Fuimaono Karl Pulotu-Endemann is Sāmoan, a fa’afafine, and a practising Catholic. He talks to Teuila Fuata’i about his cultural and religious values, and why they can’t be used as a front for homophobic and intolerant attitudes.
I knew I was a fa’afafine when I was five or six. I was raised in Sāmoa by my beloved grandparents who embraced everything about me and encouraged me to do the same.
But when I came to New Zealand at the age of nine, things were very different. Here it wasn’t okay to be Sāmoan or a fa’afafine. Blatantly homophobic and racist attitudes were normal and acceptable, even familiar. And that’s how it was for many years.
Perhaps that’s why the recent intolerance displayed at Australia’s top level of rugby league is so disappointing. Seven players from the Manly Sea Eagles club withdrew from a scheduled match because their team was playing in its rainbow strip. Six of them were of Pacific heritage. They cited “cultural and religious values” as the reasons — thrusting two fundamental pillars of Pacific communities into the spotlight.
What I’d like to know is where these so-called cultural and religious values come from. And whether the players and their supporters really understand what they’re talking about.
If we’re talking about Pacific values — well, the first two values my grandparents taught me were fa’aaloalo (respect) and tausi ‘āiga (to look after your family).
In Tongan, fa’aaloalo is faka’apa’apa. When you respect others, they will respect you. All relationships, and the special vā that enables them, require respect or fa’aaloalo.
Tausi ‘āiga is about looking after your family, immediate and extended. It must be done with love, or alofa. And if you don’t take that to heart, you’ll never experience it in return.
If you look at our traditional values and the concepts of fa’a-Sāmoa, the fa’avae (foundation) is ‘āiga or family. Fa’afafine, gay, lesbian, transgender are all part of that ‘āiga.
And, as a Sāmoan and a matai, I need to say that fa’afafine, same-sex relationships and transgender people existed throughout the Pacific well before Christians arrived.
I think the earliest recording was in 1768, and that was in relation to a māhū from Tahiti. We existed as part of the families and cultures of our respective islands before the Christian missionaries arrived in the 1800s — and long before Pālagi had terms like “homosexual” or “gay”.
Who we are — and our place as fa’afafine, fa’afatama, fakafifine, fakaleitī, or māhū — is from our cultures.
When people see me, they see the colour of my skin and they see that I’m Sāmoan. They also know I’m fa’afafine. It’s the way I dress, the way I behave. I have my own style, but I also value dignity and respectfulness.
For me, being a fa’afafine is being Sāmoan. And being Sāmoan is being fa’afafine. I can’t separate them from who I am.
That context is also important when I look at how Europeans frame same-sex relationships and sexuality.
Sāmoans have always had the word fa’afafine. While Pālagi came up with phrases like “faggot” and “queer”. If you break it down, a faggot is a bunch of sticks brought together to be burned. Whereas fa’afafine literally means “like a woman”. The different meanings reflect the attitudes prevalent in those cultures when they came up with those words.
The attitudes of homophobia that we now see in the Pacific have their origins in Christianity. In Sāmoa, Christianity began spreading in the 1830s with colonisation. It was focused on the Old Testament, and reading the book of Leviticus will give you a good idea of the brand of “Christian beliefs” that were going around.
If you look at what was being promoted by missionaries at that time, it’s a reflection of the then predominant view of Pālagi people in England. Same-sex relations were forbidden, and women and children were considered chattels. It’s a colonial mindset which was entrenched in the Bible, and then introduced into education and legal systems in Pacific countries.
Through that, our own cultural systems and practices were minimised, including the role of women. Powerful women in our history were made invisible and reduced to myth — for example, our legendary warrior princess Nafanua who was a living person and an important figure in Sāmoan history. There’s also Salamasina, who was the first ruler of Sāmoa. Before her, no one had united the different factions within Sāmoa.
In many ways, Christians demonised women and made their role in Sāmoan history invisible when they arrived. I would suggest that invisibility extended to fa’afatama (a female who is “like a man”) in our families. I think fa’afafine remained visible because they were males — which is another example of the western worldviews regarding males and females that were imposed on us.
But you can’t just erase groups of people and events. Many of our matai titles and family histories go back to Nafanua, which makes her story part of our lineage. It means her achievements will always be part of the origins of our chiefly titles.
We’re also actively reclaiming our histories and knowledge systems. It’s an ongoing process, which requires a hard look at the racism and discrimination perpetuated through colonisation. That also means understanding how that system operates today, and acknowledging the origins of some of the imported practices and views which became prevalent throughout the Pacific in the wake of colonisation.
When the missionaries arrived in the 1800s, and promoted and normalised homophobic attitudes, it devalued our own worldviews and ideas. Continuing those attitudes today — and attributing them to our own cultural values and practices — fails to acknowledge what really happened. It also fails to recognise the progress we’ve made in undoing some of those harmful attitudes.
Some of our own leaders, like Aupito Su’a William Sio and Fa’anānā Efeso Collins, have apologised for the homophobic views they’ve held. There’s also been a significant shift in attitudes towards LGBTQ people among Pālagi in England, New Zealand and across the world. Generally, values of tolerance and acceptance are promoted and encouraged.
It’s why I believe the behaviour of those Manly Sea Eagles players flows from a place of ignorance. They’re likely repeating the views of their grandfather or somebody they know who hasn’t really thought it through.
I also believe it reflects a lack of knowledge and confusion around the values of Christianity and fa’a-Sāmoa.
When I think about my Catholic faith and practise, it’s about love, about giving, about charity, and compassion. And that fits in nicely with the Sāmoan concept of tausi.
E tausi lou ‘āiga. E tausi ou mātua. E tausi lou nu’u. E tausi.
It’s caring for yourself, your children, your families, your parents, your big extended family and your village.
To me, that’s both Sāmoan and part of Catholic theology.
Of course, not everything about the Catholic Church sits well with me. The sex abuse and paedophilia is absolutely abhorrent. I haven’t supported extreme views about women. But that’s the institution; it’s not true to Christ’s values or teachings.
During the 1980s in particular, when homosexual law reform was being debated, there was a lot of angst among certain Christians, including members of the Catholic Church. They’re who I would call the fundamentalists, because the rhetoric they promoted had that “fire and brimstone” religious zeal to it. Some of them were even known as “Shiite Christians”, because they had the same views as fundamentalist Muslims on women, sex, children and same-sex relationships.
For me, those views, and the way they devalue members of our society including women and fa’afafine, are not part of Christ’s teachings. I’d say they’re a convenient way to pick and choose what you want from your faith and religion.
My partner Ian and I have been together for 38 years. It’s a relationship based in love, in both Sāmoan and Catholic values. These are the same values that promote inclusiveness and tolerance in Pacific cultures and Christianity.
It simply isn’t possible to be hateful and demeaning to people like me because of who I am AND subscribe to values of love, service and respect.
So when I hear people shun inclusiveness for “cultural and religious reasons”, I have a similar reaction to family members who ostracise their own for being gay. To this day, we have teenagers being kicked out of home because they’ve come out.
My comment will always be: O le fa’avae o le Sāmoa o le ‘āiga. The foundation of Sāmoa is family. And we are all part of a family. And all our families have fa’afafine or fa’afatama.
How could you possibly use fa’a-Sāmoa and Christian values to ostracise your own? How could you when ‘āiga and family are at the centre of everything we do? And it’s the same across the Pacific because all our islands and cultures revolve around love for family.
And while I’m not particularly interested in what those six league players have to say, I am concerned about the high prevalence of suicide and self-harm among gays, lesbian and transgender communities. Make no mistake, their ignorant and naïve views contribute to these.
In the past 20 years, despite progress in legislation and changes in societal attitudes, rates of self-harm and suicide among my communities have not changed. We also have very few openly gay, lesbian and transgender Pacific athletes. That’s not because they don’t exist. It’s because there’s still so much stigma and fear attached to who we are in those spaces.
For me, the antidote lies in our values as Sāmoan and Pacific people. It’s something I always go back to when talking to young people facing their own struggles.
I tell them: “Āiga is a collective. If your parents don’t want you, find other members of your ‘āiga to be with. And that includes our LGBTQ families.”
There are lots of people who do value us and understand our unique contribution. Over the years, I’ve heard people say: “You know the thing that family is blessed with: O le to’atele o latou fa’afafine.” (That family is blessed because they have lots of fa’afafine.)
We saw that in my own family. Just before my father passed away, he said to me: “I’d like to thank you for the care and the love that you gave to me.”
Fuimaono Karl Pulotu-Endemann lives in Christchurch with his partner Ian Harris. This year, his work in Pacific health over more than 35 years was recognised with an honorary doctorate in health from Massey University. His current work focuses on Pacific and youth mental health.
As told to Teuila Fuata’i. This piece was made possible by funding from NZ On Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.