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What native Hawaiian culture has to teach about gender identity

Trans activist and educator Hina Wong-Kalu on how Hawaii’s past and present regarding gender fluidity.


(Kumu Hina – A Place In The Middle/YouTube)

(Kumu Hina – A Place In The Middle/YouTube)

(Kumu Hina – A Place In The Middle/YouTube)

It can often seem as though the world has always be an unwelcoming place for the LGBTQ community, but many cultures across the world disprove that.

Though not without their problems, many African, South Asian and Native cultures have a strong history of non-differentiation between people who identify as LGBTQ and anybody else.

In Hawaii and other Pacific Islands, the term mahu describes people who embrace both the feminine and masculine traits of their personality.

Hina Wong-Kalu, a transgender educator and activist from Hawaii, explained how in native Polynesian cultures fluid gender and sexuality was and is celebrated as being part of the human experience.

“It’s understood that each individual is his or her own person and their expression of themselves is just that – themselves,” she said.

Hina transitioned from male to female and, though she presents as female, continues to embrace both the feminine and masculine aspects of her identity equally.

She said: “What is feminine and what is masculine is a very different type of articulation amongst Western and European cultures, whereas in Polynesia it really isn’t the same kind of discussion at all.”

“It was not necessarily uncommon for our women to be as large or sometimes larger than our men. It was not uncommon for things like body hair, facial hair and bone structure to, by Western standards, be considered a very masculine shape,” she added.

Hina explained that prior to missionaries arriving on the island the word mahu had never been written down, with Hawaii having an oral tradition.

But she suggests that this shows individuals who identify as mahu were never considered outsiders back then – despite the term being directed towards Hina in a negative manner growing up in Hawaii centuries later.

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She said: “You have the word mahu, but the very limited amount of publication around this tells us that it is simply an adjective and it helps to describe a more often physical aspect of the individual rather than the emotional and spiritual aspect of the person.

“Any references to mahu are obscure and challenging to obtain primarily because our society did not have an issue with it.

“If our society had an issue with it we would have seen a great number of writings that would have indicated that this was something morally wrong.”

She added: “The only time that we find anything towards saying it would be morally wrong is clearly after the introduction of Christianity.”

Hina, who has Hawaiian and Chinese heritage and says she is deeply connected to her native Hawaiian culture, is the subject of a documentary on Netflix – A Place In The Middle – where she helps another young Hawaiian come to terms with identifying as mahu.

It’s something that’s not always easy because while the island’s native culture may have traditionally been accepting of gender fluidity, Hawaii’s traditions were suppressed following the arrival of missionaries in the 1800s.

The importance of native values has only further diminished, she said.

“People who have grown here have been groomed by our education system to acquiesce to the American politics and the American system of governance when, here in Hawaii, the native people of these islands, we never ever relinquished our sovereignty to the United States of America and they continue the illegal occupation of our island.

“This in and of itself creates another added element to the environment or lack thereof of native culture.”

It took until 2013 for same-sex marriage to be legalised in Hawaii, but with a proud history of allowing people to live authentically and the work Hina does educating young people, it might not be long until Hawaii gets back to the point where being mahu is “no different from a non-mahu identifying person. It’s simply who you are.”

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