Rethinking GendeR: The Concept Of A Third Gender By Becca Biros


Gender is a social construct, and Western culture starts to impose its values before we are born. Gender is important to understand because it is part of a personal identity and allows people of different social backgrounds to work together to solve gender-related conflicts. Universally, there are more than the two genders that are recognized in Western culture. In Samoa, the third gender is referred to as the fa’afafine.

What is the Western gender binary mindset?

The Western gender binary pairs sex and gender together; defining two distinguishable, distinct genders: males who identify as men and females who identify as women. This means that qualities of feminine or masculine are assigned to the way a sex is perceived to act within the confines of social norms. Gender binary generally dictates self-expression from lifestyle choices to occupations. Expectations of dress, private and public behavior, sexual orientation, names, pronouns, personality traits, careers, and the usage of restrooms are also strongly dictated by the gender binary mindset.

Who are the Fa’afafine?

Fa'afafine is Samoa's recognized third gender, opposing the Western gender binary mindset. ‘Fa’afafine’ translates to ‘in the manner of a woman’ and describes Samoan biological males who identify in a range of feminine-gendered ways. About 1-5% of Samoa's 190,000 population identifies as fa’afafine. Generally, a boy’s preference for feminine tasks will be recognised at an early age. After being acknowledged as fa’afafine, she will then adopt said feminine behaviours relating to dress, dancing the siva (a traditional dance usually performed wearing a feathered headdress), and fulfilling female roles within the village. Fa’afafine are accepted as feminine, but they may also undertake masculine tasks or fulfil men’s roles, implying a large, flexible scale of femininity and masculinity. They have been an integrated part of Samoan communities for centuries.

How does the Fa’afafine represent the spectrum of the gender experience?

Paul Vasey, professor and research chair of psychology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, believes the Samoan fa‘afafine are one of the most well-accepted third genders on Earth. Typically in Samoa, Fa‘afafine children generally take on girls’ roles in play and family; as adults they remain anatomically male with feminine appearance and mannerisms. They generally are designated to help with household chores and childcare and choose men for sexual partners. Professor Vasey researches third genders ability to "shed light on the “evolutionary paradox” of male same-sex attraction.” He also researches the ability to pass the associated gene, since typically fa’afafine do not have children of their own. One theory is that the gene that determines sexual attraction to males is often a reproductive benefit in females that are more fertile, which can be found in fa’afafines. Often, mothers and maternal grandmothers of fa‘afafine do have more babies than the mothers and grandmothers of straight Samoan men. However, fa’afafine does not always imply heightened femininity. Professor Vasey met Alatina Ioelu, who is a fa’afafine, thirteen summers ago and they hope to marry and retire in Canada someday. Loelu generally wears cargo shorts and a t-shirt and appears tall, broad-shouldered, and a handsome, masculine face. The spectrum of femininity or masculinity in fa’afafines varies drastically.

How have the Fa’afafine integrated into larger society?

Samoan culture has a strong base in the Christian church and a negative stigma with relation to HIV/AIDS, causing fa’afafine to often be marginalised. However, fa’afafine beauty pageants are popular ways to reduce prejudice - using the tradition of gaining social recognition through entertainment and providing a platform for performing various levels of femininity, all while raising funds for charities. Fa’afafine often participate in gay-pride festivals and parades and other inclusive events.


The idea of the third gender in Samoan culture has been recognized for centuries and fa'afafines are becoming more accepted for who they are as time passes. The Western gender binary mindset is restrictive and oppressive and as a society, we should continue accepting and respecting any gender that a person chooses to identify with.

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