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May 7, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Her Name Is Peter

Her name is Peter. She grew up in Samoa with a loving family. She described herself as “an effeminate version of a sickly male boy.” Peter was a Fa’afafine and was raped from age eight. Her uncle would take her aside and sexually assault her, violently attacking her on the beach. No one stopped him. Peter was alone. Peter was different, strange, odd. Western culture had forced itself into Samoa and exposed Peter and her Uncle to our simplistic, heteronormative view of the world, where differences are condemned rather than celebrated. Peter’s story is unfortunately not the exception.

Fa’afafine are people who have the physical characteristics of men but are raised more as women, yet to call them either of these things would be bigotry. Traditional Samoa considered them Fa’afafine with distinct cultural roots and roles separate from the binary gender divide. In Samoa, homosexual sex is considered to be wrong, yet a man having sex with a Fa’afafine is not. Fa’afafine are brought up to carry out female tasks but due to their physique are often very useful people to have around. They are less likely to get married and are more expected to look after elderly parents.

In traditional Samoa, they were accepted as a normal type of individual: a third gender, just as appropriate as being male or female. Yet Samoans don’t live in isolation anymore. They have uprooted to New Zealand and the rest of the world, or remained in Samoa only to be bombarded by a Western way of life. That cultural contact has forever altered and distorted the treatment of Fa’afafine. Whether in the sandpit or watching TV, Fa’afafine are forced to consider the fact that they are different.

Fa’afafine in New Zealand are first subject to this way of life when they make the trip to school. The education system exaggerates differences in gender. Schools are defined based on the gender they cater for. There are male and female bathrooms. PE becomes a test of testosterone. Uniforms are binary. Schools, the Human Rights Commission found, even struggle to cope with the names that Fa’afafine and other transgender individuals wish to call themselves.

Fa’afafine are forced from a young age to categorise themselves into these ill-fitting definitions. Some go to girls’ schools and embrace their effeminate side. Others go to boys’ schools and often feel pressured to hide who they are. De La Salle College, a Christian boys’ school in Auckland, is well known for its significant Fa’afafine population. They are a success story in their treatment of Fa’afafine. There, Fa’afafine feel liberated and comfortable with who they are, partaking in the arts, often advantaged their unique gender. Unfortunately, the story of De La Salle is not the norm.

Even some Samoan families no longer support their Fa’afafine children because of the bombardment of Western norms. A report by the Human Rights Commission in 2008 on transgender people commented that “…childhood experiences at home were marked by confusion, fear and conflict with parents and others in response to their gender identity related behavior.” The very individuals that were lucky enough to bring them into the world fail to cope with having a child who is ‘different’. Many, such as Peter, are beaten or abused. Parents often are unsure whether to try to ‘correct’ their child’s gender or to just ignore it, hoping it will phase out. Both these responses reek of a deep-rooted social conservatism, founded in Western ideology—where not being normal is somehow morally wrong.

Dr Pat Moloney, a senior lecturer at Victoria University, who specialises in sexuality studies suggests that when individuals move to a different culture, they are “perceived in novel ways”. Our “different set of cultural categories” means that some gender behaviours are interpreted differently. Fa’afafine are viewed differently due to their new environment, and thus also consider themselves in new ways.

Nonetheless, there have been success stories of integration. The American Samoan men’s football team, has been overachieving on the international stage. A Fa’afafine, Jonny Saelua, is a star player of the side. When interviewed by The New York Times, she said that her teammates “make me feel like a part of them.” A fellow player commented that “[i]t’s difficult for their situation. I let people do whatever they want. It’s their life. He’s part of our family right now.”

Fa’afafine, Dr Moloney argues, may not be discriminated against as harshly as their Pakeha transgender counterparts. “The category of the exotic other”, Moloney thinks, “…may give them more license to be different than their Western equivalent.” Fa’fafine, because they are Samoan, may have freer reign in New Zealand to express themselves, as they are obviously from a different culture.

One way to demonstrate our support for Fa’afafine would be for our society to reflect on ourselves in just the same way that we force Fa’afafine to reconceive their own lives. If we are never forced to compare our approach with other cultures it is easy to fall into the trap of believing our attitude is universally ‘right’; that there is no other way to consider gender. When we think gender is biological rather than a cultural construction influenced by social roles and a heteronormative majority, it grants unfounded legitimacy to our logic. We purport that our attitude to gender is right because we think it is something with which we are born. This is most certainly not the case. It is only because of the construction of our society and our daily interactions with others that we have slowly engendered norms of definition. We sought to classify. This definitional system has only heightened feelings of isolation and self-consciousness by those who are not ‘normal’ ‘straight’ ‘men’.

Over the last few decades, we have seen the rise of what Dr Moloney coined “the medicalisation” of the ways transgender and Fa’afafine are born. Medicine has sought to offer ‘solutions’, primarily to parents, around issues of sexuality and gender. What might have been accepted in the nineteenth century as different, is now a ‘medical problem’, potentially deserving of treatment. That may mean gender reassignment surgery or pharmaceutical drugs forced by parents upon their Fa’afafine or transgender children.  This “medicalisation” may exacerbate problems surrounding gender. Seeking to cure something makes it be perceived as a problem: something to get rid of rather than embraced.

The Fa’afafine tradition supports the notion that our culture influences our concept surrounding gender. When reinforced by similar attitudes in other cultures, it seems more likely that our approach to gender is defined by our culture. For the concept of a third gender isn’t unique to Samoa. The Xanith of Oman, the Hijra of India and the Fakefefine of Tonga are all considered in their respective cultures as a third gender.

A more fluid attitude to gender liberates people from a binary system, allowing them to flourish as individuals. People should not have to tick a box from the age of zero, telling the world that they are a man; or forced to pick a school based on their gender. Our obsession with gender shackles us to a world built on arbitrary difference; it leaves people such as Peter with a life of suffering, because people find them odd. Our culture has inflicted damage on Fa’afafine. We might redeem ourselves by learning from them.

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