Born a boy in Samoa, living as a woman in Alaska

[23 August 2007]

By Julia O'Malley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska—“What are you?”

The question came at Tafi Toleafoa from a young woman across the computer lab.

People always want to know, but they rarely ask out loud. Students wear the question on their faces the first day of class. Professors trip over pronouns. It’s been that way since Tafi came from Samoa two years ago to attend the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“Are you a boy or a girl?”

Now, one more time, Tafi had to explain, to untangle the contradiction of her long thick hair and plump, glossy lips with the masculine tenor of her voice and her tall, substantial body. She had to tell the girl that, no, she isn’t a boy, or a girl, exactly. She’s something else.

“I’m fa’afafine,” Tafi said. “That means I have a boy’s body, but I was raised in Samoa as a girl.”

Tafi could have explained that in the islands, nobody ever asked. She could have told the girl that a Samoan mother with a fa’afafine among her children is considered lucky. Fa’afafine help with babies and cooking, they tend the elderly and the sick. They are presumed to have the best traits of both men and women.

But the girl didn’t want to know more. She picked up her things and left, giving Tafi one last look over her shoulder.

The way most Americans understand it, gender breaks down simply: There are men and there are women. But across Asia and the Pacific Islands, many cultures recognize a third gender with characteristics both male and female. In Samoa, when a son or a daughter prefers the work and clothes of the opposite sex, they are called fa’afafine “like a woman” or, far less commonly, fa’atama, “like a man.”

Tafi has a male body, but she lives her life as a female and asks that people refer to her as “she.” That’s how she will be described in this story.

In the islands Tafi was more accepted, but her life was still complicated. Many fa’afafine live as women, the maleness of their bodies ignored by those around them.

Outside of the cities, especially in Christian families, they must follow strict social rules binding them to household duties.

Many families, including Tafi’s, expect they will remain celibate. In a culture that prizes both its tradition and Christianity, fa’afafine are tolerated, but behavior that hints at homosexuality is not.

Still, many fa’afafine, who see themselves as women, do have discreet relationships with men.

In her ideal world, Tafi, who was raised as an oldest girl-child named Alicia, wouldn’t have to change her body to be accepted here. She wouldn’t have to rearrange her outside to make people accept what she is inside: a straight woman who is attracted to straight men.

But the world isn’t ideal. Since she came to Anchorage, Tafi’s family, who loves her as she is, has pressured her to dress like a man. They have decided she needs to fit in to avoid ugliness she isn’t used to.

Now, at 23, she’s torn between the expectations of her family who accept her as an asexual helper, and American culture that’s less accepting but offers her what she wants most: a chance to become physically female, to find a husband and have a family of her own.

Tafi wasn’t surprised that the girl in the computer lab didn’t know what she was seeing. Sometimes Tafi doesn’t know how to see herself—or her future.

Ropeta Toleafoa knew her son was fa’afafine when he was 4. Unlike his brothers, he stayed close to her and didn’t like getting dirty, she said, speaking in Samoan with her son Taivaleoaana “Seven” Toleafoa translating.

“He didn’t like going outside and doing what men do,” she said.

Tafi’s life wasn’t like the stories she watched on re-runs of American talk shows as she grew up in Samoa. She never felt she was a woman trapped in a man’s body. She never felt shame.

Samoa is a tribal, communal society, different from America where individual desires rule. Samoan parents hold a powerful role and commonly influence their children’s decisions far into adulthood. Children don’t choose to be fa’afafine; their mothers decide for them.

At 5, Tafi, a sweet, outspoken child, began hoisting babies on her hip, filling bottles for her mother and helping with the dishes. Ropeta, a mother of eight, was pregnant or nursing for many years and welcomed Tafi’s help.

Tafi wasn’t encouraged to dress like a girl, but she gravitated toward her sisters’ clothing, playing dress-up in private. “I loved skirts, short skirts to be specific,” she said. “I always had to be pretty.”

At school, Tafi bonded with girls and other fa’afafine among her classmates and teachers. By third grade, most everyone called her Alicia. Her younger siblings, all girls, saw her as an oldest sister.

Tafi’s father, Saunoa “Noah” Toleafoa is a religious man, an elder in the Seventh Day Adventist church that missionaries brought to the islands along with Western ideas about gender. Noah had fa’afafine in his family, but he held on longest to the idea that Tafi would be like her older brothers. A boy dressing as a girl is not what God intended, he said.

He tried forcing her to change her clothes and cut her hair like a boy’s, but nothing worked. Tafi couldn’t be forced.

“This one thing I know,” he said. “Tafi is different.”

By the time Tafi reached her teens, the idea of an actual sex change consumed her. Tafi found many examples of adult fa’afafine around her, some of whom had surgery. To each other they spoke a fa’afafine language, a mixture of English and Samoan. Tafi soon caught on.

“It wasn’t hard to ask them, `Hey, how did you get boobs?’” she said.

Out of respect for her father, Tafi dressed “androgynous,” wearing women’s pants, a T-shirt, and her long hair pulled into a bun. Her one indulgence was glitter.

“Lots of glitter,” she said. “I loved shiny stuff.”

Ropeta and her daughters insulated Tafi from her father’s disapproval, which gradually waned. For junior prom, Ropeta saved two paychecks to buy Tafi the material to make a pink dress.

By 2002, all the Toleafoas had immigrated to Anchorage, following family connections and the promise of better jobs. Tafi stayed behind, her immigration status complicated because she was born in western Samoa, which is an independent country, different from the U.S. territory of American Samoa. She’d graduated from high school and was working on her associate’s degree.

“That’s when I started dressing like a woman full-out,” she said.

In a snap-shot from that period posted on her MySpace.com site, Tafi glows, her chest full under a black blouse.

“It felt right,” she said. “Perfect.”

In 2005, on her way to Anchorage to start at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Tafi took her first step on U.S. soil in Hawaii, wearing platform sandals and short-shorts. She always imagined Americans, with their gay celebrities and liberal attitudes, would accept her. She remembered RuPaul and the movie “To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” a drag queen comedy she’d watched in high school.

“I thought, `OK if there’s people like that, then probably I don’t have to explain myself,’” she said. “I didn’t know that it was going to be like there’s nobody that dresses like that in a real everyday life.”

When she showed her passport, which said she was a man, customs officials singled her out for two special searches. Standing in the balmy Honolulu airport, she felt the disapproval of strangers for the first time.

The collapse of her expectations continued in Anchorage. The first day of her liberal studies class, when she answered a professor’s question, she heard whispers. Her voice betrayed her.

“When they look at your face and you have earrings on and you have make-up on and you have long hair, then automatically you’re supposed to have this kind of voice,” she said. “If you are not going to have that voice, then you are kind of like an alien or something.”

After her first two weeks of school, her father sat Tafi down. He had four fa’afafine on his mother’s side, he said. One of them came to America 10 years ago, to California. People didn’t understand her there, he said. At a party, Americans beat her and threw her from a window. She was killed.

“He said he’s concerned about my life and my safety,” Tafi said. “That’s why he advised me that I should change my style to kind of like, umm, androgynous, sort of like professional.”

There would be no more short-shorts or glitter. Instead, it was T-shirts and slacks. And if her professor asked about pronouns, she’d go by “he.” But, even in her toned down-outfits, Tafi seemed feminine. Her professors struggled with what to call her in class.

“Even the most inclusive people do not know what this is,” said her professor Ann Jache. “They don’t know how to talk about a person that is both male and female.”

Tafi took her classmates’ judgment as a challenge. A gregarious “he,” she excelled in class, tackling complicated literature, winning a seat on the student senate, making a loyal group of friends in the school Polynesian association.

Tafi didn’t want to hide, Jache said, she wanted to explain. Jache and Tafi crafted a project on fa’afafine over the generations. Tafi gave a presentation to her class, and then to the campus, and then to a Unitarian church. Each time, she grew more confident.

Tafi began to see it as her job to inform the campus about fa’afafine.

“I knew that they are not educated about it. They wouldn’t be mean like that if they knew ... Fa’afafine are all coming to Alaska,” she said. “If they are running into the same problems, I have to do something about it.”

Tafi’s west Anchorage home is crowded with her parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and in-laws, 13 in all. Tropical flowers decorate the walls and a grass mat covers the carpet. Among her sisters, she’s Alicia, a dutiful oldest daughter with a flower behind her ear, chasing her toddling niece, carrying dishes from the kitchen.

Tafi’s brothers and sisters have a better idea than her parents about how Americans view her. They know that some people with a sibling like her would feel ashamed. Her brothers, who see her alternately as a sister and a cross-dressing brother, defend her fiercely.

“Samoan culture believe that God gave you a freedom of choice, you are who you are and it doesn’t matter,” said her brother, Asosaotama, a security guard who goes by “Ace.”

“Shame is nothing when it comes down to blood,” said Seven, a soldier at Fort Richardson, Alaska. “Blood is blood.”

But for her father and her brothers, one thing is very important. Tafi must follow the rules. A fa’afafine brother is one thing, but a gay brother is quite another.

Living as women in Samoa, fa’afafine do have relationships with men, but they are rarely, if ever, public. Tafi has heard of older fa’afafine, those whose parents have died, who live like closeted gay men in America, pretending their partner is a platonic friend. More commonly fa’afafine live with a large family, and have strings of short, secret relationships with straight men who may later marry, sometimes leaving them brokenhearted.

When the subject of a boyfriend came up at the table after church, Tafi’s mother and sisters cheered with approval. Her brother shook his head.

“Tafi can act like a girl, dress up like a girl, but if he had a boyfriend, that’s too far,” said Seven.

Tafi excused herself to the kitchen.

“My sister-in-law, my mom, my sisters, they want me to be happy, they know who I’m attracted to, what I’m attracted to, which is men, and they accept that,” she said later. “My dad and my brothers, no. It’s probably because they just have that expectation of me marrying a woman because I was born male. But then I’m not a male now, it’s obvious I’m not male.”

If anything makes Tafi unhappy, it’s this. Growing up she thought she’d be like other fa’afafine, staying with her aging parents until they passed away, caring for her sister Narese, who has Down syndrome.

But since she’s been in America, and read in her classes about people born male becoming female, she dreams of a future more like her sisters, with a partner of her own.

She thinks of taking hormones and eventually getting surgery to make her body match the way she feels. Her mother and sisters would understand. Her father and brothers would eventually accept it. But even then, if she chose to have a relationship with a man, she would be breaking the rules. She would have to keep it from them.

“Everything else is okay,” she said. “But, boyfriend? No.”

On a Saturday morning at Anchorage Community Seventh Day Adventist church in Airport Heights, and the youth choir lines up on the altar. Tafi’s sisters Sina and Cherish clap and sing “This little light of mine” in their aloha-print dresses, their long hair in heavy buns, glittery gloss on their lips.

Outside of family, church is the most important thing for Tafi. But it’s also a place where she feels conflicted. At first the family attended with a mostly Samoan congregation who understood her, but when they moved to a mixed-race church, things changed. Once again, Tafi’s father asked her to dress like a man.

“Now I have to be a certain way because some of the members’ culture do not have a kind of person like that,” she said.

Her brothers and father are leaders in the church. People have approached them about her.

“I hope that if they want to understand they would feel free to come and ask me because, I mean, how friendly could I get?” Tafi said.

Pastor Edson Joseph, who is from Antigua, has led the evangelical Christian church for 20 years. The congregation’s become increasingly diverse, with American blacks, Africans, people from the Caribbean and Pacific Islanders. A church should welcome everyone, but Tafi and other fa’afafine have raised troublesome questions, he said.

“I have had to defend him,” he said, meaning Tafi. “I have been accused of encouraging or upholding his unbiblical behavior.”

But, he said, all people are sinners and Jesus welcomed everyone, even prostitutes and criminals. So long as Tafi isn’t influencing children, there is a place for him and others like him. It would be a very different matter if Tafi were in a relationship with a man, he said. Then, he would have to intervene.

Tafi, dressed in slacks and a man’s dress shirt, carrying a knock-off designer purse, fills a back pew every Saturday, belting out harmonies to her sister’s songs. She’s made her peace with Jesus.

“I don’t think God sent his son for perfect people, he sent his son for sinners, whatever kind of sinner that is,” she said. “Jesus came to wash away the sins. I don’t think he came just to wash away the straight people’s sins.”

Away from church and school, there is one place where Tafi feels most like herself: among the women of her family.

One sunny day in June, the first birthday of Tafi’s niece, the Toleafoa family threw a barbecue for a hundred guests at the park behind the YMCA on Lake Otis.

Under the picnic shelter, where meat marinated in super-sized coolers and giant grills smoked, Tafi filled foil-covered lunch boxes with turkey tails, taro, flank steak, sausage, potato salad and rice.

“Faster, Alicia, faster,” called her sisters.

In her sarong, a flower behind her ear, Tafi carried plates of food to the elders from church, she dished out salad and chow mein, she sliced the elaborate banana cake. A child fell; she picked him up and shushed his tears.

R&B rolled out of a big set of speakers and the rhythm took hold of her sisters. They stopped work to dance, raising their palms to the sky. The mood captured their mother, Ropeta, who bounced her shoulders and swayed. Tafi put down her big spoon and let the song catch her hips in a slow groove.

Cherish and Sina hooted. Aunties cracked up. Ropeta looked at her happy child dancing in the barbecue smoke and felt moved to cheer her on in English: “Go girl! Go girl! Go girl!”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/born-a-boy-in-samoa-living-as-a-woman-in-alaska/