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Fa’atama. Fa’afatama. These are words that aren’t said very often. You’ll even get people claiming we don’t exist. But we do. So now our existence has been established, I ought to say that so often with minority communities, when we speak, it’s heard as “on behalf of all.” To be clear: this is my perspective. Which, due to the nature of experience, is communal to an extent.
Etymological breakdown: fa’a: in the way of; tama: boy or male. Wiktionary has us listed as tomboy. We are often translated into English as trans and / or gay. There are problems with this, some of which PJ Feu’u’s thesis, Ia e Ola Malamalama I lou Fa’asinomaga: A comparative study of the fa’afafine of Samoa and the whakawahine of Aotearoa/New Zealand (brilliant, brilliant work, highly recommended) discusses. Queer and trans do not have Samoa sewn into their bones like fa’afafine and fa’atama do. And there is the problem of translation: whether fa’afa has the same meaning as any of the English terms is very, very much up for debate. Linked is the question of context. As I’m sure at least some of you who are reading this know, being Pasifika and gay is very different to being white and gay, or Latinx and gay, not to mention the ethnic divisions and diasporic interplays.
To paraphrase the artist Shigeyuki Kihara, we are not substitutes of women or substitutes of men. Personally, being fa’afatama is far more a gender identity than one of orientation, although that does also come into it. There are quite a few arguments for orientations (not just ‘sexualities’) being themselves gendered categories. So, from the plethora of sources I have available (read: very few), a few common traits:
- androgynous interests
- attracted (primarily) to straight women with ‘feminine’ gender expression
- prefer doing ‘masculine’ activities
Oh, and we tend to be less visible (fellow fa’atama: can I get an “AMENE!!?”).
I, for example, absolutely despised pink, dresses, Barbies, and make-up when I was younger, and I’m fairly certain that there was nothing that could’ve convinced me to like any of them. Gender is a social construct, in much the same way that race is. While I believe this to be at least partly true, so often the ‘social construct’ automatic (yes, I am using automatic as a noun here—what? I enjoy catachresis!) is thrown out, and any discussion of biological bases / elements of gender and race (yes, race—anyone for epigenetics and ancestral memory? Trauma, microaggressions, and health?), any discussion of predetermination, tends to go with it. If we start saying “x is a social construct, therefore it doesn’t exist” (what even is ‘exist’?), or “x is a social construct, therefore we have choice,” what does that do to the experiences of transfolk? Of people of colour? We’re… choosing oppression?
Now I would like, first of all, to take a moment for Jeanine Tuivaiki.
When the Samoan Observer posted an explicit and triggering photo of her body, it brought up a plethora of issues about journalism, suicide, oppressed genders (and oppressed discussions on gender), religion, our culture, and how all of these intersect. It’s hard to see, it’s hard to read, it’s hard to keep talking about, but we must. It’s painful knowing that another one of us is gone, and the way in which—and as I type that, I’m tearing up. Jeanine was found in a church hall. And I think this says something. I understand that many friends, family members, many of you reading this, will disagree with my following claims—you might even be furious—but this is far too important to stay silent about. I believe the message is this: the church is to blame for the suffering of fa’afafine. And, I would add, fa’atama. Now, when I say that, I’m not saying it’s only the church: people are the ones who speak, who choose to nurture, punish… and in much (but not all) of the Samoan community people and the church are intimately linked, sometimes inseparable. I don’t believe—although it’s getting harder to do so—that all forms of organised religion are ultimately immoral, corrupt, and destructive. I think that they can do a lot of good. But we cannot gloss over the fact that many of us hide, lie, self-harm, and even commit suicide because our families and friends regurgitate ecclesiastical hate that tells us we are wrong. Wrong like we don’t exist. Wrong like we can’t exist. Wrong like it’s a sin for us to be who we are. Dear fa’afafine, fa’atama, and our aiga reading this right now: NONE of these are true. And we don’t get told that often enough.
Le Va, the Pasifika mental health programme, has published research about the suicide rates of Pasifika in Aotearoa: “Rainbow Pasifika—people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer/questioning (LGBTIQ)—are much more susceptible to suicide behaviours. We need more information to address unique issues for Rainbow Pasifika.” — “Pacific peoples experience higher rates of mental illness than the general population.” — “Access to mental health services is lower for Pacific peoples when compared with the general population.”
I don’t even have words.
We think we’re so good, right now. Racism. Sexism. Transphobia. And we’re making progress, sure. But every time someone mentions how far things have come, it’s almost always accompanied with a dismissal of the work we still have to do. And how urgent it is. Why are Pasifika suicide rates higher than those of the rest of the population? Why aren’t we able to discuss being fa’afa-x, being intersex, all the ‘non-normative’ identities, and one’s prejudices at dinner? With friends? With family? So what is to be done? (and yes, that was a reference to Trotsky). This is something we not only need to be thinking about, but actually acting upon as well.
For many of us, church and family are where we learn to hate ourselves. Passive statements like “everyone’s the same, we’re all human!” is not enough, because while that might be true in some cases, we need EXPLICIT reinforcement. Because if you don’t make it continuously clear to every child very early on that they’re loved no matter what, that there is nothing wrong with being fa’afa-x, that masculinity is not about violent dominance, objectifying women, poor emotional health and not being perceived as ‘feminine’ / ‘gay’, then society will do the teaching, and you’ll wind up with an unhappy child. So speak up, often.
For those who want to ally: listen to us. And challenge family members who have prejudices. This doesn’t just go for heteronormativism and white supremacy—ableism, ageism, classism, all of it. Question your own prejudices! You might be well-meaning, but many of us who are fa’afa-x are prejudiced against ourselves because of imbibing free-floating societal antipathy, which is not even to mention the attitudes of our families and friends (and churches). So the chances that you’ve somehow managed to detour are extremely small.
If you don’t want to ally, that’s your choice. But know that you have laughed with us, cried with us, you are related to us. So remember this. You might not agree with who we are and ‘what we do’—two things, might I add, that are inextricably connected—but you can at least afford us the compassion and respect that every person deserves, regardless of who they are and what they do. Also, know that, should you choose to have children, you don’t get to choose whether they’re gay, straight, fa’afa, polysexual panromantic, and so forth. So be kind, be loving. Because you never know when your prejudice will come back to bite you.
It would be very, very easy to read this, even agree with it, and then to simply go back to business as usual. I urge you, for the sake of all of us, do not do that. Please. I almost don’t even care what you say, just START talking about this! Questions, comments, et cetera? LLCVTL@outlook.com. Fa’afetai.
Finally, this is to my fa’afa-x aiga (including fa’atama / fa’afatama, fa’afafine, whakawahine, whakatane, fakaleiti, ‘akava’ine, mahu, vakasalewalewa, rae rae, fiafifine, pinapinaaine, and many more): we matter. We are beautiful. We are loved. We don’t deserve any of the shit we get. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, sometimes.
To those of us in hiding: I hope you find the strength and space to live as yourselves. To those of us out: I’m sure you could swap anecdotes about the various events that happen to those of us who choose truth whatever the cost. Ultimately, though, I think it’s worth it.
To those of us who’ve been shamed by others for their gender expression: those people can fuck off, we define ourselves. This also works on another level, by the way: I will have you know that I can be extraordinarily effeminate—but that doesn’t mean I’m not fa’atama.
Three things I believe:
- We need to stick together. Not in a way that separates us completely from everyone else, but in such a way that we can support each other. Because, after all, no one knows what it’s like to be us except us, right?
- We need to educate the people who genuinely want to help, who are well-intentioned. However we all know that good intentions don’t stop people from making disastrous mistakes. And we don’t need any more of those, fa’afetai tele lava (but they will happen, sometimes…). Look, it feels immensely unfair—and it is. But if we don’t explain to people how we want to be treated, what actually constitutes help and not interference, then no one else will. Or, if they do, they’re probably doing it wrong, so we should probably step in and correct them.
- Anger will destroy us. I beg you to not hate all the people who have hurt us. And I know how fucking difficult it is and it’s not fair. But we won’t be able to save ourselves if we become bitter, fatalistic and hopeless.
It is not a question of whether we stay caged in Pasefika heteronormativity and cisnormativity, or assimilate into white queerness; we have our own va’a.
Before I close, I’m sorry this is so Samoan-centric. But, to twist a quote from Nelson Mandela, when I say the following, in my own language, I say it from my heart: