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August 5, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

In The Manner


I had a chat to PhD student Ashleigh Feu’u about her gender identity and navigating life and academia as a fa’afafine. 


How do you define your gender identity?


First and foremost, these are my personal views and not a generalisation of all fa’afafine views. There are many ways individual fa’afafine identify themselves, just like there are multiple ways of identifying as male, female, or those questioning their identity.

I self identify as a Sāmoan fa’afafine. 

In my Sāmoan language fa’a means in the manner of and fafine means woman. Identifying as a fa’afafine is my sense of belonging to the Fa’a Sāmoa, my identity and my unique role in my family and it should be understood in that context. 

Like other fa’afafine, I’m a biological Sāmoan male who identifies as female and performs roles normally carried out by women.


Could you tell us about your life as a fa’afafine? 


Where do I start? 


People often ask me: “When did you first know that you were a fa’afafine?” I would answer with the same question: “When did you first know that you were heterosexual or male or female? Or were you just born that way?”


Ever since I can remember, I’ve identified as a girl. I was very feminine in my mannerisms compared to my three older brothers; I am the youngest. I was always in the company of girls, and I was never interested in rugby, Boys’ Brigade, or athletics like my brothers. They all played rugby, but I loved netball.


In my family, it is normal for me to take on “women’s work”—caring for my mother, nieces and nephews, and doing the cooking, cleaning, and washing. At family gatherings, or fa’alavelave, I’d perform the ceremonial tasks associated with a Sāmoan tama’ita’i—serving the matai and presenting ‘ie toga (fine mats) during a si’i.

And during my high school and university years, I often performed in cultural events, dancing the actions of a Sāmoan girl. This was accepted in the school community.

So that’s where it started from but I was never forced to fulfill a female role in my family. Being fa’afafine was not something that was imposed upon me. 


At the beginning of 2018, I embarked on my transition journey. I had my sex changed from male to female on my birth certificate—a procedure that required a court hearing. It was an emotional event attended by my main support and loving mother, Patricia McFall. 


I live to serve my mother and that is my role as a fa’afafine—fulfilling the needs of taking care of her; family first and love life second. Her and I have a special bond founded on love. She groomed me into the woman I am today. With her sudden passing early this year, my role as a fa’afafine has partially shifted. I had to find out for myself what lays ahead and that is—to fulfill the transition journey my mother and I started and to continue to uphold her legacy with the love and support from my family and friends.


I don’t believe transition is a choice, just as being fa’afafine is not a choice. Being feminine and fa’afafine is in my nature, and transitioning is just a part of my journey.

It takes courage to step out from a lifetime of bullying and discrimination to be the me I was meant to be.


As a fa’afafine do you define yourself as a transwoman also? 


Coming back to the root of the word fa’ain the manner of, fafine meaning woman. I don’t see myself as transgender, transwoman or trans. I am a Sāmoan fa’afafine first and foremost, before any label or identity is placed on me. My point is, you can’t put labels on someone else or make assumptions about their identity without asking them first.


I don’t identify as male, I identify as female. It’s my female gender that defines me—and, as a female who’s sexually attracted to heterosexual men, I see my intimate relationships as heterosexual, not same-sex. And I see other fa’afafine as female and as sisters, not as potential sexual partners.


Could you tell us about your PhD study and navigating academia as fa’afafine?


What drives me the most is research for, by and about Pacific peoples. Especially research for, by and about fa’afafine. Western researchers have long had a fascination with Sāmoan fa’afafine, but their work has led to generalisations and misunderstandings that still persist today. 


I’ve been inspired in my academic journey by the words of fa’afafine pioneer Talitiga Dr Venasio Sele, who urged fa’afafine to become educated.

“My education counters any criticisms. To be a fa’afafine, you must be educated — it is our weapon.”

Unfortunately, not all parts of Sāmoan society are as relaxed and accepting of fa’afafine. We have Christianity and colonisation to thank for that. And given the recent events surrounding Australian rugby player, Israel Folau and All Blacks rugby player TJ Perenara reminds us that “Polynesia has been sexually diverse since forever”. 


Fa’afafine were a part of Sāmoan society long before the arrival of the first missionaries in the 1830s, and certainly before the arrival of colonial rulers in Sāmoa and American Sāmoa.

Yet fa’afafine tend to be absent from missionary accounts of those early encounters with Sāmoan people. Were we omitted from the historical record on purpose? Or could it be that missionaries simply didn’t “see” fa’afafine because they had no equivalent in western society and were so completely outside their experience? Were fa’afafine simply invisible to them?

What do you think our Pacific community can do to support our fa’afafine, fa’afatama, and other gender-diverse children of the Pacific?


Within my own family, my research has already made a difference. My brothers and my mother have always loved and supported me, but my work has helped them to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be fa’afafine.


But they’re very proud of me and where I’ve got to in my academic life—and they’ve had their eyes opened up to what I’m fighting for.

I can only hope that other Pacific families are as accepting and open minded as my family. It is important to have discussions about gender-diverse children, accept people for who they are, and have an open mind. 


Do you have any advice for younger fa’afafine, fa’afatama or other gender-diverse Pacific youth? 


Rephrasing the question, what I would say to a very young Ashleigh? Have the courage to just be yourself and surround yourself with loving family and friends. Make sure your family and friends understand you by educating them on the identity that you identify with. I believe you can’t just say “I identify as fa’afafine or fa’afatama”. You need to do your research and find out what that identity means to you so you can help your family and friends understand who you are and for your own wellbeing.


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