The third gender of ‘Fa’afafine’ has always existed within Samoan society, and when translated literally means ‘in the manner of’ (fa’a) ‘woman’ (fafine). Fa’afafines have a very specific role in Samoan society, an interesting contrast to transgenderism in Western society, which is yet to be widely accepted.
The recognition of this third gender is not a recent occurrence: Pre-Christian Samoans accepted and acknowledged that every individual, man or woman, had a separate role in society. Hence, it is still acceptable today for a male child to be feminine, for example. Boys who display marked effeminate behavior in childhood are recognized to be Fa’afafines and are fully accepted within their families and society.
It is difficult to classify the concept of the Samoan third gender in the terms of Western culture. These societies often misuse or do not fully understand categories such as ‘transgender’, ‘homosexual’ and ‘transvestite’, all of which were created to classify males and females. The Samoans reject many of these terms; Fa’afafines identify themselves as a separate gender. The Fa’afafines cannot simply be termed homosexual, since in addition to having a completely separate gender identity, they have a varied sex life which may be with another man, woman or Fa’afafine. Within Samoan society, tolerance of all individuals and their likes, dislikes and choices is of high importance, and from a young age children are not pushed to conform to particular gender roles in the same way Western children generally are.
Memoirs of a Samoan, Catholic, and Fa’afafine is a valuable read for a better understanding of Fa’afafine life within Samoan culture. In this, we see the story of Vanessa, a Fa’afafine born of Catholic missionary parents, and his upbringing in the American Samoan Territory of the United States. During these years he outlines his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and gender, and the ways in which he contributed to society.
By Amrita Dasgupta