Pacific Islanders in Bay Area search for LGBTQ+ representation

Editor’s note: This story is part of the annual Mosaic Journalism Workshop for Bay Area high school students, a two-week intensive course in journalism. Students in the program report and photograph stories under the guidance of professional journalists.

In 1982, San Francisco resident Neo Veavea noticed one thing while attending numerous pride parades: There was a lack of Pacific Islanders. For Veavea, finding Pacific Islander representation within the LGBTQ community had been a struggle, so he and others decided to create a community organization dedicated to uplift LGBTQ Pacific Islanders, he said.

“We had no role models, no positive reinforcements, and at that time, we didn’t have a community that was with us,” said Veavea, who co–founded the United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance. During their first parade, “we cried while marching because we felt it was something very powerful since we weren’t being recognized.”

Veavea isn’t alone among Pacific Islanders searching for representation within the LGBTQ community.

San Jose resident Leaupepetele Lepale Leaupepe also found himself searching for a sense of community after moving from American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific that is roughly 5,000 miles from San Jose. Samoa, to the northwest, is a separate independent nation.

According to the 2020 United States Census Bureau, about 16,535 Samoan Americans live in California.

Leaupepe identifies as fa’afafine, a third gender in Samoan culture. After moving to California from American Samoa, he changed his attire because he felt uncomfortable, he said.

“Back in American Samoa, I was dressed like a ‘woman.’ But when I came here, I changed because I didn’t feel comfortable or safe,” Leaupepe said. “Although now I feel safe because of the rights here, there’s always fear in the back of my mind.”

Fa’afafines are widely known in the Samoan community. They have existed within Samoan society for hundreds of years, serving in significant roles such as educators and caretakers.

Veavea, who also identifies as fa’afafine, said that many mistake the Samoan term for transgender, which is incorrect.

“We’re not drag queens or transgender,” Veavea said. “We’re somewhat two-spirited and that makes us unique in our own way.”

“Two-spirit” is an indigenous North American term used to describe Native people who are of the third gender.

Growing up in American Samoa, Leaupepe said being a fa’afafine felt natural and that he often felt encouraged to be himself because fa’afafines are embraced there.

“The feeling was natural to me and I didn’t fight it,” Leaupepe said. “Because of this, I took on the fa’afafine role, which is the role of the woman in the family. I was responsible for taking care of my parents.”

In contrast to Leaupepe, South San Franscico resident DannyBoy Naha-Ve’evalu, who identifies as gay, said that his upbringing felt “policed.” Because of this, he felt he could not embrace himself fully, he said.

“I am now confident and comfortable to say that I identify as a queer, gay, cisgender, Pacific Islander man. However, It hasn’t always been that way,” Naha-Ve’evalu said.

Growing up, Naha-Ve’evalu was pressured to fulfill the gender role set in place for him. “I was policed into behaving a certain way and it definitely came from the impact in which Christianity had in our culture.”

Naha-Ve’evalu’s journey to discovering his identity initially started in school and in community spaces he was active in, he said.

“Having exposure and access to queer-structured workshops or spaces provided me much knowledge on the queer identity and queer history,” Naha-Ve’evalu said. “That exposure formed and shaped how I exist in the world today.”

Naha-Ve’evalu also said he believes his identity as a Samoan American and as a member of the LGBTQ community intersect with each other.

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