The Manalagi Project announced last week will help to bring the stories of the Pacific’s Rainbow and Queer communities “out from the cloaks of cold obscurity and into the spotlight as important and mana-filled members of Pacific communities and New Zealand society”, writes Patrick Thomsen.
I was introduced to netball on weekday afternoons in the 1990s by my mum and aunties who’d meet with a group of friends to engage in what Sāmoans call fa’a’afu — a kind of informal training to literally fa’a afu or build up a sweat.
On those afternoons, we’d jump in my aunt’s beat-up brown car (that she learned to drive by hopping in and turning it on) and we’d head from our little house on the prairie in Manurewa to the netball courts behind St Joseph’s in Otahuhu.
Occasionally, they were short on players, so I’d make up the numbers. Or I’d be told to umpire. I happily obliged, running around the courts in bare feet, short shorts and often a tie-dye top, swishing back and forth, mimicking all the ladies I saw on TV.
When I think about those times, I relive the thunderous laughter, the endless roasting in Sāmoan, the loud, flamboyant voices competing with one another to have the floor. But I also know now that this was the way I was socialised into one of the few environments that were safe for fa’afafine and gay men.
Although well known in Sāmoan circles, the fa’afafine identity and concept confuses a lot of people from outside and inside our community.
Fa’afafine translates roughly to in the way or manner of a woman. Fa’afafine are not necessarily transgender, in the strictly western sense of the term (although this can depend on where you are, so some are both). Fa’afafine traverse the line between masculine and feminine in Sāmoan family, social and village affairs.
For Sāmoans — and I believe this applies to many Pacific peoples — relationships are key. We’re not just individuals, we’re someone’s child, parent, aunt, uncle, brother or sister. This means more than being connected to someone through blood. You become bonded to each other through the sharing of experiences, struggles and resources, and through service to your family as well as to one another. A fa’afafine child is no exception — they are acknowledged in Sāmoa as part of the collective.
But, as for unconditional acceptance — that’s a conversation for another day.
Fa’afafine are as common as coconut trees in Sāmoa. You can find them in any church, in any village, moving about Apia in colourful puletasis with giant flowers behind their ears — at times, roasting overly friendly men by spitting out cutting rhymes with a lyrical deftness that most of us would struggle to keep up with.
I‘ve come to know many fa’afafine, right from when I was a boy. My uncle is a fa’afafine and, in Sāmoa, I am considered a fa’afafine. In New Zealand, though, I’m more of a queer cis-gay man with femme and masculine energies depending on which Mariah Carey song is playing and whether rugby is on the TV. I’m comfortable in both.
Again, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see how in the late 1980s and ‘90s my mother, aunt and uncle made our household a safe space for fa’afafine in Auckland. At any given time, we’d have a fa’afafine staying with us while they were “waiting for their immigration papers”. Or because they needed a place to stay for a while. Or they just wanted to feel the comfort of being part of a Sāmoan family again after navigating the stresses of moving to New Zealand without any of their own immediate family.
I remember one fa’afafine who’d take my siblings and me to the park to play lape. That’s a type of Sāmoan baseball combined with dodgeball where you use your hand as the bat and you’re struck out when a fielder hits you while you’re running between the bases. The bases could be the tree over there, the jandal my sister threw in the grass in another direction, and the bush over yonder. The ball was thrown like a missile at you — and when you were hit, sometimes it would literally bowl you over. We loved it.
Then there were the pageants. In the 1990s and early 2000s, beauty pageants were massive in the Sāmoan community. Uncle, who is a well-known fashion designer in the Sāmoan community in New Zealand, was constantly creating outrageously ostentatious garments of shining splendour for fa’afafine who were entering the numerous beauty pageants.
Back then, Auckland had an extensive network of Sāmoan nightclubs. These days, there’s really only Tausala in Māngere. We all know it as the old Apia Way, owned by the parents of my good friend Justine. There was also Le Penina just off K-Road and Le Tanoa. The list goes on. And every venue had fa’afafine pageants.
One year, there was a champion of champions contest that brought all of Auckland’s fa’afafine pageant winners together to compete for a single crown. The competition was fierce — so fierce and drama-ridden that there would be no such competition held after that one.
However, growing up around fa’afafine in Auckland meant that I was also privy to some times that weren’t so good. Many of those I knew resorted to risky sex work to get by — and that was in an era when sex work was still a criminal offence.
Others found that having no formal education qualifications limited their ability to work beyond the factory floor. Alcohol and drug abuse were also common. At the same time, they were still expected to support their families in Sāmoa while also having to negotiate their shaky immigration status. Not to mention coping with the personal and systemic racism in New Zealand.
I have seen many fa’afafine and sisters from our fellow Pacific communities struggling through simultaneously racist and heterosexist norms in our society, but still making important contributions to our families and communities.
So, I’ve found it disheartening that their stories are almost always left out when we talk about Pacific peoples and our contribution to New Zealand society.
Whenever there’s a wedding, the mala (slang for fa’afafine) cousin is called on to do the decorations, the cooking, and the sewing, as well as performing an entertainment number. But you don’t see them in the photos of the wedding party plastered all over Facebook and Instagram. Nor, in many cases, is their labour readily compensated.
When there’s a funeral, a birthday, a graduation, an unveiling, there’s always a mala in the kitchen, with an ie lavalava tied to their waist, hair in the shape of a pani popo bun, slaying the gargantuan pots with their Beyoncé-inspired flair. Meanwhile, their brothers and father get to speak out front on behalf of their family.
Although some prominent Sāmoan drag queens have become well-known in the LGBT community here, they barely feature in any New Zealand Pacific narrative, LGBT or otherwise. In that respect, they’re much like many “othered” members of New Zealand’s Rainbow and Queer community (think trans women and men), including fa’afafine and other Pacific gender identities — like Tonga’s fakaleiti, or Hawai’i and Tahiti’s mahu, or the vakasalewalewa of Fiji, the palopa of Papua New Guinea, fakafafine of Niue, and the akavaine of the Cook Islands (MVPFAFF).
This year, I’ve been honoured and blessed with a grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand to begin the process of bringing these stories and our people out from the cloaks of cold obscurity and into the spotlight as important and mana-filled members of Pacific communities and New Zealand society.
I’m partnering with my longtime agony aunt and fierce advocate for our community, Phylesha Brown-Acton and her team at F’INE, and the research has been titled the Manalagi Project for short. It takes its name from the Pacific and pan-Polynesian concept of mana and connects this to lagi, from our shared word (rangi, langi, lani) for the heavens.
This project is committed to establishing within our own communities and in New Zealand, a firm acknowledgment of the mana of Pacific Rainbow, LGBTIQA+, MVPFAFF, gender diverse and liminal identities. It’s a mana sanctioned by the heavens from our birth but, up until now, in New Zealand, I don’t believe it’s been properly recognised.
The three year project will provide a safe cultural space for Pacific Rainbow, LGBTIQA+, MVPFAFF people to communicate their health and wellbeing needs so that New Zealand can better acknowledge that our people not only have uniquely specific needs that require nuanced policy interventions, but that they also deserve to be treated with mana and respect.
And the need is considerable. As a country, we don’t collect official statistics on our Rainbow and LGBT communities, although other research suggests that members of our community face a raft of health and wellbeing challenges which includes: the stigma of trans and homophobia, experiences of bullying and threats to physical safety, a higher than average tendency towards suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and recreational drug misuse. And on top of that, they’re more likely to find it difficult to access healthcare despite being at more risk of emotional worry.
For our Pacific communities, we’re more prone to experience health problems, social deprivation, and to use primary healthcare and mental health services at lower rates despite being more likely than non-Pacific groups to develop mental health issues. In fact, one in five Pacific people report that cost is a barrier for them, while stigma rooted in cultural contexts keeps many from seeking help from mental health services.
Although the equity challenges are beginning to be identified and it may appear that we know a bit already, what is also becoming clearer is that there is so much more we don’t have a handle on.
For one thing, many of us working in this space know how hard it is to get any reliable data on our communities. Thus, our policymakers will struggle to respond effectively to the needs of people who are blessed with the insights and experiences of living in both marginalised communities at once. My friends at the Human Rights Measurement Initiative can tell you that what gets measured, gets improved. And if our communities aren’t being counted, we’re not being listened to.
Next year, the research team and I will be travelling around the country to find out what our community wants and needs to have communicated to our leaders. We’ll be conducting a survey in the second year guided by the community talanoa. And, in the third year, we’ll be using the funding to support the deployment of members of our communities to document our stories.
Last year, I returned home to New Zealand after living abroad for 11 years, and I found my way back to the netball courts playing for Auckland Sāmoa’s mixed oldies team. I regularly practised my shooting at the Manurewa Netball Centre, down the road from my home. One day, as I approached the courts, I heard the all-too-familiar sound of soaring laughter and Sāmoan language, and realised that I was among fa’afafine from Sāmoa having a session of fa’a’afu.
After getting the pleasantries out of the way, we talked about the struggles around finding good work, immigration status, thwarted education aspirations, families who were good and not so good to them — and, of course, boy problems. The faces were new, but the conversation was not.
Another thing was different. I was the eldest there. This took getting used to because I’ve always been the youngest.
As I sat and listened to the next generation of fa’afafine from Sāmoa dream new dreams for life in Aotearoa, my mind drifted back to the elders of my Pacific Manalagi community, whose joy, laughter, pain, and service I first encountered on the netball courts of South Auckland, all those years ago.
Their stories and struggles helped to shape me. And it’s about time that they, too, became an acknowledged part of the New Zealand Pacific story.
For further information on the Manalagi Project, please contact Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen.
Seuta’afili Dr Patrick Thomsen was born and raised in South Auckland and is from the village of Vaimoso in Sāmoa. He is a lecturer in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, having received his PhD from the University of Washington – Seattle, Jackson School of International Studies. He was also the first Sāmoan to receive his MA in international studies from Seoul National University in South Korea, where he lived for nine years.
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