Jaiyah Saelua & American Samoa FC
May 6, 2014 1:38 AM   Subscribe

"Look at this beautiful woman that's athletically very strong beside me, I knew there were some intangibles that I could work with to turn this team around in a short space of time." The woman Rongen refers to is Jaiyah Saelua, born Johnny, but one of the island's Fa'afafine - an integral part of traditional Samoan culture, born biologically male but embodying both masculine and feminine gender traits. It makes her the world's first transgender national football player. While, through the force of her own personality, Jaiyah becomes an integral part of the documentary - there is no explicit battle for acceptance from her teammates, the issue of sexual identity is just not an issue for the islanders. "Its natural in American Samoa because its part of the culture. Fa'afafine's have been around since before the missionaries came. It's so deeply embedded in the foundations of our culture to show respect and that includes respect for transgender people," says Jaiyah.
posted by marienbad (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I saw this on the BBC earlier and I was very curious about the cultural context for fa'afafine such as Jaiyah. It's somewhat complex, but after a bit of poking I really enjoyed the discussion in Theorizing Self in Samoa: Emotions, Genders, and Sexualities [Google Books link - the text is visible], especially when looking at the continued low status for the group and the impact of Christianity on their place in Samoan society.
posted by jaduncan at 2:45 AM on May 6, 2014

I'm too braintired at the moment to reframe a previous comment with links to some other books/theses on Fa'afafine, so go here instead.
posted by barnacles at 3:01 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Calling a fa'afafine "transgender" strikes me as a form of cultural imperialism. The Samoan concept seems to both predate and be significantly distinct from what most westerners would mean by the word trans. Maybe we could just let Samoan culture have their three distinct genders that don't in any perfect way map onto contemporary western gender identity.
posted by crayz at 3:06 AM on May 6, 2014 [20 favorites]

Nice post, but a minor clarification that this is American Samoa, not [Western] Samoa - they're different countries.

Crayz, I think I agree, but Jaiyah does refer to herself as transgender in the article.

And I'd add that the story of the American Samoan football team is interesting in its own right:
"If you are a team that loses all the time - and that's what American Samoa was - it says something about your spirit that you're still playing."
posted by Pink Frost at 3:31 AM on May 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

"Calling a fa'afafine "transgender" strikes me as a form of cultural imperialism."

I doubt the BBC are doing that deliberately or insensitively, it is the BBC after all. They are writing for a UK audience, where the term transgender is better known than fa'afafine, and to be fair, I think they are just trying to put complex gender issues into easy(ier) to understand terms.
posted by marienbad at 4:10 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Coached to glory by a Dutch coach"

" “I am steeped in the Dutch football tradition,” he says. “The teachings of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff and a technical brand of football is my motivation but what I encountered here was the exact opposite. So I had to adapt. I went from an old-style 4-4-2 to a more modern 4-2-3-1 because since it’s obvious that they give away too many goals, I thought four defenders and two holders would help. It’s easier to teach inexperienced players how to defend than to attack"

Amazing to think to Michel's and Cruyff's technical teachings being used in Samoa! Also, please somebody tell the last line to LFC already.

Re: American Samoa - Yes, sorry, didn't realise until after I read your comment. If a mod could alter the headline to read American Samoa, it would be appreciated. I think I have Western Samoa in my head because they are a strong rugby side.
posted by marienbad at 4:16 AM on May 6, 2014

This was very interesting, and I didn't know anything about it. Thanks for posting.

I know it was a minor part of the story, but I had glancingly heard about that Dani Alves incident linked to in the article. Not knowing anything about the motivation behind throwing the banana I just thought to myself, "well, that's a peculiar thing to do at a sporting event". I had no idea it was a racist act. That's so messed up.
Dani should get a lot of credit for handling it gracefully and with humor.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 4:26 AM on May 6, 2014

There's an existing marienbad post about Alves.
posted by zamboni at 4:40 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks! I missed that.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 4:42 AM on May 6, 2014

Mod note: Title edited.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 5:36 AM on May 6, 2014

I'll keep an eye out for the documentary - sounds great. Thanks for the post!
posted by rtha at 5:53 AM on May 6, 2014

to be fair, I think they are just trying to put complex gender issues into easy(ier) to understand terms.

Oh, I don't suspect them of ill intent, but it does seem erasing of a unique gender which fits into a place that cannot be easily categorized. It really doesn't seem to map with a lot of how Western transgender identities tend to be expressed - this kind of acceptance of both halves, masculine and feminine. If anything it seems more similar to two-spirit people among Native Americans.
posted by corb at 5:59 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I was going to mention the concept of two-spirit, and also Kathoey. Looking into it, it seems there's a large tradition in many different countries. My initial thoughts were maybe there's something very ancient that goes with the indigenous traditions and their acceptance of trans-/pan-genderism/third-genders that maybe the bibliolaters wiped out in their conquests. I don't want to romanticize it too much, of course, it's always easy to do the "noble savage" exoticize The Other.

jaduncan says "the continued low status for the group" - I'm not sure if that means a native lower status (accepted, but not fully?) or if that's due to the Christian influence...?
posted by symbioid at 6:38 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks gnfti.
posted by marienbad at 7:40 AM on May 6, 2014

I want to see this movie, but I admit that, like with Rising From Ashes, the documentary about the newly-formed Rwandan cycling team, I get more than a little sense of "What These People Need is a Honky"* from the trailer.

* Used intentionally: I attended a brilliant panel at Wiscon some years ago with that title, which looked at stuff like the Stargate franchise, the Cameron Avatar movie and The Last Samurai, and so forth--where the brave white guy shows up and saves the (usually brown) natives from some peril.

Once that pattern was pointed out to me, I find it everywhere in pop culture.
posted by suelac at 9:20 AM on May 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

There's also, I suppose, a certain point to which it may be interesting to wonder how many people might identify as something similar to this if it were allowed to be expressed. From my understanding, a major requirement for transitioning, both legally and medically, is to live exclusively as that other gender for a period of years. It doesn't really seem to support fluidity very much, and actively disincentivizes this kind of expression as any period of dressing or acting in ways that align with the birth gender would reset the clock on that.
posted by corb at 9:21 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took an anthro class in college that dealt largely with another gender-defying culture, in a tiny island I can't remember the name of now, but the idea seems similar. They were called "leitie" though, I think a newer term based on "lady" but I could be wrong.

As for calling them transgender - I don't think it's so far off base; there are untranslatable words and concepts in many cultures and we have to pick something as a common analogue. The gender spectrum is very complex and for much of it there's little standardized terminology. Calling anyone out for not knowing or using the right term (beyond a certain point) seems counterproductive to me.

Relatively isolated and uncommon gender identities, such as this one, may only ever be known by locals, academics, and people to whom the gender bias is especially interesting — the same as one might find with other local traditions, places, flora and fauna. The Golden Gate Bridge is still a bridge, and someone may call it that broad term even if the preferred and more accurate one is the former, you know? And sometimes the broader term is more easy to create understanding and dialogue. Anyway, I'm rambling. Thanks for the post.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 9:58 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I dropped this Vice interview with Jaiyah at the bottom of another thread.

(The thread was this one, which is also about a culture that handles gender identities differently.)
posted by Corinth at 9:59 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

corb, there are plenty of people with non-binary genders living in places with a dominant gender binary, though that's not to say that "the system" is not strongly biased towards binary-gendered people.

From my understanding, a major requirement for transitioning, both legally and medically, is to live exclusively as that other gender for a period of years.

Basically, this is not so true anymore, at least in the US. (The consensus on "best practices" no longer demands "real life experience" before hormone therapy. It is still de rigeur in any number of countries, though.) Anything to do with gender markers is a complete hodge-podge with no sort of consistency. (That's what the revolutionary thing about the Obama administration's changes to the rules for passports and Social Security was--they made a standard that was flexible enough to be realistically attainable for many people and then implemented the same rule in more than one place!)
posted by hoyland at 10:00 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

oh, thanks hoyland - things seem to be changing really rapidly! I guess that makes me one of the olds. :)
posted by corb at 10:06 AM on May 6, 2014

Interesting. I always understood fa'afafine to be a third gender, but in the article Corinth linked to, Jaiyah definitely refers to herself as a transgender person pursuing transition. I wonder if she is fairly unique in that as a fa'afafine, or if many others really are MtF transgender individuals using the cultural precedence of the third gender to transition in the way we are more familiar with.

I think it's fascinating that this non-binary gender system has managed to coexist with the conservative, largely Catholic lifestyle that Samoa has adapted. I wonder if this precedence has affected the way FtM transgendered people are treated there, or if it's a completely separate issue?
posted by Safiya at 11:05 AM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

To counter all this (very Western) talk of cultural imperialism, let's not forget that fafa status isn't exclusively the domain of individuals who feel it is their destiny. It can also be imposed on an individual, during childhood, without consent. I'm looking for a link to a documentary on this and will post later if I can find it, but here's a story in a similar vein.

The doc I'm thinking of interviews a number of self-identified fa'afafine folks who very fluidly use the contemporary trans terminology almost as a way of acknowledging their identification more with the concept of gender transition than with occupying a third gender (although that latter is present to some degree in almost all of their stories). One of the (self-identified) women notes that fafa as a descriptor kind of fails in this way, and renders the fafa some kind of talisman rather than a person who can recede away from her life and role as a woman. Is this ringing any bells for anyone? It was released probably in the 2008-2009 range?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 11:13 AM on May 6, 2014

I'm about halfway through the one of the links in the comment barnacles linked to upthread, and it's really interesting. This in particular struck me:
Shifting Identities of Fa'afafine in Samoa

In the village context in Samoa, individual interests tend to be subsumed to the needs of the group and community. A sense of oneself as gendered is largely defined by one's labour contribution to aiga (extended family) and community.[26] Fa'afafine, like their Polynesian counterparts, are identified at an early age by virtue of their propensity for feminine tasks.[27] The following description of early life at home in Samoa is entirely typical of most of my respondents.
    When I was young, I know I was like this. I do all the girl's work when I was young. I do the washing, and my sister's just mucking around, cleaning the house, but my job at home is cooking, washing, ironing – everything.
The fact that families don't seem to equate this early preference for feminine labour with eventual sexual preference suggests that 'sexual relations with men are seen as an optional consequence of [being fa'afafine], rather than its determiner, prerequisite, or primary attribute.'[28] This implies a distinction between constructing identities in terms of labour, and the possibility of identity being related to sexual practices. As I will explain below, the latter concept is a relatively recent phenomenon.
posted by rtha at 11:22 AM on May 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've worked in American Samoa and Micronesia, and what fascinated me was that straight men - especially guys from the countryside - wouldn't differentiate between women and fa'afafine. I didn't meet any men that seemed exclusively oriented towards fa`afafine. I really noticed this at the clubs, where men would put equal effort into trying to pick up either gender.

Male:male sex was often hidden, and sometimes disparaged; male:fa'afafine was out in the open. Men who dated or married fa'afafine did not consider themselves gay.

As rtha noted, a lot of the self-definitions were rooted in labor. The fa'afafine didn't necessarily dress like women, or try to appear as women, but they did tend to do women's jobs.

In Micronesia we also had "wulu-mwaan" (roughly: like a man), or women who took on men's roles. I didn't notice this in A. Samoa, though I'm sure there must have been a counterpart.

Final note: in Honolulu the mahu I know identify much more with the Hawaiian community than with the Queer community, though of course there is still a lot of crossover.

Here's a film that recently opened that deals with some of the same topics:

Kumu Hina trailer. Imagine a world where a little boy can grow up to be the woman of his dreams, and a young girl can rise to become a leader among men. Welcome to Kumu Hina's Hawai'i. During a momentous year in her life in modern Honolulu, Hina Wong-Kalu, a native Hawaiian māhū, or transgender, teacher uses traditional culture to inspire a student to claim her place as leader of the school's all-male hula troupe. But despite her success as a teacher, Hina longs for love and a committed relationship. Will her marriage to a headstrong Tongan man fulfill her dreams? An incredible docu-drama that unfolds like a narrative film, KUMU HINA reveals a side of Hawai'i rarely seen on screen.

(note: I realize I'm using Western constructs like gay / straight / man / woman here, and that there are inherent problems with these terms; however, sometimes simple words make communication easier. )
posted by kanewai at 1:00 PM on May 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Crying at my desk, watching that trailer. So homesick sometimes.
posted by rtha at 3:42 PM on May 6, 2014

To add to the bibliography, here are some articles potentially of interest:

Sue Farran and Alexander Su'a, Discriminating on the Grounds of Status: Criminal law and fa'afafine and fakaleiti in the South Pacific, Journal of South Pacific Law (2005). Link (PDF).

Farran, Sue; Su'a, Alexander, Criminal Law and Fa-Afafine and Fakaleiti in the South Pacific, Commonwealth Law Bulletin (2005). Link. (HeinOnline, subscription required)

Sue Farran “Transsexuals, Fa’afafine, Fakaleiti and Marriage Law in the Pacific: Considerations for the Future” (2004) 113 Journal of the Polynesian Society 119.
posted by orrnyereg at 3:47 PM on May 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

kanewai: "In Micronesia we also had "wulu-mwaan" (roughly: like a man), or women who took on men's roles. I didn't notice this in A. Samoa, though I'm sure there must have been a counterpart."

Talofa, kanewai! Where were you working in Tutuila?

Per oral history and anthropological information, Samoa (and broader Western Polynesia) doesn't have a counterpoint to fa'afafine for women. Note that fa'afafine translates similarly to wulu-mwaan, literally meaning something close to "in the custom of (fa'a) a woman/women (fafine)". Being in Hawai'i you'll probably also notice the cognate wahine/fafine.

While living there and during some time spent in other countries in the region, it's nothing I ever saw and it's nothing I've ever read about, but that's hardly definitive. If there's info to be found, it'll be in one of the documents linked through this thread.
posted by barnacles at 6:42 PM on May 6, 2014

Hey, I'm going to Apia the first week of June! Samoa meetup, anyone?
posted by orrnyereg at 8:41 PM on May 6, 2014

crayz: "Calling a fa'afafine "transgender" strikes me as a form of cultural imperialism. The Samoan concept seems to both predate and be significantly distinct from what most westerners would mean by the word trans. Maybe we could just let Samoan culture have their three distinct genders that don't in any perfect way map onto contemporary western gender identity."

That's a wonderful idea, but at some point, someone is going to want to talk about it that is NOT Samoan, and all they can do is phrase it in the closest common shared language between them and their target audience. I guarantee I could walk outside right now and ask the next 100 people on the street for their opinion on fa'afafine and 99 people would just blankly stare at me and either walk away or ask for clarification. And there we are again.
posted by Samizdata at 9:02 AM on May 7, 2014

« Older Down she, from the fort, came bravely like a lion   |   May the road rise up to meet you. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments