Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 6, August 2001

Bad-Assed Honeys with a Difference:
South Auckland Fa'afafine Talk about Identity

Heather Worth

    Modernism's crisis of legitimation, a crisis signaled in the term 'postmodernism', registers the faltering recognition that this complicitous kinship of gendered binary divisions cannot be accepted complacently. If meaning is produced rather than simply given, then sexual identity, like any other identity, is a relational, processual entity that emerges through language and its peculiar economy. It follows from this that the hesitations that now interrupt orthodox accounts of truth and subjectivity have inevitably returned us to the perplexing questions of ... identity.[1]

    [A]s soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity.[2]

  1. In the last twenty or so years, much Western theorising has been fixated on questions of identity and its peculiar capacity for difference, ubiquity and endurance. Identity (and difference, too) has permanence; the embodiment of sexual difference makes identity as a woman distinct from identity as a man. But the suggestion that sexual difference (that Ur category for so many theorists over the last two decades) has something of a mutating existence tests our comprehension in an essential way, for it seems only natural to think of identity as fixed and discrete.
  2. What brought home this idea that identity is paradoxically fixed and also has a curious ability (similar to the human immuno-deficiency virus) to diverge, and metastasise was the narratives of a group of South Auckland[3] fa'afafine [Samoan for 'the way of a woman'] who were interviewed as part of a research project, Frayed at the Margins: Underclass Men Who Have Sex with Men, a study of the relationship between poverty and unsafe sex amongst men who have sex with men in South Auckland.[4] The fa'afafine who I will refer to in this paper: Fenella, Helen, Jasmine, Lionel, Louella, Pandora, Penny and Rhonda, all think of themselves in ways which are inimical to a Western view that we must be one sex or the other,[5] or that we must choose a stable identity for ourselves. Their curious ability to eschew gender and sexual identity as stable hegemonic categories; their refusal to disallow multiple genders and sexual identities at the same time and in the same body is theoretically very important, because they are a powerful, empirical critique of the very categories which scholars have held as central to the feminist enterprise for many years now. But at the same time, their belief in identities (sexual and gender) as central to their sense of self reflects fa'afafine's inculcation into Western discourses of individuality, as well as in a globalised 'queer' culture.
  3. This paper explores the narratives of this group of young fa'afafine, who spoke in seemingly contradictory ways about their sex and gender, often in the same sentence or two - changing from female to male pronouns and back again at will. At the same time the paper will place their talk in the context of the postmodern theorising of sex, gender and sexual orientation in the West.
  4. Anthropologists in the Pacific have long acknowledged the slipperiness of sex and gender. For example, Niko Besnier's work on 'gender-liminality'[6] in the Pacific has been informed by a long-ranging scholarly debate.[7] He argues, 'the adoption by certain individuals of attributes associated with a gender other than their own is deeply embedded in the dynamics of Polynesian cultures and societies'.[8] Fa'afafine, Samoan for 'the way of a woman', are not 'representatives of femaleness as a coherent and unitary category, but rather they align themselves with specific instantiations of womanhood in various contexts'.[9] Besnier wants to avoid terms such as 'berdache', 'transsexual', 'gay' or 'homosexual' because, he argues, they 'at best capture only one aspect of the category and at worst are completely miscontextualized'.[10] He further asserts 'the phenomena of fa'afafine etc. in the Pacific 'raises particularly thorny categorical questions', realising that 'the distinction between gender and sex is anything but straightforward....'[11] Gender is permeable, permutable and multifarious - with exceedingly porous boundaries, varying 'in form and intensity across contexts'[12]; 'whatever its nature, gender liminality is the locus of a great deal of ambiguity, conflict and contestation in Polynesian societies'.[13]
  5. How do recent theoretical concerns with identity and difference fit with the experiences of a group of seven fa'afafine interviewees of South Auckland? And in particular, how does Derrida's essay 'The Law of Genre'[14] move these questions forward? 'The Law of Genre' interrogates not only literary genre but also genus (from whence we get notions such as generation) and gender.[15] The law here is classification, and an enforceable principle of non-contamination and non-contradiction, of binary opposites man/woman. But for Derrida, gender is always potentially excessive of the boundaries that bring it into being. While for Derrida, binaries are not something that can be done without, the man/woman dichotomy that the law of gender tries to enforce is constitutively unable to maintained in its absolute purity. This failing is generative; it not only disrupts binary categories but it also produces the very identity (gender) that it disrupts. I am arguing here that Derrida's work - and particular his notion of language-in-general - helps me think about identity and difference while realising that the paradox of gender and sexuality can 'never finally be resolved, however, because it witnesses the debt and condition of identity itself. Whether 'male' or 'female' subjectivity is a processual becoming that never arrives'.[16]
  6. So, though we would like to assume that we could do away with gender and sexuality binaries, they keep on inscribing themselves - in this study, for example, in different and wilder formulations, in the narratives of the subjects. Let me make it clear here that the use of these narratives are not an appeal to a 'truth' of speech (a claim that what the fa'afafine say is a closer approximation to reality than can ever be reached through the abstractions of theory). Working with Derrida must always make one wary of such a move.[17] The commonly understood meaning of writing as the marks we make on the page with our pen, is seen as a representation of thought or speech, where speech is privileged and writing is an imitation of something much more authentic. This meaning is, for Derrida, a structure or system of exclusion that he calls 'writing-in-general'. This structure both accounts for the privileging of speech over writing and allows for the exceeding of this opposition. It is important here to remember that writing-in-general is not just about text; it is 'the nonpresent remainder of a differential mark cut off from its putative 'production' or origin. And I shall even extend this law to all 'experience' if it is conceded that there is no experience consisting of pure presence but only of chains of differential marks'.[18] Thus we must view both the theorising of gender/genre and the experiential narratives of the fa'afafine in this study as part of these chains of disparate signs which make up the world; both resisting and changing the binaries man/woman, straight/queer but never dissolving them.

    Sex and Gender Identity in the Narratives of Pacific Island Queens

    Identity is never the same twice.[19]

  7. Identity is central to the realisation and naming of the individual's 'true self' in late modernity in the West. Michel Foucault has argued that we are 'dominated by the problem of the deep truth of the reality of our sex life.'[20] He avers that we have come to believe that self-identity is intimately intertwined with sexuality and that sexual identity as a concept as Dowsett says, 'has assumed an existential function representing a psychic state, or a resolution of an individuated coming to the self'.[21]
  8. However this notion of identity did not fit these women well at all. For the eight fa'afafine (two of whom are Maori who also called themselves fa'afafine, which is in itself very interesting) in this study, gender and sexual identity were extremely fluid categories. Louella heard the word 'queer' before the term 'fa'afafine.'

      Interviewer: Had you ever heard the word 'fa'afafine before?

      Louella: Never. Never. Not fa'afafine. I heard... 'queer', I heard it when I was about six. Yeah. I was walking home from school, and this chubby girl came up to me, and she goes - are you queer? I said no. She said you're queer. And I said and you're fat, and then I kept walking.

      I never asked anyone what fa'afafine was. I watched the way people - the way they treated other people, other fa'afafine. And I knew - well, they only called - these people fa'afafine, so they must be fa'afafine. So... in terms of having fa'afafine there around me, it was, I think it was a positive thing.... But even.... the shit that we got as fa'afafine, as a whole... was different.... Because you wear a dress, but be heterosexual, or whatever - I'm feminine, in that sense though. And I'm quite comfortable like that.

  9. Lionel argues that he was fa'afafine because his mum always wanted a daughter and his aunties told a story that his mum used to dress him up when he was a baby. He says, 'I've never really - I've had no problems, with - my homosexuality'. Lionel realised in form one or two (aged 11 or 12) that he was fa'afafine:

      Interviewer: So now, you see like gay man as different from 'fa'afafine?

      Lionel: Oh yeah. Yeah. Totally. Because... I'd go for a gay man, but I wouldn't go for a fa'afafine. Because fa'afafine, to me is... really, like, myself... I'd be oh no, that's incest. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, so, when I talk about fa'afafine, it's like... yeah. You're a girl. Whereas there may be a guy, a gay male, and we're, oh yum, he's delicious, it's like that. You see a guy, and it's like - yeah wow. And you'll see another guy and - women will go oh, but he's gorgeous, and I'll say well honey, that's a girl, I'm not interested in her... It's always - it's always - the guy. You know, real man.

    Fenella says that she was 'the only one [fa'afafine]. Yeah. I was the only one in primary, only one I know, definitely, I was the only in primary, intermediate and the only one in my high school'.
  10. Do the lived experiences of these young fa'afafine of South Auckland accord with the anthropological description of 'a gender other than their own'? When we examine the lived experiences, we must be attentive to the context through which their sexual and gender identities are produced and marked.

    Besnier argues that, 'clearly the relationship of gender liminality to social structures and cultural processes is much more complex than traditionally represented'.[22] He also contends that the explanations of gender-liminality lie as part of 'Polynesian notions of personhood which lack the consistent, atomistic and homogeneous character of Western middle-class notions of personhood but as capable of considerable malleability and adaptability to changing social contexts.'[23] Similarly, Kalissa Alexeyeff argues while for Western post-structuralist theorists such as Judith Butler:

      discourses of sexuality are constitutive of the person. In contrast, I argue that Cook Islands personhood is an articulated performance of gendered roles rather than sexual desires or practices. Sex and gender in the Cook Islands are enunciated primarily through social role (work, comportment and dress) and not through ideas about individual desire. In other words, sexuality is not a central or definitive feature of Cook Islands sex or gender.[24]

  11. Alexeyeff portrays laelae [the Cook Islands' name for gender-liminal people] and Cook Islanders as somehow not being tarnished by Western modernist ideas or influences, and ultimately rejects Butler as holding to Western epistemological assumptions about the importance of sexuality in the construction of gender identity and subjectivity.
  12. Besnier on the other hand argues that the gender liminality in the contemporary Pacific 'is further complicated by the presence, particularly the more acculturated areas of the region, of gay identities and perhaps communities that differ from 'traditional' gender liminality and resemble patterns observable in Western contexts.'[25] It seems to me that for the queens in our study identity is lived in a global context. Sex intersects with questions of class and ethnicity and with structures of poverty and colonialism. Being fa'afafine in Auckland at the cusp of the new millennium not only articulates with global social and cultural processes and the politics of sex, gender and sexual orientation but also with the Pacific Island diaspora to New Zealand, the effect of HIV and the emphasis it has placed on sex and safety amongst marginalised groups, and the effect of black American youth culture and drag personae such as Ru Paul, as well as an increasingly globalised gay culture. Thus, problematisations faced by fa'afafine in South Auckland at the turn of the millennium are similar to those of Harlem drag queens and straight women in general.
  13. In our study fa'afafine spoke in seemingly contradictory ways about their sex and gender during the interview - often in the same sentence or two - changing from female to male pronouns and back again at will. This was to such an extent that we, as researchers, were continually changing our minds as to whether to call them men or women. Pandora says:

      I've always known, well, to me I feel that I'm - a woman. I mean, for goodness sake, I know I'm not, but my - the way I think and my habits, are like a woman - I reckon.... We have the female side; we've got the men's, -the straight side...

    However, she agrees that things can get tricky sometimes, 'Yeah, I go out as a girl. And I know that sometimes I get sprung as a, as a boy, but it doesn't bother me. I think well hey, I'm who, I'm who I am'. Helen speaks about being both girl and boy in this way, 'I consider myself as a hundred percent female, and that's the way I live my life, every day.... Sometimes there was, you know, you know, you know that you are a girl, but then you know that because you're a guy, you have these needs as well'. Fenella also describes herself as 'a bad-ass honey with a difference. That's what I'd call myself, more or less'.
  14. In the narratives above, the subjects talk about themselves as both girl and boy - as being a man but also being a woman in anything but a straightforward way. Louella has a real sense of the contradictions of sex and gender and how these categories relate to her lived experience as both male and female:

      Louella: I really believed that I was a woman. Female. Even male, as well. So I didn't really have a problem with being male or female. So yeah, I was a boy.

      Interviewer: So you felt like both?

      Louella: Yeah.... One day I will... some days I go with tits, and some days I don't. And people go - some of my queen friends go... why, why is it she just - be a woman or be a... I said it's just - don't get hung up on that - society bullshit about being either or. You know?

  15. Her identity also shifts and multiplies in time and space. She talks about hanging up her tits in her wardrobe when she didn't feel like going out as a woman. In fact, I saw Louella with tits for the very first time only a few nights ago. In all my meetings with her she always dressed in 'boy' clothes, but with makeup and painted fingernails. She says:

      This is the thing - I, I look at it as... I'm paying respect to my femininity. You know? So, I, I'll be - I'll dress up like a woman, and - you know, and have fun. And then, I'll pay respect to my masculinity, which is - dress, none of that stuff. And I feel really happy with that.

    Louella is not fa'afafine in any 'traditional' sense. Western notions of identity and difference, sex and gender inscribe her, 'OK, a gay man to me, would be... well, yeah, I, I think I'm a gay man. Because I'm, I'm male - biologically, gender - genitalia wise, I am male, so yeah, I am, I'm a gay. But I'm also fa'afafine '. In the very hesitancy of her statement she enunciates the difficulty in figuring out the complications of sex and gender in late modernity. But at the same time Louella also holds the belief that identity is central to the individual's 'true self', and is intimately intertwined with sexuality: 'If we look at not just gender, sexual... like trans-gender or whatever, ... everyone has their own independent, individuality, and identity'.
  16. Judith Butler has argued that 'performances' of gender, such as those of drag queens (and I would argue) fa'afafine are imitation of femininity. She is not claiming that there is an original femininity which fa'afafine parody, rather that the law of gender is experienced in the same ways as heterosexual women, 'A constant and repeated effort to imitate [femininity's] own idealisations.'[26] That is, there is an ideal of femininity that none of us, straight women, fa'afafine (or, in Butler's case, drag queens) can ever fully embody.
  17. For fa'afafine, identity cannot be seen as a simple imitation or a masquerade; identity as a woman is taken seriously in terms of both appearance and subjectivity. Fenella describes herself as 'a real girl'. And Helen says, 'to me, I consider myself as a hundred percent female, and that's the way I live my life, every day'. While Helen's wish to be a girl is also undercut by her anatomical difference:

      I remember when I was a lot younger, I always used to say my prayers in case I'd wake up in the morning and I've got long hair - and breasts, and one of those ... I mean - wake up, oh it's still there! Damn it. Yeah, that was me in the mornings. I was quite young then.

    This conundrum is continually pondered over by the participants. As Rhonda says, 'I was born a man, you know? ... But it ... it doesn't just end there, you know?'. Jasmine is proud of her breasts, 'I have breasts. I like to grow my breasts like that - I'm the only one who has breasts'. Penny's experience is, 'When I was at primary - I mean at intermediate, I felt like a real - I felt like I was a woman, trapped in a man's body.... Yeah'. But while she (and others in the study) calls on essentialist rhetoric about femaleness Penny, as a queen, most importantly in no way 'merely elaborate[s] a directly feminine image; there is an articulation and a refraction.'[27] This articulation must be one which accounts for more than just an image of femininity, but rather the very femaleness of these women's morphology.

    Theorising Sex and Gender
  18. How well do other recent attempts at theorisation come to grips with this determined multiplication of sexes and genders? In his 1997 book on gay identity in Australia, Gary Dowsett critically questions sexual identity as a concept that 'has assumed an existential function representing a psychic state, or a resolution of an individuated coming to the self.'[28] And while our subjects accepted Western views of individualised subjectivity in some ways, this resolution of identity did not fit the subjects of our research at all well. Dowsett's book is problematic in that it views the phenomena of gender-liminality in the metropolis though a lens of (male) homosexuality (or as he puts it, gender-bending). In discussing one of the subjects in his book, Practicing Desire - A Drag Queen Named Harriet - Dowsett rightly sums up the profound consequences for each person's assignment to one or other side of the man/woman binary. But Harriet is not, according to Dowsett, a transsexual even if explicitly effeminate because 'I like my dick.'[29] While Dowsett acknowledges the complications of feminine identity in Harriet's case, arguing that he has a clear, 'purposive use for the 'essentialist notion of identity,'[30] Harriet's sexual subjectivity is in question as something constituted through practice, his sex is not; 'he' is assuredly male.[31] Harriet's male body is safely quarantined outside the reach of gender. And while Dowsett makes 'the historically constructed experience of living a gay life' central to Harriet's biography, this too seems inadequate to the morphology of subjects like ours.
  19. Similarly, Leon Pettiway, in his book Honey, Honey, Miss Thang, insists that his African-American, drug-using, street-walking hustlers 'are gay men [who] dress and view themselves as women.'[32] However for the majority of our respondents, identifying as gay was not an option. Fenella's response is typical, 'I'm not a gay man in a dress'. Being called gay was 'confusing' for she considers herself fa'afafine:

      Being a fa'afafine, what it means to me, or what it is to me, is that - I don't consider myself gay.... And ... when - I've been called gay, when people call me gay, I look at myself and I go no, a gay man, I am [a] different thing.

    She replies to:

      Interviewer: Wearing girls clothes - is that a different thing then, or is it part of the same

      Fenella: Yeah, I, I ... I think it is. Being gay and actually - being in, in a dress, and you know, sort of - switching gender roles. I think it's ... it's not gay at all. I don't really think it's gay.

    For a number of the respondents being gay was a 'stage' that they went through, on the way to some other gender/sexual identity. Helen argues, 'I consider myself as... really, I'm sort of halfway, just over - I'm just over the gay... Oh sorry, just past the gay stage - like, OK, you've got a line here, you've got your gay - your gay part, sort of like me growing up. And then - I've just sort of slightly stepped over to the transsexual side'.
  20. For Louella, being fa'afafine is a broad term:

      It's very inclusive - it's not exclusive. It's [not] just that - boof, you're either gay or you're bloody heterosexuals. So like, fa'afafine is very broad. It means femininity to me. So everyone has femininity in them, so everyone's a fa'afafine, in one, some sense.

    Is this identity as both woman and man ambivalent? Butler's feeling about drag queens is that the reiteration of femaleness is pathologising and normalising - producing an anxiety that excludes domains of sexual possibility. Our (mine as a heterosexual woman and Louella as fa'afafine) implication in our own subordination [33] produces loss (of identity) - an ambivalence precisely because:

      There is a cost in every identification, the loss of some other set of identifications, the forcible approximation of a norm one never chooses, a norm that chooses us, but which we occupy reverse, resignify to the extent that the norm fails to determine us completely.[34]

  21. Butler uses the term 'gender' to describe the accomplishment of heterosexuality which takes place through a primary 'foreclosure of homosexuality': the loss of the possibility of the same sex as an object of desire. But this loss, constitutive yet disavowed, has a continuing effect, because it marks 'the limit to the subject's sense of pouvoir, its sense of what it can accomplish and, in that sense, its power.' Subjectivity thus is also 'haunted by an inassimilable remainder,' which emerges as gender melancholy.[35] So while on one hand Butler undermines the straight(forward) identity of the self-present subject of/as maleness, on the other the power of the law as negation, prevention, constraint and prohibition names, assigns and delimits identity over and over again.
  22. Thus the only resistance possible in Butler's world-view is that which takes place outside the law. She cannot concede the possibility, indeed the inevitability, that rearticulation might occur within the law. That the law of gender might indeed be differentiating and productive. Pandora's feeling is that: 'I don't know who I'd class myself.... I like, I like to call myself a transsexual, but I know I'm not. I'm only fooling myself, but yeah, I don't know. Just as a human being, I guess. I'm just a human being'. But Pandora also has a joy in this lack of closure:

      Oh.... I do really dizzy things, and - yeah. Not in, yeah, just - I just, really mental. Just a really - mental dizzy person. But in a fabulous way - in a fun way. There's that ... being queer is fabulous, and I love it.

  23. In summary, then - with the narratives above, the subjects talk about themselves as both girl and boy, as being a man but also being a woman in anything but a straightforward way. If we worry about Butler's account of interpellation such that subjects are insistently 'this' or 'that' and continually account for themselves anew, doomed to reiterate femininity in its most subjugating form, how then do we theorise Louella's 'strangeness' as both man and woman, or how do we comprehend what it means for Fenella to be a 'bad-ass honey with a difference'?
  24. Helen argues that she was born a man and that she will always be a son to her parents. But she understands that sexual and gender identity does not end at birth, that her identity 'as possibly everything', signals the paradox of gender and sexuality rather than upholding the general anxiety about sexual ambiguity as a problem (and a pathology that needs fixing), whether 'male' or 'female' subjectivity is a processual becoming that never arrives.'[36]

    Fa'afafine: Outlaws of Genre

    Genres are not to be mixed
    I will not mix genres.[37].

  25. Jacques Derrida has written in a number of essays about the legislative character of the subject and gender. He understands the law here to be that classificatory and enforceable principle of non-contamination and non-contradiction; of binary opposites man/woman. Derrida's essay 'The Law of Genre' questions not only literary genre but also genus (from whence we get notions such as generation), and gender.[38] He argues, '[A]s soon as genre announces itself, one must respect a norm, one must not cross a line of demarcation, one must not risk impurity, anomaly or monstrosity.'[39] But he also asserts that the law of subjectivity and gender can be refused; it always potentially exceeds the boundaries that bring it into being. By its very constitution, the law of gender is constitutively unable to maintain absolute purity. This failing is generative - at the same time as it produces identity (gender), it disrupts it. Deconstruction, of course, has a fixation with identity and its peculiar capacity for differentiation.
  26. The law demands two sexes: male, female; and that we choose between them (genres are NOT to be mixed). It also demands two or maybe three genders (masculine, feminine and perhaps transgender). And it also demands that we do not mix what Derrida calls 'the essential purity' of gender's identity. But in the lives of these young queens and fa'afafine in South Auckland at the turn of the new millennium, this does not seem applicable. The law of genre does not seem to hold. They refuse such an edict, such an interdiction. Their genders are in excess of their genre, of the law of gender. In fact the very perversity of their gender, both its determination and waywardness, seems not to be a mistake that can be corrected. Derrida posits another possibility:

      Suppose for a moment that is was impossible NOT to mix genres.[40] What if there were, lodged within the heart of the law itself, a law of impurity or a principle of contamination? And suppose the condition for the possibility of the law were the a priori of a counter-law, an axiom of impossibility that would confound its sense, order and reason.[41]

  27. As we can see from the stories of these women, they disrupt the law by a spilling over of identity. It is not just that they cannot choose between genres; more importantly and problematically, they want it all. It is not as if they are free-floating or unconnected to gender. It is their very engendering which marks them. In Jasmine's story both she and her partner are caught up in a complicated rendering of the excess of gender:

      Interviewer: Why did you come to New Zealand?

      Jasmine: I was actually engaged to a man, he didn't know I was a male, and we were together for two years, and ... he didn't know I was a man - his mother thought I was pregnant, so... I came down to Auckland for a while. And I never called him since.

      Interviewer: And how come the mother thought you were pregnant?

      Jasmine: Cause he didn't know I'm a male.

      Interviewer: How come he didn't know that you were a male? Do you mind if i ask that; is that ok?

      Jasmine: It's just ... I became ... a prostitute when I was 11. And I've always dealt with men. And I know how to trick men.... Because I am so used to having ... a guy, because I'm not a man you know? I know how to deal with those, being open to another person.

      Interviewer: And how often would you have sex with him?

      Jasmine: Oh, I would say every day.

      Interviewer: And he never, ever found out?

      Jasmine: No.

      Interviewer: You screwed him?

      Jasmine: I played a trick on him. Which is, to make him think how, how would he feel if I told him I was a man. And then he goes, where is your penis. And I showed it to him and he just couldn't believe it. Because we bath together, we have a shower together, and ... he never sees it, until the night I told him. And I showed it to him. Then he goes... this is not real. But it was, you know, he just thought it was not real. He just thought it was one of those put-on penises you can put on and, you know, the vibrator or what ever you call it. Then I said, let me try it out for you, because I've always wanted to do this. I want to try with him. And then we tried it, and ... he, he's going... this is not real, it doesn't feel real. And then I take it out and I just - hid it again. And then when he, when he went to have a shower, I didn't bring it out again, I just hid it. And then he goes see, you're not a, you're not a man, you're a woman. And this is the Jasmine I'm in love with. The girl. You know, not a man.... It's just the way I look after myself and that. Because I'm so much the lady, I just don't have any manly ways.

  28. Jasmine's story, its contradictions of gender and, even more, her boyfriend's determination that she WILL be female, is a potent empirical example of my argument. Speaking in a statement released when his film M Butterfly was in production, Cronenberg states in relation to Neil Jordan's The Crying Game: 'The Crying Game made that thing of two men having a love affair—where one didn't know that the other one was a man—kind of sweet and innocent and pure and, in a weird way, not threatening.... I think it's because she (Jaye Davidson) really is a woman, even though she's got a cock'.[42]
  29. In this way the law, which is often figured as an interdiction - as the negativity of a boundary that cannot be crossed, becomes a process of double affirmation (a 'yes, yes') to it all. Penny (the woman trapped in a man's body) in no way 'merely elaborate[s] a directly feminine image.'[43] And there is more than just 'an articulation and a refraction' [44] of such a representation, more than a metaphoric and transferential articulation. As Rhonda says, 'I was born a man, you know? ...But it... it doesn't just end there, you know'. If these fa'afafine identities are plastic, so also are their bodies, 'materiality as a sign of writing wherein difference is it defining force.'[45] Their excessive bodies are not a call for an indeterminacy of identity, part of the West's obsession with the 'Other's exoticism', but a necessity born of the articulation of the femaleness of these women's morphology. If genres/genders pass into each other, this permits an engendering of fa'afafine that in itself engenders still further genres.


    [B]eyond the binary difference that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine-masculine, beyond bisexuality as well, beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality, which come to the same thing... I would like to believe in the multiplicity of sexually marked voices. I would like to believe in the masses, this indeterminable number of blended voices, this mobile of sexually non-identified sexual marks whose choreography can carry, divide, multiply the body of each 'individual'.[46]

  30. Fa'afafine in South Auckland at the turn of the millennium are potent reminders that identity and difference are inextricably bound to one another. There was ample evidence throughout the interviews of the difficulty of being one or the other sex, or having a stable gender or even a sexual identity and at the same time an embracing of identity as an important part of subjectivity. This inability to be one sex or the other while at the same time making a claim to difference and identity is not a negative; it can be seen as a desire to have it all, to embrace an excessive set of genders. To conclude, however, I want to make it plain that I am not arguing that it is just the fa'afafine marginality that allows for an exceeding, a shattering of the law of genre. Neither is this argument some nostalgic colonial dream of exotic excess. I agree with Butler that what holds for drag queens holds for women and identity in general; that gender itself bears these characteristics as a foundational principle. Rather than being two opposing forces on either side of the binary from one another, masculinity and femininity are integral to each other's identity:
  31. The breach in the identity and being of the sovereign subject ... is a constitutive breaching, a recalling and differentiating within the subject, which calls it into presence.... This very breach opens identity to a force field of differences in which the binary divisions ... are impossibly implicated.[47]


    [1] Vicki Kirby, Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal, New York and London: Routledge, 1997, p. 67.

    [2] Jacques Derrida, 'The Law of Genre', in Derek Attridge, ed., Acts of Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 224-25.

    [3] South Auckland has a high proportion of Pacific Islands' peoples, some of whom are relatively recent immigrants, while others emigrated to New Zealand after the Second World War. Most of the fa'afafine we who took part in this research were born in New Zealand. While fa’afafine are visible in nightclubs and on the streets (as sex workers) in parts of Central and South Auckland, their lives in their own communities are much more hidden from view. To date, there has been no completed study of fa’afafine in New Zealand (see however, Jo Schmidt in this issue of Intersections for the the first major study in progress). While fa’afafine have been the subject of a recent television documentary (Fa’afafine: Queens of Samoa), little is known about the social context of their lives in New Zealand, their history here, and the size and strength of their ‘community’.

    [4] The fieldwork for the research project was carried out in the summer of 1999. An office was set up in South Auckland and contacts were made from there with interview subjects. In all, 17 in-depth interviews were completed using snowball sampling techniques. The interviews lasted up to an hour and a half and were tape-recorded, then fully transcribed. This was the first time that anyone had done interviews with this group of fa’afafine in New Zealand, and the larger study of which these interviews were a part was about the intersection between poverty and sexual and gender identity in South Auckland. The fa’afafine group happened to be an interesting sub-sample of a larger group. I cannot tell how large the community is – especially in New Zealand as a whole. In addition, fa’afafine interaction with the gay commmunty is really complicated and is a paper in its own right.

    [5] Michel Foucault, Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1980.

    [6] Besnier uses the term gender-liminal as popularised by Victor Turner, In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967 and The Ritual process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldine, 1969. Turner elaborates three major characteristics of gender-liminality: borderline location, outsider status and social inferiority, all of which apply to the interviewees in this study.

    [7] See also the following authors: Robert Levy, 'The Community Function of Tahitian male Transvestism: A hypothesis', in Anthropological Quarterly, 44, 1 (1971):12-21; Bradd Shore, 'Sexuality and Gender in Samoa: Conceptions and missed conceptions', in Sexual meanings: The Cultural Construction of Gender and Ssexuality, ed. S. Ortner and H. Whitehead, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981; B. Daniellsson and M-T. Daniellsson, 'Polynesia's Third Sex: The Gay Life Starts in the Kitchen', in Pacific Islands Monthly, 1978, pp. 10-13; Kris Poasa, 'The Samoan Fa'afafine: One Case Study and Discussion of Transsexualism,' Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality 5, 3 (1992):39-51; Jeannette M Mageo, 'Male Transvestism and Cultural Change in Samoa', in American Ethnologist 19 (1992): 443-59; Nico Besnier, 'Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space', in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. G. Herdt, New York: Zone Books, 1994, pp. 477-85.

    [8] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 285.

    [9] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 308.

    [10] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 287.

    [11] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 286.

    [12] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 319.

    [13] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 328.

    [14] Derrida, 'The Law of Genre.'

    [15] The French, of course, is the same word.

    [16] Kirby, Telling Flesh.

    [17] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, Routledge and Kegan Paul: 1978. London: p. 209.

    [18] Jacques Derrida, 'Signature Event, Context', in Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. 10.

    [19] Kirby, Telling Flesh.

    [20] Michel Foucault, 'An Ethics of Pleasure', in Foucault Live (Interviews, 1966-84), trans. John Johnston, ed. Sylvere Lotringer, New York: Semiotext(e), 1989, Foreign Agents series, pp. 371-81.

    [21] Gary Dowsett, Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS, California: Stanford University Press, 1996.

    [22] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 317.

    [23] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 312.

    [24] Kalissa Alexeyeff, 'Dragging Drag: The Performance of Gender and Sexuality in the Cook Islands', in The Australian Journal of Anthropology 11, 3 (2000):297-307.

    [25] Besnier, Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space, p. 304.

    [26] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter. On the discursive Limits of 'Sex', London: Routledge, 1993.

    [27] Dowsett, Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS, p. 99.

    [28] Dowsett, Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS.

    [29] Kirby, Telling Flesh, p. 56.

    [30] Dowsett, Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS, p. 97.

    [31] Dowsett not only uses the male personal pronoun for Harriet, but nowhere in the chapter does he question Harriet's maleness.

    [32] Leon Pettiway, Honey, Honey, Miss Thang: Being Black, Gay and on the Streets, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

    [33] Butler, Bodies that Matter, p. 126.

    [34] Butler, Bodies that Matter, pp. 126-7.

    [35] Butler, Bodies that Matter, p. 56.

    [36] Kirby, Telling Flesh.

    [37] Derrida, 'The Law of Genre,' p. 225.

    [38] The French, of course, is the same word.

    [39] Derrida, 'The Law of Genre,' pp. 224-5.

    [40] My emphasis.

    [41] Derrida, 'The Law of Genre,' p. 225.

    [42] Interestingly, most of the commentary on The Crying Game nominates Dil as pathological femininity -as-lack, and a renaturalisation of sexual difference through recourse to an amalgam of all-too-familiar feminine stereotypes.

    [43] Dowsett, Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS, p. 99.

    [44] Dowsett, Practicing Desire: Homosexual Sex in the Era of AIDS, p. 99.

    [45] Kirby, Telling Flesh, p. 56.

    [46] Jacques Derrida, 'Choreographies', Diacritics, summer (1982):66-76.

    [47] Kirby, Telling Flesh, p. 95.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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