Transgendered in Samoa: Acceptance of Tradition in the South Pacific

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday July 28, 2011

As a sign of the cultural significance of the transgendered in their ancient society, in July, the prime minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Sailele, met and spoke with the Samoa Fa'afafine Association, the South Pacific island nation's leading advocacy organization for the transgendered, or fa'afafine, community. The leader's words of support undoubtedly will come as a surprise to those of us more accustomed to elected officials wrangling their hands on issues concerning gender deviance.

"It is not your will that you are the way you are," Tuilaepa said during a workshop in Apia, the country's capital, according to government news website Savali. "You are just another shining example of the glorious miracles and creations of our Lord."

The meeting was one organized by SFA, of which Tuilaepa is an unabashed supporter and represents a sign of the fa'afafine's unique presence within Samoan culture. Referring to those whom Westerners would identify as transgender women (individuals born as men but whom identify as women), the fa'afafine are by and large revered, though they say they are more accepted in some ways and roles within society than others.

Continuing our Future Queer Leaders series, EDGE recently interviewed Alex K Su'a, a 30-year-old attorney and SFA president. Su'a identifies as fa'afafine but prefers male pronouns among those who do not personally know him. Su'a is one of the nation's most well-known fa'afafine advocates and offered a unique perspective on a part of the world where trans-identified individuals, while not universally accepted in their gender identity, have carved out a place within their community. As he explains, antipathy toward this tradition stems from the strong Christian tradition that missionaries brought to the island nation.

EDGE: Recently, a group of fa'afafine met with the Samoan prime minister who called you "glorious miracles." How did this meeting come to be?

Alex Su'a: That group of fa'afafine were members of the Samoa Fa'afafine Association. The prime minister is the patron of SFA. The meeting was SFA's annual vocational training when all fa'afafine share their skills and knowledge among themselves. At the same time, they update themselves with developing issues in their communities and families.

EDGE: Could you explain who qualifies as a fa'afafine in Samoan culture?

AS: If you are fa'afafine you must be within these four categories: You must Samoan or of Samoan descent, you must be proud to be labeled as a fa'afafine, you must be sexually attracted to men and you are born a male but feel of a female.

Fa'afafine while they are sexually male, are well-accepted in Samoa and they are never treated differently or especially from that of males or females. If there is discrimination against fa'afafine, it would be its archaic laws from colonial times that remain unreviewed. In other words, social, economic and human development in Samoa is far in advance from its laws.

EDGE: How do those archaic laws still affect the fa'afafine experience, in terms of acceptance?

AS: Open discussion of sexuality or even sexual health is a very sensitive issue in Samoa. It's the culture that views these discussions as taboo. As a matter of fact, this is a real challenge to the advocacy of addressing HIV/AIDS and STIs in Samoa by relevant authorities and organizations.

I for one, however, see that the reason is really the lack of understanding and the fear of homosexuality. This is often based on citing Christian principles about Sodom or Gomorrah. Some people use our culture as a way to hide their homophobia. Because of this, a lot of people refuse to obtain further understanding of fa'afafines' sexual living and preference.

SFA is advocating addressing this in a manner that is direct but less sensitive which is already a real challenge of its own. There is a saying, and I find it very hypocritical, in Samoa that fa'afafine is part of culture, but that their sexual living and preference (being homosexuals) is not. Their main reason is that it is a sin according to the Bible.

EDGE: So, sexuality aside, tell me more about the specific niche within Samoan culture that the fa'afafine fill.

AS: With their flexibility in doing both female and male tasks, although this may be the case, again, not all fa'afafine possess this multi tasked talent. Also, they are accepted in their entertaining and amusing status, by which they are well-known in the entertainment industry. They are well known in the tourism industry and, at most, are very good event organizers.

They are also well known for being excellent caretakers. To support this, fa'afafine do not marry and rarely (in most families) are they allowed by their families to share the same household with their male partners. So their brothers and sisters do move on with their own married households and the fa'afafine are often left with the parents. At the same time, they are traditionally trusted with their siblings' children.



EDGE: Tell me more about your story -- what was your family life like growing up?

AS: I had always been a fa'afafine, since I was young. I was very fond of girls' dresses and dolls. My mother, her brothers and her father were very strict about me being a fa'afafine. They never approved of it and due to that, I have always been a subject of physical and emotional abuse, because I had to live my life exclusively as a boy instead of a boy who expresses himself in the manner of a girl or woman. My father was never strict about me nor did he encourage me as a fa'afafine. He was very passive about me. My father's family was very supportive of me and they loved me for being one.

EDGE: When did you first realize you were different?

AS: I realized it as soon as I was subjected to ridicule, labeling and abuse within my family, village, school and church.

EDGE: What about when you realized that you were fa'afafine?

AS: When I was labeled as one and then reacted to it in a way that realized that I am a boy who is fond of female clothing and things.

EDGE: How do your family or your close friends feel today about your identity as fa'afafine? What about for your activism with SFA?

AS: They are very supportive of me. They love me for who I am. They also remain the strongest supporter of my activism.

EDGE: Does it ever make them nervous?

AS: Not at all. But for my family, they become very reserved when I address the issue of sexual living and preferences as a fa'afafine. Because my family is a strongly Christianized family, that is why.

EDGE: What do you consider to be some of your biggest successes to date?

AS: Being the first proud fa'afafine in Samoa to become a lawyer. My areas of interest in law are human rights, commercial and land law.

EDGE: Have you ever found yourself to be threatened or endangered (whether it be by harassment, discrimination or outright violence) by your activism or openness about being fa'afafine?

AS: At a very mild stage but not seriously.

EDGE: Is there a large community of transgender Samoan men (i.e. those who are born as men but live as women)?

AS: Yes, they are known as fa'afatama. Although the law does not have anything against them, they are culturally and socially frowned upon. The fa'afafine are more widely accepted than they are as far as my viewpoint is concerned. Other than that, there have yet to be members from this group in SFA, which also accommodates their issues. This does not mean they are not accepted but fa'afafine are generally more popular than they are.

EDGE: Does the Samoan government officially recognize the fa'afafine in any sort of census-type data, like the hijra in India and Nepal are? Are you able to get identification cards, passports and documents that reflect your fa'afafine gender?

AS: Not at this stage. In fact, this is never part of our advocacy. And no.

EDGE: What are some of your goals going forward in the near future for the fa'afafine community, in your activism with SFA?

AS: For SFA to have a well-established office in Samoa and to be able to achieve its major objectives of removing laws that discriminate directly against fa'afafine and other similar minority groups in Samoa.

EDGE: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that Westerners have about the fa'afafine?

AS: Fa'afafine is a third gender. Fa'afafine is gay. Fa'afafine are sexually attracted to other fa'afafine. Fa'afafine are boys raised by their families to be fa'afafine. Fa'afafine is a choice. Fa'afafine is not part of Samoa's culture.

EDGE: What advice would you offer to transgender people living in perhaps less accepting countries, where their leaders would probably never refer to them "glorious miracles." (President Obama is included in that group, unfortunately.)

AS: Keep fighting for what you believe in other than that, what may be best for Samoa may not be best for other parts of the world. And vice versa.

Learn more about Su'a's organization by visiting their website. Activists previously featured in the Future Queer Leaders series include Nikolai Alexeyev (Russia), Kyrsten Sinema (U.S.), Georges Azzi (Lebanon) and Aniruddhan Vasudevan (India). Check back for more features of young, up-and-coming queers working to further LGBT equality throughout the globe in the months ahead.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.