The Girlfriend That Didn't Exist, Except She Did. cover image

The Girlfriend That Didn't Exist, Except She Did.

At the behest of my mother, I recently sat down to watch the Untold Netflix docuseries, focusing on Manti Te'o and his experience with being catfished by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. It's a heartbreaking story for everyone involved that hit particularly close for me because of my experience growing up Mormon and the decades I spent navigating gender before learning about my intersex status.

In many ways, the story started as the ubiquitous tale of transgender youth of the era. Without the ability to read about how to be transgender, access to supportive teachers or educational systems, and an affirming environment, transgender youth often escaped into an alternate reality as a means of survival.

The story was an upsetting account of complex trauma and an example of how severe harm can occur even in a scenario without a clear villain. While it may be easy to assert that Ronaiah is the story's villain, the true evil was the systemic failure to affirm diversity and prepare youth for healthy relationships.


This review is biased towards the story presented by those involved in the production. I do not know those involved in the story. I cannot speak about the veracity of the claims or subject material, and I welcome correction if those involved read this review and feel I lack context or am providing an unfair assessment.

First impression

The story of Ronaiah is a common allegory for queer youth raised in communities and cultures that consider anything different from an idealized version of conformity as intolerable. Understandably, those who have always felt an innate connection between their biological sex and concept of self as male or female would consider the actions taken by Ronaiah to develop her complex alternate reality as nothing short of pathological. It's not.

I cannot condone the actions of Ronaiah, and some of her actions undeniably crossed a line resulting in severe personal and psychological trauma. And while some of her actions fall within the typical survival experience of queer youth trying to survive in repressed communities, other actions unquestionably crossed the line.

Some Background & Where I'm Coming From

Three concepts that help provide context to my review linger in my mind after watching the series. None of these on their own should be considered justification for the harm caused by heinous actions.

Concept One: Developing a fictional online persona is not inherently wrong. You know plenty of people who engage in role-playing, D&D, online games, etc., where people engage with other real people as fictional versions of themselves. Participating in virtual realities provides enjoyment and fulfills those involved's social and emotional needs.

Concept Two: I find the shared Samoan ancestry of Manti and Ronaiah curious. In my interactions with hundreds of Samoans of different beliefs, ages, locations, and family connections, I have consistently noticed common respect and a general lack of prejudice. My research often cites the Fa'afafine and the acceptance of gender diversity within the culture. Samoan culture, absent the influence of oppressors and colonization, embraces diversity.

Concept Three: Regarding gender, those who call themselves Christians are usually anything but Christlike. Hateful vitriol against this community is abundant. 1-in-4 transgender people are violented assaulted every year. The perpetrator, when prosecuted, often claims religious beliefs to justify their actions.

Role Playing And Consent

When you engage in a role-playing game, there is the accepted understanding that you aren't really conversing with a sexy elf, ogre, dragon master, or troll. These are characters other people have developed.

Like those who lose themselves in the game and benefit from a sense of community, Ronaiah created an online identity to establish connections and community. She needed the ability to communicate with others in a way that was otherwise not permissible in her situation. Up to that point, her behavior was in line with most transgender youth who had to hide but desperately sought meaningful contact with others. Even today, those who are not yet out will engage as a more authentic version of themselves in an online community. Getting to exist authentically in a virtual world is better than not living at all.

The fundamental difference between the virtual reality many people now engage in and the reality experienced by Manti Te'o was one of consent. On games, apps, and sites for people not yet out, people can connect with others as the presented version of themselves while guarding anonymity. All involved understand they communicate authentically with one another, despite concealed real-life identities.

Had Ronaiah participated in a forum where all involved knew that others in the forum may or may not be who they portrayed themselves to be, she may have found an authentic connection with somebody who consented to accept whomever the person described themselves to be. She chose to exist on a forum where most users present themselves as their real-life identity.

Our Social Contract For Consent

I don't need to know the name of the person I'm talking to in public, and there's no expectation for a random person to share personal information. Consent to communicate is a right in the human social contract, and parties may freely engage until one expresses the desire not to initiate or otherwise ends dialogue.

A few weeks ago, I was on a flight where a flight attendant kept referring to one of the people in the couple she was talking to as sir/he/him. I could see how she mistook the very butch lesbian for a guy, but nobody belabored the point. It wasn't pertinent. They were all laughing and enjoying a pleasant conversation while the plane waited almost an hour on the runway.

In my opinion, this element of our shared social contract gave Ronaiah the right to engage with others on Facebook. The dialogue was limited to the kind of conversation you'd have with strangers. Her gender, while relevant to her, was irrelevant to others. She was not attempting to gain anything other than affirmation, which would be impossible to attain in her real-life experience of a conservative, Christian, sport-focused living environment.

Should Ronaiah have stolen images from Dianne O'Meara? No. While that was wrong, it's not even in the same ballpark as the more severe grievances. Is finding some random photos on the web different than the filters now used by hundreds of millions of people every day to make them look like somebody else or different versions of themselves? Not really. Bad form, but understandable given the technology of the time.

Was it deceptive? Yes - but if you take an honest assessment of your current relationships, you'll find deception abounds. How many people agree with you to your face while believing something different? How many people do you engage with at work that you despise but find the strength to be polite? I don't believe that deception in and of itself was the issue with Ronaiah. She presented herself as whom she knew herself to be. That's probably more honest than 20% of the people you call your friends.

As in real life, the level of consent needed to continue dialoguing is proportional to the level of the relationship, and this is where the series left a gaping hole. Ronaiah sending messages to Manti that were in line with what Manti's other friends were telling him required no additional consent.

As soon as the relationship has the potential of becoming intimate is the moment honesty and consent must align. At that moment, Ronaiah should have disclosed that her online identity doesn't match her real-life experience to provide Manti the choice to engage further or end the dialogue.

Religious Factors Played A Huge Role

Did Manti ever officially ask Ronaiah to be his girlfriend? Maybe I missed it, but even if he asked for Ronaiah to be his girlfriend, he was ill-equipped to understand what such a relationship entailed.

While the rest of the world is learning what intimacy is, how relationships work and navigating physical connections, those raised in orthodox religions learn patterns that lead to relationship problems. And while I won't deny there are benefits from not engaging in physical intimacy in your teenage years, this approach has several unintended consequences.

Many religions, including those practiced by Manti and Ronaiah, teach abstinence until you're married. Those who adopt this teaching engage in relationships with no significant growth of intimacy between meeting each other and marriage. I can think of dozens of people whose last date before getting married looked exactly like their first date.

These teachings disrespect any relationship that isn't marriage, which causes terms like girlfriend to get tossed around casually or quickly adopted despite no personal, intimate, or physical contact. Only somebody who believes there is no significant difference between a girlfriend and a female friend would consider the relationship status of Manti and Ronaiah a sexually intimate relationship.

Manti could have avoided this entire ordeal had he known that girlfriend isn't a label you adopt for somebody you've never met. Had his culture permitted personal exploration and growth, he'd have known that a girlfriend represents a deep, intimate, physical bond.

Likewise, Ronaiah could not explore parts of herself, most likely because of her religious affiliation. Had she been able to try on parts of her identity, she could have found the ability to exist in society as herself and develop interpersonal relationships without the guise of an online-only identity. I wish the story had gone into more depth and described her familial reaction to her gender status. I would love to have known why she wasn't allowed to exist as herself in her home and with her family.

Nothing prepares you for a life of deception and secretive behavior as thoroughly as belonging to a religion that tells you who you are, or who you love is inherently wrong or worse.

Ronaiah was the victim of oppression. Her faith, family, and community taught her that she was not allowed to exist authentically, and her existence was dependent on her ability to only participate in approved behaviors (school, church, football). When you are unable to exist authentically, you develop patterns of behavior that are problematic. It is complex traumatization, and those who are subjected to this trauma are often blamed for the methods they use to survive it.

Ronaiah developed a powerful unconventional coping tool to survive the ongoing trauma, relying on her ability to escape a traumatizing reality for a pleasant semi-fictional universe. Every relationship she had in real life was already based on a lie, with her pretending to be somebody else to appease the desires of her family, faith, and culture. What is the difference between that and what she did online? At least she believed who she was online was real.

While her inclusion of others into her escape without consent was wrong, she was attempting to survive by constructing a reality that would allow her what most humans experience as typical development. That these tools went against accepted norms is irrelevant. The norms of others were not her norms.

Is it a coincidence that Ronaiah is thriving now that she has the freedom to live authentically? Had she been out at home with parents who allowed her the freedom to explore who she was and provided access to others like her, she would have been able to develop authentic relationships and healthy interpersonal interaction skills.

It's A Relevant Lesson To Many

Manti got hurt because the person Ronaiah wasn't who he thought she was. He doesn't hold a monopoly on pain because somebody's partner wasn't who they presented themselves to be. In nearly every relationship, people discover things about their partner that wasn't what they had realized or expected.

While I feel for Manti, I also feel for every person in a relationship who didn't realize their partner wasn't sexually attracted to their biological sex or whose partner was living in a concealed gender until after they were married. It's no different when you take away the sensationalized aspects of Manti's story. The blame falls on the same systems that failed Manti and Ronaiah. If people have to hide who they are, they adopt lies as truth to survive. Do we blame the system's victims or recognize the system itself that's broken?

Wouldn't it be easier if people were allowed to be who they are and love who they love in the first place?

If you must assign blame, assign it to the systems that prevented Ronaiah from the ability to explore and understand who she was. Assign the blame to systems that taught Manti a girlfriend is somebody you've never seen or talked to in person. Assign blame to the prejudices that thwarted meaningful human contact for them both during their formative years.

Is This Not A Love Story?

Did you recognize our inclination to romanticize the behaviors we condemned Roniah for committing? We would be hypocritical if we didn't also condemn ourselves for our role in setting up the failure in our normalization of doing stupid things in the name of love.

Did images of Steve Martin with an elongated nose come to mind? What about Peter Dinklage in his adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. Here, somebody with a physical difference utilized their words to convey their love to another through a false vessel. We call that a love story.

Ronaiah fulfilled Manti's emotional needs to the extent that he chose to remain in a relationship with her for years. Was Manti traumatized because he found out this woman he loved was born male? I didn't see that as trauma, but I also believe anyone can fall in love with anyone, and when you find love, it's unconditionally beautiful. Had Ronaiah come clean about her gender, I think Manti could have recognized he had found a beautiful partner had he not been conditioned into the colonizer's definition of appropriate relationships.

Manti was understandably angry for being deceived. But something makes me think his anger was more deeply rooted in the fact that Ronaiah was born male and that he had developed an intimate relationship with another "man." If that was his source of trauma: he's the biggest piece of shit in the entire story.

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