Samoan feminine/transgender, same-sex attracted males who are recognized as a “third” gender.
In the Samoan language, fa’afafine means: “in the manner of a woman.” Like Samoan men, fa’afafine are biological males. However, fa’afafine do not identify as men nor do the members of their society recognize them as such. Consequently, they have been described as a type of “third” gender that is distinct from both “men” and “women.” In addition, fa’afafine differ from Samoan men in that they behave in a feminine manner. From a Western perspective, many fa’afafine would be considered effeminate males or transgender. The majority are not transsexual, however, because they do not experience dysphoria with respect to their genitals. Although it is not unusual for fa’afafine to hold certain occupations (e.g., florist) more than others (e.g., mechanic), they have no institutionalized role in Samoa.
Fa’afafine Gender, Sexuality & Social Acceptance
Individuals are recognized in childhood as fa’afafine based on their tendencies to engage in female-typical activities (e.g., playing with girls) and their aversion toward male-typical activities (e.g., rough-and-tumble play). This process of recognition does not mean that Samoans make male children into fa’afafine. Rather, in Samoan culture, boyhood femininity is interpreted to mean that such individuals simply are fa’afafine and it is understood that they will not grow up to be “men.” Some families react negatively to the presence of a fa’afafine child with corporal punishment, but the majority have a more laissez-faire attitude, and some even facilitate the child’s feminine behavior (Bartlett and Vasey 2006; Vasey and Bartlett 2007).
In adulthood, fa’afafine are, almost without exception, exclusively androphilic (i.e., sexually attracted to adult males), and consequently they do not have children (Vasey et al. 2014). Fa’afafine do not, however, engage in sexual activity with each other and express disgust at the thought. Instead, they engage in sexual activity with masculine men. Research indicates that the masculine male sexual partners of fa’afafine exhibit bisexual patterns of sexual attraction. Not surprisingly, the majority of these men engage in sexual activity with women, as well as fa’afafine.
In Samoa, fa’afafine enjoy a high level of social acceptance that, while not absolute, stands in stark contrast to the situation experienced by Western transgender male androphiles. Indeed, fa’afafine are highly visible and active members of Samoa society. They occupy all manner of positions from stay-at-home caregivers to Assistant Chief Executive Officers in the government. The Prime Minister of Samoa is the Patron of the National Fa’afafine Association and has spoken publically on many occasions about the value of fa’afafine for Samoan society.
Owing to their status as feminine/transgender androphilic males, fa’afafine exemplify the evolutionarily ancestral form of male androphilia (VanderLaan et al. 2013).