Bright lights, glittering dresses and dazzling smiles are a feature of every beauty pageant, but Samoa’s Miss Fa’afafine is a pageant with a difference – an annual celebration of the island nation’s third gender tradition.
“I believe I was born a fa’afafine. Though originally I was born male, my feminine side is much stronger”, says Velda Collins.
“A woman trapped in a man’s body”, is how she describes herself. “We are unique from the lesbian and gay community around the world, we have our own identity.”
Despite the fa’afafine being an accepted part of Samoan culture for generations, she says life was hard growing up, as her parents never quite accepted her. They were afraid her identity would close doors for her in life.
So taking part in Miss Fa’afafine 2007 was one of the “most liberating experiences” of her life.
She went on to win that pageant, and is now one of the contest organisers.
The fa’afafine tradition
- Dating back to the early 20th Century, the term means “in the way of a woman”.
- It encompasses those who do not fit within the gender binary models of male and female.
- Some fa’afafines live their lives out as women, whereas others may choose to live as men with particular feminine attributes.
- Being fa’afafine does not necessarily mean a person is gay, they consider themselves instead to be a third gender.
- About 1-5% of Samoa’s 190,000-strong population identifies as fa’afafine.
This year, Miss Fa’afafine celebrates its 10th anniversary, and will see nine contestants from various countries and across all ages gather in front of a thousand-strong crowd on Friday.
The Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA), which organises the pageant, uses it to generate funds for their community work, but also to raise awareness of various human rights issues, especially their push for Samoan laws banning homosexuality to be repealed.
Ymania Brown, 53 and an SFA founder, says she has identified as a girl “since about the age of three”, and remembers “having a crush on this particular boy in kindergarten”.
But she says being fa’afafine is not the same as being gay.
“When you try to fit cultural idioms into Western boxes, what you end up doing is trying to find the nearest fit,” she says.
“It’s a very painful life to lead because of all the stigma and negative connotations,” she said.
Her mother was accepting of her identity, though her father resisted.
“No parent would wish it upon their child, but once they see it’s a losing battle they usually embrace it.”
There is added weight to the contest this year, as the community feels their identity, traditionally accepted or tolerated in society, is coming under increasing pressure from religious conservatism in strongly Christian Samoa.
In June, a national newspaper caused outrage by publishing an uncensored image of the body of Jeanine Tuivaiki on its front page, a fa’afafine who was found dead, possibly by suicide, inside a church.
The prime minister said he was “appalled” by the front page, while the SFA said it had “robbed what last dignity and humanity Ms Tuivaiki had”.
The newspaper apologised, but the SFA said it was a sign that fa’afafine “can never be fully functional free and equal citizens of Samoa” while anti-gay laws exist.
But Ymania says she sees a positive “change in the way acceptance is flowing”.
“You see kids in primary school acting and talking as fa’afafines publicly,” she added.
Many people attending conservative churches “are growing up and having children, who sometimes end up being fa’afafine so how can they go and discriminate against them?” she asks.
Ymania herself is a mother to two adopted boys.
“The first time I saw my name on my children’s birth certificate listing me as their mother, I broke down,” she said.
“Even growing up, all I ever wanted to be was somebody’s mum. And the fact that my country has deemed me to be listed as the mother of my children on their birth certificate, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Children are also one of the reasons why Ymania, and the SFA are fighting for greater LGBT rights in Samoa.
“If one of my kids turn out to be fa’afafine or have fa’afafine children – not only them but so many children across Samoa – I want them to grow up in a world that is tolerant,” she said.
“It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime but I have to try to leave this world a better place than when I found it – for every citizen, including fa’afafines.”