19 January 2013

Manti Te'o and the Rain from Manu'a

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I went to university abroad and the crowd I hung with, for a while, was one of the cliques of the school's football team, the Samoan crew, to be exact. It was a fascinating and enjoyable experience for me. I would have otherwise never have worn 'ie lavalava, have drunk kava root drink, or become interested in comparative Austronesian linguistics. Much later, when I started hanging out with the gay crowd at school, among them was an ex-Samoan football player. It's with these experiences that I think about the case of Manti Te'o. If you haven't heard of this story, consider starting at DeadSpin's sports news scoop story. In one way, this may be a variation of the Sextortion at Eisenhower High case which I blogged about before (twice). But it may not.

Manti Te'o

Samoans have a proverb, "O le ua na fua mai Manu'a." I have been told that this proverb, which roughly means "the rain falls from Manu'a," refers to some kind of social change as reflected from the rain that occasionally comes from the east from the Manu'a group of islands.

Another explanation of the proverb refers to the story of the Tui Manu'a who had two daughters, Sina and Aolele. Sina eloped with the chief Lemanunu of the place with the same name in Savai'i. Tui Manu'a sent his other daughter to Lemanunu and ordered that they separate or they would be put to death. Fearing his supernatural powers, they separated but not before Sina told Lemanunu: We must separate but you will again meet me through my tears. I return to Manu'a and weep and my tears shall fall upon you. When it rains in Manunu, people say that Sina is weeping.

Doing some research for this entry, Wikipedia says this proverb means "Spoken of a thing long known beforehand, and yet unprepared for."

The core of the story of Manti Teo, which has been mostly avoided by the American media but is widely discussed in the comments section of these online stories is the so-called spectre or suspicion of homosexuality. As Te'o described it in his statement:

"This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her."

But he did not develop an emotional relationship with a woman he met online. It's not a spectre or a suspicion. He developed an "authentic relationship" with another man "by communicating frequently online and on the phone" and "grew to care deeply about" him.

It made him happy and it gave him happiness.

Who was this person who made him happy and gave him happiness?

Ronaiah Tuiasosopo

Meet Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the son of former USC football player and current born-again Christian pastor Titus Tuiasosopo and nephew of Long Angeles Rams football player Navy Tuiasosopo. He is also a cousin of the late Fred Matua, USC and NFL football player. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, as it turns out, had an online persona Lennay Kekua for a long time. According to family members of Tuiasosopo, he tried to do online dating with several Samoan football players with the persona Lennay Kekua. In fact, Reagan Mauia, a fullback for the Arizona Cardinals, even met someone in America Samoa that stood in for Tuiasosopo in a meet up before he started his online relationship with Te'o. It has also been reported that Shiloah Te'o and Lyle Moevao both of the Oregon State Beavers football team also had some kind of interaction with Kekua.

Tuiasosopo and Teo were "bros" according to their mutual tweets and re-tweets. We will likely not know now, if ever, whether Te'o and Tuiasosopo ever had an authentic relationship without the mediating of Tuiasosopo's female alter-ego Kekua. In 2010, Teo expressed doubt about the reality of Kekua and asked Tessie Tolutau for confirmation. She was unable to provide it yet he went on to develop an authentic, emotional relationship. In my experience of Faasamoa, Samoan culture, entanglement with the faafafine (binabae) by a macho type guy, like a football player, is the same type of behavior that we expect from a young macho guy and a bakla. (In fact, faafafine and binabae are the linguistic double conversions of the nominal for woman converted to a verb converted to a noun.) It's not a big deal, but in American culture, it is a big deal.

So, why do I doubt we will know the real truth now, if ever? First, Teo comes from a devout Mormon, Polynesian family from a Mormon, Polynesian community. His family has groomed him from childhood to become an NFL football star. NFL football stars do not have authentic or emotional relationships with other men or with faafafine. Being an NFL football star conforms to American cultural sensibilities not Samoan and so the standards of conformity and competition follow the American cultural aesthetic, not the Samoan.

Many of the guys I would hang with had encounters with faafafine. They would tease each other about it, in a slightly different way, than the teasing they'd do to each other about having encounters with real women. They would never talk about their encounters with me or their encounters with each other. But that's how it was with the boys and that was a long time ago before blogs, twitter, facebook, etc.,. A few of the guys, actually it was really sad, were unambiguously and unambivalently gay. They were very masculine but they were sensitive so it was never really discussed. They rarely engaged in anything remotely sexual, unlike the rest of the guys, but were so desperate for intimacy. It was intense. And another thing they all shared was that they all had girlfriends elsewhere, in a place far far away. They had girlfriends in Cali or back in Samoa -- one had his high school sweetheart marooned in Auckland. Kia Ora!

Let's look at what else Te'o said in his statement: "To think that I shared with them [his family, friends and Notre Dame fans] my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been."

After my time with the 'boys', I made another friend in a non-football/non-Samoan context, several years later, just before I left that university. This other guy who was an ex-Samoan football player had rejected his football life in favor of majoring in dance. In one of the many conversations we had, he told me about the heartbreaking work his parents made him do to further his way towards the NFL like his 1000 crunches a day regime. Of course, this regime throughout his childhood would have come in handy if he could have continued towards his dream of a BFA in Dance. Instead, his football scholarship was revoked by the university and his parents rejected his homosexuality and his decision to choose a life that didn't involve struggling towards a spot on an NFL team. That's why I call him the ex-Samoan football player and not the Samoan ex-football player. Let that be a lesson to anyone who chooses to take a stand for his inner call from the pressures of the family (aiga in Samoan) and society.

Whether Teo was in on the hoax or not seems much less relevant from my perspective. He is a victim of the cruelty of his family and a society that would put him into such a position. That either he could only form an authentic, emotional relationship with the "love of my life" with the online persona of another young man posing as a woman or that he actually did form an authentic, emotional relationship with the "love of my life" with another young man but when that became known to the rest of the world, he would feel sick and ask others to understand "how trying and confusing this whole experience" is for him.

Whether this is just a case of something long known beforehand and yet unprepared for, or (in my own mind more tragic) a case of the eternal separation of Sina, the daughter of the Tui Manu'a, and the chief Lemanunu, what I see is the unfolding in public view of the evil of the annihilation of the individual by the collective and it is my hope that in its sense of social change, the rain indeed falls from Manu'a, and that Teo can stand up for his authentic self that makes authentic, emotional relationships with others without shame or humiliation. But if it is not possible now, I have faith that Sina will one day return again with the rain from Manu'a, when the time will come when love will reign and the will to power will be in decline.


  1. Samoa is much more dynamic than america, which is a very myopic society when it comes to faafafine..there are many married men who have affairs with faafafine, there are straight men who prefer to hang out with faafafine (though non-sexual), there are women who prefer to have relationships (sexual and non-sexual) with faafafine, there are parents who love their faafafine sons more than their heterosexual children, sons who are very protective of their faafafine brother (re: Tuilagi rugby family)..faafafine often gets misrepresented with the palagi concept of gay man..a faafafine is a man with a woman's mindset and demeanor..in saying that i am not a faafafine, but have faafafine griends..they respect that..
    as for manti te'o, from a samoan pov, he is not gay..he just has other priorities at the moment and spiritually satisfied with conversing with a woman on the internet..in a few years he'll probably meet some lovely girl, get married and have a couple of kids running around..and this will all be history..

  2. yes. quite possible most of the guys I hung around have long since married with children. i have noticed that in the American media, the framing is that he had a relationship with a non-existent person, but i don't think that's quite right. that way of telling the story leaves Tuiasosopo in this 'crazy' or 'monster' role since, it would make him much more human to recognize that he was trying to form a relationship with Teo... i have known a number of faafafine, fakaleiti and mahu who started dating macho guys online presenting themselves as real women and only later disclosing their transgender status.

    in the philippines, there was an episode of maalaala mo kaya, 'cellphone', where this precise scenario happened. the difference in that dramatization of a real life story and the Teo/Tuiasosopo story is that Yvonne, the binabae/transgender in the filipino story, was given complexity and nuance. her humanity was not sacrificed before the altar of a national sport and turned into what has happened to tuiasosopo. i guess we'll have to wait and see what happens, but i don't have much hope for American media.