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Fa'afafine are the gender-liminal, or third-gendered people of Samoa. A recognized and integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa'afafine, born biologically male, embody both male and female gender traits. Their gendered 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 Hawaiian 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 and mislabel the fa'afafine as "gay" or "homosexual". 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. 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. 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, here is little to no ridicule of or displeasure with 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.
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Fa'afafine in the Samoa Islands, and internationally among Samoan diaspora, have formed several organizations since the 1980s. Currently prominent ones are Samoan Fa'afafine Organization of independent Samoa, SOFIA of American Samoa, and UTOPIA of San Francisco and Honolulu. These organizations are involved in political action and cultural functions. The Samoan Fa'afafine Organization of independent Samoa is working to remove criminal laws regarding homosexuality and transgenderism that remain from New Zealand colonial administration, laws that no longer apply in New Zealand itself.
Fa'afafine are taking part in the development of contemporary Oceania or Pacific Islander arts, as in the works of painter and writer Dan Taulapapa McMullin, artist and curator Shigeyuki Kihara, performance artist Buckwheat, poet and performance artist Brian Fuata, and fashion artist Lindah Lepou. Recent exhibitions of indigenous LGBT artists including fa'afafine, were the 2006 Le Vasa Art Exhibition in San Francisco, 2007 Measina Fa'afafine Art Exhibition in Auckland, and the 2008 Hand in Hand Art Exhibition in Sydney.
New Zealand animated television series bro'Town includes a fa'afafine character named Brother Ken, a school principal, and personal friend of many well-known New Zealanders. Brother Ken appears in nearly every episode throughout the five seasons.
Samoan writer Sia Figiel's novel Where We Once Belonged includes a fa'afafine character named Sugar Shirley, known for her exploits on the rugby field.
- Samoa Faafafine Association
- American Samoa Faafafine organization
- UTOPIA San Francisco organization of fa'afafine, fakaleiti and mahu
- UTOPIA Hawaii organization of mahu, fa'afafine, and fakaleiti
- ABC 2005 Fa'afafine - Samoan boys brought up as girls
- Love Life Fono 2, also known as Fa'afafine Fono gathering
- Fa'afafine artist and writer Dan Taulapapa McMullin
- Like a Lady in Polynesia
- Bartlett, N. B., and P. L.Vasey. 2006. A retrospective study of childhood gender-atypical behavior in Samoan fa'afafine. Arch Sex Behav 35:559–66.
- Milner, G.B. 1966. Samoan-English Dictionary. "Fa'afafine" entry pg. 52 under "Fafine"
- Saleimoa Vaai, Samoa Faamatai and the Rule of Law (Apia: The National University of Samoa Le Papa-I-Galagala, 1999).
- Danielsson, B., T. Danielsson, and R. Pierson. 1978. Polynesia's third sex: The gay life starts in the kitchen. Pacific Islands Monthly 49:10–13.
- Besnier, Niko. 1994. "Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space". In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. Gilbert Herdt, ed. pp. 285–328. New York: Zone.
- Montague, James. 2011. "Transgender Player Helps American Samoa to First International Soccer Win". New York Times, November 25, 2011.
- Schmidt, J. 2001. Redefining Fa'afafine: Western Discourses and the Construction of Transgenderism in Samoa. Intersections, Issue 6.
- Taulapapa McMullin, Dan. 2011. Fa'afafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafanua In Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Edited by Qwo-Li Driskill, Chris Finley, Brian Joseph Gilley, and Scott Lauria Morgensen. pp. 81–94. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.