The Category Five Cyclone Gita which tore through the South Pacific island of Tonga was like having ‘an Airbus land on your front lawn’.
One of the most powerful cyclones to hit Tonga, it has caused thousands of dollars in damage, including wiping out the national parliament. Experts estimate it could take years to rebuild the damaged properties.
Henry ‘Aho is the president of Tonga Leitis Association (TLA). The TLA represents the the lives of sexual and gender diverse people, especially those facing hardship. It has also spearheaded the island’s response to HIV among men who have sex men and transgender women.
The TLA also runs a drop-in centre and shelter for LGBT youth rejected by their families and communities.
Cyclone Gita heavily damaged the centre, ripping off its roof.
‘[The cyclone was] absolutely frightening. Imagine an Airbus landing on your front lawn, that’s what it sounded like, for about 3-4 hours in the dead of night,’ ‘Aho told Gay Star News.
Rebuilding the LGBTI community
TLA members and volunteers are working full steam ahead to provide support for people who have lost their homes.
They need to rebuild the shelter as quickly as possible.
‘Having no core funding, we are without a penny or supplies to provide what we need to offer our members. It is vital for us to repair our centre,’ ‘Aho said.
‘It is where we are able to create a safe space for LGBT persons who have suffered through this disaster, helping them to get back on their feet as life moves on post TC Gita.’
A vital crowdfunding website has been set up to ask people to donate to help rebuild the shelter.
The funds raised will go toward building materials, and the delivery of food, water, medical and other essential supplies. It will help rebuild the lives TLA members and the broader LGBTQI community in Tonga.
Protecting LGBTI people in natural disaster
Many TLA members also volunteer with the Tonga Red Cross Society and have worked tirelessly since Cyclone Gita hit.
They’ve also worked hard to make sure LGBTI people are included in relief efforts.
Homosexuality is illegal in Tonga and although the fakaleiti (transgender) are more widely excepted, there are no legal protections for LGBTI people.
‘If the few members we have working for Tonga Red Cross were not exhaustive in their efforts to push for inclusion of sexual minorities in the care and counselling of those in evacuation centres, LGBTI persons are most likely to get pushed further into the closet and may not find the courage then in such an atmosphere to report any incidents of sexual assault against them for fear of shame or just persisting indifference,’ ‘Aho said.
Along with dealing with Cyclone Gita’s devastation, LGBTI people have had to put up with criticism from conservative Christians.
‘We are not disheartened by continuous calls by some vocal evangelists in our conservative Christian nation that we are an abomination,’ ‘Aho said.
‘It fuels us to be even more proactive in getting the word out that it’s alright to be who you are as an LGBT person.
‘Our members have proven to be resilient and ever fabulous darlings. They just a need a little economic help every now and then from our friends to keep us going.’
‘To lose your home completely is never an easy thing, as some of our members have experienced. As His Majesty (King Tupou VI) alluded to in his statement to the nation, it has not only stripped away our homes, but it has also stripped away divisiveness and selfishness,’ ‘Aho said.
‘We are grateful to those who have seen our cause worthy to donate.
‘People coming together to help each other is just magnificent.’
If you would like to donate to the rebuilding efforts you can donate here.