It is commonly said that Tongan parents with too many sons and not enough daughters will dress one of the boys as a girl and assign him to perform girls' chores, such as housecleaning. There is little evidence that this characterization is correct, since Tongan parents rarely wish one of their children to grow up as a fakaleiti, and some fakaleiti grow up in families with many girls and few boys. Mainstream Tongans never consider fakaleiti as women, although they may indulge their claims of being like women. Mainstream society treats fakaleiti with a complex mixture of impatience, mockery, tolerance, and occasional admiration for their dress-making, hair-dressing, and decorating skills, particularly in the context of beauty pageants. Parents of children who become fakaleiti often worry that their child will not be treated well by others, but they can also see themselves as fortunate because there will be someone to take care of them in their old age, while other children are busy with their own families.
Although fakaleiti in Tonga do not necessarily associate with transgender or gay and lesbian identities in the Western world, those who grow up in Tongan migrant communities in New Zealand, Australia, and the United States may find a greater level of community and affinity to similar identities than fakaleiti in the island kingdom.
The term fakaleiti (with a long i at the end) is made up of the prefix faka- (in the manner of) and the borrowing lady from English. Fakaleitis themselves prefer to call themselves leiti or ladies.