Faʻafafine are people who identify themselves as having a third gender or non-binary role in Samoa, American Samoa and the Samoan diaspora. A recognized gender identity/gender role in traditional Samoan society, and an integral part of Samoan culture, faʻafafine are assigned male at birth, and explicitly embody both masculine and feminine gender traits in a way unique to Polynesia. Their behaviour typically ranges from extravagantly feminine to conventionally masculine.[1]

A faʻafafine organisation on Auckland pride parade in 2016
A faʻafafine organisation on Auckland pride parade in 2016
EtymologySamoan prefix Faʻa-, meaning "in the manner of" + fafine, meaning "woman"
ClassificationGender identity
Other terms
SynonymsFakafāfine, Fiafifine, Fakafifine
Associated termsFakaleiti, Two-spirit, Trans woman, Akava'ine, Māhū
Regions with significant populations
 Samoaup to 3,000

A prominent Western theory, among the many anthropological theories about Samoans, was that if a family had more boys than girls or not enough girls to help with women's duties about the house, male children would be chosen to be raised as faʻafafine,[2] although this theory has been refuted by studies.[3]

It has been estimated that 1–5% of Samoans identify as faʻafafine.[4] Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand estimates that there are 500 faʻafafine in Samoa, and the same number in the Samoan diaspora in New Zealand;[5] while according to SBS news, there are up to 3000 faʻafafine currently living in Samoa.[6]

History and terminologyEdit

The word faʻafafine includes the causative prefix faʻa–, meaning "in the manner of", and the word fafine, meaning "woman".[7] It is cognate with linguistically related words or social categories in other Polynesian languages, such as the Tongan fakaleiti (also fakafefine), the Cook Islands Māori akavaʻine, the Hawaiian and Tahitian māhū (literally in the middle), the Māori whakawāhine, the Niuean fiafifine (also fakafifine), the Tokelauan fakafāfine, the Tuvaluan pinapinaaine, the Gilbertese binabinaaine, and the Wallisian fakafafine.

The FTM or female-to-male equivalent in Samoa are known variously as faʻatane, faʻatama, and fafatama. Ultimately, Western terms like gay, transgender, FTM, etc., do not align exactly with Samoan terms like faʻafafine, faʻatane, etc., which have meaning within the faʻasamoa traditional cultural systems of Samoa.

The Samoan slang word mala (or "devastation" in the Samoan language) is in less frequent use for faʻafafine, as it arose from fundamentalist influenced homophobia and transphobia.[8]

The history of faʻafafine, through the elisions of colonialism, is difficult to trace. Nafanua, the female warrior and chief of Samoan early history, is often held up as an icon of faʻafafine and faʻatane. In Dolgoy's recorded interviews with faʻafafine from the 1980s, we know that Johnny Fruitcake was a popular faʻafafine during the American military occupation of Samoa in World War II, and that Anita (Tony Schwenke) was the founder of Hollywood, a tailoring shop and house of refuge for faʻafafine in Apia in the 1960s–1970s.[9] Beginning in the 1980s, through the Samoan diaspora, faʻafafine began having a presence in contemporary global cultures.

Role in Samoan societyEdit

Faʻafafine are known for their hard work and dedication to the family, in the Samoan tradition of tautua or service to family. Ideas of the family in Samoa and Polynesia include all the members of a sa, or communal family within the faʻamatai family systems.[10]

Faʻafafine, as a third gender, have sexual relationships exclusively with men who do not identify as faʻafafine.[11] This third gender is so well-accepted in Samoan culture that most Samoans state that they have friendship relationships with at least one faʻafafine; it is, however, not totally accepted in other communities, such as some Catholic groups and traditional leaders. Traditionally, faʻafafine follow the training of the women's daily work in an Aiga (Samoan family group).[1][12]

Faʻafafine state that they "loved" engaging in feminine activities as children, such as playing with female peers, playing female characters during role play, dressing up in female clothes, and playing with female gender-typical toys. This is in contrast to women who stated that they merely "liked" engaging in those activities as children. Some faʻafafine recall believing they were girls in childhood, but knew better as adults. In Samoa, there is very seldom ridicule or displeasure towards a biologically male child who states that they are a girl. For instance, one study showed only a minority of parents (20 per cent) tried to stop their faʻafafine children from engaging in feminine behavior. Being pushed into the male gender role is upsetting to many faʻafafine. A significant number stated that they "hated" masculine play, such as rough games and sports, even more than females did as children.[1]

Society of Faʻafafine in American Samoa and the Samoa Faʻafafine AssociationEdit

The Society of Faʻafafine in American Samoa or "Le Sosaiete o Faʻafafine i Amerika Samoa" (S.O.F.I.A.S) is an organization designed to foster collaboration between the faʻafafine and the LGBTQI+ communities in both American Samoa, the Asia Pacific region, and the world.[13] SOFIAS describes itself as an organization dedicated to balancing both Samoan values with western influences and aims to promote a positive attitude toward the Samoan faʻafafine community. Now known as Miss SOFIAS, the Miss Island Queen Pageant has been held in Pago Pago, American Samoa, since 1979.

The Samoa Fa'afafine Association Incorporated (S.F.A.) of independent Samoa, based in Apia, has been active for over a decade. It works closely with government, local churches, and youth organizations, supporting community projects for the fa'afafine community, but also for elders and youth in Samoa. SFA has been active on the international level working with the United Nations and Pacific regional NGO's, on behalf of the faʻafafine, transgender, and LGBT communities of the Pacific Islands. They also been active working with media developing a more equitable representation of faʻafafine by media.[14]

There has been legislative activity initiated in Samoa by the Samoa Fa'afafine Association, with fa'afafine lawyers Alex Suʻa and Phineas Hartson Matautia, on issues of LGBT rights in Samoa. Their efforts to repeal homophobic and transphobic laws inherited from the British and New Zealand colonial administrations have met with partial success.[15] Same-sex marriage for faʻafafine is still unlawful in Samoa, and despite legalization in the U.S., it is still not recognized in the US Territory of American Samoa.

Notable FaʻafafineEdit

Fictional FaʻafafinesEdit

  • half-man half-girl, an unnamed character in Albert Wendt's novel Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1979).
  • Muli and Pipi, in Dan Taulapapa McMullin's poem The Bat (1993) which received a Poets&Writers Award.
  • Sugar Shirley, a character in Sia Figiel's novel Where We Once Belonged (1996).[22]
  • Vili Atafa, a character in the Pasifika play A Frigate Bird Sings (1996) by Oscar Kightley, David Fane and Nathaniel Lees[23]
  • Sinalela (2001), a fictional character in the short film Sinalela by Dan Taulapapa McMullin, awarded Best Short Film in the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival.[24]
  • Faafafine (2001), an autobiographical solo performance piece by Brian Fuata.[25]
  • Jerry the Faʻafafine (2011), a thematic figure (influenced by the poetry of Taulapapa) in an artwork series by Tanu Gago.[26]
  • Brother Ken in bro'Town (2004-2009), a school principal.[27]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ a b c Bartlett, N. H.; Vasey, P. L. (2006). "A Retrospective Study of Childhood Gender-Atypical Behavior in Samoan Faʻafafine". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 35 (6): 659–66. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9055-1. PMID 16909317. S2CID 22812712.
  2. ^ "Charting the Pacific – Faʻafafine – Samoan boys brought up as girls". www.abc.net.au. Retrieved 2016-06-20.
  3. ^ "Ia e Ola Malamalama i lou Faasinomaga, A comparative Study of the Faafafine of Samoa and the Whakawahine of Aotearoa-New Zealand" (PDF). 2013.
  4. ^ Tan, Yvette (September 1, 2016). "Samoa's 'third gender' beauty pageant". BBC News.
  5. ^ Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "3. – Gender diversity – Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand". teara.govt.nz.
  6. ^ "Faʻafafine: Boys Raised to be Girls ten minute news video about faafafine in Australia". 26 August 2013.
  7. ^ Milner, G.B. 1966. Samoan-English Dictionary. "Faʻafafine" entry pg. 52 under "Fafine"
  8. ^ Taulapapa McMullin, Dan (2011). "Faʻafafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafanua". Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press: 81–94.
  9. ^ Dolgoy, Reevan (2000). The Search for Recognition and Social Movement Emergence, Towards an Understanding of the Transformation of the Faafafine of Samoa. University of Alberta.
  10. ^ Saleimoa Vaai, Samoa Faa-matai and the Rule of Law (Apia: The National University of Samoa Le Papa-I-Galagala, 1999).
  11. ^ Perkins, Roberta (March 1994). "Like a Lady in Polynesia". Polare Magazine (3 ed.). gendercentre.org.au. Archived from the original on 2013-09-27.
  12. ^ Danielsson, B., T. Danielsson, and R. Pierson. 1978. Polynesia's third sex: The gay life starts in the kitchen. Pacific Islands Monthly 49:10–13.
  13. ^ "Shevon Kaio Matai passes away". Samoa News. Archived from the original on 2015-05-30. Retrieved 2015-06-06.
  14. ^ "Faʻafafine want fair and inclusive reporting". Samoa Observer.
  15. ^ Suʻa, Alex; Farran, Sue (2009). "Discriminating on the Grounds of Status: Criminal Law and Faʻafafine and Fakaleiti in the South Pacific". Journal of South Pacific Law.
  16. ^ "Samoan Queer Lives published by Little Island Press". Archived from the original on 2019-02-13. Retrieved 2018-11-27.
  17. ^ "New Miss UTOPIA crowned". Seattle Gay News. 2012-10-19. Retrieved 2014-02-18.
  18. ^ "American Samoa: Through the Years". www.facebook.com.
  19. ^ "VIDEO: "Next Goal Wins" trailer details 'worst team in the world'". NBC Sports Radio. 2014-02-20. Retrieved 2014-02-28.
  20. ^ "Hollywood treatment for American Samoa". FIFA World. 13 March 2013. Archived from the original on May 3, 2014. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
  21. ^ "Transgender Warriors Local Hero Edition: Amao Leota Lu". Transgender Warriors. 2019-09-06. Retrieved 2021-06-02.
  22. ^ Yamamoto, Traise (2000-10-01). "Where We Once Belonged (review)". Journal of Asian American Studies. 3 (3): 384–386. doi:10.1353/jaas.2000.0042. ISSN 1096-8598. S2CID 144930451.
  23. ^ "A Frigate Bird Sings". Archived from the original on 2014-04-13. Retrieved 2014-04-13.
  24. ^ "Sinalela | Freewaves Video Archive". archive.freewaves.org. 22 January 2015.
  25. ^ "UTP". Urban Theatre Projects.
  26. ^ "Jerry The Fa'afafine". PIMPI KNOWS.
  27. ^ Schmidt, Johanna (2021) [2011]. "Brother Ken, bro'Town (1st of 3)". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Archived from the original on February 8, 2019. Retrieved October 8, 2021.


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