Global LGBTIQ advocates will once again convene this December at OutRight’s annual Advocacy Week in New York City. The ten day event will have advocates amass for trainings and meetings with U.N. representatives to discuss global LGBTIQ issues. This invaluable collaboration between advocates will culminate at OutSummit, the capstone meeting where attendees are invited to discuss unique social and political issues that LGBTIQ people face in a diverse range of nations.

To’oto’oali’I Roger Stanley is the President of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association Incorporated (SFA), and has been since 2006. Through the SFA Roger has pushed for media, both local and regional, to recognize the validity and rights of Fa’afafine people. She has been a commanding force behind the movement to accept a third gender in Samoan society. In the following interview To’oto’oali’I Roger Stanley details her advocacy work and the current outlook for the LGBTIQ movement in Samoa.

Note: the following questions and responses have been edited for the convenience of readers.

OutRight: What experiences first made you want to advocate for LGBTIQ rights? How did you first get involved with your earliest experiences and current organization?

Roger: As a fa’afafine myself, and having grown up in Samoa as fa’afafine, I can understand the sorts of struggles we endure.

Being a fa’afafine is at times both a blessing and a challenge. A blessing in the sense that fa’afafine play fundamental roles of service within the family, church, [and] village unit. Fa’afafine play a significant role in the rearing and raising of children, caretaking responsibilities for the elderly and disabled. Many of our fa’afafine do well in education and employment and thus provide financial sustenance to families and the many obligations attributed to being a Samoan.

However, these are the same relationships which prove challenging at times. Although we lead the choirs, organise the decorations for the church and so on, it is the same church that tells us that the way we live our lives is wrong. This then gives way to those who may look at us with contempt and suspicion justification maltreat fa’afafine.

Several fa’afafine have been victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence based on their chosen expression. I have certainly had my own personal experiences; however, I have been able to rise above them.

As President of the SFA I am able to work with a lot of young fa’afafine and to train them to be resilient and also advocates for other fa’afafine. The SFA provides a space of familiarity, where fa’fafine can come together to share and learn, network, create friendships and family bonds. It is a space where we can collectively navigate the issues that we all face, and recently it has been a space where we can work with communities and churches so that they understand who we are.

I got involved with the SFA in formally in 2006, when [I] returned from Tertiary Education in Fiji Islands. However, I was informally affiliated, at very young age, when [I] won my first Pageant in 1990.

So [with] that connection, back in 2006, the idea…[came from] my…involvement with other School Alumni. I always experienced that, in these settings, our issues [were] the least of their worries (men and women). So why not set us up to deal with our own issues and our own needs.

Also, there were so many pageants and [fundraisers] back then that were organised by so many Associations and groups of men and women utilising Faafafine Talents. [It got] to the point where they [exploited] us to the max.

Again, [I asked] why don’t we do our own fundraising, [utilize] our own talents, and organised by ourselves. [That’s the] main reasons for joining and setting [up] the SFA, thus [making] me and a couple of friends founding members of SFA Inc.

OutRight: How have global politics impacted your work?

Roger: The advent of the global struggle for LGBTQUI rights has certainly impacted and influenced the work of the SFA. Although the SFA and I are very clear in terms of the positioning of fa’afafine as a cultural identity, which is thus largely outside of the LGBTQUI framework.

The struggles and experiences of the LGBTQUI community in different areas certainly resonate with the fa’afafine community in Samoa. The growing diversification of our societies, as a result of ever expanding globalisation, and the instant exchange in values and ideas, continues to [create] progress. It is important that I understand the global trends and development progress in LGBTIQA issues [and] communities, so that I am able to critically analyse and contextualise those experiences [with] the lived realities and experiences of fa’afafine in Samoa.

Similar challenges impact both communities including violence and discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Although Samoa does not collect disaggregated data on the fa’afafine population, we know anecdotally that there are many of us that have faced some sort of discrimination, or have been a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse at one point of our lives.

It has been interesting to watch the global move towards decriminalising homosexuality and the advent of marriage equality. In terms of our work in Samoa, which in many respects remains a traditional and Christian conservative country, many of our members have to negotiate their desired identities and the way in which they would like to live their lives with our broader role [and] responsibilities to our families, villages, churches and communities.

The global movement for greater legal recognition of transwomen, and individuals that identify as transgender, has certainly impacted…how young fa’afafine view themselves [or] construct their identities. And these are issues we are consistently having to discuss, negotiate, and critique as Samoa continues to change and evolve overtime.

OutRight: Why is it important to be a part of advocacy week and how will that impact the work that you will do at home?

Roger: Advocacy week will strengthen my knowledge and understanding [of] LGBTQUI developments and issues–knowledge which I will be able to take back to Samoa to train my youth members who [lead] our association.

Given the move to SOGIE and SOGIESC, and PIDSOGIE in the Pacific, it is important that the SFA remains abreast of key developments in the sector so that we are able to ensure, as fa’afafine and faafatama, that we as a community and as a country are able to engage in global dialogue pertaining [to the] rights and issues for gender and sexuality diverse persons and communities.

OutRight: What are some local social or political obstacles you and your organization currently face?

Roger: There are some villages in Samoa in which fa’afafine are not allowed to wear their hair long, nor dress up in women’s clothing. These limits the ability of our sisters within those villages to express their identities. As a result, these strict rules have lead to the discrimination and violence against our fa’afafine members.

In the rural areas of Samoa our main obstacles are local matai – village leaders and church leaders. The SFA has begun working with different church and village leaders to clarify that violence and discrimination impacts on Samoa’s overall development. This work is however ongoing and much remains to be done in certain areas of our island.

Funding is the most common challenge. [We need] funding to support the organization, but also for the association to be able to run the sorts of activities, [and] awareness raising campaigns we would like across Samoa–among many other Activities already stated in our 2nd Strategic Plan 2017 – 2020.

Note from Roger on Samoan Cultural Specific Terms:

  • Fa’afafine (in [reference to] Women) can [relate] to Transgender [people or] Drag Queens, etc…
  • Faafatama (in [reference to] a Man) [can relate to] Lesbian, Tomboys, etc..

Roger, who is currently pursuing her postgraduate degree in development studies at National University of Samoa, has spent years building a sturdy foundation in policy and development. Since the late 90’s Roger has worked as both policy analyst and administrative officer for various branches of Samoan government. She has cut her teeth in the world of diplomacy and global human rights by working with groups like the UNFPA and UNDP on issues of gender-based discrimination. Moving forward, Roger strives to promote harmony between different genders and communities of Samoa.

To’oto’oali’I Roger Stanley occupies a unique position in the world of LGBTIQ advocacy as the president of the SFA. Through her work, in media and community-based policy, Roger does far more than just flagging LGBTIQ rights violations in Samoa and the Pacific region. As a leader and advocate of the Fa’afafine community, Roger is teaching the world a valuable lesson on the diverse and complex ways LGBTIQ people can exist in cultures and countries across the globe.