Fafafini: Gender-Crossing in Samoan Society
The Fafafini (correctly, Fa'afafine) is a third gender specific to Samoan and the surrounding Polynesian island culture. Biologically, Fafafini are men who have been raised since early childhood to assume female gender and sexual roles within Samoan society.
In Samoan society, gender roles are shaped by society itself.
With an emphasis on the group and family rather than the individual, Samoan families have for centuries raised males displaying particular effeminate traits as females.
Said to have originated in a time when there was a lack of women to perform domestic tasks, this third gender evolved. Unlike many societies around the world where women are treated as subservient or insignificant, Samoan culture values their role rather uniquely.
As Fafafini, they are considered a gender altogether separate from male and female, with distinct gender roles specific to them; different from those of either men or women.
Viewed as highly intuitive and creative, most Samoan families are said to have at least one Fafafini, and sometimes more. But this is not to say that some boys don't refuse to submit to taking on this life-changing role.
While reliant on one’s own family for societal purpose, Fafafini are also members of a sa, or a communal family within the fa'amatai family systems.
Far from enduring a stigma attached to what many societies perceive as deviant, homosexual behavior, Samoans traditionally recognize the Fafafini as an essential third gender and afford them total respect and acceptance for having taken on the complete role of a woman (which in many cases includes the removal or alteration of their male genitalia).
While gay or homosexual relations are generally frowned upon in Samoan society, sex with a Fafafini is not considered homosexual nor degenerate in any regard whatsoever. In fact, it is said that a young Samoan man’s first sexual experience is often with a Fafafini.
Traditionally, a Fafafini won’t have sex with another Fafafini, only straight men.
Part of their status within Samoan society is that Fafafini are afforded the right to think of themselves as superior to both men and women at domestic skills because of the physical strength they possess.
Today, on a broader societal scale, the role Fafafini play within South Pacific Island society is evolving beyond their functional role.
Now taking an active part in the development of contemporary Pacific Islander arts, the works of Fafafini painter and writer Dan Taulapapa McMullin, artist and curator Shigeyuki Kihara, poet and performance artist Brian Fuata, and fashion artist Lindah Lepou are drawing attention to their societal contribution.
Dan Taulapapa McMullin bio-video
Recent exhibitions of other indigenous transgender artists including the Fafafini were included in the 2006 Le Vasa Art Exhibition in San Francisco, 2007 Measina Fa'afafine Art Exhibition in Auckland, and the 2008 Hand in Hand Art Exhibition in Sydney.
Additionally, the New Zealand animated television series bro'Town (that ran through 2009) included a Fafafini character named Brother Ken, a school principal and personal friend of many well-known New Zealanders. Brother Ken appeared in nearly every episode throughout the five seasons.
Also, Samoan writer Sia Figiel's novel Where We Once Belonged includes a Fafafini character named Sugar Shirley, known for her prowess on the rugby field, further illustrating the expanding role of third gender in Pacific Island society and acknowledgment of the Fafafini contribution.
Humanity, An Intro to Cultural Anthropology, J. Peoples
Redefining Fa'afafine: “Western Discourses and the Construction of Transgenderism in Samoa,” Schmidt, J., Intersections
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