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July 24, 2017 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

We Need New Words

NB: This article has been edited for Salient — a version of the original can be found here.


This piece is addressed first to fa’a(fa)tama, fa’afafine, and to an extent fa’aafa; to the MVPPRTWTAFFFFF+ community (and in particular those whose names follow a similar format to the previously described); all “indigenous gender minority” communities (for lack of a better term); Pacific communities; and anyone else who happens across this.


MVPPRTWTAFFFFF+ is the incomplete acronym used to refer to indigenous Pacific gender minority communities:

Mahu — Hawaii

Vakasalewalewa — Fiji (also known as fairies)

Pinapinaaine — Tuvalu & Kiribati

Palopa — Papua New Guinea

Rae Rae — Tahiti

Takatāpui — Aotearoa

Whakawāhine — Aotearoa

Tangata Ira Tāne — Aotearoa

’Akava’ine — Rarotonga

Fiafifine — Niue

Fakaleiti — Tonga (also known as leiti)

Fa’afafine — Samoa (also known as fafa(s))

Fa’atama — Samoa (also known as tomboys or fa’afatama)

Fa’aafa — Samoa

+ — expansion needed


I’ve been thinking about our names, and their implications, and have come to the conclusion that names that are predicated upon “cishet” norms, and “ordinal names” (e.g. fifth, sixth gender), are problematic because they reinforce the violence against us. In this, I will not be engaging with the critiques (if they can be called that: critiques by definition involve detailed analysis) of the people who disagree that there are specific kinds of violence we receive that target neither indigenous “cishet” communities nor settler-colonial and non-indigenous gender minority communities.

The validity of our identities is not dependent on the terms themselves because the words are not the same as the beings to which they refer, because we are more than the words assigned to us. That being said, however, we do still need language, imprecise as it may be, if we are to be able to communicate with each other.

Note: “cisgender” is written like so because it’s not quite translatable into Pacific contexts  (like “transgender”): it is an approximation of parallel gender hegemonies. I’ve also used the term “cishet” as there are degrees of mutability with regard to whether the fa’a terms apply to gender, sexuality, or both.

Fa’a, meaning in the likeness of, in this context implies that the subsequent term is the norm, perpetually hegemonic and, ultimately, what we should all aspire to and follow. I don’t believe it is possible to number genders without there being connotations of hierarchy, and resulting effects on how we collectively perceive human worth and rights. An established “third gender” raises the question of who the “first gender” and “second gender” are. These are almost never discussed, thus reinforcing the idea that we are outside the norm and acceptability, all of which is heavily linked to ideas of intrinsic inferiority.

There is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex published in 1949, which is about the experiences and circumstances of “women”. While this is the work’s apparent subject, it is yet another example of transwoman erasure, given its conflation of sex and gender, as well as continuing in the vein of thought that Christianity-centric, Eurocentric women’s experiences speak for all women’s experiences — regardless of race, colour, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. And although she mentions lesbianism… this is second-wave feminism we’re talking about.

The term “third gender”, as far as I am aware, does not exist in any indigenous language: it originates in settler-colonial hegemonic academia, and for these reasons, including the ideologies and actions this term is still associated with, it is not empowering.

If I were using ordinals, I would be fourth gender. I talk here of “third gender” because fa’aafa, fa’a(fa)tama, and fa’afafine, and others like us, are routinely lumped together under this cumbersome category, regardless of the vast differences in our distinct-and-connected communal experiences.

Fa’afafine often (but don’t always) define themselves as being born male with feminine dispositions. Personally (note: again, not the voice of all), I would define fa’a(fa)tama as people who are masculine-of-centre with regard to gender identity; we are not always assigned female at birth. As someone who in this context probably has more social power (due in part to more visibility) than fa’aafa, I’m not qualified to say what fa’aafa is and is not; the only thing I could perhaps say is that fa’aafa means neither fa’afafine nor fa’a(fa)tama. And not Samoan “cishet” either. So, fa’aafa, what do you think — does the predication of this name on “cishet” norms apply less to you? The word that comes after fa’a in your name isn’t a direct reference to a (Samoan) “cisgender” normative gender community. Your thoughts?

There is disagreement about how long these terms have been used for. Perhaps these words are “traditional”. Perhaps they’re not. Perhaps they existed pre-contact. Perhaps they didn’t. What we do know is that there was a time when these terms did not exist. And, just as they can be brought into usage, so too can they be retired.

We the community (most of us) either want or are actively working towards a world in which we are not less deserving of full lives, or by hegemonic decrees less than our “cisgender” counterparts. By centring our identities (fa’a(fa)tama, this is, not fiatama) around being “like boys”, for example, we keep ourselves dependent on the same communities and structures that routinely deny us our humanity. Lo’u aiga — is this the best we can do?

Yes, there is relationship between us, but why is it not equitable? Why is one not just as likely to compare women to fa’afafine as one is to compare fa’afafine to women, or just as likely to compare fa’a(fa)tama to men as one is to compare men to fa’a(fa)tama? There is the quantity argument: “cis are more common, therefore cis are the benchmarks for all genders” — but until someone can give me an example where the norm does not socially, morally, legally, politically, and religiously (in both senses) establish itself as hegemonic, no thanks.

We need another way to describe ourselves without having to be described as being like another gender. So, I propose this term: vātagata.

Vā: not easily translatable into English, but is an encompassing term for the space (between), connection, and relationship. It speaks to mutual reciprocity.

Tagata: person — gender and sex neutral.

We are the people of the space(s) between, with all of its connotations. The word is in part inspired by mahu, people in the middle — Kumu Hina and Ho’onani: mahalo nui loa.


This term is not without its caveats, however:

to be vātagata is to question perpetually

vātagata means this inheritance  

vātagata means kinship with our tupu’aga vātagata,

and all of the unknown names they went by

vātagata means deracination

vātagata means connection

vātagata means this distinct feeling of being

vātagata means consciousness, in all its forms

vātagata means intersectionality, and thus:

vātagata means that we seek not to do unto others as has been done unto us

vātagata means that none of us are free until all of us are free

vātagata means responsibility: to our families,

to those who came before us

to those of us here now

and to those who will come after us

vātagata means solidarity

vātagata means struggle

vātagata means liberation

vātagata means human

vātagata means pain

vātagata means not just talking of, but practising compassion: a work-in-progress ethics

vātagata means imagining kinder ways of being

vātagata means love

and none of these things in isolation:

all together.


I conclude by reiterating that we are more than mere comparisons, and we know this. (For those of us who don’t know, now you do! Repeat this frequently until the sentiment is liquid and liniment, until woven into memory-that-breathes-beneath-skin — or whenever you are in doubt.) Now all we need is language that evinces this.

P.S. There is perhaps one major point of contention within our community: some of us might believe that our current names are able to be, or have been, reclaimed, redefined, and reimagined. I’m not convinced. But, whether you disagree or agree — discuss.


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