Somewhere in a group of islands in the South Pacific, a class of men who display effeminate behaviours and portray atypical masculine roles forms an integral part of traditional culture and greater social structure. They are the fa’afafine of the Independent State of Samoa, the American Samoa, and in several Samoan diaspora including New Zealand.
An etymological understanding of the causative prefix fa’a and the word fafine provides a direct English translation that means “in the manner of a woman.” Nonetheless, the terminology or label ascribed to these men is revealing of their recognised status as a third gender. Their acknowledged status in the society comes from their established and important role in the traditional Samoan family systems.
Scholars who have studied the Samoan culture describe the fa’afafine as hard working and dedicated members of the family. In their study, Nancy H. Bartlett and Paul L. Vasey mentioned that these individuals display an array of behaviours that range from extravagantly feminine to mundane masculine. Their sexual orientation resembles typical homosexuals as evident from their exclusive sexual relationships with men.
However, it is important to delineate the difference between the fa’afafine and the Western concept of homosexuals. In Samoa, the words “gay” or “homosexual” are inexistent. Oppressive cultures in other parts of the world consider homosexuality as unnatural and people who have identified themselves as homosexuals are often perceived with contempt and discrimination. But the Samoan culture is different. Instead, the fa’afafine is a true third gender with an established identity and role that first emerged at least during the early 20th century. Researchers often replace the word homosexuality with the word androphilia to describe a universal homosexual-like sexual orientation and behaviours.
While it would appear that the fa’afafine are raised and nurtured for homosexual or androphilic behaviours because of the encouraging social environment, the study of Bartlett and Vasey revealed that the fa’afafine share similarities with women, especially when it comes to gender-based childhood behaviours and dispositions. As reported, both the fa’afafine and women are predisposed to engage in more female-typical behaviours and significantly fewer male-typical behaviours in childhood compared to the men. A survey of the fa’afafine further revealed that some of them believed that they used to highly identify themselves as girls when they were children and performing typical male gender roles or portraying masculine-oriented behaviours was upsetting for them.
Other results from the study revealed that Samoan families are less enthusiastic about influencing the sexual orientation and gender identity of their children or pushing them to conform. The moment their young boys display effeminate behaviours, they easily recognise them as fa’afafine. However, although this third gender is recognised, some Catholic groups and traditional leaders refuse to accept them.
Another interesting conclusion drawn from studying the fa’afafine centres on the apparent universality of homosexual behaviours. As mentioned by Bartlett and Vasey, gender-atypical behavior in childhood and adult androphilia is not unique in Western societies. Both the fa’afafine children and homosexual children in the West share similar behaviours. Probably, this relationship is a cross-culturally universal pattern of psychosexual development shared by most males who are predominantly androphilic.
Nonetheless, the existence of the fa’afafine in the Samoan society has an interesting implication that could explain the evolutionary role of homosexuality.
Several studies revealed that the fa’afafine are more altruistically inclined toward their nieces and nephews than either Samoan women or heterosexual men. They are eager to look after their nephews and nieces, tutor them in arts and music, and extend financial assistance for education and healthcare. Vasey and Doug P. VanderLaan have extensively investigated the probable evolutionary underpinning of this phenomenon.
A 2006 study with David S. Pocock revealed that the fa’afafine have greater avuncular tendencies—or uncle-like behaviour—than heterosexual men. In 2010, both Vasey and VanderLaan replicated and expanded the study. One of their findings revealed that the fa’afafine exhibit significantly higher avuncular tendencies even when compared to a more closely matched control group that also lacks direct parent care responsibilities—or heterosexual men with no children. Another result revealed that not only the fa’afafine are more altruistic than Samoan women or heterosexual men, they show more altruistic and avuncular behaviour toward their kin while displaying weaker tendencies toward other children.
From an evolutionary perspective, Vasey and VanderLaan hypothesised that there might be genetic factors that result in the emergence and maintenance of homosexuality in a population and in this regard, the Samoan population. The existence of the fa’afafine creates an advantage for a particular family or clan, by helping the propagation of genes and promoting reproduction or procreation. While the fa’afafine do not procreate, their roles in the families revolve around looking after their kin, particularly their nephews and nieces. This altruistic and avuncular behaviours assist in the survival of younger offspring in a family tree and in turn, promote the survival of the entire genetic line of the family.
The existence of the fa’afafine has also been associated with the Fraternal Birth Order Hypothesis and another theory associated with maternal fecundity. As a backgrounder, the Fraternal Birth Order Hypothesis suggests that the more older brothers a man has from the same mother, the greater the probability is that he will have a homosexual orientation. On the other hand, the maternal fecundity effect is a theory associated with the evolutionary underpinning of homosexuality. Several tests of this theory revealed that the mothers and maternal aunts of homosexual men have a reproductive advantage over the mothers and maternal aunts of heterosexual men. Apparently, both homosexual men and their mothers and maternal aunts carry genes that promote both female reproduction and male homosexuality. The 2009 study of Vasey and VanderLaan confirmed the association of these two theories with the fa’afafine of Samoa.
Further details of the study of Bartlett and Vasey are in the article “A retrospective study of childhood gender-atypical behavior in Samoan fa’afafine” published in 2006 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Details of the study of Vasey, Pocock, and VanderLaan are n the article “Kin selection and male androphilia in Samoan fa’afafine” published in 2006 in the journal Evolution of Human Behaviour. Details of the follow-up study of Vasey and VanderLaan are in the article “Avuncular male tendencies and the evolution of male androphilia in Samoan fa’afafine” published in 2008 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. Details of the follow-up study of Vasey and VanderLaan are in the article “An adaptive cognitive dissonance between willingness to help kin and nonkin in Samoan fa’afafine” published in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science.
Further details of the 2009 study of VanderLaan and Vasey are in the article “Male sexual orientation in Independent Samoa: Evidence for Fraternal birth order and maternal fecundity effects” published in 2011 in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior.