Not really a boy, not really a girl, not traditionally 'trans' of any kind. Somewhere between all those identities exists a third gender. We're talking about the Samoan Fa'afafine or 'Fafa'.
Fafa have the body of a man but identify as female. They have relationships with heterosexual men mostly and are generally not gay.
Well not for the Samoan community - it's part and parcel of their culture. Gender identity for Samoans is about the role you play in the family not so much which anatomical bits you have. So when you've got 7 or 8 sons - no girls in the family, it's quite the norm to simply raise one of your 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. There’s no hard and fast rules on how it works and this isn’t some weird antiquated cultural practice – it’s happening right now.
Some Polynesian elders will tell you there are boys born with the ‘fa’afafine spirit’, and others will 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 by the mother – 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. 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”, he says.
The abuse didn’t come from Leo’s mother but from his 6 brothers and a lynch mob of boys in his community who wanted to toughen him up to bring him back to ‘manhood’. Between that and having his mother trying to sway him more towards the feminine – he was a pretty messed up kid. “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 was determined to prove to his masculinity and that he wasn’t a fa’afafine to his family and peers. He went to extraordinary measures to do that. Age 11 he found football and clung onto the ideal that the sport being so macho 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.
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 doco 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, you know, abuse at the moment”.
Over the past 3 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 amongst a loving family. Despite being raised more ‘girl’ than ‘boy’ he lives and presents 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. I’m comfortable living the way I am and dressing the way I am but I have the femininity that a fa’afafine has”, he says.
And then there’s the likes of Ymania - from the word go - boys groomed 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”.
Ymania continues, “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’s up to three thousand Fa’afafine currently living across Samoa and at least one hundred Fa’afafine currently living in Australia on record.
This is the first time Leo, Phineas and Ymania are sharing their personal journeys on Australian television and I’m grateful having 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 phenomena.