Profile of human rights defender Tuisina Ymania Brown, a Fa’afafine from Samoa

June 2, 2016

Samoa does not figure often in this blog. So, courtesy of the International Service for Human Rights (Monitor 2 May 2016), here is the profile of Tuisina Ymania Brown of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association which represents and promotes the rights of indigenous lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Samoa. 

Samoa

Tuisina Ymania Brown is the Technical Director of the Samoa Fa’afafine Association (SFA). Tuisina was in Geneva in April 2016, to participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) pre-sessions, ahead of the UPR of Samoa scheduled for May 2016, and caught up with ISHR to talk about SFA’s work and her own journey as a human rights defender.

Tuisina explained that because she was born a Fa’afafine [see note 1 below] she faced many difficulties in her battle towards gender corrective surgery, and her own recognition as female. This personal mission ultimately shaped her own advocacy and position in human rights, and along the way, she has picked up the fight for the human rights of others while fighting for her own rights. This year was the first time Tuisina was involved in the UPR process, and more broadly, in an international forum to present and share what her organisation feel is a fair representation of the rights of Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama in Samoa.

 

Tuisina describes her journey as an activist as ‘a never-ending struggle’ because new issues constantly arise: ’Actually these new issues are basically old issues masqueraded, disguised, as new issues.’But, she acknowledges that ‘as long as some Governments and people continue to discriminate, and oppress, and maim, even kill others because of their own prejudices, and ignorance bigotry, the struggle will go on’.

Religion and culture: Weapons against LBGTI rights

Tuisina tries to explain the complexity of the situation in Samoa regarding LGBTI issues: because the population is predominantly Christian, over the years the Government has tried to use religious conformity to rationalise the restriction of the human rights of Fa’afafafine and Fa’afatama. It has also somewhat successfully mixed culture and religion to frame the denial of indigenous LGBTI citizens’ rights….Being under the UN spotlight has resulted in an increasing number of NGOs and Governments questioning Samoa’s human rights record. In 2011, Samoa received 4 recommendations concerning sexual orientation and gender identity by Canada, France, Norway and the US. All four proposed were rejected by Samoa. ‘With NGOs and Governments coming in and telling it as it is, this will hopefully help change the situation on the ground’

The Good

When talking about the successes that Tuisina has witnessed throughout her journey, the decriminalisation of ‘female impersonation’ is a victory, especially for Fa’afafafine and Fa’afatama as this was a former crime with a prison sentence attached and the decriminalisation of homosexuality under the new Crimes Act 2013. Also the inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-discrimination provisions in employment legislation…..SFA also managed to become an official member of the newly established Samoan National Human Rights Institution, under the umbrella of the Office of the Ombudsman of Samoa, which represents an important win for SFA.

The Bad

In August 2015 the Government released the ‘State of Human Rights in Samoa’ report, which contained some interesting truths, but disappointingly there was no mention of the rights of indigenous LGBTI people. ‘Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama were left out, white washed, swept under and excluded from the State of Human Rights in Samoa Report of 2015’.

 

The Personal

On a personal note, Tuisina shares her disappointment regarding the Government’s approach towards gender identity. She explains that despite the gender binary approach entrenched in legislation, four genders culturally exist in Samoa – Male, Female, Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama. Tuisina notes that legal recognition only exists for males and females, while Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama are forced to keep their gender assigned at birth – even though there is widespread cultural and familial acceptance. ‘The Government classifies the citizens of Samoa under two genders, according to the binary model. But culturally there are four genders. Fa’afafine and Fa’afatamas are accepted, in addition to male and female. If we are culturally accepted, why is it so hard to include us in legislation?’ And herein lies the dichotomy at the heart of the indigenous LGBTI population’s struggle – the use of religion and the bible to delegitimise indigenous LGBTI citizens of Samoa, including the inability of those citizens to change the gender on their identification documents including birth certificates.

Despite these challenges, Tuisina remains positively focused on her goals for the next few years. This includes advocating for law reform in Samoa to incorporate language on sexual orientation and gender identity into the Constitution. Tuisina also hopes to see Fa’afafine identifying people being able to change their gender on both their birth certificates and ID, and adopt children, and maybe one day, be represented in the Parliament of the Independent State of Samoa.

‘If we achieve legal reform regarding sexual orientation and gender identity in my lifetime that would be a victory!’


[1] A recognised identity since at least the early 20th century in Samoan society, and some theorise an integral part of traditional Samoan culture. Fa’afafine are male at birth, while Fa’afatama are female at birth. Both Fa’afafine and Fa’afatama explicitly embody masculine and feminine gender traits. Some Fa’afafine identify as gay males, while some identify as trans-gender women. Some Fa’afatama identify as lesbians, while a few identify as transgender men.

Source: Defender profile: Tuisina Ymania Brown from Samoa | ISHR

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