How did you become involved in the defence of human rights?

I am an activist by accident. I grew up in Samoa, and my goal has always been to get gender reassignment, be was a housewife and a mother, but life is never that easy: when I was a little kid, a very well known fa’afafine called Fanalima was attacked. Fanalima believed very strongly that everybody has a right to their freedom of expressions, and used to wear female clothes. One day, though, she got beaten up very badly while at a party, ran away from the club and died a in front of my house because of the wounds.

Do you still remember that moment?

I do, and it still comes to my mind every time I see LGBTI persons being abused because the reluctance of people to come to terms with their own phobias.

We all talk about a “defining moment” that made our activism, and that moment has been mine. I think some of Fanalima’s existence passed into my conscience that night, and the fact that years later I would have written the submission which helped change the law and repeal the criminal act of female impersonation in Samoa is something she would be very proud of.

Apart from that moment, being born fa’afafine is what forms the very basis of my activism, because I had to fight for every inch of respect I have now. I was lucky to meet mentors who made me understand my activism can be channelled in positive ways, and help other persons like me.

The term fa'afafine can be translated with “in the manner of a woman”: do you feel the recent decriminalisation of female impersonation in Samoa helped making the fa’afafine community more integrated and accepted?

The acceptance in our society for fa’afafine has always been there. We are part of the fabric of Samoan culture and of our communities, and the decriminalization of female impersonation has just brought the situation back to how it was before the colonial law. Even when the law was in place, though, you could see many fa'afafine going to work wearing female attire: we didn’t really care about the rule because we relied on our culture.

Samoa is among the States that still criminalize sodomy. But, on the other hand, there are also employment anti-discrimination laws, and a report of the UPR working group describes fa’afafine, gays and lesbians as “ integral members of Samoan society”. What barriers do LGBTI people actually face in the country?

First of all, we need to understand how – and if - the Samoan situation can fit in a Western construct like the LGBTI label. If we want to talk about inclusion in our societies, we have to consider that in some parts of the world there are what I call gender identifications that have been there way before the LGBTI label was created. I am trans, for example, but not every fa’afafine is; yet, that is the closest Western box we have, so we are put in that box for the sake of convenience.

The United Nations, for example, do an amazing and absolutely crucial job, but where the mechanism fails is in the appropriation of different cultures: they have taken one template and applied it to every country in the world, which is not always a good thing. Our culture accepts us as fa’afafine, but at a United Nations level the LGBTI box is the only one we can fit in, even if in the Pacific area alone there are 22 nations and each of them has a different way to describe LGBTI persons.

We have no choice: imagine we’re in a boat and we have to latch on something not to drown, and that’s the only piece of wood floating by. We are accepted in the LGBTI framework, but is it necessarily a good thing for us, given our culture and our own tradition and values? There is no definite answer: it is a coming of age story for us, our activism is maturing. Only, we want people to discuss with us so we can tell them what our lived experiences are, before making judgemental calls about homophobia in our countries.

We face many more immediate barriers then the ones connected to our legislations on sexuality: we want access to small business setup loans, micro-finance, business training and mentorship so that young fa’afafine entrepreneurs can make a living and support their families; we want access to education, to HIV and STI screenings, to free condoms. We want to be protected from tourism sexploitation, and we want governments to care about the environment: how can we have meaningful discussions on the criminalization of same-sex acts when the Pacific is rising and claiming nations?

How can someone make the cultural diversity of their country be noted on an international level?

Samoa will face its Universal Periodic Review in a few months, and we need to shine a light on this process: we will be raising our hands and saying “This does not work for us, we have to find another way”. A lot of cultural values in Samoa may seem at odds with the UN framework, however the lived experience of people in the country are not affected by that at all. So, we’ll need to try and make the UN framework more relevant and appropriate to different cultures. We will have to knock on as many doors as we can in the media, and continue to push until people actually will listen and eventually a bigger organisation will take up the fight.

Your UPR reports have been submitted now: what do they focus on?

On our side we wanted to point out that one part of the 2013 Crimes Act allows same-sex acts, while sodomy is still criminalised. If their answer will cite cultural issues, they will find we recommended a few ways to fix the act anyway, for example updating the definition of “indecent assault” and “rape” to include sodomy: in this case, sodomy would be criminalised only within forced, non-consensual sex.

Samoa_Fa'afafine_Association_ILGA_Tuisina Ymania Brown

You are technical director of the Samoa Fa'afafine association: what kind of work is the organisation doing on a local level?

We organise many fundraising events in partnership with government departments to promote whatever campaign they are working on, and a lot of the donations we receive are given to selected charities. In 2010, for example, our Miss Flower International pageant promoted a campaign run by the ministry of Environment and Natural resources to sensitize about the importance of reforestation, while this year we partnered with the ministry of Health to promote healthy lifestyles with our Miss Health Fa’afafine pageant.

We also work a lot with schools and communities, especially through our program which aims at educating parents over the positive aspects of being a fa’afafine, and we work with churches and youth groups about HIV and STI education.

We have no funding to do any of this work, and it’s been like this since 2008. But… what else should we do, give up and sip coconut milk? (laughs) It has to be done, so we roll up our sleeves and do it.

You are one of the two ILGA board representatives from Oceania: what, in your opinion, are the most urgent challenges the LGBTI community has to face in your region? And how will your commitment evolve?

I am representing the Pacific region, and I can tell you we need to define a place for cultural identities that do not fit within the LGBTI framework. Without this recognition – whatever you want to call it – it would be just reverse colonialism, a power telling us how it should be done.

But that’s not all: anti-discrimination legislations need to be beefed up to add gender identity and not just sexual orientation. In Samoa, for example, gender identity is not included in the anti-discrimination law, but sexual orientation is: we want to complete the SOGI circle within the law.

We also need to look at intersex issues in the Pacific: only in Samoa, the incidence is considered to be 1,100 births in a global population of 200,000. But we need statistics to address this issue; we need to run an awareness campaign and to push the ministry of Health to give them recognition and proper information. The Samoan Fa’afafine Association is calling the government out to make sure that staff and doctors are trained professionally to recognise intersex births. This is very important because a whole stream of issues that we can tailor to assist both fa’afafine and LGBTI people flows through that.

We also need access to funding for our on-the-ground projects. Most of Samoan NGOs are funded by the government, and we want it to have us listed for funding: we proved that we can do a lot of good work with our campaigns.

Last but not least, we need to address religious persecution, which is not coming from churches in Samoa but from their visiting affiliates, especially from Africa. Several preachers have arrived in our country lately, and religious persecutions are starting to take place. We have to keep our eyes open, because the more this takes place in a country like ours – where the motto is “Samoa is founded on God” – the harder it will be for us to fight for our own country.

The next ILGA Oceania Rainbow Human Rights and Health Conference will take place from March 9 to 12 March 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. Find out more here.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Get updates on LGBTI rights issues, and on our work to support LGBTI civil society worldwide