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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 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.[1]

The word fa'afafine includes the causative prefix "fa'a", meaning "in the manner of", and the word fafine, meaning "woman".[2] 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.[citation needed]

Fa'afafine role in Samoan society[edit]

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.[3]

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."[1] 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.[4] 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 is not totally accepted in other communities, such as among some Catholics and traditional leaders. Traditionally fa'afafine follow the training of the women's daily work in an Aiga.[1][5]

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.[1] 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 that they are 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.[1]

Te Ara estimates that there are 500 fa’afafine in Samoa and the same number in the Samoan diaspora in New Zealand.[6]

Notable fa'afafine[edit]

  • 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.[7]
  • Memea Eleitino Ma'aelopa Siania is a community activist and mentor in Education and is also a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
  • Cindy of Samoa is Samoa's first fa'afafine celebrity. Cindy lives in New Zealand and performs all over the South Pacific. Cindy was a finalist on the New Zealand reality show Stars in Their Eyes in 2008.[9]
  • Shigeyuki Kihara is a contemporary artist. Kihara's work has been featured in numerous museum exhibitions art galleries around the world. Shigeyuki. Her solo exhibition, Shigeyuki Kihara: Living Photographs (2008-9), was the MET's [Metropolitan Museum of Art}] first exhibition of contemporary Samoan art.

Fictional fa'afafines[edit]

  • "Sugar Shirley" is a fictional character in Sia Figiel's award winning novel "Where We Once Belong".[citation needed]
  • Vili Atafa is a fictional character in A Frigate Bird Sings, a pasifika play by Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Nathaniel Lees[13]
  • Brother Ken is a fictional character in New Zealand animated series bro'Town, voiced by David Fane.


  1. ^ a b c d e Bartlett, N. H.; Vasey, P. L. (2006). "A Retrospective Study of Childhood Gender-Atypical Behavior in Samoan Fa'afafine". Archives of Sexual Behavior 35 (6): 659–66. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9055-1. PMID 16909317.  edit
  2. ^ Milner, G.B. 1966. Samoan-English Dictionary. "Fa'afafine" entry pg. 52 under "Fafine"
  3. ^ Saleimoa Vaai, Samoa Faamatai and the Rule of Law (Apia: The National University of Samoa Le Papa-I-Galagala, 1999).
  4. ^ Perkins, Roberta (March 1994). "Like a Lady in Polynesia". Polare magazine (3 ed.) (gendercentre.org.au). 
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/gender-diversity/page-3
  7. ^ "SGN Exclusive interview: Dr. Vena Sele Samoan activist and Transgender pioneer". Seattle Gay News. 2010-10-06. Retrieved 2014-02-28. 
  8. ^ "Featured Artist: Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Tufuga Valiata, Notes on Painting". GayNZ.com. 2012-08-20. Retrieved 2014-03-07. 
  9. ^ "Family's singing star Cindy of Samoa". GayNZ.com. 2008-07-01. Retrieved 2014-02-28. 
  10. ^ "New Miss UTOPIA crowned". Seattle Gay News. 2012-10-19. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  11. ^ "Next Goal WIns". NBC Sports Radio. 2014-02-20. Retrieved 2014-02-28. 
  12. ^ "Hollywood treatment for American Samoa". FIFA World. 13 March 2013. Retrieved 5 June 2014. 
  13. ^ http://www.playmarket.org.nz/a_frigate_bird_sings
  • 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.

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