What can the Samoan "Fa'afafine" teach us about the Western concept of gender identity disorder in childhood?

Perspect Biol Med. 2007 Autumn;50(4):481-90. doi: 10.1353/pbm.2007.0056.


This article examines whether gender identity disorder in childhood (GIDC) constitutes a mental disorder as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV-TR). Data were collected in Samoa, a culture that is characterized by a high degree of social tolerance towards feminine males who are known locally as fa'afafine. The study location was chosen because, unlike Western locales, it afforded the opportunity to examine whether gender-atypical behavior, gender-atypical identity, and sex-atypical identity, in and of themselves, cause distress in sex/gender variant individuals, while simultaneously controlling for the confounding effects of extreme societal intolerance towards such individuals. Because of our focus on the DSM-IV-TR's diagnosis of GIDC, we were specifically interested in ascertaining whether adult fa'afafine recalled a strong and persistent cross-gender identification in childhood, a sense of inappropriateness in the male-typical gender role, a discomfort with their sex, or distress associated with any of the above. In addition, we sought to determine whether parental encouragement or discouragement of cross-gender behaviors influence feelings of distress in relation to the behaviors in question. Based on the cross-cultural information presented here, we conclude that the diagnostic category of GIDC should not occur in its current form in future editions of the DSM, as there is no compelling evidence that cross-gender behaviors or identities, in and of themselves, cause distress in the individual.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Gender Identity*
  • Homosexuality, Male / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders*
  • Prejudice
  • Samoa / epidemiology
  • Self Concept
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology*
  • Stress, Psychological / epidemiology
  • Western World*