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Fa'afafine are a third-gender people of Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. A recognized identity/role since at least the early 20th century in Samoan society, and some theorize an integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa'afafine are (generally) assigned male at birth, and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits, fashioned in a way unique to this part of the world. Their behavior typically ranges from extravagantly feminine to mundanely masculine.
The word fa'afafine includes the causative prefix "fa'a", meaning "in the manner of", and the word fafine, meaning "woman". It is cognate with linguistically related words in other Polynesian languages, such as the Tongan fakafefine (also fakaleiti), the Maori whakawahine, the Cook Islands Maori akava'ine, and similar to the Hawaiian concept of mahu. The Samoan slang word mala (or "devastation" in the Samoan language) is in less frequent use for fa'afafine.
Fa'afafine role in Samoan society
Fa'afafine are known for their hard work and dedication to the family, in the Samoan tradition of tautua. Ideas of the family in Samoa and Polynesia are markedly different from Western constructions of family, and include all the members of a sa, or a communal family within the fa'amatai family systems.
It is a mistake to attribute a Western interpretation to fa'afafine by mislabeling them as "gay," "homosexual," or "drag queens." In Samoa, the people claim that there is no such thing as being "gay" or "homosexual." Fa'afafine, as a third gender, have sexual relationships almost exclusively with men who do not identify as fa'afafine, and sometimes with women, but apparently not with other Fa'afafine. This third gender is so well accepted in Samoan culture that most Samoans state that they have friendship relationships with at least one fa'afafine, but not totally accepted in other communities, such as among some Catholics and traditional leaders. Traditionally fa'afafine follow the training of a women's daily work in an Aiga.
Being a fa'afafine is said to be thoroughly enjoyable by this group. Many would state that they "loved" engaging in feminine activities as children, such as playing with female peers, playing female characters during role play, dressing up in female clothes, and playing with female gender-typical toys. This is in contrast to women who stated that they merely "liked" engaging in those activities as children. Some fa'afafine recall believing they were girls in childhood, but knew better as adults. In Samoa, there is very seldom ridicule or displeasure for a biologically male child who states he is a girl. For instance, one study showed only a minority of parents (20%) tried to stop their fa'afafine sons from engaging in feminine behavior. Being pushed into the male gender role is upsetting to many fa'afafine. A significant number stated that they "hated" masculine play, such as rough games and sports, even more than females did as children.
- Vena Sele is a fa'afafine pioneer and activist from American Samoa. Sele founded the Miss Island Queen Pageant Sele is also the first fa'afafine to publish an autobiography documenting experiences as the highest ranking fa'afafine during her time.
- Fuimaono Karl Pulotu-Endemann is a well known medical professional and gay activist from New Zealand. In the 2001 New Year Honours Pulotu-Endemann was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Public Health.
- Cindy of Samoa is Samoa's first fa'afafine celebrity. Cindy lives in Australia and performs all over the South Pacific. Cindy was a finalist on the New Zealand reality show Stars in Their Eyes in 2008.
- Edward Cowley aka Buckwheat is a popular performer and television personality from Australia.
- Shigeyuki Kihara is a contemporary artist. Kihara's work has been featured in museum exhibitions around the world.
- Marion Malena of American Samoa is a multiple beauty pageant winner and performer. Malena resides in Seattle, Wa.
- Jaiyah Saelua is an American Samoan soccer player. Saelua was the first fa'afafine player to compete in a men's FIFA World Cup qualifier. Saelua was the subject of a UK documentary Next Goal Wins.
- "Sugar Shirley" is a fictional character in Sia Figiel's award winning novel "Where We Once Belong".
- Vili Atafa is a fictional character in A Frigate Bird Sings, a pasifika play by Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Nathaniel Lees
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