The living rainbow: The selective benefit of a fa’afafine in the family

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the key evolutionary puzzles of same-sex sexuality, as it manifests in modern, Western human societies, is that those of us attracted to members of our own biological sex don’t make a lot of babies. I’ve already spent a lot of pixels on the question of how genes for same-sex attraction might persist in human populations in the face of that selective cost—but a paper just published in PLoS ONE adds some evidence in favor of one popular hypothesis: that gene variants that make men more likely to be gay could also make their straight relatives more fertile.

The new paper presents data from Samoa, where the traditional culture has long had a place for men who are attracted to other men, in the role of fa’afafine—literally, men who “live in the manner of women.” Samoan boys who show interest in feminine activities are recognized by their families as members of this “third gender,” which is more like the modern Western conception of transgender identity than what we call “gay.” Fa’afafine often present and dress like straight women, and as adults, they generally have relationships with straight-identified men. But fa’afafine aren’t exactly “transgendered” as we understand that concept in the West—they don’t have the sense that their bodies don’t match their gender identity.

The fact that Samoan culture accommodates and accepts same-sex sexuality makes it an especially interesting context for testing hypotheses about the evolution of queer sexuality, including the idea that relatives of fa’afafine might be more fertile than people with no fa’afafine in the family. The study’s coauthors surveyed Samoan fa’afafine and straight men, asking how many children their grandmothers, aunts, and uncles had had. And they found that grandmothers of fa’afafine—both maternal and paternal grandmothers—had more children than grandmothers of the straight-identified men they interviewed.◼


VanderLaan, D., Forrester, D., Petterson, L., & Vasey, P. (2012). Offspring production among the extended relatives of Samoan men and fa’afafine. PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036088