By MAMAMIA TEAM
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.