What Does Gender Mean Today?
The definition of gender is, “the state of being male or female.” However, in recent years gender has appeared to become morphed into a less restrictive term. Gender in regards to the idea of being either a man or a woman has shifted from an either or term to more of a spectrum, allowing individuals to identify with more of a linear model. An individual’s gender identity, expression, biological sex, and sexual orientation can be vastly different. For example, an individual could have been born female, identified as man, expressed their gender as feminine, and identified as bisexual. This spectrum has no restrictions in regard to one’s identity, and they can express themselves in whichever way they deem fit. This spectrum, however, is not well known nor accepted in popular culture. It is not always thought of as “fitting” or “normal,” in America; however, this spectrum of identity is embedded in cultures around the world.
This video is part of a Netflix series exploring a child's gender identity and expression in order to normalize different gender expressions in America.
The Samoan Fa'afafine
One example of a country whose culture openly accepts "third gender" individuals is Samoa. Samoa is regarded as a devout conservative Christian country, but it has adapted to the gender spectrum through its acceptance of a third gender, otherwise known as the “Fa’afafine.” “Fa’afafine,” otherwise known as “the way of the woman” describes individuals who were born male, and embody both masculine and feminine gender traits. They are not Transgender, but their own gender entity. Their identity can range from extravagantly feminine to conventionally masculine. In a traditionally conservative culture, how did this “third gender” come to be?
Fa'afafine Roles in Samoan Society
Pre-Christian Samoans accepted and acknowledged that every individual, man or woman, had a separate role in society. Therefore, it is still acceptable today for a male child to be feminine. A child can be named as “Fa’afafine,” if they portray feminine tendencies, or there are not enough females in a family to accomplish the “role” of female children in the house. Fa’afafine are not constrained by their status of acting like a woman, as they can have relationships with men, women, or both genders, however, relationships with other Fa’afafine are not traditionally accepted in Samoan society.
Is the Fa'afafine Gender Exclusive?
The Fa’afafine gender seems very progressive in popular culture, but it is very exclusive in Samoan culture. For example, no woman can dress like a man, or act “in the way of a man.” Women are also not permitted to have relationships with both genders, or even other women. Although women can have relationships with Fa’afafine, Fa’afafine rarely have relationships with one another, as it is not “custom.” Fa’afafine also may be forced into their role of femininity if their parents decide the need a child to complete female roles in the house. This child may for the rest of his/her life may be forced into traditional feminine roles such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare for the rest of his/her life.
Watch 2:40-5:15- This excerpt provides interviews from Fa'afafine, as well as individuals who were originally forced by their mothers to be Fa'afafine as children.
The Muxes of Mexico
Third genders” similar to the Fa’afafine are prevalent throughout the world, and similar to the Fa’afafine, are exclusive to those born with male genitalia and their sexual preference varies. Muxes, In Juchitá de Zaragoza Mexico are born into a male body and do not identify as neither female nor male. Muxes, unlike Fa’afafine, are not a prevalently accepted in Mexican culture, and are not raised as Muxe if they display feminine traits as a child.
The Sekrata of Madagascar
The Sakalava people of Madagascar recognize a third gender as well, known as the “Sekrata.” Similar to the Fa’afafine, Sekrata are individuals born with male genitalia and are raised by their families as female from a young age, and this third gender is widely accepted throughout Madagascar. However, unlike the Fa’afafine, the Sekrata identify with more of an ambiguous gender, some think of it as “forgetting your gender.” The Sekrata can have relationships with other men, women, or each other, similar to the Fa’afafine.
Gender Acceptance in Western Culture
Although the idea of a “third gender” is not widely accepted in Western culture, it prevalent in cultures around the world. Countries like Samoa, Mexico, and Madagascar all have groups that don’t define themselves as transgender, but as individuals born male with female characteristics. Their sexual preference can vary, along with their expression of their gender. Although some groups are not widely accepted, and exclusive to individuals born with male genitalia, they provide a representation of acceptance to Western culture, and the need for a greater awareness of gender identity and expression.