Although the June 26 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of nationwide marriage equality applies to all parts of the United States, including the territories and commonwealths, the matter has become more complicated in American Samoa.
As the Associated Press reports, the unincorporated Pacific island territory is now the only remaining part of the U.S. to not begin implementing same-sex marriage rights for its 55,000 citizens. While Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands have all voluntarily legalized equal marriage or are well on their way to doing so, American Samoa's attorney general Talauega Eleasalo Ale told reporters Friday that "We're still reviewing the decision to determine its applicability to American Samoa."
As a U.S. territory, American Samoa retains some forms of self-governance and its population is not considered American citizens, but rather American "nationals," according to Lambda Legal. Currently, a lawsuit to determine whether American Samoans are actually U.S. citizens — and therefore subject to all U.S. constitutional rulings — is wending its way through a D.C. Circuit Court.
In the meanwhile, same-sex marriage has become considered by some American Samoan politicians to be a matter of their government's self-determination, an expression of the territory's independence from U.S. rule and culture. A strong stance on Samoan culture's approach to same-sex marriage has been taken on by some politicians in Samoa, the western part of the Samoan island chain shared with American Samoa. As Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi expressed to the Samoan Observer in 2012:
"As long as I am here, gay marriage will never be a part of Samoan culture and society. ... Just because it is being legalized everywhere else does not mean we should bow to the influence of the outside world. As long as I live and until kingdom comes, gay marriage will never be allowed in Samoa, never. ... Gay marriage contradicts everything Samoa stands for."
Prime Minister Tuilaepa's comments were in reference to the prevailing socially conservative nature of Samoan culture, which is alive and well in American Samoa's predominantly Christian population. Princess Auvaa, a well-known fa'afafine (a "male" person raised as a "female" who combines masculine and feminine traits, according to cultural tradition), echoed this sentiment to the AP, saying many — including some fa'afafines — oppose same-sex marriage out of "respect for our Samoan culture and religious beliefs."
Cultural expectations may be one of the reasons that no American Samoan same-sex couple has yet come forward to seek a marriage license. But in the potential absence of the government's voluntary decision to enact marriage equality, it may be necessary for one same-sex couple to attempt obtaining a marriage license, be denied, then file litigation, according to Chimene Keitner, an expert on territorial status issues at the University of California, Hastings College of Law.
Such a couple would have to become quite "public" in their stance, notes Keitner — a reality that could be daunting. But it's clear that there are American Samoans who desire same-sex marriages.
"I would be the first person to apply for a marriage license — if I had a boyfriend who would agree to marriage," Princess Auvaa shared with the AP.
Meanwhile, U.S. LGBT rights advocates are arguing that any legal barriers the attorney general raises should not stand, as they are not a matter of the country's self-governance but of individual liberties. "[Legalized gay marriage] should be unquestioned," explained Rose Cuison Villazor, an expert on territorial law at the University of California Davis' School of Law. "The Supreme Court's decision was pretty strong."
Lambda Legal has asked any American Samoan same-sex couple, should they come forward and be denied a marriage license, to contact them or the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or the National Center for Lesbian Rights immediately for assistance.