While it is not widely known in Australia, there is a third gender of people who make up an important and accepted part of Samoan culture.
Samoan Fa'afafine – or “Fafa” – are men who are raised as females and identify with that gender.
They mostly have relationships with heterosexual men and are generally not gay.
In Samoa, gender identity is largely based on a person's role in the family and if one family has numerous sons and no daughters, it's not uncommon to raise one of the boys as a girl.
In fact, being a Fa'afaine or the practice of males adopting female gender roles and the attributes traditionally associated with women is deeply embedded in much of Polynesia.
Some Polynesian elders believe there are boys born with the “Fa'afafine spirit,” while others say it can be nurtured.
Boys like Leo Tanoi, who don't feel the Fa'afafine spirit, may be nominated as the Fafa in a family of all boys but Leo says that doesn't always work out for the best.
“Quite a lot of the memories I have related to this is all the physical abuse,” he says.
“A lot of physical violence, a lot of pulling my pants down, tying me up, beating me up in front of everybody. That sort of behaviour. I got used to being told in front of people that I'm a girl. It was a very lonely time and I don't think people know how lonely it was.”
The abuse did not come from Leo's mother but from his six brothers and a lynch mob of boys in his community who wanted to toughen him up to bring him back to “manhood”.
That pressure, compounded by his mother's encouragement toward femininity, caused much confusion.
“What I went through, it really affected me a lot and I don't think my family know that during this time I became a petrol sniffer. So on record for the first time I'm saying that I was sniffing petrol all through my teens. I think that's where I was escaping to during the times of physical abuse and all of the mental sort of abuse,” Leo says.
He became determined to prove to his masculinity to his family and peers and went to extraordinary measures to do that.
At the age of 11 he discovered football and clung onto the idea that the typically “macho” sport would save him.
He says it was the only thing that kept him alive.
By 21, he was playing first grade for the Cronulla Sharks.
Patrick Abboud on telling Leo's story
I first met Leo at a Pacific Islander cultural festival in Western Sydney five years ago.
We got chatting about the Samoan Fa'afafine. He told me his personal story about how his mother nominated him as the Fa'afafine in his family but he completely rejected it. He agreed to let me produce a short radio documentary with some video posted online, but that just skimmed the surface on this fascinating cultural practice.
I was left with so many more questions about why the Samoan community and others across Polynesia do this, so we stayed in touch. He wasn't ready to share the full extent of his harrowing story until now.
Charting his deeply personal journey in full detail for the first time on Australian television for The Feed, he says: “To be honest I wouldn't want anyone to go through this. In all honesty it's a crime. I just feel sorry for all the Fa'afafines that are probably getting that abuse at the moment”.
Over the past three years, I started going to other Samoan cultural events and tapping into underground networks where Fa'afafines get together for nights out and that kind of thing. I met more and more Fa'afafines living in Australia but none of them have been willing to talk about it either – until now.
Unlike Leo, Phineas Hartmon feels he was born naturally with the spirit of Fa'afafine. He took on the role of the Fafa in his family and says he had a beautiful childhood among a loving family.
Despite being raised more girl than boy, he lives today as a man.
“Fa'fafine know that they're boys at the end of the day, but some portray their femininity stronger than others,” he says.
“I'm comfortable living the way I am and dressing the way I am but I have the femininity that a Fa'afafine has.”
And then there are people like Ymania who are groomed early to behave in the manner of a woman.
Ymania was born a boy but identified as female from a very young age and has always lived, dressed and behaved as a woman.
“I had a great upbringing in Samoa. There was never any punishment or restriction in terms of who I could be. Because of that understanding, that love and support, I was allowed to feel that it's okay to be different,” he says.
“In the Australian community we live in, it's about honouring the commitment to a child's gender. If a child is born male, your commitment as a parent is to raise the child as a male. Same thing if that child is born female. There's nothing wrong with that. That's how we raise our children in Western society. By the very same token, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Samoan parents, raising a child as a Fa'afafine.”
As the Technical Director of the Samoan Fa'afafine association in Samoa,
Ymania says there is up to 3000 Fa'afafine currently living across Samoa and at least 100 Fa'afafine currently living, according to the official count, in Australia.
This is the first time Leo, Phineas and Ymania are sharing their personal journeys on Australian television and I'm grateful to have had the chance to get to know them in the process. I guess immersing myself in their community helped win their trust. I'm hopeful that broadcasting these stories will help dispel some of the myths and stereotypes about what is a complex and often misunderstood cultural phenomenon.
Patrick Abboud is a reporter on SBS2's The Feed. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickAbboud or @TheFeedSBS2.
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