Stories from Samoan queer life

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 21 February 2019

The editors of a new book on Sāmoan LGBTQI culture say they wanted their stories told by their own people, not by anthropologists and academics. 

Alex Su'a Samoan Queer Lives

Alex Su'a Samoan Queer Lives Photo: Evotia Tamua

Stories from fa`afafine, transgender, and queer people of Sāmoa - one of the original continuous indigenous queer cultures of Polynesia and the Pacific Islands - are captured in Samoan Queer Lives. Co-editors Yuki Kihara and Dan Taulapapa McMullin began collating the stories 11 years ago and the result captures a piece of social history of Samoans at home and the diaspora.

The book was Kihara’s idea but she says she didn’t have a literary background. She and McMullin had known each other and admired each other’s work for a long time. She presented the idea to him because of his poetry and literary work and he was keen to get on board. 

Kihara makes the point in the foreword of the book that stories of fa`afafine and queer people in Sāmoa have been told by media, anthropologists, academics and documentary makers. She wanted the story to be told by the people who lived it. 

“So much of our experiences have been romanticised by them, and that also goes to journalists and media as well who are looking to sensationalise us. We’re assumed to possess a primitive gender and sexuality and are living close to nature as measured against a civilised western patriarchy. This is the running thread of the constant fictitious narrative that we’re being told by them. 

“I felt that it was really important for us as indigenous people and as fa`afafine belonging to Sāmoan culture that we offer the platform to speak for ourselves. The primary audience for this book is Sāmoan fa`afafine. It’s edited by fa`afafine, for a fa`afafine audience."

The stories told in the book are from people who come from many different walks of life. McMullin explains there are carpenters, lawyers, teachers, and diplomats telling their stories. He says this shows there’s a multiplicity of voices in the fa`afafine community, queer, and lesbian community of Samoa and the diaspora.

“We have a sort of ideal of what it is to be a fa`afafine that’s connected to our past, and we have our present reality.”

He says for a lot of people it was a difficult decision to share their story publicly and many of them said no in the beginning. 

“These are people who are out in the community, but to talk about ones personal life takes a lot of courage so I have to hand it to all the participants in the book because they were honest, very candid, they were funny, and their stories are really amazing.” 

He says one of the things they discovered is the different diaspora experiences of Sāmoans. He says the United States experience can be a difficult one as an immigrant. 

One of the stories of a lesbian in the US named Jean Melesaine follows:

“I was so lucky to have the name Jean, it’s such an asexual name. When I was younger my teacher would say ‘hey are you a boy or a girl?’ or they’d say Jean like John. They’d say ‘are you fucking kidding me, what kind of brown kid is named Jean like that?’ My sister’s name was Apiseta and then it was Jennifer because my parents had to assimilate. I was the first kid not to learn Sāmoan. They were like, ‘you’re not going to learn that shit. We are fucking having Americanised lives.’” 

When she was young, Jean became a thief and went to prison. McMullin says she “found herself” there and began to relate to women in a different way.

Kihara says some of the contributors wrote essays, while some were interviewed on audio. Jean’s interview they decided to transcribe in exactly the way she talked. It was a conscious decision they made with all their interviews, to leave their voices untouched. 

“We didn’t correct the grammar or the English so we can keep the authenticity. We left in the slang, we left in the pronunciation. These are all creole languages of our Sāmoan people and, in order to come across as authentic as possible, we left it all in there rather than try to polish their grammar as such.”

Another story included was of the late Shevon Matai who was part of fa`afafine transgender house culture in Samoa in the 1960s-1980s. She joined a tailor shop called Hollywood in Apia, Sāmoa and later part of a sister house called Beverly Hills in Pago Pago, American Sāmoa. They were places where fa`afafine could come together and live as women. 

McMullin says interviewing her was a moving experience. Matai told him: “I think I want to say that fa`afafine are fascinating creatures and that their lives are lived on the surface and they belong to be lived on the surface of life. I believe that you don’t have to look too far to understand who we are, it exists right there. You just have to have the right eye.”

He says they had been discussing how the history of fa`afafine was being erased during colonialism. 

“This was an issue that I think all queer people in Sāmoa deal with - the aftermath of colonialism. Even the words of queer history in Sāmoa are suppressed in dictionaries and literature. The one word that did survive was fa`afafine. This history of erasure was an important part of the story and it was one of the reasons Yuki and I wanted to work together on this.”

Kihara says many of the contributors they spoke to still face discrimination for being queer, including conflicts with their church and family. 

“All the contributors are very secure about themselves and who they are and what they want to do, it’s the outside forces that refuse to acknowledge them for who they are.” 

She says she’s an advocate for the word fa`afafine - though she doesn’t impose it on anyone - partly because the words transgender and homosexual come from western disease models and diagnostics. 

She’s also supportive but weary of western pride movements such as the rainbow flag. Her concern is that it might be used as a conduit to impose or promote western LGBTQI values over indigenous ones. 

Although progress is being made, gay marriage is still not fully legal in American Sāmoa and it’s not legal at all in Sāmoa. 

McMullin says: “If you look at the language, fa`afafine means the way of the woman, but it also means the way of the wife and fa`atane means the way of the man, but it also means the way of the husband. Marriage equality is, in a way, something that is interwoven into the queer language of Sāmoa but it is not the reality of the law.” 

Kihara adds: “During the colonial administration of Sāmoa from 1914 to 1962, they imposed a variety of laws which included homosexuality being illegal and transgenderism - males dressing up in women’s clothing - as being illegal. Here we are in Aotearoa, they scrapped homosexuality being illegal. Transgender people and gay people have equal rights now, they can get married. So I find it really interesting that Aotearoa, as a coloniser itself, reforms its laws to give free and equal human rights to everybody. But the former colonies of Aotearoa are still suffering from the laws that they imposed.”

McMullin is currently working on a book about queer histories of the Pacific and says explorers and colonisers were shocked by the gender fluidity they saw in the region. 

“It was a huge thing in Europe, to read about the queer histories in Polynesia, because they were offended by it. What really offended them was the fluidity of sexuality”. 

He gives the example of Kamehameha who had wives and male lovers. 

“When we use words like straight and queer, those are western concepts. There is a fluidity to our sexuality that is really important,” McMullin says.

Kihara adds that it was European sexual encounters with gender fluid Polynesians that give rise to their consciousness of transgenderism and homosexuality. 

“Without us, they wouldn’t have been able to define themselves,” she says.

McMullin agrees. He says American encounters with fa`afafine and queer people in the Pacific during World War Two gave birth to the gay liberation movement in the United States.