- by Joseph Seia -
My first enounter with a world-reality was filled with the natural limitless curiosity of a child, but another pseudo-reality attempted to dominate my otherwise profound discoveries of a big, beautiful, and strange world as it is experienced in the tropical nature of the islands of Samoa. This other reality was painted with fear and violence, in trauma and pain. As young as I can remember, I was bullied and attacked for being a 'Fa'afafine'. Ridiculed, shamed, beaten for being something that as a child I had no understanding of until later on in life.
Fa'afafine, a once respected gender in old Samoa was redefined when Samoans encountered the teachings of Anglo-Christianity through English missionaries in the 1800s. In the early English missions (Congregationalist and Methodist), gender was enforced by the missionaries in two very distinct roles/identities. Samoan women became 'clothed' (Although tatau, or traditional Samoan tattoos were considered Samoan clothing, given through a rite of passage ceremony), domesticated, and men were hyped up as the only voices of leadership (killing strong matriarchal lines and practices) within Samoan families. It is from a long history of Anglo-Christian aculturation, that we (Samoans) have now arrived at our current binary understanding of gender. Fa'afafine (along with Fa'afatama) identity was pushed into the margins as the remnants of a period Samoans (who don't question systems of oppression) still refer to as Taimi Pouliuli, or 'Time of Darkness' as opposed to the Christian era of Light. Fa'afafine, became appropriated as a sinful way of being, in need of redemption, repentance and even punishment. Currently, the term is both liberating and oppressive given the use in a modern context; in my case, it was used to dehumanize. Some Samoans do continue to honor the ancestors and haven't completely dismissed parts of our old culture that has survived.
My cousins, and siblings taunted me as young as I can remember for acting like a fa'afafine. I knew early on that the way I spoke didn't fit in the Christian 'male' box. Somehow my voice was soft, and my actions reminiscent of the grace a young girl. I had inherited somehow from my ancestors these traits, and they were considered sinful. This difference somehow merited everyone around me to bully me to submission. Scriptures were used to confirm these beliefs, as the elders warn of the great sin of Soddom and Gommorah, the laws of Leviticus, along with the reflection of Paul in his letter to the Roman church. Being fa'afafine was the worse thing I can be. It didn't align with our Christian values and I had to be beaten in order to act right.
One Sunday morning (when I was about ten years old) after attending service at the Vaimoso Methodist Church, our family had gathered around our residence for the usual tona'i or weekly family feasts that take place after every Sunday service. I remember an older cousin (7 years my senior) of mine, had asked a question, and I responded respectfully. The next memories were painful. It wasn't the content of what I said, but the way in which I sounded (feminine) that prompted his response. All I remember now was a violent attack, as he threw his fists at my face yelling a statement edged in my memories for years to come, "I am gonna beat the fa'afafine out of you!" Dragged out of the gathering, he threw me in our house and told me not to come out unless I stopped 'acting' like one. These incidents in my life unfortunately were not rare. Formative memories instilled a fear in me that carried all the way through my teenage years. I was sick, and something had to change. It wasn't until our family's move to the United States, that I questioned the 'hate' I encountered asking the existential questions as it pertains to the theology I inherited from the church.
Our family migrated to Seattle, Washington when I was eleven. My youth was spent being involved in various youth group activities with different churches. I felt some consolation through being involved, and there were loving youth ministers who nurtured relationships of love. I wasn't physically assaulted anymore. Wanting to feel the connections with my Samoan community, I began attending service at one of the local churches in Seattle. Throughout high school I felt a close connection to a loving God, who regardless of feeling unworthy, whispers to my heart, constantly drawing me to love. As Washington State was beginning their conversations around marriage equality, the church I attended, in support of the larger white congregation they were a part of, became galvanized around the politics during the Bush W years.
One Sunday service, the Pastor delivered her sermon on politicizing Christian values with our voting privileges. From 'gays and lesbians are an abomination to God', to declaring that if we are given rights, the country will fall like Soddom and Gommorah, the summation of the sermon was reminiscent of hate speech that I have heard before. A spirit of sadness fell over me that Sunday. I was taken back to the times when I was attacked as a child, vulnerable and defenseless. Regardless of my own love of God, the church, as I I experience it, will continue to violate me. I attempted to 'pray away the gay' and begged for God's compassion. I wanted to change. I attempted suicide, and began acting out of my sense of helplessness in the form of rage. I became quick to anger, and ready to lash out at anyone who I perceived to be 'in my way'. I felt my spirit trapped in a prison of fear, not wanting to share my 'shame' with anyone, even those whom I loved. It was during this period of depression that I began to hear a voice so soft, drawing me near. Whispers, so gently formed, uttered these healing words: "I made you whole." In complete despair, when I thought that darkness overtaking may win over my soul, a gentle voice called me out. Without the guidance of the church, God revealed God-self and affirmed my life. The pseudo-reality of being unloved wasn't supreme because in my darkest time, I received God's murmurs towards his unending love.
My healing took me away from the oppressive 'church', the legacies of the English missions and the American church. The church as I understood it at the time, wasn't life giving. Salvation was not granted to those who were different. My salvation wasn't offered at the altar of the church. My salvation came from the most intuitive part of my soul, the child that continues to commune with the divine regardless of suffering. I was made whole, and in this redemptive message, I freely chose love, life, and an openness over fear, shame, and violence. It was out of this sense of newness, that a new yearning emerged within me to discern the church that has attempted to drown me in fear, from my loving God, who, regardless of who I am, calls me to his/her loving care.
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Joseph Seia is a graduate of Seattle University. He served as a Youth Counselor for gang-involved youth in Seattle. Volunteer work include anti-racism organizing, and conducting cultural identity programming for 2nd and 3rd generation Pacific Islander youth. Hobbies include cooking, learning history, singing and making people laugh. He currently resides in Whittier Alaska.