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Harvard University

Publication Date

Fall 2010

Program Name

Samoa: Pacific Communities and Social Change


The author aimed to gauge levels of acceptance throughout Samoa of individuals known as fa’afafine. The term translates literally: “in the manner (or fashion) of a woman.” The term applies to those male-bodied individuals whose lifestyle and general conduct is characterized as feminine in the public’s imagination of a strict gender binary. Fa’afafine generally perform “feminine” roles in a sexual division of labor (often from a very early age). Some fa’afafine dress in women’s clothing and speak or walk in a manner commonly associated with feminine patterns of behavior.

The author initially hoped to investigate the extent to which the presence of a third gender serves to either reinforce or undermine existing gender norms. The author expected to find that fa’afafine serve as a potentially destabilizing influence on the public’s understanding of a socially constructed gender binary. But taking into account various interview responses, the research came to center primarily upon the question of whether fa’afafine are accepted in modern 4 Samoan culture, and if so, to what extent this is a qualified acceptance. The author sought to determine what the conditions of this acceptance are, and shed light on prospects for new ways of “being fa’afafine” in the near future. The author ultimately concluded there exists much less personal freedom allotted to fa’afafine then initially expected. The research offered mixed results concerning prospects for the future. The increasing visibility of a unified fa’afafine community suggests signs of an increasingly liberating cultural climate. However, there remains cause for concern in light of a disconcertingly widespread atmosphere of homophobia.


Gender and Sexuality | Social Psychology and Interaction


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