Madame Secretary:  Samoa’s first transgender Executive to the Governor

At 19 years old, I, Marion Marlena, was hired for my very first job as a clerk for the Government of American Samoa. Technology in Samoa was not up to date when compared to the rest of the world at the time, so my job demanded a lot of foot work and face to face networking with other government departments. This gave me access, becoming acquaintances with many top officials and public servants at the time. I relished in my experience of being an executive woman, punching in at 7am, morning coffees, cubicle desks and wearing high heels on the daily. I felt like Tess McGill from the 80’s movie ‘Working Girl’, but instead of the swanky high rise concrete jungle of New York City, our office buildings were nestled in a tropical metropolis of coconut trees, sandy beaches, and the sought-after unhurried island life. Living truthfully as a fa’afafine woman from a very young age, I always looked up to other fa’afafine women for inspiration. At the time, most fa’afafine trans-women were either educators or worked in the private sector; very few were in executive/office positions. There were a few that I can recall. Cherie Ripley worked as an Administrative Assistant from the 1970’s at the American Samoa Community College, Simeonica Tuiteleleapaga worked for the Division of Women, Infant & Children, Levi Reese was Chief Accountant at the Treasury Department and Oshima Laumatia worked for the Telecommunications Authority. 

Sally with a few dignitaries she’s met and known through the years Football Legend Troy Polomalu, Heisman trophy winner Mariota and Princess Pilolevu of Tonga

And then there was Sally Faumuina, who during that time was the Secretary for the Director of the Department of Education. Sally had been doing administrative work since the day I was born. She was not only known for her work, but for being deeply involved in both political and cultural affairs on the island. If any of her family, work or friends had an event planned out, you would be sure to see Sally orchestrating everything from behind the scenes. Sally was always the consummate perfectionist dressed in the most beautiful puletasi (formal Samoan women’s attire), delicate gold jewelry, and designer bags. She had a luxurious home and car to accentuate her taste, style, and sophistication. Our community had an inside joke that Sally was the only secretary who could afford live-in maids. “People who don’t know me think I’m conceited” Sally said in a telephone interview, “I am very blessed, and I am not ashamed to show it because I worked hard, and I share my blessings with others.”

Sally with Lt. Governor of Hawaii, 2020

When the newly elected Governor of American Samoa Lemanu Peleti Mauga unveiled his administration in 2020, he appointed Sally as his executive secretary. In American Samoa’s 122 years as a United States occupied territory, Sally became the first Fa’afafine and transgender woman to serve as a trusted aid to a sitting governor. I told Sally during our interview that 10 years ago while I was working in Samoa, Dr. Oreta Crichton, who worked for the Governor’s office at the time, invited me to the position of Secretary to the Governor; I declined as I had already planned to move off island. “I woulda beaten you to it!” I said and we both laughed. I am here however, to help tell her story. We have both been blessed in doing what we are passionate about.

Sally second from left with her brothers and sister
Sally’s grandparents who raised her Fonoti Tusapa Laolagi and Fa’apupula Tuiolosega Laolagi

Sally was born in 1967, the 8th of 14 children. She was raised in Fatu ma Futi known as the (flowerpot) village by her grandparents. By the third grade, Sally knew she was different, she also knew she was loved and accepted by her grandparents for exactly who she was. When they both passed away in the early 80’s, Sally returned to live with her parents. Her father worked for the Office of Public Works and her mother was a homemaker who planted and sold fresh goods from her plantation. “My mom loved me all the way, but dad had a hard time accepting me at first” remembers Sally “It was one Sunday at church that I was in shock when my dad, who was a deacon, changed my birth name to Sally during offering in front of the entire congregation. That was his way of finally accepting me as a woman.”

Sally’s mother and father Lepopole Fautua Faumuina and Taulagi Tuiolosega Laolagi Faumuina

By the time Sally had graduated high school in 1985, most of her siblings were living off island; those still living in Samoa had started families of their own. Sally took on the duty of caring for her parents. Shortly after, her father passed away in 1999. “When my dad died, my mother became my best friend” Sally said, “Every day after work at five past four, she would call me. We did everything together. My mom was such a tough woman, not even my aunts or uncles would dare to say anything about me. When I lost her in 2007, I felt that my world had ended. It took a long time for me to heal from her passing. Every blessing I have ever received was because of my care and love for my parents. I miss them both so much.”

Sally working as a clerk at Samoana High School, 1986
Sally fixing her makeup for the inauguration ball in 2013

Sally began living and dressing as a woman in high school. When her sister-in-law invited her to the local television station she worked at, she met Siniva Anoa’i: the Diane Sawyer of Samoa. “My sister-in-law introduced me as Ryan’s girlfriend, Ryan was my classmate and Siniva’s son” Sally remembers “After that Siniva said ‘okay from now on your name is Sally Field after the actress’ and I stuck with Sally ever since.” Sally also found inspiration and encouragement in two leading fa’afafine, Leroy Lutu and Michelle Eneliko who were both educators and pioneers in the fa’afafine community. Sally began working for the government right after graduating High School in 1985. She was hired as a clerk for Samoana High School, her Alma Mater, through the JPTA program. In 1993, she was transferred to the main office of the Department of Education where she worked as the Secretary to the Deputy Director and later, the Director. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started clerical work” Sally laughs reflecting back “I would go through 10 different envelopes before the letter alignment was correct. Office workers nowadays have it so easy! Everything is just a click and a print away. Those days everything was manual; you’re constantly dealing with typewriters, whiteouts, ribbons, and huge copy machines. We were never properly trained, and I just learned as I went until I got it right.”

Sally, 1996
Sally’s beautiful home in Malaeimi
Sally in one of her stunning puletasi
Sally judging at the Miss American Samoa pageant 2021

Over the years, Sally extended her success to include side businesses and rental properties. She even became an event planner and decorator for various occasions. She managed rental homes that she inherited from her parents, including a three unit building she recently opened. She was always very generous with her wealth, financially and physically supporting many local causes around the island. When her mom was alive, she made ginger leis for TOA O SAMOA prayer services, held monthly in honor of deployed Samoan soldiers and their families since 2001. When her mom passed, Sally continued the tradition of ginger leis in her mother’s memory. Sally is also a dedicated member of the women and youth affairs for her church.

Sally with two of her good friends Tasha Atio’o and Poe Mageo
 Sally with her best friend Leilua Stevenson celebrating her 50th birthday
Some of the events that Sally helped decorate over the years

In 2013, Sally received a phone call from the then governor’s chief of staff inviting her to dinner with Lieutenant Governor Lemanu Peleti Mauga. “I thought they wanted to ask me to decorate for the inauguration ball, but I was shocked when the lt. governor asked me to be his secretary!” She accepted the position. Initially, there was backlash from the community; including members of the Lt. Governor’s family who resented that he asked a fa’afafine to be his secretary. “The lt. governor was unbothered, and he made sure they knew it.”

During the administration’s second term, accusations of corruption and power grabbing by the current governor and some of his cabinet members generated a deploring display of public outcry. Tensions between the Governor and Lt. Governor escalated to a breaking point. Soon, Sally found herself embroiled in a scandal that would cost her the career she had built. In 2019, a photo of a leaked paycheck circulated social media, around it were accusations that the receiver was accumulating fixed hours and payment that were never actually worked for. Media reports stated that an internal investigation was carried out by the police, and the governor made his decision to terminate Sally from her position over the leaked information.

Sally says that she was never given a proper chance at denying her involvement, their determination and her termination was based purely on spite. Regardless, she paid the ultimate price. “I thought I would be okay, but after a week I felt so humiliated and hurt. I confined myself to my room for two weeks and thoughts of suicide played in my head. I received a phone call from Pastor Amy Tavai and a visit from my good friend Leilua, who both gave me words of encouragement. When my daughter Grace made a Facebook post about those who were putting me down, it was a wake-up call, helping me realize how selfish I was, not seeing that my kids were hurting too. I wanted and needed to be strong for them. When I finally went out to go do some shopping, I hesitated at first, but as I walked into the Cost-U-Less, so many folks came up to me and wished me well and I never knew that I had that support. My kids pulled me out from the darkness.”

Sally meeting President Biden during his visit in American Samoa in 2016

When Lemanu won his bid as governor for the 2020 election, he once again asked Sally to be his secretary and she once again accepted. Lemanu’s administration is to be commended for diversity and representation which saw the inclusion of several other fa’afafine in high-ranking positions. “It is very stressful at times, you’re dealing with senators, representatives, high chiefs and the entire territory. There is a large amount of people pleasing that comes with the job. But God is awesome! I remember how scared I was to handle notable people, but God blessed me with the wisdom and knowledge to understand how to approach them. Sometimes you will hear people complaining, talking about you, and yelling at your face. . . this is MY job and duty, so I must put up with that, continue to remain humble, and serve with a smile. Everything and everyone is a priority to the governor; his favorite saying is ‘Sally we are here to serve, not to be served.’ He is always reminding his cabinet and employees to take care of their family first. He is a good man; you have to put in a lot of trust and honesty to work for him.” 

 Sally with her daughter Grace, 2002
Sally with her daughter Grace 2021

Sally says her greatest blessing in life are her kids. “My mom convinced me to take care of and adopt my nephew when he was five years old, my mom goes ‘kausi le kama lea e alu ai lou kupe ma lou koso solo’ raise him as your own and spend your money on him it will keep you away from sleeping around (Samoan humor). “Later she said, ‘ka o piki mai le keigi lae i le falema’i’ (let’s go pick up this baby girl from the hospital) That baby girl was Grace, my second child. My mom said ‘kausi kamaiki ia, e aogā pe a e lo’omakua’ (raise these kids, they will be useful when you’re old). Sean is now 31, Grace is 21, and my baby Tupufia is 3 years old. My kids are very respectful of me, they never answer back disrespectfully, and they continue to call me mom in front of people. It makes me a stronger woman to know that I was able to raise kids as an independent mother. I don’t think I would have ever been able to accomplish the things I have done had I had a husband, because he would have taken all my money” as she laughs at her statement.

Sally with a few of her circle of friends former Miss Pacific Islands Rochelle Tuitele and Leilua Stevenson with Archie Soliai and Ricky Salanoa
Sally posing near the liquor section in Apia, Samoa
Part of Sally’s garden her favorite hobby

In her alone time, Sally takes passion in working on her garden and plants. When I asked her about love and the many men in her life, Sally was very coy about it. She has been a maid of honor and bridesmaid to countless weddings, but never a bride. “The truth is, all my love affairs will be revealed at my funeral” she said jokingly “my book will be titled ‘Love, Lies & Murder’ and the first 100 copies of my book will be handed out for free at my funeral.” Why ‘murder’, I asked? She answered, “because wives will murder their husbands and girlfriends will murder their boyfriends after reading the book at my funeral haha.” In the over 30 years of your profession, I asked, what has been the most rewarding lesson you have learned? “To always be respectful” she says “I’ve learned from a young age to carry myself with dignity. I know I was a born a woman and I will die a woman, but what you put out will be returned. No matter how many degrees you have, when you don’t have the decency, the love, the honesty, and humbleness, all that means nothing! Be kind…. always.”

Tasha Atio’o, Sally, myself and Bianca Miscoi attending an event 2008
Sally with her good friends former Beauty Queens of American Samoa Fatima Langkilde and Rochelle Reid
Sally celebrating with supporters during Lemanu and Talauega campaign for office, 2020

One thought on “Madame Secretary:  Samoa’s first transgender Executive to the Governor

  1. Hello Sally, maybe you don’t remember,My name is Winnie a Pilipina , I work at The Shoe Tree for a long time and you’re my favorite customer cause you always give me a tip and you always told me to keep the change, you are a very nice person, so beautiful inside and out. Samoa was my second home and wants to go back there and spend a vacation, I now live in Sacramento Ca. I love the place and the Samoan people. May God bless you and keep you safe.👏🙏💐

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