Update 02/07/17 (Almost 10 years later)
National Geographic and Katie Couric have teamed up to produce what looks like a really interesting documentary on gender.
This video is making the rounds on Facebook right now. And as is the case with just about any pop culture or news piece that references Samoa, it made it to my feed.
The videos and coverage are driving a little more traffic to this blog post, I assume because it pops up in search results for people searching fa'afafine.
Re-reading the post, I was initially a little apprehensive to leave it up. Innumerable typos aside, I may have been an LGBTQ ally a decade ago when I wrote this post, but current Sara cringes to read what that Sara wrote.
Rather than simply take the post down to protect myself from the embarrassment and to stop the spread of misinformation, I've gone for an update instead.
The Sara that wrote this post had lived in Samoa for all of three months. She had spent two months in training that included extended stays in a training village where she had made passing friends with someone who identified as fa'afafine and had a presentation from a organizational representative during training. Clearly 10-years-ago Sara was already an expert on this subject. [Quick, someone remind me what the sarcasm emoji is].
I'd like to more clearly articulate that Samoan culture is not a binary gender culture. This manifests itself in a number of ways - from the three genders to the lack of gendered pronouns or words for roles. I have always been fascinated by what a language can tell us about a culture and the environment in which it evolved. Just the fact that Samoan uses toalua (spouse) [it also means two people] and not words for "husband' and "wife" says something to me about the culture in which the language developed.
I seem to have gone off topic here, let me get back.
In writing my post below, I was still coming from a binary gender perspective. Fa'afafine are not feminine men or men that think they are women (not necessarily that is - I don't want to preclude Samoans from being transgendered just because there is also a third gender recognized in their culture). And they most certainly are not crossdressers (unless of course, an individual also is or identifies as such).
I believe gender is a societal construct about what are appropriate roles, behavior, emotions, dress, etc. In Western culture, we've mapped gender to body parts. In Samoa and in many other cultures with traditions of more than two genders, I think that this mapping was not as rigid, more fluid. I also think that the missionaries confused the heck out of things in Samoa (but that is a whole other story).
But this is what the cisgender foreigner has to say. So before you read the post below (or really anything I have written here), get out a grain of salt first.
I would be remiss if I served two years in Sāmoa and never wrote a blog entry about fa’afafine. However, it is such a complex and sensitive issue that I wanted to put it off until I thought I had a better understanding. I am still not particularly well informed on the intricacies of the issue, but I think I can do it justice.
The simple and surface way to define fa’afafine is to break down the word. Fa’a means “in the way of” in Sāmoan. So for example, tau means price or cost and fa’atau (literally the way of price or cost) means shop or shopping. Fafine means woman and fa’afafine means in the way of a woman. It is a word used to refer to men with effeminate characteristics.
From a Western standpoint, fa’afafine would be a word used to refer to a wide range of gender and transgender roles embraced by the LGBT community. This is where things become complicated for me because the LGBT community in the states goes to great pains to distinguish between cross-dressers, people who are transgendered, people who are transsexual and people who are gay or lesbian. A leader from the organization that represents fa’afafine in Sāmoa did a presentation for us during our training and I asked later how the community in Sāmoa defines these different groups and whether or not they differentiate, but it appears that things are even more complex here.
The easy way to look at it is that fa’afafine are men who dress and live as women. There were two such people who lived in our training village. However, the representative from the fa’afafine association did not fit into this category. He did not dress as a woman. He said that there are many men who identify themselves as fa’afafine but are not cross-dressers. This is where the whole confusion over the difference between crossdresser and transgender and transsexual come into play I believe.
The role of the fa’afafine in Sāmoan society is tricky. There are some people who say that it has historical precedent dating back to before the missionaries came to the island. I have read about a legend that describes the founding of Sāmoa by four brothers. Since the family had no daughters, one of the brothers was designated a woman so he could help in mother in womanly tasks. I have read that historically that was how fa’afafine came about, that families with too many sons would designate one to live and work as a woman so that the mother of the family would have some help doing the work assigned to women. However, I have also read and had people tell me that fa’afafine are born that way and that many parents can tell early on that their child will become one, but that it is the decision of that person whether or not they will dress and live like a woman.
Another complexity to the fa’afafine situation is how they are treated and accepted into the community. Since the role appears to have a cultural and historical precedent, on the surface cross-dressing men are much more accepted in Sāmoan society. One of the fa’afafine in our training village was a teacher at the primary school. I am trying to imagine a cross-dressing man teaching children at a primary school in the States without it causing an uproar and I cannot do it. So it ways like that, Sāmoan society is significantly more open and accepting than the States.
However, everything isn’t sweetness and light for fa’afafine here. From my experience in the host village, they may be accepted in the sense they are allowed to live their lives in this way and can get jobs and work as women, but they are treated as a joke or a form of entertainment. Fa’afafine are expected to be flamboyant and gregarious and funny and entertaining. Everything thing they say or do is interpreted as comedy. In our host village, I almost saw their roles as village jesters sometimes.
From my conversations with one of the fa’afafine in our village, I knew that she considered herself to be female and I always referred to her with female pronouns when talking about here. However, the members of my host family and other people in the village went out of their way to use male pronouns when referring to her and to correct me when I used the female ones.
“He’s a boy, Sara. He’s a boy wearing girl’s clothes.”
I don’t know if they did this because they honestly thought I was confused, that I didn’t know what was going on or if it was for another reason.
Another problem for fa’afafine in Sāmoa is that the term has been linked to homosexuality, which is not acceptable or legal in this strictly Christian nation. In fact, there is another term used, fa’atama (in the way of a man) that doesn’t appear to translate to masculine woman (the way fa’afafine means feminine man), but instead appears to mean lesbian. So I can see how it would be easy for people to also label fa’afafine as gay. Now, I haven’t talked with any fa’afafine about their sexual orientation, but I assume that some of them are straight and some of them are gay. It works the same way in the States. I remember reading somewhere that a majority of cross-dressers in America are married, heterosexual men. I know that many fa’afafine in Sāmoa get married to women as well.
The Prime Minister has taken up the cause of the fa’afafine as his own (though he is not fa’afafine himself). He has become their patron in the government and supports the fa’afafine association. In an article I read on Sāmoan government’s website (apparently reprinted from the Savali Newspaper), he went to great lengths to draw a dividing line between fa’afafine and homosexuality. He then went on to praised their role in society.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a lot of resources online about fa’afafine, this history of the role or current discussions. I don’t feel like I have a clear picture of this complex issue yet, but I thought I would try to explain what I did know the best I could.