10 May Fa’afafine means Freedom.
This is the second piece in the #OwnVoices series here on my blog where I invite Pasifika LGBTI friends and family from around the world to share their stories. The first article was from Phineas Hartson, a Samoan living in Australia. This interview takes us to American Samoa. I first knew Princess Arrianna Auva’a as a dedicated reader of my YA Telesa Series. Then I got to know her as a brilliant actress, model and performer, an astute businesswoman, a fierce advocate for fa’afafine and LGBTI rights, a passionate writer AND then a potential US Army recruit. I’m excited to welcome Princess to the blog!
About her identity. Does fa’afafine = transgender?
Fa’afafine to me is my identity. I know I was not born biologically a female. But I do not feel like I am male, despite the fact that my genitals scream another story! (LOL, OH WELL). But being Fa’afafine, actually being a proud Fa’afafine is who I am and what I am. It defines me in this world. The word ‘transgender’, although sometimes I identify myself as that when speaking to an outside audience (The English speaking audience), comes with a lot of struggles, pain, fight, hurt and so on. Fa’afafine defines me in a beautiful way. It ties me to my culture. It ties me to my people. With the identity of fa’afafine it comes with acceptance. Fa’afafine to me means ‘Freedom’ to express myself’ and my Freedom to live freely and happily. I am not being suppressed. I am not being turned away. I am not being shut out from anything! Being Fa’afafine has it’s advantages, If I am denied anything being a female, then I can switch to being a male. If I am denied that by being a male, I can jump in as a Fa’afafine.
About growing up in American Samoa…
I was born in the beautiful islands of American Samoa, at the LBJ hospital in Fagaalu and was raised here. My family and my while life was based here in Tutuila, in my Mother’s family from Malaeloa. My Father is from Falealupo and Vaoala, in Samoa. I grew up under the wing of my Grandmother. A very strict mean, yet very loving woman, that has her culture, her village, her church, and especially her family as her priorities. You can only imagine how that was. Feaus at every moment of the day! My mother was all about school. Reading! She was tough on us, her kids, about reading. She made sure we always read something daily and she had to make sure we were on top of our school work. Then you have my Palagi Grandfather that worked everyday, was a bit laid back, and loved to take us, his grandkids for beach adventures.
Growing up, I knew something was different about me, but then seeing that my brother was the same way as I was, I didn’t really think anything different about it. I was feminine. I LOVED to steal my sisters’ Barbie dolls as if they were mine and play with them and at the same time, I was in love with sports. Weird combo, I know! But playing sports was my release. I played Little League baseball and then to major league tournaments around the island. I played American football with the village boys on our family field and rugby when I finally understood it. I was always picked, because I was super fast. One thing I was grateful for, was that I had my brother, Hawley, that grew up with me. We shared a lot of things. Things we both did not understand, but we both helped each other out by answering our own confused questions.
My family somewhat understood us. Of course no one agreed with my behavior at first, but they did not love us any less. I was often teased by my guy cousins. Name callings, and being mocked about something I did not understand. But they were also protective of us against the outside bullies and the teasing. I guess it was only okay for them to tease us, but no one else. (I didn’t get the mentality then! I still don’t get it!) Now, I am my families Princess. FULL support with anything I do. FULL support with anything I ask for. My Mother and Grandmother are my biggest fans and supporters. So are my aunts that are like my mother’s too. They all shop for me. Encourage me. Protect me, and defend me (Sometimes they defend me although I am acting a fool, or have acted a fool). My parents have accepted me, They pray for me. All they want for me is my happiness. As any parent in their right minds would want for their child.
About high school in American Samoa…
Every Fa’afafine had some moments of being teased in high school. So did I. But little stuff like, ‘Vae masoa, fia keige, faafafige…’ But never anything major. My classmates are my friends. Close friends actually. After 12 years after graduating, whenever we get together, we act like we’re in our teen years as if time has never passed us. I was never looked down at because I was different, but I was befriended and loved because I was special and unique. I was Princess. Throughout all my years of High School, I never thought the need to change my name to a girl name. I was very comfortable with my given name. I was the Co-editor for our School year book with a dear friend for two years. I was very active in school activities and a proud supporter of my class activities. I loved high school even more when my brother attended the same school as I did. In fact all my siblings and I attended Leone High School in Leone, home of the Mighty lions! I’ve dated the love of my life, THEN. I’ve fought in high school. I’ve bullied, I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, and I’ve done it all. Just like any other regular teenager! I’ve made some life long friends and also life long enemies.
About the need for role models and mentors…
I didn’t have any fa’afafine mentors or role models. I came into the transition lost as to what to do and how to do it.. I had no guidance. I was clueless to the whole lifestyle. My fashion role models were my grandmother at one point and my mother. I had to find myself, catch myself, and walk myself through. My aunty, Maxine Tuiolemotu helped me along the way with a few tips here and there. Then when I fully came out and was of age, the Polynesian Goddess, Shevon (God rest her soul) herself swept in and took over the whole transition process and guided me along. I was a late bloomer into the whole Fa’afafine world. As I mentioned earlier, I had only my brother to fall back on with our conversations. I never looked up at anyone. Most fa’afafine were transfixed with the whole pageantry systems. They were very into the whole ‘who is who’ thing. I was lost. I had no idea what hormones were. I had no idea what the pageant system was like. I attended my first Fa’afafine pageant at the age of 18. In jeans and a shirt.
I believe having a positive role model growing up helps with guiding one as we transition. The help and guidance makes things easier. My help came when I met my friends, who are my sisters now. I am grateful for all my aunties and friends that helped me through the process then and now.
About the stereotypes…
Nothing bothers me more than the mindset of people who think we’re all about the fun, flare, glitz, glamour and games. That nothing hurts us. Here is a big surprise people, we’re human, just like the rest of the you that occupy this world. The stereotype still lives and I know it will continue to. There are some here that still don’t know and understand why we are who we are
Most often, I think people compare us to Ford trucks, We’re built tough. I can undertand why that perception of us is widely conceived. We weren’t born tough though. The experiences we go through from a young age until the day we decide to live our lives and express to the world who we REALLY are, make us tough. The walls we build are to protect ourselves. Our defense mechanisms were created by the obstacles we have to jump over through the years. We are accepted in our culture and society, but there are still things and people that limit us, including ourselves.
About marriage equality in American Samoa…
My stance on marriage equality is that we as humans deserve to be treated equally in all aspects of the word, EQUAL. Many Samoans are against the same sex marriage issue because they do not understand it. Many use religion as their defence which I find hypocritical. That an Island so filled with corruption, divorce, adultery, stealing, and so many other sins would immediately jump to the Bible for defense against what they do not understand and what they do not know. It’s ridiculous. But it didn’t surprise me.
I’ve had a lot of negative feedback on my fight for marriage equality, even from my own grandmother. Members of the Society of Faafafine in American Samoa even stood opposite of what I was fighting for. Not all, but most.
Most that supported the cause were doing so in support of their family members, friends, and supporting what they know on the issue.
About the Army…
I am currently training to join the U.S Armed forces. I have always had the dream to join, but I lacked courage. I have been afraid of losing myself in the process and during my time of service. I’ve been searching for years on end to find myself, and now that I fully understand who I am and what I am meant to do in this life, I deem myself ready to accept the challenge.
I now realize that, it’s not what I wear and out on myself that makes a person. I am not who I am with my appearance. I am me, with what and how I put out to the world.
My mother is my biggest motivation. I want to help her. I want to be able to give her the world or at least travel the world. She inspires me to keep climbing higher and to keep grabbing on to more stars.
The support I have been getting, the prayers, the concerns for my spiritual and mental well being, and concerns of “What about your hair?”, and “how will you cope Princess?”, have been overwhelming in a heartwarming way. I am truly touched by the outpour from friends, family, and the community as a whole. The only obstacle that I have faced so far, is myself. I keep putting things up, I keep procrastinating. I am honestly excited about this new journey which I hope and pray I will be embarking on soon. The challenge of the training actually excites me. Am I scared? Of course, like hell I am. This is something completely new to me. Especially from a lazy person that loves to sleep more than anything else in the world. Over all, the challenge will hopefully change me for the better. The mental and spiritual prepping have been great. The physical training so far has been painful but it is pain I have to endure. The whole training is more mental than physical. It is all a mind over matter challenge. With my 30year old body and 17 year old beauty, mental ability of a 60 year old, I pray to be ready!
Advice for other fa’afafine, especially the younger generation…
To my faafafine sisters young and old, be true to yourselves. Find yourselves. We will never find true happiness if we are not happy with ourselves. Accept yourselves for who you are. You and only you will be your best you. No one else can live your life. No one else can find your happiness but you.
Love is a beautiful thing. Do not let one piece of a broken heart stop your heart from beating. Love songs are written to be sung, so a grieving heart can feel it’s pain, mend, and love again.
Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a bad thing. The unknown can be a great thing. If we are not going to build anyone up or help with their climb, do not write them off or bite at their try. Live your life. Find your love and find love. Be successful. Be great. Be humble. Find happiness. Create a peaceful world not only for yourself but for the people around you.