Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Fa'afafines - the third gender
One of the most astonishing and complicated aspects of Samoan culture is the story of the Fa'afafine. The Fa'afafine are accepted as a third gender in Samoa. "They are men, but they are our sisters," is how it was put to me.
For such a macho culture, the widespread acceptance and integration that these males/females enjoy is unusual.
"Fa'afafine are biological males who have a strong feminine gender orientation, which the Samoan parents recognize quite early in childhood, and then raise them as female children or rather 'third gender' children," is how Wikipedia puts it.
Walking around Apia during the day and at night, it very quickly becomes apparent that the Fa'afafine are far from a darkly held secret. They are in positions of influence - school principals, bank managers, politically empowered - and on the streets you are sometimes greeted enthusiastically and, shall we say, with great drama by Fa'afafines.
While as youngsters the Fa'afafine are subjected to ridicule, so is everyone else, I was told; it's part of the Samoan culture. When I asked if drunks in bars would pick on the Fa'afafine and beat them up, my friend said, "Oh no, you don't mess with them. They will hurt you badly."
Fa'afafine are biological males who have a strong feminine gender orientation - the name means "in the manner of woman." Parents will recognize this early, sometimes when the child is as young as six. They willl then raise them as female children or rather 'third gender' children. They are a gender category/identity altogether different from men and women, and are given distinct gender roles specific to them.
They are known especially for the work they do for their family, particularly looking after households and their elderly parents.
I was cautioned often not to look for explanations or clarification about Fa'afafine through western eyes or words. Fa'afafine have a varied sexual life, where they have sex with women, men and other Fa'afafines. A sexual relationship between a Fa'afafine and a man is not considered a homosexual one, but rather one between two genders.
Still, marriage between two Fa'afafines is not legal. Changing this may be a slowly gathering social movement. The acceptance goes only so far, it seems.
The explanations are complicated and require a good deal more than a week in country to understand. Some of the Fa'afafines I met were very effeminate and dramatic, some were big old bruisers, some were very understated and graceful, but all walked among their countrymen with heads high and a solid footing in society. It is a unique phenomenon. If you're interested in further research, there's a huge amount on the subject. The blog here is a good place to start.