Māhū ('in the middle') in Kanaka Maoli (Hawaiian) and Maohi (Tahitian) cultures are third gender persons with traditional spiritual and social roles within the culture, similar to Tongan fakaleiti and Samoan fa'afafine,[1] Kāne (men) who have sexual relationships with men are Aikāne.

According to present-day māhū kumu hula Kaua'i Iki:

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.[2]



In the pre-colonial history of Hawai'i, Māhū were notable priests and healers, although much of this history was elided through the intervention of missionaries. The first published description of mahu occurs in Captain William Bligh's logbook of the Bounty, which stopped in Tahiti where he was introduced to a member of a "class of people very common in Otaheitie called Mahoo... who although I was certain was a man, had great marks of effeminacy about him."[3]

A surviving monument to this history is the four so-called "wizard" stones in Waikiki, which commemorated four important Māhū healer priests from the early history of Hawaii.[4] Hawaiian historian Mary Kawena Pukui mentions twelve male supernatural beings called papa pae māhū, said to be "hermaphrodite" healers from Kahiki, the ancient homeland of Hawaiians. [5] Mahu is somewhat misleadingly defined in Pukui and Ebert's Hawaiian dictionary as "n. Homosexual, of either sex; hermaphrodite."[6] The assumption of same-sex behavior reflects the conflation of gender and sexuality that was common at that time ( the term "transgender" was not coined until 1965), while the hypothesis of biological mosaicism may have arisen from the use of the word hermaphrodite to mean "an individual which has the attributes of both male and female" prior to its more modern meaning of a biological hybrid or intersex individual.[7]

When painter Paul Gauguin first came to Tahiti he was thought to be a māhū, due to his flamboyant manner of dress for the times.[8] His 1893 painting Papa Moe depicts a māhū drinking from a small waterfall.[9]

Missionaries to Hawai'i introduced homophobic and transphobic biblical laws to the islands in the 1820s; under their influence Hawai'i's first anti-sodomy law was passed in 1850. These laws led to the social stigmatization of the māhū in Hawai'i. Beginning in the mid-1960s the Honolulu City Council required trans-women to wear a badge identifying themselves as male. [10]

In American artist George Biddle's Tahitian Journal (1920–1922) he writes about several māhū friends in Tahiti, of their role in native Tahitian society, and of the persecution of a māhū friend Naipu, who fled Tahiti due to colonial French laws that sent māhū and homosexuals to hard labor in prison in New Caledonia.[11] Rae rae is a social category of māhū that came into use in Tahiti in the 1960s, although it is criticized by some māhū as an abject reference to sex work.

During World War II, māhū and gender variant peoples of the South Pacific were encountered by American men and women in the U.S. military and helped influence the beginnings of gay liberation.

In contemporary culturesEdit

Māhū and fa'afafine of Samoa and other queer cultures of the Pacific began organizing in the 1980s, as māhū and queer Pacific Islanders were beginning to receive international recognition in various fields.

In the early 2000s, the word mahuwahine was coined within the māhū community: māhū (in the middle) + wahine (woman), similar to Samoan fa'a (the way of) + fafine (woman/wife).

Notable contemporary māhū, or mahuwahine, include activist and kumu hula Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu[12], kumu hula Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole, and kumu hula Kaua'i Iki; and within the wider māhū LGBT community, historian Noenoe Silva, activist Ku‘u-mealoha Gomes, singer and painter Bobby Holcomb, and singer Kealii Reichel.

In many traditional communities, Māhū play an important role in carrying on Polynesian culture, and teaching "the balance of female and male throughout creation".[13] Modern Māhū carry on traditions of connection to the land, language preservation, and the preservation and revival of cultural activities including traditional dances, songs, and the methods of playing culturally-specific musical instruments. Symbolic tattooing is also a popular practice. Modern Māhū do not alter their bodies through what others would consider gender reassignment surgery, but just as any person in Hawaiian/Tahitian society dress differently for work, home, and nights out.[14]

Strong familial relationships are important in Māhū culture,[15] as kinship bonds within all of Hawaiian/Tahitian cultures are essential to family survival. When possible, the Māhū maintain solid relationships with their families of origin, often by becoming foster parents to nieces and nephews, and have been noted for being especially "compassionate, and creative".[13] This ability to bring up children is considered a special skill specific to Māhū people.[16] Māhū also contribute to their extended families and communities through the gathering and maintaining of knowledge, and the practicing and teaching of hula traditions, which are traditionally handed down through women.[13]

In situations where they have been rejected by their families of origin, due to homophobia and colonization, Māhū have formed their own communities, supporting one another, and preserving and teaching cultural traditions to the next generations. In the documentary Kumu Hina, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu visits one of these communities of elders up in the mountains, and meets with some of the Māhū who were her teachers and chosen family when she was young.

See alsoEdit

References and sourcesEdit

  1. ^ Perkins, Robert (October 2013). "Like a Lady in Polynesia: The Māhū of Tahiti, the Fa'a Fafine in Samoa, the Fakaleiti in Tonga and More"". GenderCentre.org.au. Petersham, NSW, Australia: The Gender Centre. Archived from the original on 24 September 2015. Retrieved 30 September 2015.
  2. ^ Kaua'i Iki, quoted by Andrew Matzner in 'Transgender, queens, mahu, whatever': An Oral History from Hawai'i. Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context Issue 6, August 2001
  3. ^ William Bligh. Bounty Logbook. Thursday, January 15, 1789.
  4. ^ James Boyd. Traditions of the Wizard Stones Ka-Pae-Mahu. 1907. Hawaiian Almanac and Annual.
  5. ^ Mary Kawena Pukui. Place Names of Hawaii, 2nd Ed. 1974. University of Hawaii Press.
  6. ^ Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuael H Ebert. Hawaiian Dictionary. 1986. University of Hawaii Press.
  7. ^ Websters International Dictionary of the English Language. 1890. Merriam Company.
  8. ^ Llosa, Mario Vargas. "The men-women of the Pacific". Tate.org.uk. Tate Britain. Archived from the original on 6 March 2015.
  9. ^ Stephen F. Eisenman. Gauguin's Skirt. 1997.
  10. ^ Zanghellini, Aleardo (2013). "Sodomy Laws and Gender Variance in Tahiti and Hawai'i". Laws. 2 (2): 51–68. doi:10.3390/laws2020051.
  11. ^ Biddle, George (1999). Tahitian Journal. ISBN 9780816604968.
  12. ^ Borofsky, Amelia Rachel Hokule’a (2012-10-29). "'Gender Identity Disorder' to Go the Way of Homosexuality". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2019-01-18.
  13. ^ a b c Robertson, Carol E. (1989). "The Māhū of Hawai'i". Feminist Studies. 15 (2): 318. doi:10.2307/3177791. ISSN 0046-3663. JSTOR 3177791.
  14. ^ Gender on the edge : transgender, gay, and other Pacific islanders. Besnier, Niko,, Alexeyeff, Kalissa. Honolulu. 2014. p. 95. ISBN 9780824840198. OCLC 875894847.CS1 maint: others (link)
  15. ^ "Gender on the Edge". Gender on the Edge: Transgender, Gay, and Other Pacific Islanders. University of Hawai'i Press. 2014. p. 95. ISBN 9780824838829. JSTOR j.ctt6wqhsc.
  16. ^ "Gender on the Edge". Gender on the Edge: Transgender, Gay, and Other Pacific Islanders. University of Hawai'i Press. 2014. p. 108. ISBN 9780824838829. JSTOR j.ctt6wqhsc.
  • Eisenman, Stephen F., (1999). Gauguin's Skirt. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978-0500280386.
  • Matzner, Andrew (2001). O Au No Keia: Voices from Hawai'i's Mahu and Transgender Communities

External linksEdit