Fa’afafine are Samoan biological males who behave in a range of feminine-gendered ways. They have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries. ‘Fa’afafine’ translates as ‘in the manner of a woman’. There may be equivalent identities for females who adopt masculine social roles in Pacific cultures, but evidence is scarce.
Numbers of fa’afafine
Numbers of fa’afafine are unofficially estimated to be 500 in Samoa and 500 in New Zealand.
In the islands
In many Pacific Island cultures, the custom of certain males dressing and behaving as females is long-established and well-recognised. As well as the Samoan fa’afafine, Pacific gender-diverse identities include fakaleiti in Tonga, mahu in Hawaii, mahu or rae rae in Tahiti, akava'ine or laelae in the Cook Islands, vaka sa lewa lewa in Fiji and fiafifine in Niue. However, fa’afafine are the only group who have been studied extensively.
Fa’afafine in Samoa
In traditional Samoan contexts, a boy’s preference for feminine tasks will usually be recognised at an early age. After being acknowledged as fa’afafine, she will then adopt other feminine behaviours such as dressing as a woman, dancing the siva (a traditional dance usually performed wearing a feathered headdress), and fulfilling feminine roles within the village. Fa’afafine are accepted as feminine, but they may also undertake masculine tasks or fulfil men’s roles. Fa’afafine often remain in their family homes and care for their parents.
Because of Samoan culture’s strong base in the Christian church, and the moral panic that occurred in relation to HIV/AIDS, fa’afafine in modern Samoa are often marginalised. However, fa’afafine beauty pageants are very popular. They draw on the tradition of gaining social recognition through entertainment, while also providing a platform for performing femininity. The pageants raise funds for charities such as HIV/AIDS organisations or the local rest home.
Fa’afafine in New Zealand
Migrant Samoans often encounter difficulties while adjusting to life in New Zealand. However fa’afafine face the extra problem that the traditional western gender system does not easily recognise individuals who sit between men and women. In New Zealand, some fa’afafine try to conform to conventional expressions of masculinity, including dressing as men, taking up masculine occupations and having relationships with women. However, those who continue to identify as fa’afafine eventually discard this masculinity to varying degrees. Politically, New Zealand-based fa’afafine are strongly aligned with the gay community, although some find the gay context does not allow them to be really feminine.
Some fa’afafine use various feminising medical technologies, such as hormones that result in the growth of breasts. However, even those who undergo full genital reconstruction surgery are not seen as ‘real’ women in the Samoan community, as they cannot bear children. Some New Zealand-based fa’afafine choose to enact femininity but not ‘pass’ as women. Such gender ambivalence has become increasingly possible as a result of a growing acceptance of cultural diversity in New Zealand, and the creation of media specifically about fa’afafine.
Connections and support
Most migrant fa’afafine remain part of their Samoan families and communities in New Zealand. They also maintain networks with other fa’afafine and other transgender or queer communities. Fa’afafine have been regular participants in gay-pride festivals and parades. The biennial Love Life Fono (meeting), organised by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation since 2005, brings together leaders and members from the Pacific’s sexual-minority communities to discuss important issues.
- Lindah LePou is a fashion designer and performer who has won numerous fashion awards.
- Shigeyuki Kihara is a visual artist whose work has appeared in both national and international venues.
- Fuimaona Karl Polotu-Endemann received the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2001 for services to public health.
- The animated television comedy bro’Town features a fa’afafine teacher. Two of the writers, Oscar Kightley and David Fane (who voices the teacher), also wrote the 1995 play A frigate bird sings, about a Samoan family in New Zealand, which had a fa’afafine as a central character.
- Cindy Filo is Samoa’s most famous fa’afafine entertainer.