Portrait of an activist: Cruella Oshtara

Bullying and violence in schools is a big problem for the leitis, which forces them to leave school and affects their mental health.

Cruella Oshtara is a 37-year-old indigenous trans-activist from Tonga. As a ‘leiti’—someone born male who identifies as a woman—she fights for the rights of the LGBTI community. She serves as vice president of the Tonga Leitis Association, pressing for the reform of antiquated and discriminatory laws, and leading a national anti-bullying campaign. She also runs an innovative program on care for aging LGBTI people.

Cruella and her team at the Tonga Leitis Association have called for the repeal of colonial-era laws on sodomy, which criminalise same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults. They also aim to repeal a discriminatory prostitution provision that specifically targets leitis.

Cruella faces many challenges in advocating for people with non-heteronormative sexual orientation and gender identities in Tonga. First,  some religious groups are fueling a hostile environment for LGBTI people. The Pentecostal Church, in particular, has been vocal in condemning people with non-heteronormative sexual orientation and gender identities.

Social media, she explains, is being used as a platform by religious groups to perpetuate hate and hostility toward the LGBTI community. Aggressive comments targeting LGBTI people, like ‘you’re going to hell’ and ‘can’t wait to see you burn in hell,’ have become common on social media. She emphasises that the constant hate and threats of violence affect leitis’ mental health and overall well-being.

In general, she feels that harassment and bullying of people with diverse sexual and gender identities is on the rise. Such abuse is common in high schools, she said. In one case in 2018, a 13-year-old leiti student was badly beaten up by other students and she decided to drop out of school. Cruella says her association supports students who are forced to leave school due to bullying and violence sparked by their sexual orientation and gender identity. Because of a shortage of funding, however, the support her organization can provide is limited. 

Cruella also says that elderly LGBTI people have a lack of support services, and that many withdraw from their communities and become isolated. They face mental health problems, an increasingly serious challenge to living a normal life.

Cruella wants the Tongan government to repeal laws that stigmatize and increase hostility towards LGBTI people, and to take urgent measures to address the bullying of young leitis in high school, as well as violence against them.