highest amount of condoms.
Within the pageant, there are several categories for competitions. Each year they change, depending on what theme we choose. But one of the categories that will always be staying since we started is the condom creation and the red creation because they are dedicated to the work that we do on HIV, and of course remembering those that have passed away from AIDS, rape and abuse, violence, that has affected our lives.
Every year we come up with new ideas. And it has become one of the biggest events here in town. Everybody looks forward to it because it’s fun. It’s humorous. It’s just the environment, the vibe of the pageant, it’s very entertaining.
Building acceptance — What’s changed?
Compared to 27 years ago when we first started, or shall we say 30 years ago when we had the first AIDS patient in Tonga — it has changed a lot.
When we first introduced the HIV education and the awareness programmes in the rural areas, the people we would meet would turn around and say, “Why do you come here? We are churchgoers. We’re home-based people. Why don’t you go to town with the Leitis and all that, you know, where all the sex workers and all those nightclub people are. Why don’t you go and educate them?”
And then we had to show them the data that we have. And it’s not really the people who are going out every day that are being affected. It’s the people at home that are affected.
So, it has changed a lot. Especially with all the educational materials and the awareness programmes that not just the Tonga Leitis Association but the Tonga Family Health Association and the Ministry of Health have done, the public has been educated.
The amount of information that has been passed on through Miss Galaxy has been tremendously outrageous. But outrageous in a good way — people are listening, because when we are onstage, we keep reminding people how important it is to look after themselves. To know your status, and not only that but to educate the people that HIV is a virus. You’re not going to die, it’s treatable. Of course, there’s no cure yet. But you still have a life to live. And for us, really, it’s a life change.
Of course, we care about the majority of the general public. But at the same time, we’re very concerned about our community. That they are safe.
So, we can be the heroes to advocate for a better lifestyle, and acceptance.
Fragrances of different communities — this year’s pageant
The theme of this year’s Miss Galaxy is “Fragrances of different communities”. It is about the work that we do with other communities, not just the LGBT community, but every single community. It includes the Women and Children’s Crisis Center, all the NGOs that we work together with. Because if the work that you do empowers people, that becomes a fragrance, and it’s a beautiful fragrance when you work together to achieve a goal.
One of the activities that we are doing this year is the Health Expo. There will be booths with information materials and actual HIV testing, which will be running right through the whole pageant up until night time. And we have a booth on non-communicable diseases.
We will also have booths on youth, climate change, recycling, alcohol and drugs, mental health, and on anti-violence towards women. There are six categories this year, and there is a competition amongst them.
The categories for this year’s pageant are the condom creation, red creation, own-choice talent, cultural talent, galaxy wear, and rainbow creation which is of course because this is the month of pride.
Further change is needed
What I would like to see from this pageant is change to the attitudes of those people that we haven’t been able to reach yet. I’m not going to name names, but it would be a big achievement if we can educate those who are in power, the decision makers, to explain to them that we are part of this community, we are part of this country and we have a right to voice our concerns.
At the end of the day, no one’s going to chase us away from here. We are community members and we work for this country. We pay tax for this country. So we should have the right to voice our concerns and to be recognized for who we are, you know, not because of what we wear or what we look like every day, but the ability to do things for others. And reach other people’s lives.
I think if everybody is in the same boat, then the fragrance of this thing will be a marvelous fragrance.
Angela Patolo Fineanganofo, HIV/STI National Programme Coordinator at the Ministry of Health
Collaborating to make a difference
I would say this is collaboration, a team effort, at its best.
All three of the sub-recipients of the programme are working together to make sure that our HIV testing services are there and running. I’m so looking forward to it.
Tonight and tomorrow night will make a difference because all of us are here supporting the girls and the Tonga Leitis Association with what they’re doing.
From a programme perspective, this is a platform that allows us to advocate for the programme. It also allows us to provide space for education. I’m pretty sure that our booth with the Tonga Family Health team as well as the Ministry of Health team will be able to provide information to whoever will come through the booth tonight.
It also brings the community together. Not just for the fun of being part of the pageant, but many people are eager to learn more. For some people it will be something new to see the testing happening. This is the very first time that we introduce the HIV and STIs screening programme to go together with the Galaxy Pageant.
Usually when we go out to do awareness raising, we’re more focused and targeted on a certain community. Here, our services are not just for the LGBT community, but we are open to the general public.
Most times we will only wait for people to come into the service delivery points. But here we are actually going out to the public and providing the services within an event that is happening that will bring a lot of people.
So, I’m looking forward for a good outcome.
And like I said, there will always be space for improvement for future events. But the Ministry of Health team is 100% helping out and supporting the Tonga Leitis Association with this event this year.
The activities were supported through the Multi-Country Western Pacific Integrated HIV/TB Programme — a regional grant supported by the Global Fund that strengthens control of HIV and TB in 11 Pacific island countries: Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. UNDP is the programme’s Principal Recipient. In Tonga, the national partners are the Tonga Leitis Association, the Tonga Family Health Association and the Ministry of Health. To learn more, visit our website.
The text in this story is verbatim transcriptions of interviews conducted on the sidelines of the 2019 Miss Galaxy Pageant, but has been edited for length and clarity.