February 21, 2018 at 11:48 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Cyclone seriously damages Tonga LGBTI center, shelter

Cyclone Gita on Feb. 12, 2018, caused serious damage to a drop-in center and shelter that the Tonga Leitis Association, a Tongan LGBTI advocacy group, operates in Nuku’alofa, Tonga. (Photo courtesy of Henry ‘Aho/Tonga Leitis Association)

A cyclone that struck the Pacific island nation of Tonga on Feb. 12 seriously damaged an LGBTI organization’s drop-in center and shelter.

Henry Aho, president of the Tonga Leitis Association, told the Washington Blade that Cyclone Gita “tore off” a portion of the center’s roof when it passed over the island of Tongatapu on which the country’s capital of Nuku’alofa is located with winds of more than 120 mph.

Aho said the portion of the roof that Gita destroyed was over the bathrooms and bedrooms for LGBTI Tongans who use the center as a shelter. Aho also told the Blade the cyclone damaged the building’s walls, floors and plumbing.

“Debris from neighboring homes also flew into the center, causing further damage,” he added.

The Associated Press reported Gita destroyed Tonga’s Parliament House and damaged the country’s international airport.

Aho told the Blade that electricity has been restored to Nuku’alofa’s Central Business District where the Tonga Leitis Association’s center is located. Aho said the building still does not have power because the electrical line that runs from it to the main power line is damaged.

Aho also told the Blade the center has “limited plumbing” that “has helped restore washroom facilities.”

Displaced LGBTI Tongans may face discrimination

The Tonga Leitis Association, which was founded in 1992, specifically advocates on behalf of transgender and gender-variant Tongans and other members of the country’s LGBTI community. It also provides health care and other services to people with HIV/AIDS.

Tonga is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. Amini Fonua, an openly gay Olympic swimmer from Tonga, told the Blade last May during an interview in Miami Beach, Fla., that homophobia, transphobia and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remain commonplace in his homeland.

The hotel that Fonua’s family owns and operates in Nuku’alofa was undamaged by Gita.

Amini Fonua, gay news, Washington Blade

Amini Fonua is an openly gay Olympic swimmer from Tonga. He spoke with the Washington Blade in Miami Beach, Fla., on May 27, 2017 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Aho told the Blade that some Tonga Leitis Association members are currently living in evacuation centers or with family members because the cyclone destroyed their homes. Aho said some of those who are in temporary housing may face discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Aho noted the Tonga Leitis Association has turned its center into a makeshift shelter with temporary beds.

“It is only a week since the cyclone hit and Tongans are still relatively in a cooperative state, but prolonged stays within these arrangements may be problematic if the hosts are not comfortable with people with diverse SOGIE (sexual orientation and gender identity and expression),” Aho told the Blade.

Gita struck Tonga less than five months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominica. Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage in Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, the British Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos and on portions of Cuba’s north central coast and the Florida Keys a few weeks earlier.

The Tonga Leitis Association has also launched a campaign that hopes to raise $10,000 for the center’s reconstruction. It has raised $3,690.

“Our efforts are to not only repair our center but to strengthen it physically to better withstand any more natural disasters in the future, so that we can use it as a safe space for displaced persons with diverse SOGIE in the aftermath of natural disasters,” Aho told the Blade.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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