Faʻafāfine is often described in the literature as a "third gender" but is a general term that is applied to the diversity of gender and sexual identities in American Sāmoa. They can refer to transgender women or to gays more generally. The lack of an Indigenous lexicon to describe the myriad of gender expressions does not diminish the general tolerance of them in Samoan society. Depending on the church denomination, faʻafāfine are accepted as members within women's groups and contribute greatly to the development and execution of important activities.
Faʻafāfine contribute greatly to American Samoan society, both in the home, the village, the workplace, and the church. Much has been written about their economic impacts on the faʻasāmoa, however, the discourse is not uncontroversial. The debate over whether faʻafāfine are shaped by genetics or environment often dominate the discourse. It often reduces the intrinsic worth and value of the queer and trans folk in terms of their economic utility to others and trivializes the emphasis of Indigenous thought on the intrinsic personhood of the individual in relation to the collective and the intricate balance of relationships maintained through the vā.
In ancient times, sexuality was much more fluid and gender identities were much less oppressed. The introduction of non-Western Christian morals began to sanitize Indigenous sensibilities and a general acceptance of gender diversity. Western gender roles and responsibilities imposed on women and men began to influence attitudes toward sex and gender in ways that came to marginalize faʻafāfine.
Despite the general precolonial tolerance of faʻafāfine, general societal attitudes in American Sāmoa today are less favorable to legal rights for non-heterosexual couples. When the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that effectively legalized same-sex marriage throughout the fifty states comprising the United States was delivered in 2015, the territories followed suit. Except for American Sāmoa. Although territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico were predominantly Catholic, and despite whether they were obligated or not to legalize marriage equality in their respective territories, they preemptively legalized sam-sex marriage.
American Sāmoa, a deeply religious Christian society, mostly Protestant, through its government decided that the ruling did not apply to American Sāmoa. As not all parts of the United States apply to the U.S. territories, the government of American Sāmoa argued that allowing the Supreme Court ruling did not apply in the Territory.
In this section, we explore the history of faʻafāfine in American Sāmoa and the legality of marriage equality in the context of U.S. constitutional law in relation to the application of the Fourteenth Amendment.
We interview Talauʻega Eleasalo ʻAle, the current Lieutenant Governor of American Sāmoa, who was also the Attorney General at the time of the Obergefell ruling. We look specifically at his rationale for not applying the ruling in the Territory and the legal ramifications of this for marriage equality and other rights potentially affected by this ruling and other cases tied to the Fourteenth Amendment.
We also speak with local faʻafāfine representatives on their views on the law and the complexities of the case for various LGBTQAI+ individuals and the collective as a whole in American Sāmoa. We share their voices and their stories and the impacts the Supreme Court ruling would have on faʻafāfine, on Samoan culture, and the social fabric of society.
NOT FULLY AMERICAN
Does the U.S. Constitution Follow the Flag in American Sāmoa?