Today we finally are touching upon queer culture in the Pacific Islands. Specifically discussing the Hawaiian Islands and the variance in expression and openness today from island to island. Before we begin we want to lend credit to two of our main sources. A paper written by Professor Aleardo Zanghellini and published by the University of Reading’s School of Law was actually our main source. We have linked the article on our script along with the free-access PDF for anyone who is interested. We also want to praise the work of Eleanor Kleiber, a University specialist librarian, and former intern D. Kealiʻi MacKenzie. Who both compiled queer Pacific Island resources for the Univerisity of Hawaii at Manoa, and made those resources public to us and the rest of the world.
In order to understand queer Hawaiian culture today, we must understand the past history along with colonization and oppression of Hawaii. The Islands, currently known as the State of Hawaii, were first settled by Polynesians sometime in the first millennia A.D. There has been a wide range of dates suggested from as early as 300 A.D to as late as 800 A.D. Due to the nature of the many islands it has not been easy to establish when settlements first came into being. Yet by the year 1,200, there were thriving societies complete with social order, social classes, and a hierarchy of authority. And by the 16th century, natives had moved inland, filling more than just the outskirts of the islands, and spreading throughout the vast countrysides.
The Hawaiian religion was central to government for the majority of Hawaii’s existence before the 1800s. For at least 1,000 years, spiritual leaders ruled side by side with the Kings and Chiefs of villages and islands. Various tribes worshipped a variety of gods while creating sacred ceremonies and adopting rules and traditions to please the gods. This was common in most of the Pacific Islands dating back for millennia and many of Hawaii’s religious practices were brought by Polynesian settlers when they arrived and populated the islands. And like the others, Hawaii’s religion was based in a reverence for nature and the gods within and about rather than the European concept of separation between God and humanity. As writer Michael Kioni Dudley stated in Hawaiian Nation: Man, Gods, and Nature:
“In the dominant current of Western thought, there is a fundamental separation between humanity and divinity. … In many other cultures, however, such differences between human and divine do not exist. Some peoples have no concept of a ‘Supreme Being’ or ‘Creator God’ who is by nature ‘other than’ his creation. They do, however, claim to experience a spirit world in which beings more powerful than they are concerned for them and can be called upon for help.”
A part of this group of spiritual leaders were those known as the Mahu. These were those who existed between genders, were considered a third gender, or who crossed genders (what we would call transgender today). We want to pause here and reference why we have used the term Mahu. As we will discuss in a moment, Mahu was later turned into a derogative term and there has been controversy around the use of the word today. However, the word was not borne out of bias or hate. It was once a very noble term that was later derided by closed-minded and queerphobic individuals. For the sake of honoring those who once proudly identified as Mahu, we will use this word when referencing the sacred role of the past. But later we will also present the more common and preferred labels of today.
In an oral history recorded by Andrew Matzner, one participant explained the Mahu as such:
“Māhū were particularly respected as teachers, usually of hula dance and chant. In pre-contact times māhū performed the roles of goddesses in hula dances that took place in temples which were off-limits to women. Māhū were also valued as the keepers of cultural traditions, such as the passing down of genealogies. Traditionally parents would ask māhū to name their children.”
The note that the Mahu were allowed in the sacred temples is especially important. Hawaiian religion segregated women and forbid them from many spiritual ceremonies and spaces. The Mahu, however, were not classified based on their gender identity or gender expression. A feminine-presenting Mahu was just as welcomed in the temple as a masculine-presenting Mahu.
These spiritual beings were celebrated much the same way Native tribes of America celebrated Two-Spirit individuals. They were seen as healers with a unique connection to the gods and nature. And though the sexism in early Hawaiian culture was strong, the queer expressions flowed freely. As early as the 1400’s it became common practice for men to take other men as sexual partners. This was put in place by ruler Liloa who originated aikane (male friend) relationships. In many ways, these resembled countless similar practices around the world. The Greeks were some of the most notorious in Western Civilization to engage in same-sex relationships specifically between young men and older mentors. And just like the Greeks, these relationships could not strictly be compared to the queer romances of today. In these cultures, having sex with one’s chief or leader was an honor. The majority of men continued to have sexual relations with women and eventually married, had a family, and then became the mentor to a young follower.
For over 1,000 years the islands of Hawaii thrived and grew while the Mahu lead the way as healers and guides. That all changed with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 1800s. European colonizers first landed on the Island around 1778 when Captain James Cook stopped by one of the Islands for supplies. He continued to use the Islands as a fueling point and for personal exploration over the next year. When two of Cook’s lifeboats were stolen by natives, Cook attempted to kidnap the Hawaiian king. This resulted in Cook’s death and for a brief time, it appeared the white colonizers had been chased away. Yet they returned a few years later and in 1793 the British attempted to establish an alliance with the Hawaiian King Kamehameha. Twenty-three years later, in 1816, the British flag was planted as a symbol of English rule. It didn’t take long for Christian missionaries to arrive to save the lost heathens of the new colony.
By 1820, the 10 Commandments were adopted into Hawaiian law along with a slew of other rules that stripped the Mahu of any political or social power and began to create a stigma around their identity. In 1850 the first anti-sodomy laws were passed which erased the tradition of aikane and forced all same-sex relationships to go underground. These laws further placed oppression on the Mahu as the white missionaries conflated gender identity and gender expression with sexual orientation. English sodomy laws served in conjunction with Hawaiian laws until the 1890s. This meant that if there was a direct conflict between the two laws, the Hawaiian version would win out. However, since same-sex relationships and Mahu people had never been a problem in Hawaiian culture, there were no laws on the books to protect LGBTQ+ Natives.
By the 1894 the Hawaiin Islands lost their kingdom status and became the Republic of Hawaii and before quickly turning into a U.S. Territory in 1898. This was through subversion by the American Government that supported rebellions meant to overthrow the kingdom and later Republic. American colonizers had realized the vast wealth of natural resources available on the Islands and large sugar plantations were established by wealthy American businessmen. As capitalism eroded the natural Hawaiian way of trade and business, Christianity further stripped away the culture’s religious ties. One leader gave this statement in his proclamation:
“Worshipping of idols such as sticks, stones, sharks, dead bones, ancient gods and all untrue gods is prohibited. There is one God alone, Jehovah. He is the God to worship. The hula is forbidden, the chant, the song of pleasure, foul speech, and bathing by women in public places.”
The Mahu were driven from society and became the outcasts. As the island natives died from exposure to illness, murder, or enslavement. When white explorers first visited the islands in the late 1700s there were an estimated 300,000 natives. By 1920 there were only 24,000 native Hawaiians remaining on the islands and most lived in poverty. The disenfranchisement of indigenous people began when voting laws required that individuals earn a high income and own land in order to vote. Through this biased approach, white Americans gained control over natives and other communities of color, such as the large Asian population on the Islands.
The discrimination of the Mahu and all transgender people reached a peak in 1959 when laws on the main island, O’ahu, required transgender women to wear labels that identified them as men. This final insult launched a revolution in Hawaii’s queer community along with a statewide resurgence to bring back Hawaii’s culture. With this new push for reform came new terms and understanding what the Mahu had become. Over the last 100 years the term Mahu became a derogatory word for any gay man or transgender woman. Today, especially on the larger island of O’ahu, many regard the word as offensive and it is used interchangeably as a description of sex workers.
However, in many of the smaller islands, such as Tahiti, some have reclaimed the role of Mahu. They are seen once again as spiritual leaders who preserve the island’s cultures and tradition. Others identify by the word mahuwahine (trans woman) or mahukane (trans man). And those who do not serve as spiritual leaders, or who do not see their gender identity in those terms, identify as hoʻowahine and hoʻokāne. Today queer Hawiian’s work to restore the queer roots of the state’s heritage. Several organizations have been started and progress is being made, but there is a piece of history that will never fully be reclaimed.
Your recommended resources are the Queer Library Resource List which can be found on the Manoa University library page (or linked on our script). You can also check out lgbthawaii.com for more information. If you would like to read the paper by Aleardo Zanghellini on Sodomy Laws and Gender Variance in Tahiti and Hawaii that is also linked in our script.
- Queer Library Resources – https://guides.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/c.php?g=105466&p=686754
- Hawaiian Nation: Man, God’s, and Nature by Michael Kioni Dudley
- Matzner – http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue6/matzner.html
- Sodomy Laws and Gender Variance in Tahiti and Hawai‘i by Aleardo Zanghellini
- Wiki (Mahu) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C4%81h%C5%AB
- YES Magazine – https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/make-right/2015/07/27/what-native-hawaiian-culture-can-teach-us-about-gender-identity/
- Wiki (Hawaii) – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/hawaii-history-and-heritage-4164590/#:~:text=The%20Hawaiian%20Islands%20were%20first,battled%20one%20another%20for%20territory.
- Huff Post – https://www.huffpost.com/entry/hawaii-homosexuality_b_1219444?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABXvqkzKVDacAUUZv4avxcVQtQK3qvlONNmI6hV4vXno2vxdMghFfXoU1NxQwZFC_3izy08jqNGw6RFxRaQLE65-ahrNL_DD1D7h3VS1N-hche15HAyZsv_mGXUDOvckIanEDKe5rXVgL3lW2nowaMdhPBzvwcHMHVDt6yp_Qj0d