For Fa’afafine, Samoa’s third gender, netball started out simply as a game that appealed more than the rugby codes. Over time, however, it has become a safe haven of acceptance, community and friendship where all three genders enjoy respect.
Anastasia Fantasia Vancouver Stanley is impossible to ignore on or off the netball court.
She has arrived late for the first game of the season but strides onto court with her game face on; foundation, lipstick and mascara, hair pulled back into a ponytail, a three-quarter length black and white striped dress, white socks and athletics shoes.
Asia, as she is commonly known, promptly transforms into a leaping, passing, shooting, shouting netball machine. She hasn’t set foot on a court for ten months, but it is abundantly clear; Asia is home.
Played on a hot and steamy afternoon at the Tuanaimato Sports Complex indoor netball facility in the Samoan capital, Apia, this is mixed netball with a difference. At least half the participants are Fa’afafine, including Asia. Fa’afafine embody both masculine and feminine gender traits but were born male. So officially, this is the men’s competition, but the Fa’afafine’s distinctive playing style is in full flourish.
Fa’afafine have been part of Samoan society for centuries and part of netball for decades They are, at different times, both celebrated and shunned by the culture. Some wish not to talk or be photographed. Fellow Fa’afafine Percillia Ulberg attempts to explain the complex cultural clash that is unfolding before our eyes.
“When you get to see the Fa’afafine and the men, it is a really tough game,” she says.
Percilia is articulating the deep pride Fa’afafine have in their place in Samoan netball. Uninterested in the male-dominated culture of rugby codes, they first came to netball seeking an alternative sporting outlet. Over time, though, the game has become both a community focal point and a vehicle for self-expression.
“Netball provides a space where they feel comfortable and welcome to play,” explains International Development and Community Partnerships Manager at Netball Australia, Olivia Philpott. As part of the Australian Aid-funded Pacific Sports partnerships, she is using netball to foster inclusive attitudes.
“That’s the beautiful thing about netball. It is an entirely inclusive and welcoming space and because of the community vibe passed down from generation to generation that has bred the kind of place where they can be very comfortable.
“The Fa’afafine are prodigiously talented and incredible athletes but they also contribute to the netball environment with coaching and umpiring.”
Coach and Umpires Co-ordinator Joanne Iosefo is the perfect example. She confesses Fa’afafine still live with prejudice, and even abuse, but that acceptance is growing.
“The older people used to think ‘why do you have to go play netball, you should go and play rugby, you are a man and you need to go and play a men’s sport’,” she says
“In those days, they said it was a sport for women but now, people understand it is a sport for anyone.”
Asia, meantime, is occupied with passing and shooting, not prejudice and societal change. Now a lather of sweat, she trudges off the court, heavy breathing and spent. The first hit out in months has taken a toll and she complains of an aching back, but the grinning goal shooter has no doubt it is a price worth paying.
“Without netball there is no life for me,” she says, sitting down on a patch of cool concrete.
“There is no other place I can go to and have fun and meet with other people. Only when I know there is no chance for me to run, no chance for me to throw a ball, then I will stop playing.”
She lets that thought hang in air for a moment before retracting the statement.
“I will forever play netball.”
This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnership funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
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