When Divina Loloma lived in Australia, her voice began to change.
It was 1987 and she had left her homeland, Fiji, in the wake of a violent military coup.
Sydney would provide her with security and better educational opportunities.
However, it wasn’t long before Ms. Loloma discovered much more – a place where she felt she could truly be herself.
“Coming to Australia in 1987 was something that opened my eyes,” she told the ABC.
Ms. Loloma grew up male, in an indigenous Fijian family with strong traditional beliefs, and said she had always felt a little different.
In high school, she was attracted to men, but did not identify as gay.
At the age of 25, Ms. Loloma met two people who would change the course of her life: transgender Pacific Islander women named Erona and Divina, who were living in Sydney at the time.
“Looking at their transit [from male to female] … taking care of their health, taking care of their mental capacities, reassuring themselves that they are capable of living more peacefully.
“It was my dream come true,” she said.
Australia was Divina’s safe place
Mrs. Loloma began to see a path to becoming the person she wanted to be.
She met a doctor and began hormone-assisted therapy, beginning a transition to womanhood that would not have been possible in Fiji.
“I felt safe [in Australia]. It was a safe place for me,” she said.
However, the process was not easy. Ms Loloma lived with Fijian relatives in Sydney, but as her body began to change she felt the urge to leave.
“The hormone job changed myself. It really changed my body structures. And then I started developing breasts,” she said.
Bitter backlash at home
Ms. Loloma had not told her family in Fiji that she was transitioning, but when her voice began to change, her father asked her what was wrong.
Still, she kept her new identity a secret until she decided to return home a few years later when her father’s health deteriorated.
When Ms. Loloma arrived at the airport in Fiji, journalists were waiting to photograph her and interview her about her transition.
The next day, Mrs. Loloma’s father learned in local newspapers that his child identified as female.
“It was on the front page, ‘Fiji’s first sex reassignment,’ and to him it was shocking,” she said.
“I felt devastated because my family couldn’t accept me the way I am.”
Despite the backlash, Mrs. Loloma was tired of hiding who she really was.
“I told them, ‘This is basically who I am and nothing is going to change,'” she said.
Determined to make a positive impact in her community, she began advocating for marginalized and gender diverse people in her country.
She became president of the anti-poverty organization United Rescue Mission (Fiji) and became involved with Haus of Khameleon, a local transgender activist group.
Hopes to ‘represent the most vulnerable’
Decades later, Ms. Loloma is now vying to become Fiji’s first transgender politician and is running for the National Federation Party (NFP), Fiji’s oldest political party.
Ms Loloma said she wanted to focus on providing economic empowerment to young and marginalized people in Fiji.
“In the last 15 years I feel like a lot of people have suffered and here we are. I represent the most vulnerable,” she told ABC.
NFP leader Biman Prasad said the party believes in the human rights of all but does not address specific policies related to the LGBTQI community.
With Fiji’s election on December 14, Loloma campaigned across the country.
“Surprisingly, they are very accepting of these villages. They just want to hear what I have to say,” she said.
It is an important moment for indigenous transgender woman and LGBTQI activist Ratu Eroni Ledua Dina.
“It’s a great milestone for us to have one of our own electoral candidates – the ability to occupy space and have a seat in parliament,” Ms Dina said.
She said there was a need for more trans-specific policies, particularly in the health and justice sectors.
“Like providing hormone therapy and counseling,” she said.
Ms Dina said transgender people tend to be denied access to mainstream health care due to stigma, leading to higher rates of non-communicable diseases and sexually transmitted diseases.
“Trans people need their own spaces that protect them,” she said.