On my own: Memoirs of a Leitī

The first time I met Sedrick Vanisi was in 2010, I was enthralled by his exquisite sense of humor all wrapped up in his graveled voice, warm persona, and an all-around pleasant human being. The next year we were in New York City together marching for Pride parade. All eyes were on Sedrick, draped in traditional tapa cloth that trailed the streets of NYC from Manhattan to Christopher Street; where years ago the stonewall riots occurred and sparked the gay rights movement. It was a humid heat in the middle of summer, but Sedrick stayed in character the entire walk, if there ever was a human form of fabulous there, she was IT. In 2013, I invited Sedrick to represent Tonga in the opening for the annual Miss UTOPIA International Pageant. In all of his glory and grace he danced to the traditional Tongan song “Hala Vuna” and stole the show, people were already throwing money on the stage and we had barely even started. It was through many social events like the ones mentioned that Sedrick and I got to be acquainted with each other. When he agreed to be featured in our blog, I realized during our phone interview that it was the most in-depth conversation I’ve ever had with him. I told him how truly fascinated I was by his story and how so many of his lived experiences reflected my own. In this edition of Fofola Le Fala, I choose to tell Sedrick’s story in a storytelling method through his own words.  

Sedrick as a young boy
Sedrick with his mom, Vika

Let us begin: 

I was born in 1967 in Nuku’alofa, in the Kingdom of Tonga; the eldest of 4 kids and an older sibling from my dad’s previous relationship. I have very vague memories of my dad as a kid, but I remember the day he left for America. It was a sad occasion for my family. For some reason, in those days, it was easier to apply for a visa if you were single. My parents who were already married had to file for divorce so my dad could leave Tonga to provide a better life for us. He left in 1972 and settled in Sunnyvale, California where he took photography courses to become a cinematographer and photographer. My mom and siblings stayed at our dad’s family land and he continued to provide for us while living in the U.S. 

Sedrick in the 80’s

Sedrick’s mom with guitar singing group with her cousins in Tonga

I was 10 years old when a boy in my class kissed me. He saw that in a movie and wanted to practice with me. I went home and my mom noticed a big hickey on my neck, I never knew what it meant until she beat me up that day. The word got back to the young boy’s parents, and they gave him a beating, the kids at school began bullying him. I felt bad for him, but he was never my friend after that. I always knew I was different, but that moment was confirmation of the feelings that I had always had inside me. By the time I was a teenager, I was freely expressing myself in my own skin. My mom and her family were loving, but at the same time they were not encouraging and asked me to tone it down. My dad’s family, especially his brothers, were cruel and not accepting of me at all. They would occasionally beat me up because of the way I looked or acted. All these hardships growing up in Tonga as a young gay boy never traumatized me internally. I was fortunate to grow up in at town area where I got to fellowship with many Leitī who were living in the city.  

Sedrick attending a Christmas party with Joey Mataele in the 80s
Sedrick as Santa Clause at a nursing home in Oakland, California in the 90s

At the time, there was a law enforced by Tongan’s Christian beliefs penalized all same-sex couples and relationships. It was punishable by imprisonment and the police in those days would use that law at their will to brutalize the Leitī community. Even with all the work by today’s local LGBTQ activists and the establishment of the Leitī organization, that law still stands. It saddens me to grasp the ugly reality that Tongan society only accepts us to a certain limit. There were times when news would come of a young leitī had committed suicide in some rural part of Tonga. A sense of sadness always loomed over me, as I imagined how it could have been me had I not had these mother figures I discovered where I was living. They were a blessing, the love and safety I needed was felt through my bond with them. 

Sedrick’s first client as a caretaker Miss May, a former glamour model back in her heyday

Sedrick with the Thickett family of San Francisco one of the many families who adopted him as their own

Halloween party with Enoka and Muki in the 1990’s

In 1984, my siblings and I relocated to the U.S. to live with our father in California. By then, he was already married and divorced twice. Perhaps my favorite memory of my parents was when my dad asked my mom for a second chance in marriage and she turned him down. My mom is a strong and independent woman and managed to raise us on her own. She enjoyed being a free spirit and refused to be tied down by any man. My mom, Vika, short for Victoria, was also an accomplished singer in Tonga. She and her cousins sang in a girl group, I remember hearing all their songs on the radio. They would sing about heartbreak, sorrow, regrets, and feelings of longing. Now that I look back, she was singing about her life as a single parent and that was therapy for her.  

I was in my senior year in high school when my dad pulled me out. My father was old fashioned and a prideful man; he hated the fact that I was gay and refused to allow me to act and appear that way I did in public while living under his roof. He told me if I cannot fix it then I should go live somewhere else. I had an aunt who lived in San Francisco that promised me a place to stay if I ever needed somewhere to go, so I left my dad to live with her. I helped her clean houses for a living; that was my first job until I became a certified caretaker, which is the same job I do now. I lived in rooms to rent and eventually had my own apartment. I have been on my own since I was 18. When my two younger brothers got involved in gangs and street crimes, both were deported back to Tonga. I felt that it was the best thing to have happened to them. If they had stayed, they both would have been long dead. I saw the disappointment on my dad’s face, he had poured all his love and pride in these two boys, yet the eldest gay son he had disowned was supporting himself and not involved in criminal activities. Even though I was hurting, learning to find my own happiness carried me through; I harbored no hate towards my dad. I cared for and provided for him financially up until his passing at age 57 in 1995. He never accepted me, we just learned to live with each other without much acknowledgement. You will never find any real happiness in life if you do not let go, so I had to make peace with that. 

Sedrick with the late Falekava Kupu one of his Fakaleiti inspiration mentor and good friend from Tonga
Sedrick with his friends Sone and A’ao who were part of the original members of UTOPIA San Francisco. Both have sadly passed away

Sedrick’s first apartment and almost husband Joseph Hardegree

By the mid 1980’s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was ravaging the Gay community in San Francisco. I had known many friends who died from the disease. A Tongan friend of mine was dying of AIDS and wanted to be near his family during his last days. There was so much stigma around the disease and little was understood then. The hospital in Tonga built a thatched roof house outside where he was treated separately from the rest of the patients. He became the first AIDS patient to die in Tonga. He just wanted to go home because in his heart his family are the only people he knows who will care for him. “Oh gosh. I’m gonna start to cry. I can’t say no more!” Even though there was so much ignorance during that time, I never stayed away from the gay scene. I enjoyed my evenings out and I was not a promiscuous person. I see many folks come in and leave with multiple partners. If I had just one, I am fine with that. I was also accustomed to the fact that while living in Tonga, I only made love to straight men. I believe that kind of mentality saved me from contracting HIV/AIDS during the height of its deadly impact. We were attending funeral after funeral and I got sick of it; that was my wake-up call to become involved in community work. We are all family and should always be there for each other. UTOPIA San Francisco was the only organization for Pacific Islander LGBTQ folks, and with the very few of us we created a force like no other. We marched at Pride, fundraised for causes, created spaces where everyone could celebrate and become educated, especially on issues concerning marginalized PI (Pacific Islanders) communities. We marched across the country to protest Prop 8, even going to Tonga to protest their anti-gay laws. To fight to belong in a society that is not always welcoming towards us is a powerful feeling of accomplishment. Your journey there stands on the shoulders of those who could not be there to fight with you. The rewards have been immeasurable.

Sedrick performing at Miss UTOPIA San Francisco pageant in the 90s
Sedrick performing at Golden Gate pride 1998
Sedrick with members of UTOPIA San Francisco, 1999

The only time I was romantically involved with someone was in my mid 30’s. I had met this lovely man who was white, and we were together for five years. We took a trip to Tonga in 2001 and went to visit my mom. I come from such a small Island that when something happens or someone is in town, everyone knows about it. When I showed up with my lover, my mom was not thrilled and asked if we could stay at a hotel and not come there. My mom had always been the kinder parent towards my identity, but it was at that moment I realized that she was only accepting of me to a point. Not long after we (my lover and I) went our separate ways, but he was the only real relationship I ever had. I hate to feel that I need a man to complete me. I am at that stage of my life where I am comfortable by myself. If it happens again, oh well hooray for me! My mom relocated to San Mateo, California some years ago. I have asked her many times to come live with me, but she prefers staying with one of her cousins she used to sing with in the day. She enjoys her independence, church, and women’s affairs with my aunts. I still provide for her and take her to her doctor appointments and such. She is in her 70’s now, so I know there will come a time when eventually I will have to care for her. Our relationship has not always been blossoms, but she raised me well so I will always care for her no matter what.  

Sedrick marching at the 2012 pride parade in New York City
Sedrick performing at the 2013 Miss UTOPIA Pageant In Washington
Sedrick paying tribute to AIDS victims at the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, 2018

Around 1995, I was volunteering for an organization called Helping Hands where we helped deliver food to LGBTQ elders and the sick. A man was living out near the ocean where many volunteers hesitated to deliver because of distance. I volunteered to go and that is how I met James. He was not gay, but he donated to our causes. At our first annual UTOPIA picnic in 1998, he brought everyone champagne and became a friend ever since. As he got older, I helped and cared for him whenever he needed me. When James passed away last year at age 95, he had no living relatives. I was brought to tears when I learned that he had willed me his beach front home. I just moved in, so I am fixing up a little here and there. There is something about the ocean that is so therapeutic to the mind and soul, as it reminds me of home. I look out on to the sea and think of life often. My hope for today’s generation of LGBTQ kids of all races is to take a moment, listen and absorb life lessons from their elders. Volunteer and give back however you can! For people like us, life is never easy, some of the freedom that we have today did not come without a price. Our work has never been in vain and I truly hope no one ever forgets that. 

Sedrick today

4 thoughts on “On my own: Memoirs of a Leitī

  1. I just finished reading while having my fresh cup of coffee this morning I enjoyed the read . I teared up at some parts and smiled the next as I continued to read on . I love you very much Sed .

  2. Wow! What a wonderful read, you cry a little and then a smile. It took me on a journey, started back in the island then here in the Bay Area. Some of these photos, I was there with you. God bless you always Sedrick. Love always, your number one frenemy 🙏🏽💗💕

  3. What an amazing journey you had.
    It’s been a while since I last saw you. I am sending you lots of love as you continue to journey thru.
    ❤️❤️❤️

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