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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, June 18, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 25
SGN Exclusive interview: Dr. Vena Sele Samoan activist and Transgender pioneer
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SGN Exclusive interview: Dr. Vena Sele Samoan activist and Transgender pioneer

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Dr. Vena Sele has been described as an 'icon' of the Samoan community.

An educator, an activist, and an author, she is affectionately known as 'Mama' to her younger protégés in the Samoan LGBT community.

'I don't know about 'icon,' Dr. Sele smiled as she settled in for the interview. 'I was able to have a government job, moving on the ladder upwards, dressed as a woman.'

When she arrived at the SGN offices, Dr. Sele was accompanied by Tiare Leiataua Seiuli-Fidow and Taffy Lee Maene of UTOPIA, a Polynesian LGBT organization.

'We are fa'afafines,' she explained. 'That's the acceptable definition our culture gives us. Men who dress, act, and do things as women.'

Recalling her childhood in American Samoa, Dr. Sele explains that gender there was not as strictly marked as it is in the U.S.

"There was a unisex kind of dress. All men wore lava lavas when I was growing up," she says.

"As time goes on, those who decide we want to remain as women took on a role of taking care of the family - the children, the grandparents, the aunties, the uncles, the cousins. & It's a very honorable role. The Samoan culture regards this as very important."

Dr. Sele breaks the mold
As long as fa'afafine are content to remain in this caretaker role, they fit into Samoan society, Dr. Sele explains, but a professional career may clash with Samoan cultural norms.

"Most fa'afafine have to dress and act as men in order to advance," she says. "I broke that. It wasn't easy. I was the first one dressed as a woman to elevate myself in a professional way. Now they don't ridicule anyone."

When she decided to pursue a professional career, Dr. Sele knew she would have to travel to schools in the U.S. The move to the mainland created issues of its own.

"When I wanted to get an education, people said to me 'Vena, in America they don't accept people like you,'" she says. "But I came with one purpose - to prove to our island people that no matter how you dress you can still become a useful individual."

Fa'afafine who are educated abroad often give up their female identity when they return to Samoa, Dr. Sele says, but she refused to do so.

"I have fa'afafine friends who went off the islands for degrees," she says. "They came back with wives. In those days you had to conform to the regular Western world - especially if you wanted a government job. Government is a Western idea, so you conform to the Western world."

"[But] when I returned I said, 'I'm going back to my old clothes.' I had to work harder. When I started there were questions - 'why am I wearing this?'" she recalls.

"I had difficulty. I was bypassed for promotion. But I became the dean and then the president of our only college."

Dr. Sele began her career as a Drama and Speech instructor, became dean of student services and eventually president of American Samoa Community College. She retired in 2005.

"As fa'afafine steer towards education they earn a certain status," she tells SGN. "A lot of fa'afafine who are teachers, parents are like, 'oh my gosh, what a good fa'afafine!' They say 'ah-hah, you are useful for something.'"

"I had to work harder because I was fa'afafine," she says, "and because I worked harder, my students became successful in life."

"America is a sex maniac culture&"
While fa'afafine is more or less equivalent to the U.S. term "Transgender," Dr. Sele cautions against trying to fit Samoan terms neatly into US preconceptions.

"It has a different role in Samoan culture," she explains. "Life as a fa'afafine is accepted. Fa'afafine are not considered Gay."

"In fact, there is no such thing as 'Gay' in Samoa," Dr. Sele says with a smile. "Those people who have been here come back Gay to Samoa."

"In Samoa," she continues, "men do their [sexual] practicing with fa'afafines. It's not threatening to them, it doesn't threaten their manhood. Eventually they marry women."

"Those bitches should be thankful," Tiare interjects with a laugh.

"They should be thankful," Dr. Sele nods. "Women would rather have their husbands go to fa'afafine than to another woman."

"Sex is really a very small part of this life," Dr. Sele explains. "Sex is not part of the definition. Gender is defined as they grow up. As they grow up, they think of themselves as women."

With a laugh, she adds, "America is a sex maniac culture. Sex is always something we [Samoans] don't discuss."

Cultural activism
Dr. Sele has always used culture as a vehicle for activism. Preserving the Samoan language and distinctive Samoan songs and dances is one of her passions.

"The Samoan language is very important to us. That is our identity. If you lose your language, you lose your identity. I did my master's thesis on that," she says.

"Our Samoan language is still pure, but a lot of younger parents are not speaking it in the home."

"Teenagers rarely speak it," Tiare adds, "but we found something they really enjoy: dancing and singing. That's where fa'afafine come in. We're good at it."

"It's part of UTOPIA," Tiare continues. "It's one of our objectives. Teenagers really enjoy it. We're promoting our identity and encouraging Samoans to speak Samoan. You'd be amazed how innovative fa'afafine are in bringing out things that have been forgotten."

Dr. Sele is no stranger to the performing arts. She founded the best-known pageant in Polynesia more than 30 years ago.

"I started the Island Queens Pageant [in 1979]," she says, "the longest-running pageant in Samoa. Bigger that the Miss Samoa pageant. It benefits the Holy Family convalescent home, and also our hospital and the Red Cross."

"Now most villages do pageants exploiting the fa'afafine," Tiare adds. "It's part of fa'afafine life back home to do pageants because we raise so much money. People enjoy them."

Coming to Seattle
When she retired, Dr. Sele did not originally plan to move to Seattle. Instead, family obligations took her to Florida.

"Once I reached my 30 years of service [in 2005], I retired," she tells SGN. "I moved to Florida in 2006. My sister was ill, and I stayed there with her two and a half years.

"Then I went back to Samoa. I founded the Pacific Arts Festival. I published my memoirs - Memoirs of a Samoan, Catholic, and Fa'afafine (2007). They were read at the festival in 2008."

The tsunami that devastated Samoa on September 29, 2009 convinced Dr. Sele to move to the States.

"When the tsunami came, I decided 'America is the place!'" she says.

"I have a 'son' and a 'daughter' here. They said, 'Auntie, stay here with us.' I said, 'You know me. I'm an independent woman.' So now I have my own place."

Life in the U.S.
Some 65,000 people live in American Samoa. Perhaps four times that number of Samoans have emigrated to the U.S.

"Our main exports are football players and wrestlers," Tiare laughs.

Once in the U.S., even gender-conforming Samoans face difficulties finding work and adapting to a foreign culture. The challenges faced by fa'afafine are even more daunting.

"When I retired I only had my social security, so I thought I'd get a job to supplement my income," Dr. Sele recalls. "I sent resumes to universities and colleges in Florida. Immediately they sent replies that they want to interview me.

"And then as soon as I walk in they say 'oh, you know, we'll call you.'

"With my qualifications, if I have that difficulty you can imagine what someone else would face," she says. "It's very difficult. There's a strong emphasis in America on children not being exposed to fa'afafine."

"I didn't know I was being labeled a fetish," Tiare adds. "I moved here three and a half years ago. When I came here I sent 100 applications out every day. There is a wall there. A lot of our sisters move to Alaska to work on the [fishing] boats."

UTOPIA
"That's one of my reasons for appreciating UTOPIA," Tiare continues.

UTOPIA - United Territories of Polynesian Islanders Alliance - was organized in 2007. The same tsunami that convinced Dr. Sele to move to the States, also led many other fa'afafine to do the same.

"After the tsunami, a lot of girls moved to Seattle," Taffy tells SGN. "We did a benefit show in Kent. After that, UTOPIA restarted."

"When something happens, everyone wants to help," Dr. Sele notes.

"UTOPIA was founded in San Francisco and we have chapters in Hawaii and New York," Taffy says. "It's about unity and strength and sharing our culture with the community. Then Mama moved here, and she's helped to guide us."

Taffy adds, "Back home, fa'afafine are known for charitable work."

"Taffy spends a lot of time on charitable work," Tiare says. "There's a whole new generation. Her house is more like a shelter." "Most girls here have no family, so when we get together it's like family," Taffy replies.

"Regular Gays and Lesbians can blend in," Tiare adds. "We stretch the limits. We don't blend in - we stand out."

"Not only in America," Dr. Sele says. "Within our [Samoan] community - I hate to call it ignorance - because they live here, there's that non-appreciation. We need to teach the community - not only the community we originally came from, but also the community here in Seattle."

As she prepared to leave, Dr. Sele was asked if there was one last thing she wanted to share with SGN readers. She replied:

"For a long time, Western cultures have been over our islands, but they have not been able to assimilate our culture into the American way of life. All the other cultures became little Americas. Samoa, no. We grew up knowing that God is Samoan, and we are the children of God."

Dr. Sele's autobiography is available online from Publish America. UTOPIA-Seattle can be contacted through their Facebook page.

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