This is Leo Tanoi. He was raised as the third gender.
Tanoi has played Rugby League from the age of 13, as a way of asserting his identity and in the early 90s, he played in the first grade for the Cronulla Sharks.
Today, if you met him, he’d comes across as a typical bloke’s bloke. But Tanoi’s upbringing was anything but typical, certainly not typical in how most Australians would understand it.
Because Tanoi was raised by his family as a Fa’afafine.
The Fa’afafine are the ‘third-gendered people’ of Samoa and are a traditional part of Samoan culture. Fa’afafine are born biologically male, but are raised – in many ways – as female. Fa’afafine embody both male and female traits, and perform masculine and feminine gendered roles.
“They have the flair and creativity of the female gender, but also the brutal strength of the male gender. They assume the characteristics of both genders,” says Ymania – who identifies as Fa’afafine.
There are up to 3000 Fa’afafine currently living in Samoa. In Australia, it is estimated that there are anywhere between 100-300 Fa’afafine – and many others throughout other countries in our region. The practice of men adopting female roles and female physical attributes, is a traditional practice throughout areas of Polynesia.
SBS2 program The Feed ran a segment on the Fa’afafine last night, in which they explored what it means to be Fa’afafine from three very different perspectives but all perspectives of those who have lived it.
Some elders in the community believe that children are born with the ‘Fa’afafine spirit’ but how each child becomes Fa’afafine is often different. Sometimes, a child will know that they are Fa’afafine and choose that life for themselves – and their parents will support them. Sometimes, children are identified as having the ‘spirit’, and are encouraged to explore that side of their identity. But sometimes, male children are chosen by their family to fulfill a feminine role – particularly in cases where a family has had a number of male children, but no female children.
Tanoi, who used to play professional football, was chosen by his family to be a Fa’afafine – although he says he never identified with the Fa’afafine spirit. The experience for Tanoi was not pleasant.
“Quite a lot of the memories I have related to this is all the physical abuse,” he told The Feed. “A lot of physical violence, a lot of pulling my pants down, tying me up, beating me up in front of everybody.”
“That sort of behaviour. I got used to being told in front of people that I’m a girl. It was a very lonely time and I don’t think people know how lonely it was.”
This physical abuse came from Tanoi’s six brothers, as well as other young men in the neighbourhood.
Other Fa’afafine had far more positive experiences growing up. Phineas Hartmon, a lawyer, told The Feed that he was born with the spirit of the Fa’afafine and had the support of a loving family growing up.
But despite being raised to display feminine characteristics and perform traditionally feminine roles, Hartmon today identifies as a man.
He explains the identity by saying that, “Fa’fafine know that they’re boys at the end of the day, but some portray their femininity stronger than others.”
A woman named Ymania – who is the Technical Director of the Samoan Fa’afafine association in Samoa – was also interviewed. Ymania said that while she is physically male, from a very young she identified as female.
“I had a great upbringing in Samoa. There was never any punishment or restriction in terms of who I could be. Because of that understanding, that love and support, I was allowed to feel that it’s okay to be different.”
If a child is raised as Fa’afafine, they expected to fulfill typically female roles. Fa’afafine must help out their mother in the kitchen and around the home, contribute to the family, and are frequently dressed as female. Tanoi remembers having flowers threaded through his hair.
Patrick Abboud, a reporter for The Feed, said in an interview with Pedestrian.TV that “In terms of the role that they play, it’s much more centred around traditionally what the female gender has been entrusted with. Nurturing the family, taking care of children, maintaining the home. It’s an archaic idea of gender roles but that’s where it’s all derived from.”
The people who the Fa’afafine pursue relationships with are as diverse as the individuals themselves. Often Fa’afafine enter into relationships with heterosexual men – neither of whom will identify as gay because Fa’afafine tend to identify as women.
But Ymania finds outsiders fixation on who Fa’afafine choose to enter into relationships with, crass.
“Who they sleep with, what they have between their legs – it really doesn’t matter at all,” Ymania says.
In his interview with Pedestrian.TV, Abboud agrees: “They do feel they’re misunderstood. Especially in a Western context, Fa’afafine is very sexualised.
They all said that they hate that because it’s a way for Western society to make sense of this very complex cultural phenomenon. For them it’s not about that at all.”
The Fa’afafine are often misunderstood by people who don’t understand their culture and as in Tanoi’s case, can face backlash from within their own community.
The Fa’afafine are a complex part of Samoan culture – but it is impossible to define, or wholly endorse or censure. As the three interviews with Fa’afafine prove, each individual’s experience is different.
They are a diverse group of people, with diverse experiences.
Had you ever heard about the Fa’afafine in Samoa?