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The Real Worry About Izzy

It’s a matter of life or death

In May 2021 Tonga was rocked by the death of Polikalepo Kefu, one of the country’s leading LGBTQ+ activists. ‘Poli’ supported the LGBTQ+ community and educated on homosexuality, advocacy and HIV as president of the Tongan Leitis Association before being brutally murdered on a beach near his home in Lapaha.

Leitis is one Tongan word under which the community is gathered, “a comfort word for the LGBTQ+ community,” as the association’s founder Joey Joleen Mataele explains. “We just call everybody leiti, whether you’re trans, a lesbian or however you identify.”

An outpouring of grief gripped large swathes of the nation and stretched to all areas of the world. In Nuku’alofa’s basilica crowds gathered for a candle lit vigil; with mourners clad in black filled the room, interspersed with those in the traditional ta’ovala dress. Tongan authorities dropped covid restrictions that limited indoor gatherings to 50 people as people flocked to mourn and celebrate the life of Kefu.

Poli had been influential in leading a consultation with government leaders in 2016, in an attempt to repeal government laws that mean cross dressing or sodomy could lead 10 year imprisonment. Phylesha Brown-Acton believes these laws empower people in their mistreatment and hatred of the LGBTQ+ community in Tonga. “It gives people the permission to further treat leiti worse than dogs. Tonga has a dog act. There’s absolutely nothing for the leiti.”

The laws and attitudes towards the leiti community can largely be traced back to the introduction of Christianity to the Pacific region in the 18th Century. Ships not only brought missionaries and religion to the islands, but bigoted views that transformed the culture that has previously been accepting - and even celebratory - of leitis.

Very slowly - second team props in open play slowly - these invasive western ideas have been broken down like a cliff face battered by waves. Some churches have began to accept leitis into their congregation and even allowed some to sit in church in clothes that would previously have been forbidden. It’s been three centuries, but the tide is changing.

Among the out pouring of grief at Poli’s death was Tongan princess Frederica Tuita who took to social media and spoke at the funeral about the warm, caring friend she had lost. Tuita also spoke about what Tonga could and should do as a country and as a community.

Now, Tonga stands on a precipice. Something that could change the country forever. An acceptance that would not make it something new, but return it to the beliefs it once held strong. A country accepting of all her children.

Like Olympic swimmer Amini Fonua who continues to represent Tonga at the highest level. When asked about being openly gay in a country where it was illegal he said it was somewhat split.

“50%of people are very encouraging and welcoming and then the other 50% would really prefer prefer it to be non-existent." However, he has a belief that the younger generations in the country are more. That acceptance he believes will grow with time. He told NBC, “I know the royal family is trying to elevate LGBT rights, but it’s certainly an uphill battle. You have politicians and church leaders telling you, ‘You are worthy of death.’ What a challenge that is to overcome.”

He’s also very clear on the importance of visible figures for young LGBTQ+ people. "Especially by our Polynesian-Pacific Island youth. It's still in many parts of the Pacific, very difficult to be openly gay. If anybody sees a little bit of themselves in my journey, I love that because that's kind of what I'd hoped for when I was a kid growing up. Just to see a lot of people coming out and paving the way is really important, especially for young sportspeople. There's a power in presence for sure."

That’s why this squad announcement jars even more than it would have.

On Friday Toutai Kefu announced the Tonga squad for the Pacific Nations Cup and the final stretch on the road to France 2023. Dotted amongst the regular names were new, but very familiar ones. Former All Black internationals plying their trade in the Gallagher Premiership in the form of Charles Piutau and Munster bound Malakai Fekitoa added a level of talent and excitement. One name however stood out from the crowd.

There can be no doubting Israel Folau’s ability or skill. When not being carried like a sack of spuds by a rampaging George North, Folau has proven that he is one hell of an athlete. Folau’s try scoring record is ridiculous, his pace ludicrous and his leap something salmon’s can only dream of. A triple code sportsman who will - without doubt - add something to Tonga on the pitch, but if anything poster boy status only worsens the issue with Folau.

Even before his now infamous Instagram post, Izzy had previous for his views on homosexuality. He had vocally stated his opposition to gay marriage and stated that he believed gay people would go to hell unless they repented. Even after the Instagram post that included “Homosexuals” in a list list of people whom hell awaits, before doubling down with a comparison to drug addicts. Rugby Australia - and some of his teammates - were appalled at his views and Folau’s contract was terminated; kicking off a process that included a drawn out court case and an embarrassing GoFundMe saga.

Now his return to union and inclusion into the Tonga national team reads like an acceptance of his views, if not an endorsement. Another permission for the further mistreatment of leiti that Brown-Acton warned of.

Despite the two former All Blacks in the squad, Folau is easily the most recognisable face. For a young Pacific Islander the message would seem clear, homophobia is acceptable. Even worse for a young islander struggling with their sexuality in a predominately Christian country; the message to repent for being yourself, to suppress the real you and conform is at best damaging and at worst deadly.

Even in the UK - where laws and religious views are generally more tolerant - the figures around mental health and suicide in young members of the LGBTQ+ community are staggering. Research from charity Just Like Us show they are three times more likely to self-harm and twice as likely to contemplate suicide. Research also suggests that suicide attempts are three times higher in the LGBTQ+ community than in heterosexual youths.

A large part of the issues faced by young LGBTQ+ people are created by a lack of acceptance by their families and society. Transgender youth who were supported by their parents, had a 93% lower suicide attempt rate.

The key to keeping these young people happy, safe and alive is to create a community in which they can live freely as themselves. A community that Tonga was taking huge strides towards. A community that could be eroded by creating an idol from a bigot.

So, this week, as the homophobes - and Courtney Lawes - crawl out of the woodwork like the bugs that they are and question why an atheist would worry about being threatened with hell? The answer is that I’m not.

But I am worried for the people being damaged in their home towns, damaging themselves in their bedrooms or being murdered on the beach for being themselves. For those being suppressed by our dated views that have infiltrated their families, their friends, their communities and even their own minds. For those fighting to balance their religion and sexuality at a time they are still learning who they are. For those who cost less than a chance to compete with Scotland next year in the eyes of those in charge.

My worry is for a group of people marginalised by society and already under attack from World Rugby. This is an issue much bigger than rugby. It’s potentially a matter of life or death.

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