Breaking the Stigma: Fa’afafine Women are Worthy and Deserving of Love

“Forbidden Love” photo by Ammon Fepuleai (2019)

Early one morning I was woken up by a phone call from someone I had not talked to in almost two whole years; it was an old lover. He kept my phone number, which I was still using at the time. It was his first day of a month’s sentence in prison for a DUI conviction, he was given fifteen minutes to make a phone call. He told me he had thought of calling only two people, his mom and me. During our brief conversation I asked, “Why me?” and he responded, “All that time I was with you, and during all that time, you made me feel loved.” Given his situation I realized how deep this conversation was for him. I gave him words of comfort and told him that I would pray for him and that was the end of it.  

We were disconnected for so long that I was unable to grasp how I truly felt at that moment. Throughout the day I would summon our memories together. I had realized that he was my first in many things. Dinner dates, dates to the movies, being introduced to a man’s children, there were days we spent riding around in his car, cuddling in front of a crackling fireplace and nights where we danced in to the dawn to the soothing voice of Frank Sinatra. Respect and affection were the two things I wanted most, and he gave me both. He gave me heaven too, as the saying goes. 
When my mom fell ill, I left my entire life in Washington state and flew to Arizona to care for her. In our Samoan culture we value three things: God, Family and the Fa’a Samoa. These culminate to the reason many fa’afafine automatically assume the principal role of caretaker for their families. I kept in touch with the man I left behind, and for some time, but I could not bring myself to prioritize his feelings over caring for my mom; I chose to move on. 

Even though we no longer had a relationship, during that call, he remembered our past as a good place. However difficult it was for him to call me; it was also gratifying in the most humbling way. This white boy, who worked his way out of a trailer park community up to suburban living, made me feel something that in my cultural identity is deemed blasphemous and taboo. He was able to love me in a way that in Samoan society today, is still seen as a disgrace. I thought a lot about who I am, who I used to be and who I still want to be. What comes to my mind repeatedly is the thought of why our own Pacific Islander men cannot love a fa’afafine the way a white man can.  

Loving someone who cannot love you is a difficult experience. The echoes of heartbreak are plentiful in the fa’afafine community, most have had to endure such toxic romances with Samoan men. The genuine feeling of love and affection is experienced by a fa’afafine once they relocate state side and engage in relationships with predominantly white men. That is just a proven fact. The vast majority of fa’afafine women that I know, who are currently in relationships or are married, do so with white men; other bi-racial relationships for fa’afafine women are rare, but even they too exist. Why is it that white men get an easy pass from our society while dating men in our own race is always problematic? In this Fofola le Fala edition, we explore and decipher the root cause. 

The problem truthfully lies within the cultural differences and upbringing (culture as in general not specifically the Fa’a Samoa). In Samoa, once a person graduates from school and chooses a career path, they are expected to continue caring for their family by whatever means necessary. This tradition continues even after marriage and children. Our way of life revolves around culture, family and religion; the majority of Samoans are also Christian by faith. Christian principles take full effect within Samoan families’ values and dictate how a person should live and make decisions.  

So, the concept of a man having a relationship with a fa’afafine is so strongly opposed. Men are expected to have a wife that can bear children and carry on their family lineage. Due to colonization and western influence, current Samoan society will weaponize religion to convince these men that they should feel ashamed for being attracted to and even being with a fa’afafine. If you listen to the way many Samoans (even some who are well educated) speak about fa’afafine, we are almost always referenced to something derogatory and ridiculed. This influence is morphed into our everyday living, our people are being taught to think that way about fa’afafine. It has been internalized over the decades. It is a toxic mentality that is also very common among Black and Hispanic communities, because of their strong ties to religion that in turn influence their family values. Most men who are able to endure and even flourish in lasting relationships with fa’afafine women are white men. 
For many working class white American families, “culturally”, once a person is of legal age they are basically on their own. Most are able to survive without any familial support, not a vast percentage have Christian upbringings and they are not obligated to care for their family. When I worked in retail, there was quite a handful of white folks who were in their 70’s and still working full-time, I was shook, culturally this never happens for Samoans. I told my coworkers that where I come from, people will put their children to shame for allowing them to work at that age. This whole idea of children having to care for their parents physically and financially once the parents have reached their golden years was foreign to their ears.  

I understood then, the deep disparity of coming from a rich and deeply rooted culture and not having one altogether. White American families are not tied to strong cultural values, this allows them to be more open minded about things that are otherwise deemed unacceptable in our society. For a Fa’afafine, these cultural differences are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, fulfilling the “Cinderella Story” of our dreams with (a white) prince charming, and on the other hand being bound to a culture that will only accept us to a certain extent.  
The expectation and perception of fa’afafine (especially fa’afafine transwomen) by most Samoans, is that we fall directly into the roles of service, event decorators, costume designers, entertainers and such; artistically and culturally gifted individuals. When it comes to roles of high esteem and leadership, and even romantic relationships, that is where they draw the line. Fa’afafine are perceived as the weaker link and unworthy of such roles. The internalized toxic religiously influenced culture that I mentioned earlier comes in to play so swiftly and brutally. Indeed, the advocacy of fa’afafine organizations in Samoa has opened the minds of those who are willing to accept change and look beyond toxic external and internal influences in our culture, but even then, to an extent. We are challenged when we are seen as overstepping boundaries that society as a whole has built against fa’afafine. 
Fa’afafine continue to be seen as inconsequential outside of our societal roles and continue to endure this treatment. I have known many men who have experienced immense success and lived a life of luxury because of fa’afafine. A man will use a fa’afafine as a sexual object and as an opportunity but refuse to see them as a person. While there are genuine relationships that do exist between our men and fa’afafine in Samoan communities, they are not very public. It is that way to be able to have a loving bond, although confined, free from any judgement. 
Many fa’afafine who date white men are treated with respect and the love is reciprocated. This is not a praise towards white men, but a plea to break the stigma that loving a fa’afafine is nothing to be ashamed of. So many heterosexual marriages end in divorce and some couples stay in loveless relationships for decades for the sake of their kids. If even those relationships are easily accepted by society, then why is a relationship with a fa’afafine so hard to accept? 

The fact is, in spite of these challenges, many fa’afafine would still prefer to have relationships with Samoan men. We could never escape the customs and traditions we are born into; it is in our DNA. Fa’afafine women want to be able to love our men while also embracing the values of our Fa’a Samoa. Let us not forget the arrival of the missionaries came into severe conflict with ancient Samoan traditions; they tried to erase the existence of Fa’afafine and abolish certain values in our culture. Many of the early missionaries failed to realize that our people welcomed the church and wanted to accommodate these new beliefs into their lives. And in spite of the missionaries’ apparent disdain for our foundational traditions and cultural way of life, eventually we took religious practices taught to us and inserted then into our Samoan customs. Instead of Christianity bursting the bonds of old life – it was eaten up by it. 
The life of a fa’afafine is like the beauty of the rose, unique in every way but also delicate; but every rose has thorns to protect itself from harm. It is said that those who dare not grasp the thorns should never crave the rose. Fa’afafine are not objects, we are not a curse and do not have some mental illness. We are Samoa’s most gifted beings, masterful artists and phenomenal lovers.  Why would a person choose to live a life filled with fear of and hate from our own? It takes courage and resilience to walk in our shoes. I would never wish that kind of pain on anyone. We are deserving of love with both hands open. We are worth it. Always have been. Always will be.

One thought on “Breaking the Stigma: Fa’afafine Women are Worthy and Deserving of Love

  1. Heartfelt and elegant, thank you for this beautifully written truth! What an intricate and real perspective on our culture, acceptance and reflection of how we have continuously restricted our love and value for our faafafine (backbone of our Samoan nuclear families and communities) . I don’t where I would be had it not been for the love, care and teachings I received from many of my faafafine family, educators, and culture keepers! You are so worthy, and Thank you for this gift 🎁

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