The connotation of the word “māhū” is often a negative one. This word has become a derogatory term toward someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The word “māhū” first took on this meaning after missionaries set foot on the islands of Hawai‘i. When they first saw men who appeared overtly feminine and assumed female roles, they were vexed because it was different from what they were used to seeing. As a result, the missionaries used “māhū” to pejoratively describe these kinds of people. This subsequently perpetuated homophobia and encouraged the degradation of Hawaiian culture even further.
But, before contact with the outside world, “māhū” meant something more beautiful and valuable.
In Hawaiian or Kanaka Maoli culture, gender is not a binary concept. Kānaka Maoli acknowledged those who did not simply identify as male or female. The third gender is the māhū, or “the in-between.” This Hawaiian term is used to characterize someone who embodies both kāne (male) and wahine (female) spirit. Many other Pacific Islander cultures share this understanding of a third gender. In Tongan, the term is “fakaleiti,” and, in Sāmoan, the term is “fa‘afafine.”
In ancient Hawaiian tradition, māhū possessed tremendous cultural and spiritual value. Māhū played an important role in the Hawaiian community because they held a lot of cultural knowledge and would pass it on to future generations to preserve practices and traditions.
Camaron Miyamoto, the director of the LGBT Student Services at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, notes that the existence of the māhū in Hawaiian culture sets Hawai‘i apart in understanding and accepting transgendered individuals.
“We have gender that is not just male and female. We have a place in between,” Miyamoto said.
In an animated segment of “A Place in the Middle,” Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu, also known as Kumu Hina-Wong, narrates:
“Before the coming of foreigners to our islands, we Hawaiians lived in aloha, in harmony with the land and with one another. Every person had their role in society, whether male, female, or māhū, those who embrace both the feminine and masculine traits that are embodied within each and every one of us. Māhū were valued and respected as caretakers, healers, and teachers of ancient traditions. We passed on sacred knowledge from one generation to the next through hula, chant, and other forms of wisdom.
“When American missionaries arrived in the 1800s, they were shocked and infuriated by these practices and did everything they could to abolish them. They condemned our hula and chant as immoral. They outlawed our language, and they imposed their religious strictures across our lands. But, we Hawaiians are a steadfast and resilient people. So, despite 200 years of colonization and repression, we are still here.”
To this day, māhū are still highly regarded in the Hawaiian community. Kumu Hina-Wong is an important Kanaka, who teaches at Kamehameha Schools and advocates for aloha.
In her video interview with Ka Leo O Hawai‘i in April 2016, Kumu Hina-Wong stated that being māhū is a part of her identity.
“[To be māhū] means … that there’s an individual who has elements of male and female in one body,” she said. “Hawaiians understood that māhū were a part of the fabric of society.”
Kumu Hina-Wong was a timid student at Kamehameha Schools and was teased and ridiculed for being overtly feminine. With no guidance from someone similar to him, he had to subdue his true self to escape the harshness of those around him, rather than embrace the beauty and grace he had within. His experience, however, propelled him to restore māhū to its proper place of pride, dignity and respect.
“I make sure that every student has a ‘place in the middle’ where they are not judged by their gender but on their work and accomplishments. And I strive to ensure that amongst the many contributions of our Hawaiian ancestors that are taught in our classrooms, from the long voyages of our great navigators to the sustainable use of our lands, we include the Hawaiian understanding of aloha – love, honor, and respect for all, including māhū,” Kumu Hina stated in an interview with the New York Times.
In a TED Talk titled “He Inoa Mana (A powerful name),” Kumu Hina-Wong discusses the meaning of her name. She refers to Hawaiian lore and history in which Hina is the goddess of the moon:
“She presides over the moon and it is that light that cast upon us … in some of the darkest times.”
Kumu Hina serves as this brilliant light, like the one she mentioned, by bringing the term “māhū” back to its original meaning and sharing that aloha.
Individuals like Kumu Hina-Wong are important because they not only share their cultural knowledge with the rest of the world, but they aid in helping us understand and appreciate both our own culture and the culture of others. Māhū show us that gender can be fluid and that we all have a place in this world. We should embrace who we truly are because it will lead us to our purpose.