Dignity Amidst COVID-19: Trans Youth Leading the Response - Jun Ho Gregory Kim's Story

Posted on Aug 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that is claiming lives, destroying livelihoods and disrupting economies across the world. With the support of UNAIDS, the Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN) and Youth LEAD have worked together to increase the visibility and voices of trans and gender diverse youth leaders throughout Asia and the Pacific. 

Fa´afafines: the Fatu o Aiga' of Samoa 

Fa´afafines: the heart of the Samoan Family/Community

I find it hard to describe myself to others; some of my friends consider me as a powerful, diverse, wise, straightforward, and a genuine person. I would describe myself as a coffee lover and someone who doesn't like to be in the spotlight. I want to act as a pillar of support for others and work to make ideas a reality. I  am a Fa´afafine. I was born and raised in Samoa, and I am 25 years old. Over the past couple of years, I've enjoyed working in youth development, gender equality, empowering minority groups and following my passion for writing. Currently, I am working full-time at the Ministry of Health in Samoa as a Principal Officer, acting as a youth representative for the Samoa Fa'afafine Association. The Samoa Fa’afafine Association began in the early 1980s with a shift from a more social purpose of organising to a more formal and technical drive in response to the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. SFA has been mobilising the fa’afafine community in a structured approach to be advocates and champions of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Awareness. Meanwhile, I am also the co-founder/writer of the online non-profit project called Her Voice-based here in Samoa, a project aimed at sharing young women's stories as a form of empowerment.

A large part of the fa'afafine cultural identity stems from Samoa's strong emphasis on community. A Fa’afafine is considered someone who is of  Samoan descent and was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is female. A Fa’atama is someone who is of Samoan origin, assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is male. One significant overall explanation for both terms is how we are culturally bonded with our Fa’asamoa / or our way of life as Samoans. By playing vital roles within our community, such as caring for the elderly, cooking family meals, or helping to raise children, fa'afafine are accepted and even protected by our culture. While there is little documented evidence, fa'afafine culture is believed to have existed in Samoa before the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 19th century. Similar communities are also found in other parts of Polynesia, including Tonga and Hawaii

As a Fa’afafine, I've always had an interest in representing my community and targeting the minority communities of Samoa.  However, over the years, I realised that being a young Fa'afafine is just a marvellous and fantastic thing. Throughout my experience working in youth development, I have understood the value and power that young Fa'afafine and Fa'atama can contribute to Samoa, in terms of progress and social representation in society.  For me having the chance to contribute to this cause and being a voice for Fa'afafine and Fa'atama youths of Samoa is an honour. Also, having the opportunity to be part of decision-making processes and strategic thinking at high levels is a gratifying and inspirational feeling. 

Representing and working with such a unique community makes me feel proud of what I do. Over the past few years, we have developed a  strong community and collective spirit that has brought us closer.  In Samoa, we believe that  "It takes a village to raise a person", and that forms our cultural root;  establishes order, peace and harmony, which are all derived from the pinnacles of the leadership of our village councils (or in our language, Pulega a Ali’i ma Mata’i. In my opinion, we Fa'afafines are the hearts of families. We can be found everywhere from village settings to looking after the elderly, in church youth groups and choirs, and every sector including as high position holders in Government Ministries, to NGOs, to the private sector as employees and of course business owners.

I feel grateful to be a young activist and to represent my community. I acknowledge the hard work and effort that was done by our predecessors. Their efforts have not gone to waste; it paved the way for us, the younger generation to carry forward their legacy. However, this does not take away the fact that there are drawbacks and challenges for us when it comes to issues of culture and religion. As a Youth Representative, I want to let young people know that the smallest things matter. Throughout my life, I have learned that little things can change other people’s lives. The fact that I can be a part of the dialogue around the improvement and betterment of young Fa’afafine and Fa’atama is something I am proud of. This achievement inspires me every day to work under the guidance of my fellow SFA colleagues to develop political mechanisms to improve other people's lives. Apart from all of this, I have also co-created the non-profit online project called Her Voice here in Samoa to contribute to the empowerment of young women and adolescent girls in the form of Arts such as photography, fashion, makeup, blogging and videography. Due to the COVID 19 Pandemic, I have been focusing my efforts through the Ministry Health of Samoa as a health worker, to prevent the appearance of COVID- 19 in the country.

Young Fa´afafine activist leading the COVID-19 pandemic

In contrast to many other countries, Samoa has no confirmed COVID-19 cases. The government has taken preventive measurements, such as the restriction of international travel and the limiting of public transport, which has created challenges both socially and economically. Private businesses are struggling; our country is heavily reliant on the tourism industry, and as you can imagine, this has been significantly affected. However, it is worth noting that efforts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic are ongoing not only at the community level but also at the national, regional and international level through multisectoral approaches and dialogue.

In my perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant  ‘a workload of experiences’. Since I work for the Ministry of Health, the moment the COVID-19 was being announced as a global pandemic by WHO; our government began working day and night to make sure our country is secured and safe from the deadly virus. It is indeed an extra load, but at the same time, a big challenge for me to learn and further develop my skills. It is an honour to live and experience such opportunities and events and contribute to protecting and representing my community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have had the opportunity to be part of the pandemic response team at the Ministry of Health. I aided and assisted the coordination/logistics for quarantine sites, supported the rotation in operating our 24/7 call centre,  and assisted as a front liner at Port Health. As a public servant for Samoa, we are obligated to work and serve our country. My support for my community is channelled through my work as a health worker. I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call concerning climate change, mass production, and especially to personal health and our lifestyles and habits.

Though Samoa remains coronavirus-free, our government is still very conscious of the impact on our country, and many of our annual activities have been put on hold for our safety. SFA has, however, been able to continue delivering its services through alternative methods, such as increasing our social media outreach and conducting workshops alongside the government to provide a better understanding of this COVID-19 pandemic.

Written by: Gabriela Romero
Edited by: Eddy Rudram (Youth LEAD), Raine Cortes (APTN), Christopher Khor (APTN), Cole Young (APTN).