In the course of researching the controversial career of Filipino basketball star Asi Taulava, I decided to look into the hoops scene in his native Tonga. That line of inquiry led me to this account of the sport that Tongans describe as “basketball,” but really resembles something else entirely:
Basketball in Tonga is not like American basketball. It is more similar to netball which I don’t really know anything about. Tongan Basketball is played on a field, there is no dribbling and the hoops do not have backboards…The field is divided in three sections with two goal areas around the hoops. The players are assigned to a section and they can only play in that section. Once a shooter has indicated that they will shoot and are in the goal area, the defense must let them shoot with no interference…It is only played by girls and fakaleiti’s (semi-flamboyant to flamboyant gay guys).
That last part intrigued me, as Tongan culture has always struck me as deeply conservative—not to mention very macho. Yet that line suggests that gay men have a defined role in Tongan society, one that gives them an identity similar to that of the hjiras of South Asia.
Yet that identity has not come easily, as evidenced by the evolution of Tonga’s annual Miss Galaxy pageant. This fakaleiti competition has become an international phenomenon in recent years, to the consternation of some Tongans who remember when such pageants were a cruel form of entertainment. From a great academic study of Miss Galaxy (sadly paywalled):
Fakaleiti pageants appear to have emerged in the 1970s. The early pageants probably resembled the lesser pageants of today in size and level of organization. They gradually gained notoriety, until 1991, when the first Miss Galaxy pageant was held in the capital’s only international hotel. Along with increasing popularity and visibility came the greater respectability and assertiveness—an evolution that some Tongans bemoan. Finding that fakaleiti today “take themselves too seriously,” some Tongans long for prior incarnations of hte pageant when “it was all a good laugh” at the expense of the fakaleiti.
Documentary footage here.