THE ISLAND WHERE BOYS GROW UP TO BE GIRLS
By Laura Fraser
Marie Claire, December 2002
Not long before the plane from Hawaii to Samoa departs, the airport ladies' room is crowded. A dark-haired woman in a flowered blouse checks her makeup in the mirror. She's a beefy gal, with a tattooed armband and impressive biceps, which isn't unusual, Samoans tend to be big-boned. But as she deftly plucks a few hairs from her cheeks, I realize that "she" is a "he."
Startled, I trade glances with another woman in the mirror, who smiles knowingly. The she-male catches our interaction and does a little exaggerated primping for our benefit, and all the girls at the sinks giggle.
Five hours later, arriving in Pago Pago, American Samoa, I see more transvestites, not obvious drag queens, but men done up in everyday women's dress. When my cousin's nephew, Joe, picks me up, I ask him about them. (Mycousin is married to a Samoan, which gives me a closer glimpse of Samoan extended-family life than most palangi, or white people, get.) Joe uneasily explains that the transvestites are called 'fa'afafine,Ó meaning Òin the way of a woman, and are simply an accepted fact in Samoan society.
With their similar traditional dress, it's sometimes hard to tell Samoan men and women apartÑespecially when some women have big biceps encircled with tattooed armbands and some men have long, luxurious black hair. Samoans descend from people who were strong enough to paddle from island to island to survive, quick enough to escape rival tribes, and who fed on the starchy breadfruit and taro roots that grow everywhere on the islands. They're like tropical flowers--big, bright, and meaty, with a humid, amorphous sexuality.
Joe says that fa'afafine are treated as women and play the same roles in Samoan culture as "genetic" women--caretakers, teachers, Bible-school leaders. A long-standing myth about transvestites in the Polynesian islands has been that when families have too many boys and too few girls to do all the women's work, they appoint a younger boy to "be a girl." But Joe says that isn't quite right, or at least not anymore: No one appoints fa'afafine, they just grow up that way. They usually aren't discouragedÑnor are they considered homosexual, a taboo in Samoan culture. We can have fa'afafine singing in the church choir, and the preacher will turn a~round and preach how unGodly it is to begay," Joe explains.
But how can they not be gay? Whom do they sleep with? Judging from Joe's expression, I've asked too many questions. Wellk, when boys are young and first experimenting he falters, then says, You need to see Dr. Sele.
We drive to a boxy, modern school, and Joe introduces me to Dr. Vena Sele, dean of student services at American Samoa Community College. Dr. Sele is an imposing woman, conservatively dressed in a flowing pantsuit, with painted fingernails and delicate gold jewelry. She is every inch a middle-aged, churchgoing lady-- except that biologically, she's a man. And so is her pretty secretary.
"Fa'afafine are ladies," she says pointedly. "We're well-educated and highly respected."
Dr. Sele is justifiably defensive of Samoa's sexual reputation: The country has been misunderstood by anthropologists ever since Margaret Mead wrote about the supposed promiscuity on the islands in 1928. The few today who have studied fa'afafine say the only way to understand them is to leave aside cultural notions of what it means to be gay or even male and female. Samoa is a community-oriented society, with more focus on extended families and villages than individuals, says Jeannette Mageo, an anthropologist at Washington State University. So a person's gender is based more on his or her role in the society than on actual anatomy. "As long as you're playing the female role socially, and in sex, then you are as good as a woman," she says. So, if a Samoan man has sex with a fa'afafine, it's considered a heterosexual relationship.
One of the reasons fa'afafine have flourished, Mageo says, is that they're valued as entertainers. Before Christian missionaries arrived in Samoa circa 1830, men would hold ceremonies and give speeches while women performed Polynesian dancing and comedy shows for visitors. "As the night progressed, there would be a lot of dirty dancing and sexual joking," Mageo says. Once on the scene, missionaries ordered the women to cover their breasts and drove them from the stage. Transvestites subsequently replaced the women as the main entertainers, free to make sexual jokes in the Christian atmosphere of repression.
Today fa'afafine are, like women, treated with courtly respect-- except that men are more likely to banter and make bawdy jokes with them. And, for the most part, they're accepted as long as they dress modestly. But while they aren't discriminated against for being effeminate, Dr. Sele says, they do face the same glass ceilings at work and in villages as women. Fa'afafine who want to be business executives usually have to dress as men at work. Dr. Sele is one of the few fa'afafine who has reached a high position while living as a woman, a feat she attributes to her Ph.D. "My education counters any criticism," she says. "To be a fa'afafine, you have to be educated--it's our weapon."
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