Fa’afafine: third gender in Samoan culture

8 Oct


This segment from the New Zealand television program Pacific Beat St explores the concept of Fa’afafine (fah-fa-fee-neh), a gender category in Samoan culture that is distinct from man or woman. In this way, Fa’afafine can be understood as a third gender that falls outside of the gender dichotomy, and this gender category is integrated into the fabric of Samoan society. As explained here, if a family is comprised of all sons, one of the boys will sometimes be raised as a daughter in order to perform daily duties that are associated with femininity. Other times, parents will raise their (biologically born) boys Fa’afafine if they exhibit strong feminine characteristics at an early age. The work performed by Fa’afafines is valued within the culture and, as noted in this clip, can include such things as cooking, caregiving, and singing in the choir. Fa’afafines present their gender in a variety of ways, as one American traveller observed: “Some of the Fa’afafines I met were very effeminate and dramatic, some were big old bruisers, some were very understated and graceful, but all walked among their countrymen with heads high and a solid footing in society.” However, although Fa’afafines are an established part of Samoan culture, as this video states, they still face discrimination and marginalization, similar to transgender people in other societies. In this clip, Phylesha Brown-Acton, a Fa’afafine and transgender advocate, speaks of the prejudices she’s faced. Instructors can highlight the specific stereotypes Phylesha cites, which, in addition to being perceived as “a sex worker, a druggie, a thief,” also include the misperception of being “a man who wears women’s clothing.” As Phylesha says, every Fa’afafine has a different identity, but she personally does not identify as a man or a woman; as such, she is not “a man who wears women’s clothing.” This perspective and societal arrangement challenges the Western gender binary system. The clip also features Phylesha’s advocacy work with youth and we meet three Fa’afafine youth advocates who work on behalf of transgender issues.


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