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A faʻafafine organisation on Auckland pride parade in 2016
A faʻafafine organisation on Auckland pride parade in 2016
EtymologySamoan prefix faʻa-, meaning "in the manner of" + fafine, meaning "woman"
ClassificationGender identity
Other terms
SynonymsFakafāfine, Fiafifine, Fakafifine
Associated termsFakaleiti, Two-spirit, Trans woman, Akava'ine, Māhū
Regions with significant populations
 Samoaup to 3,000

Faʻafafine are people who identify themselves as having a third gender or non-binary role in Samoa, American Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. A recognised gender identity/gender role in traditional Samoan society, and an integral part of Samoan culture, faʻafafine are assigned male at birth, and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits in a way unique to Polynesia.[citation needed] Their behaviour typically ranges from extravagantly feminine to conventionally masculine.[1]

Anthropologists have speculated that if a Samoan family had more boys than girls or not enough girls to help with women's duties about the house, male children would be chosen to be raised as faʻafafine,[2] however, this theory has been disputed.[3]

It has been estimated that 1–5% of Samoans identify as faʻafafine.[4] According to SBS news, there are up to 3,000 faʻafafine currently living in Samoa.[5]

History and terminology[edit]

The word faʻafafine includes the causative prefix faʻa–, meaning "in the manner of", and the word fafine, meaning "woman".[6] It is a cognate of related words in other Polynesian languages, such as Tongan: fakaleiti or fakafefine, the Cook Islands Māori: akava'ine, and Māori: whakawāhine. A person assigned female at birth may belong to a masculine third gender, faʻatane, faʻatama, and fafatama. Ultimately, Western terms like gay and transgender overlap but do not align exactly with Samoan gender terms found in the traditional culture of Samoa.

The Samoan slang word mala (devastation) is a less-common term for faʻafafine, originating in fundamentalist-influenced homophobia and transphobia.[7]

Strong evidence points to Samoa being under matriarchal rule for centuries before contact with Europeans.[8] Queen Salamasina, holder of four paramount chief titles, ascended the throne in the 16th century through the shrewd maneuvering of the powerful female chieftains around her. Samoa continues to value the leadership roles of women and third gender people. There is no restriction on the transfer of chiefly titles to women or fa'afafine, and there is a healthy list of past and present faʻafafine chiefs.[9]

The history of faʻafafine is difficult to trace. Nafanua, the female warrior and chief of Samoan early history, is often held up as an icon of faʻafafine and faʻatane. In Dolgoy's recorded interviews with faʻafafine from the 1980s, we[who?] know that Johnny Fruitcake was a popular faʻafafine during the American military occupation of American Samoa in World War II, and that Anita (Tony Schwenke) was the founder of Hollywood, a tailoring shop and house of refuge for faʻafafine in Apia in the 1960s–1970s.[10] Since the 1980s, the Samoan diaspora has given faʻafafine a higher profile outside Samoa.

The existence of faʻafafine could be accounted for by a gene that directs kin-directed altruism, which proposes that androphilia could be passed down because it is societally advantageous to have non traditional roles.[11] Paul L. Vasey contends that the existence of androphilia may serve the evolutionary purpose of providing avunculate support for related kin. This means that families that include faʻafafine and members in other non traditional roles, such as unmarried aunts and uncles, would have more time and resources to dedicate to the success of their kin. Freedom from the constraints of a traditional marriage and the raising of children allows faʻafafine to excel in nurturing the family and community dynamics. This fits nicely in Samoan society where hierarchy is highly stratified and customs are strictly adhered to.

Role in Samoan society[edit]

The existence of a third gender is so well-accepted in Samoan culture that most Samoans state that they have friendships with at least one faʻafafine;. However, faʻafafine are not fully accepted in all parts of the community, such as by some Catholic groups and traditional leaders.

Faʻafafine are known[by whom?] for their hard work and dedication to the family, in the Samoan tradition of tautua or service to family. Ideas of the family in Samoa and Polynesia include all the members of a sa, or communal family within the faʻamatai family system.[12] Traditionally, faʻafafine follow the training of the women's daily work in an aiga (Samoan family group).[1][13] Faʻafafine state that they "loved" engaging in feminine activities as children, such as playing with female peers, playing female characters during role play, dressing in feminine 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 faʻafafine recall believing they were girls in childhood. In Samoa, there is very seldom ridicule or displeasure towards a biologically male child who states that they are a girl. One study showed only a minority of parents (20 per cent) tried to stop their faʻafafine children from engaging in feminine behaviour. Being pushed into the male gender role is upsetting to many faʻafafine. A significant number stated that they "hated" masculine play, such as rough games and sports, even more than females did as children.[1]

Faʻafafine have sexual relationships exclusively with men who do not identify as faʻafafine.[14]

Society of Faʻafafine in American Samoa and the Samoa Faʻafafine Association[edit]

The Society of Faʻafafine in American Samoa or (Samoan: Le Sosaiete o Faʻafafine i Amerika Samoa) (SOFIAS) describes itself as an organisation dedicated to balancing both Samoan values with western influences and aims to promote a positive attitude toward the Samoan faʻafafine community. It fosters collaboration between faʻafafine and LGBTQI+ communities in American Samoa, the Asia Pacific region, and the world.[15] The Miss SOFIAS pagaent has been held in Pago Pago, American Samoa, since 1979.

The Samoa Fa'afafine Association (SFA), based in Apia, was founded in 2006. It works closely with government, churches, and youth organisations, supporting community projects for the fa'afafine community, but also for elders and youth in Samoa. SFA is also active on the international level, working with the United Nations and Pacific regional NGOs, on behalf of the faʻafafine, transgender, and LGBT communities of the Pacific Islands. They also work with media organisations to promote a equitable representation of faʻafafine.[16]

The SFA, with fa'afafine lawyers Alex Suʻa and Phineas Hartson Matautia, have initiated legislative activity on issues of LGBT rights in Samoa. Their efforts to repeal homophobic and transphobic laws inherited from the British and New Zealand colonial administrations have met with partial success.[17] Same-sex marriage for faʻafafine is still unlawful in Samoa, and despite legalisation in the U.S., it is still not recognised in the US Territory of American Samoa.

Notable Faʻafafine[edit]

Fictional Faʻafafine[edit]

  • half-man half-girl, an unnamed character in Albert Wendt's novel Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1979)
  • Muli and Pipi, in Dan Taulapapa McMullin's poem The Bat (1993) which received a Poets&Writers Award
  • Sugar Shirley, a character in Sia Figiel's novel Where We Once Belonged (1996)[24]
  • 'Vili Atafa, a character in the Pasifika play A Frigate Bird Sings (1996) by Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Nathaniel Lees[25]
  • Sinalela (2001), a fictional character in the short film Sinalela by Dan Taulapapa McMullin, awarded Best Short Film in the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival[26]
  • Faafafine (2001), an autobiographical solo performance piece by Brian Fuata[27]
  • Brother Ken in bro'Town (2004-2009), a school principal[28]
  • Jerry the Faʻafafine (2011), a thematic figure (influenced by the poetry of Taulapapa) in an artwork series by Tanu Gago[29]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Bartlett, N. H.; Vasey, P. L. (2006). "A Retrospective Study of Childhood Gender-Atypical Behavior in Samoan Faʻafafine". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 35 (6): 659–66. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9055-1. PMID 16909317. S2CID 22812712.
  2. ^ "Charting the Pacific – Faʻafafine – Samoan boys brought up as girls". www.abc.net.au. Retrieved 2016-06-20.
  3. ^ "Ia e Ola Malamalama i lou Faasinomaga, A comparative Study of the Faafafine of Samoa and the Whakawahine of Aotearoa-New Zealand" (PDF). 2013.
  4. ^ Tan, Yvette (September 1, 2016). "Samoa's 'third gender' beauty pageant". BBC News.
  5. ^ "Faʻafafine: Boys Raised to be Girls ten minute news video about faafafine in Australia". 26 August 2013.
  6. ^ Milner, G.B. 1966. Samoan-English Dictionary. "Faʻafafine" entry pg. 52 under "Fafine"
  7. ^ Taulapapa McMullin, Dan (2011). "Faʻafafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafanua". Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press: 81–94.
  8. ^ Silia Pa'usisi Finau (2017). Women's Leadership in Traditional Villages in Samoa: the Cultural, Social, and Religious Challenges (PDF) (PhD). Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 17 April 2022.
  9. ^ Kanemasu, Yoko; Liki, Asenati (2021-12-01). "'Let fa'afafine shine like diamonds': Balancing accommodation, negotiation and resistance in gender-nonconforming Samoans' counter-hegemony". Journal of Sociology. 57 (4): 806–824. doi:10.1177/1440783320964538. ISSN 1440-7833. S2CID 228995861.
  10. ^ Dolgoy, Reevan (2000). The Search for Recognition and Social Movement Emergence, Towards an Understanding of the Transformation of the Faafafine of Samoa. University of Alberta.
  11. ^ Vasey, Paul L.; VanderLaan, Doug P. (2010-08-01). "Avuncular Tendencies and the Evolution of Male Androphilia in Samoan Fa'afafine". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 39 (4): 821–830. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9404-3. ISSN 1573-2800. PMID 18810630. S2CID 19873688.
  12. ^ Saleimoa Vaai, Samoa Faa-matai and the Rule of Law (Apia: The National University of Samoa Le Papa-I-Galagala, 1999).
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ Perkins, Roberta (March 1994). "Like a Lady in Polynesia". Polare Magazine (3 ed.). gendercentre.org.au. Archived from the original on 2013-09-27.
  15. ^ "Shevon Kaio Matai passes away". Samoa News. Archived from the original on 2015-05-30. Retrieved 2015-06-06.
  16. ^ "Faʻafafine want fair and inclusive reporting". Samoa Observer.
  17. ^ Suʻa, Alex; Farran, Sue (2009). "Discriminating on the Grounds of Status: Criminal Law and Faʻafafine and Fakaleiti in the South Pacific". Journal of South Pacific Law.
  18. ^ "Samoan Queer Lives published by Little Island Press". Archived from the original on 2019-02-13. Retrieved 2018-11-27.
  19. ^ "New Miss UTOPIA crowned". Seattle Gay News. 2012-10-19. Archived from the original on 2014-01-12. Retrieved 2014-02-18.
  20. ^ "American Samoa: Through the Years". www.facebook.com.
  21. ^ "VIDEO: "Next Goal Wins" trailer details 'worst team in the world'". NBC Sports Radio. 2014-02-20. Retrieved 2014-02-28.
  22. ^ "Hollywood treatment for American Samoa". FIFA World. 13 March 2013. Archived from the original on May 3, 2014. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
  23. ^ "Transgender Warriors Local Hero Edition: Amao Leota Lu". Transgender Warriors. 2019-09-06. Retrieved 2021-06-02.
  24. ^ Yamamoto, Traise (2000-10-01). "Where We Once Belonged (review)". Journal of Asian American Studies. 3 (3): 384–386. doi:10.1353/jaas.2000.0042. ISSN 1096-8598. S2CID 144930451.
  25. ^ "A Frigate Bird Sings". Archived from the original on 2014-04-13. Retrieved 2014-04-13.
  26. ^ "Sinalela | Freewaves Video Archive". archive.freewaves.org. 22 January 2015.
  27. ^ "UTP". Urban Theatre Projects.
  28. ^ Schmidt, Johanna (2021) [2011]. "Brother Ken, bro'Town (1st of 3)". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Archived from the original on February 8, 2019. Retrieved October 8, 2021.
  29. ^ "Jerry The Fa'afafine". PIMPI KNOWS.


External links[edit]