Using Other Cultures to Help Further Equality
In 2016, there has been huge progress made in the United States to increase awareness for the LGBTQ+ community but the fight for understanding isn’t over. When talking about acceptance and understanding regarding the LGBTQ+ community, it is imperative to look at cultures which have a history of integration for all individuals. There are many traditions in the world which do not fit into the idea of a gender binary and can help the US move forward towards equality. In Samoa, there is a cultural tradition of a third gender. This gender is called fa’afafine. Fa’afafine means “in the manner of (fa’a) woman (fafine)” after being translated from Samoan. While there are examples of third genders in other cultures, the fa'afafine phenomenon is unique to Samoan culture. Fa'afafine is not a Samoan term for ‘drag queens’ or transvestites. It is a concept which does not fit readily into Western culture. People raised by Western ideals are too ready to mistakenly force foreign cultural traditions into a gender binary existence. Fa'afafine are something that can only be looked at through a Samoan culture lens.
In Samoa, individuals learn about their gender roles through their interactions with family members. This leads to a normalization and acceptance of individuals who do not follow the typical path through life. The majority of families help their children fill their chosen identity because most families, in Samoa, understand that gender is fluid. According to Professor Paul Vasey, a teacher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, fa’afafine “are among the most well accepted third-gender on Earth.” It is believed that there are some 3000 fa’afafine in Samoa. Many people have difficulty comprehending how a third gender is possible but Samoan culture shows how gender identity goes beyond sexual organs and a label placed by doctors at birth.. There are two different ways to live as a fa’afafine, one is to take on traditionally female roles and dress while the other way is to maintain 'masculine roles' while adopting more feminine mannerisms and styles of dress. Both styles are common and accepted by many tribal communities, something that the U.S. can use as an example. These forms of fa'afafine do not mean that fa’afafine are gay in the Western sense of the word. As Ymania Brown, a founder of the Samoan Fa’afafine Association, says “When you try to fit cultural idioms into Western boxes, what you end up doing is trying to find the nearest fit.” To be fa’afafine is to be a third integral part of Samoan culture, this dates back to the early 20th century, long before puritanical values began imposing a gender binary on a community more progressive than most cultures, even by today’s standards.
Lost in Translation
According to the Special Broadcasting Service, SBS, being a fa’afafine means to be a male who assumes more feminine roles in society. In certain villages and families, a fa’afafine is chosen by parents and raised in that manner, this is more common in families with many sons but few to no girls. The fa'afafine is then treated as a daughter/sister typically. However, this role is not clearly defined for outsiders. The practice of choosing a role for a son is not always successful and can ostracize individuals by not providing them with the option of choice. The other way of becoming a fa’afafine is choosing to express yourself in that manner. Tribal customs in Samoa believe that there are boys who have the ‘fa’afafine’ spirit inside them. These boys are then labeled with feminine pronouns and take on female names. It is difficult to explain this phenomenon because the English language, as we know it, does not contain the proper vocabulary to discuss the tradition of fa’afafine. The English language has only two pronouns to discuss gender, masculine and feminine, which immediately leads to confusion. Another problem is that only 50% of ‘millennials’, people aged 18-34 years old, believe that gender is a spectrum according to a poll done by Fusion. These things make the basic understanding of what it means to be a fa’afafine much more difficult when translating this idea into a Western setting.
Puritanical Values vs Tribal Customs
Another problem is that Christian values, along with other Western influences, have tainted Samoan culture. There are harsh homophobic laws in Samoa supported by a strongly conservative Christian community. Members of the Samoan Fa’afafine Association have been working to repeal these laws and remove the stigma which has arisen to oppress the fa’afafine tradition. A fa’afafine possibly committed suicide in a church, this past year, and a national newspaper showed an uncensored image of her body on the front page. This drew outrage from the SFA and the fa’afafine community because “it had robbed what last dignity and humanity Ms. Tuivaiki had.” Similar situations have come to light, on smaller scales, in villages where certain boys are humiliated for either choosing to be fa’afafine or being chosen to be fa’afafine. Progress is being made to help the fa’afafine but even in a country with progressive tribal traditions, puritanical values have created a stigmatization which is being fought every day.
How Can Fa'afafine provide a new perspective on western values
Samoan culture and Western culture have clashing views on the ideas of a gender binary. Christian values do not allow for the concept of a gender spectrum or even a third gender. Samoan culture accepts it as a way of life. In the more secluded villages with little contact from Christian missionaries or other western influence, fa’afafine are accepted. Accepted is not even the best word to use because the Samoans do not have to grapple with the idea of their child choosing a third gender, it is a simple fact of life. In recent years, the LGBTQ+ community has been trying to rid the West of the need for ‘acceptance.’ There is no question that a lot of progress has been made but that does not prevent us from being able to look to Samoan culture and history as a guide when discussing the gender spectrum.