Whitewashing Colonialism: Fa’afafine in Samoa

(Post in question)

For those who do not know, fa’afafine are a culturally specific gender identity/role from Samoa. Fa’afafine most closely translates to “like a woman” or “in the manner of a woman”. The male counterpart for fa’afafine is fa’afatama. Although fa’afafine identity is often conceptualized as a “third gender”, this is fairly erasive and tends to frame non-Western identities and genders in the context of Western terminology and conceptualizations of gender and sexuality. Even more, fa’afafine organizations have explicitly spoken out against framing fa’afafine and fa’afatama as transgender:

The terms Fa’afafine & Fa’afatama are culturally unique and specific to Samoa’s 3rd gender. It is a social and communal gender fluid based status given to effeminate males and butch females within the Samoan cultural context. We go on record that we, Fa’afafines and Fa’afatamas, are NOT all transgender. Some of us are, but they are exceptions to the rule.

Boxing our issues together with Transgender issues under the LGBTIQ framework ignores our cultural connection or “fa’asinomaga” which is the essence and at the heart of every Samoan. The Samoa Faafafine Association is challenging this perception that Fa’afafines and Fa’afatamas are Transgender for the sake of convenience in the LGBTIQ framework

As someone living in relative privilege in Western society, I have to tiptoe carefully around issues of global majority gender identity for fear of inscribing my conceptualizations of gender and sexuality onto other cultures with a rich history and culture.

It seems to me that research focused on the fa’afafine of Samoa has become all the rage of late, at least for those interested in feminine androphilic males / “homosexual MTF transgender” folk.

Here’s the first issue. Fa’afafine are not some uniform category you can transcribe into Western categories. There is the issue of how European colonization of Samoa has transformed and twisted traditional Samoan culture, but further attempts to apply Western terminology are harmful and reproduce colonialism. Many fa’afafine identify as gay men, others as trans women, and more as a culturally specific identity.

The interest has at its heart, the hope that it represents a culture that is closer to what we might have had before large-scale civilizations began, one closer to what humans may have evolved within.

The narrative that casts indigenous cultures as ‘primordial’ is extremely problematic, and again reproduces colonialism. To quote Joanna Schmidt’s paper on fa’afafine gender identity,

However, suggesting that non-Western cultures are more accepting of non-normative genders and sexualities frequently involves casting these cultures as ‘primordial’, ‘implying that ancient history lives on in the contemporary lives of non-Western peoples, who are then called upon to exemplify “our [Western] sacred past”’ (Towle & Morgan 2002, 482). Alternatively, the use of psychological and sexological terminologies to ‘define’ fa’afāfine suggests that these Western scientific discourses contain the ‘truth’ of these non-normative identities (Schmidt 2010). Both of these approaches are fundamentally flawed because they position Western understandings of gender and sexuality as more ‘evolved’ than their non-Western counterparts, and/or elide the cultural specificities of the identities being discussed, assuming an equivalence between all instances of apparent transgenderism or ostensible same-sex desire.

Colonization has nearly irrevocably changed Samoan society and any attempt to compare modern Samoan society to ‘an environment in which humans evolved in’ implicitly requires the denial of colonization and the association of the Samoan people as being ‘primitive’.

Thus, if we were to predict the ratio of androphilic vs. non-androphilic transwomen based upon the relationship between the Hofstede Individualism Index and the percentage of non-androphilic transwomen found by Lawrence, we would expect almost no non-androphilic transwomen.  And indeed, one never sees them mentioned in connection with Samoa.

The conflation of trans women (not ‘transwomen’ Brown, there’s a space) with fa’afafine is representative of a fundamental misunderstanding of fa’afafine identity based on a misinterpretation of the literature. As stated above, fa’afafine identity is not something that can be easily translated into Western (specifically Anglospheric/English) terminology without reducing and erasing specific cultural attachments to these identities. Fa’afafine identity comes with a large variety of gender presentations/expressions and blurs the lines between ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ (as masculine gay men and feminine trans women can and do identify as fa’afafine):

However, the extent and manner of their gender presentation varies, and fa’afafine have male gender roles as well3. Though traditionally defined as women by society, they are a heterogeneous group in which some pass for women, others only adopt elements of female presentation, and still others are more masculine4. Some may dress as a woman full-time, part time, or only adopt certain aspects of female appearance like make-up or nail polish. Some fa’fafine identify themselves more as men. It should also be noted that fa’afafine may not always present their gender in the same manner day-to-day. Many identify as women, but most would define themselves as biologically and socially distinct from women

If one is using fa’afafine as a case study to analyze trans identity outside of North American/European countries, it is necessary to exclude those who would not be classified as trans.

Furthermore, there are some issues with the Hofstede Individualism Index that is being used to correlate ‘collectivism’/’individualism’ (which are amorphous terms that are defined as somehow contrasting, yet are not inherently mutually exclusive). Are individualism and collectivism event cogent concepts to apply to cross-cultural comparisons? Voronov and Singer argue they are not.

Furthermore, the way that the HII actually ends up functioning doesn’t seem to be the way that Brown is using it;

Based on our analysis, we suggest that Hofstede’s Individualism–Collectivism index be relabelled as Self-orientation vs Work-orientation and GLOBE’s In-group collectivism as Family Collectivism.

Analyses of the HII show that is has relatively small reliability, and other individualism vs collectivism metrics show more correlations with important metrics. There are numerous other overall problems with Hofstede’s analysis, some of which are still debated, but it’s safe to say that Hofstede’s Individualism-Collectivism is not a useful or applicable scale in the way it is being applied here.

In Samoa, there is almost no stigma attached to being a feminine male.  Feminine male children are not bullied.  Fa’afafine adults are not discriminated against in employment.  There is little to no stigma attached to masculine men finding Fa’afafine sexually attractive.

Naive. Fa’afafine face many issues in regards to their femininity, specifically because of the Western colonization she notes later on.

Violence is not uncommon

The violence fa’afafine experience is tied to male privilege. Samoa is a male-dominated culture in which women are socially disadvantaged7. Fa’afafine have increasingly experienced public discrimination. Inaccurately referred to as homophobia, this de novo misogyny is part of a pattern of oppression and marginalization of women and non-man genders that is pervasive in the culture. It is the marginalization of women, but of third-gender women. Stemming from this marginalization of women, violence is a psychological and physical reality for fa’afafine. Violence serves to isolate the fa’afafine, disrupt their access to and utilization of health services, and may be responsible for certain health outcomes.

And fa’afafine activists note the struggles of being fa’afafine:

However, these are the same relationships which prove challenging at times. Although we lead the choirs, organise the decorations for the church and so on, it is the same church that tells us that the way we live our lives is wrong. This then gives way to those who may look at us with contempt and suspicion justification maltreat fa’afafine.

Several fa’afafine have been victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence based on their chosen expression. I have certainly had my own personal experiences; however, I have been able to rise above them.

As President of the SFA I am able to work with a lot of young fa’afafine and to train them to be resilient and also advocates for other fa’afafine. The SFA provides a space of familiarity, where fa’fafine can come together to share and learn, network, create friendships and family bonds. It is a space where we can collectively navigate the issues that we all face, and recently it has been a space where we can work with communities and churches so that they understand who we are.

Therefore, Brown’s conclusion that:

But because there is little to no stigma attached, androphilic males are free to express as much or as little femininity as they find in themselves with little incentive to attempt to suppress it as occurs in many other cultures.

is clearly false.

Fa’afafine are universally androphilic and have sex with masculine men.  They don’t have sex with each other because they are attracted to masculinity which is not especially abundant in fa’afafine.

Predominantly androphilic, I’d tentatively agree with. But “universally” is a mischaracterization of an understudied field of research, especially in regards to the trans women population within the fa’afafine population and perhaps outside of it. Fa’afafine have typically been studied as an entire group, rather than trans women specifically, so applying research on fa’afafine to “Samoan trans women” is disingenuous and makes too many claims from the limited body of research present.

But those episodes with masculine men are typically “one night stands”.  I can’t believe that they wouldn’t choose to have long-term romance in a committed relationship.  Although not well publicized, and not nearly as common as we might like, such long term relationships do exist between masculine men and androphilic transwomen in Western cultures.  So I must conclude that it is the Samoan culture, non-fa’afafine family members and others, that in effect prohibits or discourages such relationships.  I would like to be proven wrong on this… I really would.

There is very little literature on the entire topic of fa’afafine sexuality or fa’afafine in general, so it’s pretty early to be making conclusions on fa’afafine and their sexualities.

An educated reader will perhaps recognize my quip of a title from Margaret Mead’s 1928 book.  They may also know of how she was attacked by Derek Freeman.  Maybe I’m just biased by my friendship with Alice Dreger, since I don’t believe a word Freeman says… but the episode does offer a cautionary tale regarding the potential changes that Christian missionaries have already brought to Samoa

The entire reason that Samoans are so hesitant to engage with Westerners now, especially sexuality is because Mead went there, collected some data and then misrepresented it to create her thesis that painted Samoans in a false light.

From Feu’u 2014:

Mead’s study has been challenged by anthropologist Derek Freeman in his book, Margaret Mead and Samoa: the Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth Refuted (1983); and Lowell D. Holmes in his PhD, The Restudy of Manu’an Culture: A Problem in Methodology (1957) (see also Margaret Mead and Samoa – part 1 to 6, 1988 Several Samoans also strongly criticized Mead’s findings (see Margaret Mead and Samoa – part 5 and entreated Freeman to correct her mistaken depiction of the Samoan culture (Freeman, 1983: xv). Talitiga Dr. Venasio Sele, for example, argued that Samoa and American Samoa have been misunderstood by anthropologists ever since Mead wrote about Samoan girls supposed promiscuity (Claire, 2002: p. 2)

Mead’s research has been described as a hoax, similar to the Manti Te’o hoax (see One of Mead’s participants, Fa’apua’a Fa’amu, confirmed and confessed she was lying to Mead about her stories, saying “Samoan girls are terrific liars when it comes to joking but Margaret accepted our trumped-up stories as though they were true” (cited in Kaltenborn, 2003: p. 30; see also Margaret Mead and Samoa – part 5 of 6

Schmidt (2005) encountered difficulties in studying fa’afafine in Samoa and Aotearoa/New Zealand, specifically because she is Palagi. She experienced harsh criticism from older, university educated individuals in Samoa who had considerably more influence and insider knowledge than she had with many of the fa’afafine she spoke to (Schmidt, 2005: p. 71). Some Samoans feared that Schmidt’s research would describe Samoa as a ‘gay paradise’ (ibid). She explains that the image of a ‘gay paradise’ was a consequence of Mead’s research (ibid). It left Samoans extremely wary of non-Samoan researchers, especially those who evidence any interest in sexuality (ibid). She reports that almost all Samoans seem to know
Mead’s name and many are aware of the belief of promiscuity among Samoan youth that Mead propagated (ibid). This suggests that some Samoans do not wish for history to repeat itself as a result of Mead’s research and may explain why there is such reluctance to participate in research with non-Samoan people.

Independent Study Project by non-Samoan Teake (2010) also experienced problems researching fa’afafine. Participants in Teake’s (2010: p. 5) research were concerned that yet another misinformed representation would be produced with the potential to negatively impact fa’afafine’s image internationally. One participant refused to participate in Teake’s research because he was concerned that he had no control over how the information would be used (ibid). Another participant remained cautious of any misinformed or distorted study that might centre disproportionately
on discussions of sexuality or sexual practices. One other participant mentioned that he did not like Margaret Mead and aimed to clearly ascertain the nature and ultimate purpose of Teake’s research, for example, “What is this for exactly?”….Psychology? Sociology?….Sexiology?” (ibid).

Clearly previous research on Samoa by non-Samoans or non-fa’afafine has not been wholeheartedly endorsed. Mead’s fieldwork has undermined the trust attributed to ethnographers whose task is to represent others to academic and nonacademic audiences (Goldsmith, 2000: p. 48). I would argue that Mead’s research has had a negative lasting impact on Samoan people in general. It is possible that the wary participants exemplify what Rohatynbskyj and Jaarsma (2000: p. 10) describe as feeling “outraged at being talked about, spoken for and represented” by non fa’afafine or nonSamoan researchers. I suspect that the unwillingness of Teake’s and Schmidt’s participants’ derives from suspicion about sharing information with someone who is non-fa’afafine and/or non-Samoan and concerns about how information will be used by the researcher. Another possible explanation for reluctance to participate could be a result of what Smith (1995) calls ‘conjuring up bad memories’ of previous western research. Schmidt and Teake did not have the advantage as I had as an insider when interviewing fa’afafine (see Chapter 3).

To conclude that portion, Mead is a hack research who was unaware of Samoan cultural intricacies, and her non-Samoan status made it nearly impossible for her to relate with Samoans. Her research left Samoa with a particular picture on the global scheme that Samoan refute, and she’s viewed negatively by most Samoans.

From a wonderful study by Hsu, we know that such men tend to be autogynephilic as well.  Although Samoan autogynephilic men are not likely to transition to presenting as women, that does not mean that they won’t seek out their prefered external sexual partners, women and feminine males, to wit fa’afafine.

Interesting that Brown supposes that ‘autogynephilia’ is universally cross-culturally prevalent given her previous comments about establishing autogynephilia in populations.

I have no contest with the rest of her analysis on Petterson’s work. I’ve read the study, found the research interesting and well-needed, but don’t exactly recall or have any comments on the conclusions of the author. I agree on the confounding aspect of the variety of fa’afafine gender presentation.