We Need New Words

[title = reference to NoViolet Bulawayo’s title and book, ‘We Need New Names’]

Upu Tomua:

The first audiences for this are the communities currently referred to as fa’a(fa)tama and fa’afafine, and to an extent fa’aafa, for reasons that I’ll get to in a bit*. Beyond that, the MVPPRTWTAFFFFFF+ community (and in particular those whose names follow a similar format to the previously described), all ‘indigenous gender minority’ (for lack of a better term) communities, and Pacific communities. And anyone else who happens to come across this 🙂

I say this because there are particular references that I will be making that might not be clear to everyone. I can, however, provide explanations upon request.

Terms like ‘fa’atama’, ‘fa’afafine’, ‘4th/[some-other-ordinal] gender’… they’re wearing rather thin.

Having been thinking about our names, and their implications for our identities, lives, and existence, I’ve come to the following conclusion: both names that are predicated upon the established ‘cishet’ (more on that later**) norms, and names that involve some kind of ordinal (e.g. fifth, third, etc.), are problematic; words like ‘problematic’ tend to get thrown around a bit, so just to specify what I mean: when using the word ‘problematic’ in this instance, I mean ‘reinforces the violence against us’.

For the purposes of this post, I am not engaging in the critiques—if they can be called that, given that critiques by definition involve detailed analysis—of the people who disagree that there are specific kinds of violence we receive that targets neither indigenous ‘cishet’ communities nor settler-colonial and non-indigenous gender minority communities.

—> The “[Ordinal] Gender” Names

– I don’t believe it is possible to number genders without there being connotations of hierarchy and, in particular, resulting effects on how we collectively perceive human worth and rights, and allocations thereof.

– The use of these terms raises the question of who is ‘first gender’, and who is ‘second gender’; this is almost never, if ever, discussed, and thus reinforces the idea that we are anomalous, outside the norm, outside of what is acceptable, all of which is heavily linked to ideas of intrinsic inferiority.

There is, of course, Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, but I would hasten to point out (again) that sex is not the same thing as gender, and that, while the work purports to be about ‘women’, it is yet another example of transwoman erasure given its conflation of sex and gender, as well as continuing in the vein of thought that Christianity-centric, Eurocentric women’s experiences speak for all women’s experiences, regardless of race, colour, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. And, although she does briefly mention lesbianism… this is second-wave feminism we’re talking about, here.

– The term ‘third gender’, as far as I am aware, does not exist in any indigenous language: it is a term that originates in settler-colonial hegemonic academia, and primarily for that reason, amongst others (including which communities, mentalities and actions this term is still most closely associated with) is not empowering.

[side note: if I were to use the numbering system, I would be fourth gender: I talk here of third gender, however, because fa’aafa, fa’atama, and fa’afafine, and others like us, are routinely lumped together under the cumbersome category of ‘third gender’, regardless of the vast differences in our particular communal experiences.]

—> The “Fa’a-[‘Cisgender’]” Names

*(Fa’aafa: your opinions: do you think this applies less to you? Perhaps it does because the word that comes after fa’a in your name isn’t a direct reference to a (Samoan) ‘cisgender’ normative gender identity / category / community. But: your thoughts?)

[**note: ‘cisgender’ is used in quotation marks as this concept, similarly to ‘transgender’, is not quite translatable into Pacific contexts; thus it is a transliterated approximation of parallel gender hegemonies. I have also used the term ‘cishet’ as there are, in some situations, degrees of mutability with regard to whether the fa’a terms apply to gender, sexuality, or both.]

– There is disagreement about how long these terms have been used for. Perhaps these words are ‘traditional’. Perhaps they’re not. Perhaps they existed pre-contact. Perhaps they didn’t. What we do know, however, is that there was a time when these terms did not exist. And, just as they can be brought into usage, so too can they be retired. And the validity of our identities is not dependent on the terms themselves, because the words are not the same as the beings to which they refer, because we are more than the words assigned to us.

– We, the community, (if not all then most of us) either want or are actively working towards a world in which we are not less important, less deserving of full lives, or in official territories less than our ‘cisgender’ counterparts. By centring our identities (fa’a(fa)tama, this is, not fiatama) around being ‘like boys’, for example, we keep ourselves dependent on the same communities and structures that routinely deny us our humanity. Lo’u aiga: is this the best we can do?

Let me say, however: yes, there is relationship between us, but why is it not equitable? Why is one not just as likely to compare women to fa’afafine as one is to compare fa’afafine to women, or just as likely to compare fa’atama to men as one is to compare men to fa’atama? There is, of course, the quantity argument: ‘cis are more common, therefore cis are the benchmarks for all gender identities and expressions’—but until someone can give me an example where the norm does not socially, morally, legally, politically and religiously (in both senses) establish itself as hegemonic, then no thanks.

Thus, I propose another term: vātagata.

brief etymology:
tagata: person—gender and sex neutral.
vā: …not easily translatable into English. space (between), connection, relationship, …
So, we are the people of the space(s) between, with all of its connotations. The word is in part inspired by mahu, people in the middle—Kumu Hina and Ho’onani: mahalo nui loa.
But, this term is not without its caveats. Let me elaborate:

to be vātagata is to question perpetually
vātagata means this inheritance
vātagata means kinship with our tupu’aga vātagata,
and all of the unknown names they went by
vātagata means deracination
vātagata means connection
vātagata means this distinct feeling of being
vātagata means consciousness, in all its forms
vātagata means intersectionality, and thus:
vātagata means that we seek not to do unto others as has been done unto us
vātagata means that none of us are free until all of us are free
vātagata means responsibility: to our families,
to those who came before us
to those of us here now
and to those who will come after us
vātagata means solidarity
vātagata means struggle
vātagata means liberation
vātagata means human
vātagata means pain
vātagata means not just talking of, but practising compassion: a work-in-progress ethics
vātagata means imagining kinder ways of being
vātagata means love
and none of these things in isolation:
all together.

I conclude by reiterating that we are more than mere comparisons, and we know this. (For those of us who don’t know, now you do! 😉 Repeat this frequently until the sentiment is liquid and liniment, until woven into memory-that-breathes-beneath-skin—or whenever you are in doubt of this.) Now all we need is language that evinces this.

—Luka רות 林-Cowley

P.S. I would say, however, that there is perhaps one major point of contention within our community regarding this: some of us might believe that the terms we currently have are able to be reclaimed, redefined, and reimagined—or that this has already been done. Personally, I’m not convinced. So, people who disagree with me, people who agree with me, people who both and neither. Discuss.