Thursday, 18 October 2012

Sexuality in Samoa

We travel to the far side of the world for this part of my celebration of Black History Month. Among the many islands in the Pacific only one nation is on our list of those celebrating 50 years of independence – Samoa. For this article I’ll include American Samoa in this look at their lgbt heritage.

As with most cultures there is a huge difference between original beliefs and later colonial attitudes, quite often the latter now dominating the former. In Polynesian culture generally there were variations when it came to defining gender and sexuality, most of which are not easily identifiable with modern terms such as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

In the Samoan islands a man who dresses as a woman and/or who lives as a woman is termed a fa’afafine. Women who dress and live as men are termed fa’atama. These mixed gender roles were considered a third gender and had no stigma attached to them before European colonisation. It was perfectly acceptable for a “straight” Samoan man to have sex with a fa’afafine without thinking of himself as anything but straight. This attitude spreads across to the other Pacific island cultures which have their own equivalents of the fa’afafine. A gay man having sex with another gay man, however, was not totally accepted, even today in some islands.

These third gender roles have survived through colonial rule to the present day, with several fa’afafine organisations helping to bring wider international social understanding and acceptance if their roles and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in their home nation.

But while their existence is accepted as part of the national community in Samoa some fa’afafine have found difficulty in living an open existence in more European-based nations such as New Zealand. Fa’afafine organisations have been formed in New Zealand and the USA Pacific states to help bring awareness to nations which are more used to seeing cross-dressing and transgender roles.

As can be found in other societies around the Pacific and Asia the fa’afafine are most visible during special beauty pageants. These prove highly popular and are used as fundraising events for local charities. There are even fa’afafine beauty pageants in New Zealand.

There are several high profile fa’afafine in the present day including fashion designer Lindah LePou, poet Brian Puata, American footballer Jaiyal Saelua, and New Zealander Fuimaona Karl Polotu-Endemann.

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