Guest Blogger

Why gay? Fa'afines of Samoa solve the puzzle

Filed By Guest Blogger | June 22, 2008 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags:, Helen Fisher, origin of homosexuality, Samoa

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Dr. Helen Fisher is the founder and Chief Scientific Advisor to Dr. Fisher will be posting every Sunday evening for the next month, so someone fix her a plate.

I am a public speaker by trade; I speak on the evolution and future of sex, romance, marriage, adultery and divorce. And one of the first questions I am always asked is: "Why homosexuality?"

Dr-Helen-Fisher.jpgFor years I have given the standard anthropological answer: kin selection. In short, we share our genes with relatives. So those who help their relatives are actually nurturing some of their own DNA. Hence gays and lesbians pass on their genetic proclivity for homosexuality by helping nieces, nephews and other kin.

It's a fine theory. With caveats. Foremost, a considerable number of gays and lesbians have children of their own, passing on their DNA directly.

Moreover, there is no evidence in industrial societies that childless gays and lesbians actually do put extra effort into helping kin.

Until now. Recently Paul Vasey and his colleagues examined homosexuality in a traditional society: Samoa. Here men who habitually have sex with other men are socially accepted. But they have sex with "straights," not others like themselves. They are known as fa'afines.

And using questionnaires, these scientists found that fa'afines put significantly more energy into rearing nieces and nephews than do other men. They buy toys, baby sit, tutor them, bring them to art and musical events, and contribute to their medical and school expenses.

Homosexuality may be yet another ingenious tactic that evolved to enable our forebears to survive.

I rejoice in our endless human variety -- which is why we say "come as you are" at dating site,

I hope you had a happy Summer Solstice.

PS: You can find more information on the fa'afines in Vasey's article in a May 2007 issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

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You sure you not confusing them with people exhibiting essentially trans behaviour?

Minor correction - contrary to GenQ, the fa'afahine are more properly classed as Transgendered. They are considered in Samoa to be "third sex".

Unlike gays, they have a female (fahine) social role. Hence fa'a - like a - and fahine - female. Similar to Hawaiian "wahine", Tongan "fefine".

Traditionally, while fa'afahine have a female social role, they have not always worn female clothing. Nowadays, most do.

There are Samoan and Polynesian gays too, they have their own (underground) subculture. Unlike the transgendered, they are not accepted.

The Tongan eqivalent is fakaleiti (like a - lady/leiti ) or fakafefine (like a - fefine), and the Tahitian one rae-rae. I met a (former) rae-rae in Chonburi, when I had my genital reconstruction (as did she).

There are subtle differences between all three concepts, but the umbrella term "transgender" covers all quite well.

That has no effect on the central thesis though.

And the only reason I'm giving the correction is that I'm in Australia, where we have a lot of migrants from the South Pacific. A significant proportion of TGs here come from a Pacific background, and have difficulty dealing with western transphobia.

I did not know that we had fa'afine experts in the audience. The readers of this site surprise me every day.

I was thinking along those lines too, but not that they're really "transgender," "gay," or anything else. Maybe this is a place to recognize that those categories don't always translate neatly across cultural boundaries.

But I'm not too sure I agree with the premise here, that there has to be an evolutionarily advantageous reason to homosexuality existing. There are lots of features that exist that aren't advantageous. And some are advantageous in un-obvious ways. And some are advantageous for different reasons in different populations.

I mean, our society in 2008 in the US operates differently from traditional Somoan society, so maybe the answer isn't there.

battybattybats battybattybats | June 22, 2008 10:17 PM

Hmmm.. don't know about these conclusions.

The Fa'afines (also spelled Fafafini) have been desccribed as a third sex in Samoa with the strict gender roles in the society playing a strong part in their social and cultural role. They dress as women and take many of the womens roles even to the point of being considered better at some of those tasks than many women.

Determining them only as a homosexual phenomenon ignores the clear gender aspects.

While they may indeed make a strong argument for kin selection in behavioural evolution or even in cultural evolution whether its selecting for homosexuality or for a specific form of transgenderism or both would be an interesting topic.

I'd be interested as to how/why the possibility of transgender catagorisation was excluded in favour of homosexuality in this.

Certainly leaving out the strong gender aspects of Fafafini seems dubious at best.

Is Vasey's article online anywhere?

battybattybats battybattybats | June 22, 2008 10:24 PM

Great post Zoe. Makes a lot of mine redundant lol.

"Traditionally, while fa'afahine have a female social role, they have not always worn female clothing. Nowadays, most do."

Thats interesting. I hadn't heard that. Was the previous gender-clothing flexible or did they wear male clothing in the past or was their clothing specific to them? Also around what time did this change?


It's complicated, and an evolving situation. I'll quote from the Australian Broadcasting Commission :

Samoa's social acceptance of fa'afafine has evolved from the tradition of raising some boys as girls. These boys, were not necessarily homosexual, or noticeably effeminate, and they may never have felt like dressing as women. They became transvestites because they were born into families that had plenty of boys and not enough girls.

In families of all male children (or where the only daughter was too young to assist with the 'women's' work), parents would often choose one or more of their sons to help the mother. Because these boys would perform tasks that were strictly the work of women they were raised as if they were female. Although their true gender was widely known, they would usually be dressed as girls.

As they grew older, their duties would not change. They would continue performing 'women's' work, even if they eventually married (which would be to a woman).

Modern fa'afafine differ in two fundamental ways from their traditional counterparts. First, they are more likely to have chosen to live as women, and, secondly, they are more likely to be homosexual. These days, young Samoan boys who appear effeminate, or enjoy dressing as girls, may be recognised as fa'afafine by their parents. If they are, they will usually be neither encouraged nor discouraged to dress and behave as women. They will simply be allowed to follow the path they choose.

When doing "male" work in the fields, historically they wore male attire. When at home, doing "female" work, they wore whatever they wanted. Samoa had a very rigid gender-based division on work: there was man's work, and women's work. Fa'afahine were really useful members of society, as they were allowed to do both - the only ones allowed to do both, in fact.

These days, from what I've gathered talking to some, feminine attire is usual, and a flower in the hair de rigeur.

I'm no expert. I have talked to a few such people though, and done a little research into the issues. My unusual medical issues gave me considerable incentive for that. I knew nothing at all about any of this before May 2005.

I am so glad that we get information and a viewpoint from an intelligent trans activist from "Down Under." You are helping me expand my horizons and knowledge that gives me more "ammunition" in my fight for transgender veterans' issues.

If you think about it, I would like to E-mail some Australian transgender veterans and find out what they face in Australia and in your part of the world. Thanks for everything. TAVA's web site is

Is it just me, or does this seem like an incomplete article. OK - so the fa'afines (who I agree - are more trans than gay) help with the kids. And then it just cuts off. How does that really PROVE anything?

As far as gays and lesbians in industrial societies helping their kin. I'm proof right here. I am a lesbian, and my sister has nicknamed me "auntie nanny" because I go to her house and watch/play with the kids while she cleans, etc. I also bring the kids to museums, the park, wherever. I also contribute what I can to their college funds. A few of my friends who have nieces and nephews do the same. We may not live with them, but that doesn't mean we don't do our part to help raise them.

The readers suprise me too, Alex. Who knew?

It's an interesting theory that I think has some worth. Almost all of our peculiar quirks and oddities (and like it or not, as a minority group we are a "quirk" in the system), have some evolutionary reason.

I've often wondered if the whole "genetics" reasoning behind homosexuality wasn't slightly flawed in their reason for being. I think a lot of the background is probably more anthropological than genetics.

I'd like to see this explanation and example more fully fleshed out.

It's worth remembering that the more societies force LGBT people into the closet (as many but certainly not all "traditional" societies did), the more likely it is they'll have children. Similarly, even today, there's a number of LGBT people who don't come out until after they've become parents.

Consequently, at a minimum being LGBT may simply be a "random but natural variation" that poses no particular disadvantage when it came to passing along genes.

To make an analogy to a somewhat different example, scientists recently discovered that cats lack the gene to taste sweetness -- apparently the result of a random genetic mutation, but one that's not particularly important a cat's diet, so it didn't get bred out of the species.

battybattybats battybattybats | June 24, 2008 2:12 AM

It's important to note that kin selection does indeed exist and it does indeed lead to genes which can render some individuals incapable of reproducing yet able to further the success and spread of the genes in their siblings.

This is how ants and bees and termites and similar social insects work!

In ants for example the males exist to mate with queens then die. The queens are the only fertile female ants producing a small number of male and fertile queen ofspring and she produces a large number of offspring that are essentially nutered female ants who exist to improve the survival of the reproducing queens and males genes.

As we know it exists and can produce far more extreme variations the question is only does kin selection cause or contribute to homosexuality in humans.

Thitherflit | July 10, 2008 10:31 PM

I'm an anthropologist, but more of an ethnographer, so I'm hesitant to go dabbling in a culture I really don't know in any detail in the hope of finding an answer that looks universal enough to try applying to my home culture. (Complex sentence there, huh.)

That said, let me think about my own situation in the US:

I live about a 20 hour drive from where most of my relatives live. I am "uncle" to about a dozen children who are kids of my colleagues. I buy them books, read to them, babysit them, go to their bar and bat mitzvahs... I'm actively involved in their lives... but we share NO DNA... but they *are* kids of friends who have similar world views, aspirations, etc.

Why limit the concept of the "selfish gene" to genetics? Isn't what I'm doing another kind of social reproduction?

Thitherflit | July 10, 2008 11:09 PM

Um-- sorry for that 4-fold answer. The site was telling me there were errors and that the posts didn't go though.... but they *did*. Sorry.