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Hawaiian Sexuality and the 'Mahu' Tradition
By Kalikiano Kalei   

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Transgendered and transexual individuals greatly disturb most God-fearing Christians, who believe that everything other than 'conventional' marital sex is a mortal sin. The ancient Hawaiians were not as tightly strung, in their graceful understanding that all human beings possess a complete Tao of male and female qualities within themselves. 'Mahu' is a Hawaiian term that describes a man who has chosen to live as a woman and in the ancient (pre-missionary) culture, such individuals were respected and regarded as important members of the community. (The image shown is that of a Hawaiian transgender hula group, taken from the 2001 Kathryn Xian and Brent Anbe documentary on traditional Hawaiian sexual attitudes).


Hawaiian Sexuality and the Mahu Tradition....


“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in its proportion.”

-(Sir) Francis Bacon


One of the very genuine concerns that cultivating a broad awareness within the human brain generates is that eventually, after a certain posture of open-mindedness is attained, nothing seemingly has the same potential to shake one’s sense of philosophical and moral balance as it might formerly have been able to; while ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is not an apt analogue to employ here, the effect is arguably parallel. In that association, Bacon’s above quote is an absolute gem of observational wisdom. Mindful of this fact and given the convoluted nature and aspirative spirit of self-actualisation that humanity’s unique biochemistry includes within the hidden potentials of each individual, it perfectly fits a far greater number of people we know than we might suspect..


I have always regarded myself as a broadly aware person, a status that would seem to be quite congruent with my complementary interests in history, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. Having (been born in and) spent a significant period of time living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was so solidly enmeshed in a culture of permissive indulgence and acceptance of what we today call ‘cultural diversity’ that it has become a important cornerstone of my whole world view. Thus, when a friend recently surprised me with an impromptu disclosure of a highly personal psychosocial lifestyle trait, I found myself immediately fascinated, rather than repulsed or put off by the nature of the startling information that had been shared with me.


Perhaps it would help if I digressed for just the smallest bit here first, and mentioned that several years ago a person (a male person) I occasionally communicated with revealed to me, in the course of our communications, that he was a transgendered Asian-American. 'Kailani' (as we shall identify him spuriously) was in his early 20s, of Japanese-American ancestry, and resident on the island of Maui. Rather than find myself perplexed to unexpectedly discover his gender transference, I was instead quite intrigued, since human life is an infinitely complex proposition and human sexuality is probably one of the most convoluted and complex psychosocial nuances of our species. Shortly after he revealed his gender orientation, ‘Kailani’ shared a picture taken of him dressed to appear as his female ‘identity’ and I was able to appreciate the fact that although ‘Kailani’ was an unaltered  man by birth, the nature of his ‘femaleness’ projected strongly. Not only that, but he was visually a particularly ‘beautiful’ transgender ‘woman’ at that. Slim, graceful, and possessed of appealing physical symmetry and attractiveness by anyone’s standards, ‘Kailani’ could have easily fooled me (or anyone) into believing he was actually a biological female by birth, instead of a transgendered male. Although he had not been taking hormonal therapy to chemically facilitate his gender preference, he seems to have not needed it in order to project an alluring image of exceptional womanly beauty. No rough appearing, coarse and painfully contrived effects cobbled together to appear female here—‘Kailani’ was, for all practical purposes, endowed with a truly genuine appearing female form and pleasing appearance.


As someone originally from the San Francisco area (presently considered the epicenter of American ‘gay culture), I am no stranger to what the Western (mainland) culture calls the gay or ‘homosexual’ subculture. Some of my friends have in past been gay, and although I am myself (and have always been) a straight, ‘normal’ male, I’ve never had the vehement aversion towards this expression of sexuality that so many religiously conservative Christian individuals affect. While in Saudi Arabia, one of my Canadian flatmates was what is sometimes called a ‘flaming fag’ (i.e. excessively overt in preferential sexual display). Further, as a confirmed atheistic person, religious kapus (taboos) and proscriptive moral constraints based on ‘faith’ and creed have never had any practical significance for me, so there is nothing objectionably ‘deviant’ about this sort of lifestyle from my viewpoint. Still, the knowledge that ‘Kailani’ was a transgendered male was quite interesting, in that his status offered a tantalising clue of something that appeared to have a far broader significance in the Hawaiian Islands than it would on the mainland. My intellectual curiosity was piqued by this encounter with ‘Kailani’s’ revelation and from that point onwards, the subject of ancient Hawaiian sexuality and Polynesian concepts of gender (and how it connects with present ‘imported’ psychosocial expressions of human sexuality) quickly stimulated me to begin looking into these phenomena more carefully.

Coincidentally, along a tangential but related line, a friend and colleague (in clinical practice) quite recently shared the details of a case study with me concerning an individual that a psychologist would characterise as being ‘autogynephilic’. If that word seems totally unknown to you and more than a mouthful, don’t feel (as 60s folksinger Bobby Dylan might have put it) ‘so all alone’, as the word is one that rarely surfaces outside scholarly psychology tomes and research papers. It defines a type of mental condition known to malihini (mainland) professionals (and the DSM IV) as gender dysphorea. Somewhat amplified, the patient in reference had extreme polar gender conflicts, marked by narcissistic and fetishistic tendencies. In a more specific and generalized context, the patient was a cross-dresser (transvestite) who enjoyed wearing clothing of the opposite gender: as an externally normal appearing biological male, he reported (to the therapist) that he privately derived immense erotic arousal and sexual fulfillment from wearing intimate women’s apparel.

Although at the time the direct connection between these two parallel events (‘Kailani’s’ revelation and this colleague’s chance remark about autogynephilia was not immediately apparent, they soon crossed perpendicularly in my thoughts and congealed. Since my interest in the ancient culture of the islands includes all manifestations and expressions of behavior (including those that are sexual) it wasn’t long before I found myself scrutinizing available resources at my disposal to learn more about what the ancient Hawaiian culture called the ‘kane mahu’, or transgendered male.

Although today, dismissive common usage in Hawaii often reduces the word’s meaning to simply ‘gay’ or ‘a deviant homosexual person’, the much degraded modern definition of ‘mahu’ is remarkably far from its original Hawaiian definition, which may be understood to loosely mean a ‘transgendered’ person. Furthermore, not only is the meaning different today, most malihini (mainlanders) are surprised to learn that in ancient Hawaii, the ‘mahu’ was not disparaged with a sense of moral disgust the way ‘gay’ is by religiously straight mainland individuals. 'Mahu', or transgendered individuals and transvestites, were in fact viewed by the ancient Hawaiians as a normal element in the old social culture that preceded missionary days. 'Mahu' were thus not only tolerated, they were regarded as a legitimate and contributing part of the ancient kauhale or community.

One must recall, in digesting this fact, that the ancient Hawaiians were a remarkably varied people in their enthusiastic expression of all human sexual impulses. It was only after the missionaries (who descended on the islands in 1820, immediately following the overthrow of the old indigenous ‘kapu' religious system) introduced monotheisim and forcefully imposed the extremely conservative moral austerities of the Christian evangelical pentacostals upon the indigenous Hawaiians that they learned that all sex was morally insupportable unless it was engaged in strictly to procreate within a sanctified marriage. This was, of course, nothing short of astounding to the ancients, who had always enthusiastically enjoyed a wide ranging appreciation for sexual acts of any and all sorts. Moreover, it was one of the most profoundly impactful changes induced by the missionaries, as they set about ‘educating’ the heathen Hawaiians based upon their own strict Pentacostal evangelical conventions.

All across the islands, the new expression of Christian chasteness collided head-on with traditional Hawaiian perceptions, as any aspect of social behavior that might be construed as being somehow ‘sexual’ in any way was systematically rooted out. The hula was just the most obvious and prominent cultural heritage that this new and severely proscriptive religious censure came near to stamping out entirely. With specific regard to the ancient and respected ‘mahu’ subculture of transgendered and cross-dressing individuals, theirs became a particularly blasphemous preference under the new Christian god, for although male cross-dressing and behaving like the opposite sex was a long-established custom in the islands (within a remarkably far-reaching tradition), such ‘abnormality’ was especially sinful in the eyes of the Christian missionaries.

It should be understood that in the ancient Hawaiian culture it was not at all extraordinary for a boy to be brought up as a girl, or for a young man to lead an active life in the open as a female, dressing like and appearing as a woman, performing female tasks and duties, and adopting a woman’s daily role in everyday Hawaiian life. The Hawaiians were themselves quite remarkable in that they understood the dual nature of human beings to be comprised of both masculine and feminine traits, almost the same view reflected by modern Western psychologists in affirmation of the role male and female hormones play in dictating integrated psychosocial behavior. Individuals who were ‘mahu’ were therefore considered to possess equal halves of both gender traits, regarding life and living it as if there were both actual genders within them. The difference was only that in the ‘mahu’, the biological male actively chose to adopt the role of his ‘female half’. There were, naturally enough, very specific social circumstances and cultural considerations applicable to the ‘mahu’ role, but suffice it to say that a cross-dressing male was deemed nothing out of the ordinary by the ancient Hawaiians, nor was male effeminacy that characterised the status.

In her interesting work ‘Native land and Foreign Desires’, native Hawaiian historian Lilikala Kame’eleihiwa references the various manners in which a Hawaiian man (kane) could increase his personal mana (spiritual power or inherent status). Kame’eleihiwa notes that if a man were particularly handsome and talented in dance or poetic chanting, he could be kept as what the Hawaiians referred to as an ‘aikane’, or ‘kept male lover’ of a high Ali’i Chieftain, since high chiefs were considered sacred (demi-Gods). It needs to be noted that there was a strong distinction between the ‘aikane’ (who was often bisexual) role of providing homosexual sex and the ‘mahu’, who assumed a (transgendered) woman’s supportive day-to-day role in the kauhale (community).

At the time of Captain Cook’s original visit to the islands, records kept by members of his crew noted the presence of ‘aikane’ among the common Hawaiian people who provided Ali’i nobles with such things as oral sex, anal intercourse, and other expressions of sexual favors for favored status among their peers. With a very fluid sense of sexuality and no concept of the proprietary sanctions that Western marriage implies, all forms of sexual activity were enjoyed openly and without concern. There were several Hawaiian terms to describe the ‘aikane’, among them ‘noho ai‘ (a poetic form that translates to ‘one to lie with’), and ‘ho`okamaka’ and ‘moe aikane’. More explicitly, same-sex sexual acts among males were referred to as ‘upi laho’, or literally ‘scrotum squirting’. It shouldn’t be surprising to note that even Hawaii’s great unifying chieftain Kamehameha I had several ‘aikane’ that he enjoyed sexual relationships with.

In well-defined contrast to the ‘aikane’ aspect of Hawaiian sexual preferences is the concept of the ‘mahu’. Transvestitism (or in its other, separate but related expression, transgenderism) is common in many parts of Polynesia, where men choose to don women’s apparel, grow up as a girl, and even become a wife of another man, sometimes even cutting his/her thighs to simulate menstruation. Some traditions dictated that a male, usually a younger brother, might be compelled to take on the feminine role of family caretaker when a suitable daughter was lacking. Whether or not that connotes homosexuality is not salient to this discussion, since ‘mahu’ filled a necessary role in the communal family and were not considered outcasts in Hawaiian (or Polynesian) society. A remarkable fact concerning ‘mahu’ is that they in many cases acted as the guardians of a number of the ancient traditional arts, including the hula, since Christians strongly regarded hula as an untenable, vestigial remnant of unacceptably idolatrous paganism. When they eventually found that they could not entirely eradicate hula (somewhat later) despite their best efforts, it was largely through the covert efforts of the ‘mahu’ that these beautiful, ancient customs managed to survive at all. [A passing note here: The still largely undeveloped island of Molokai (my own ‘adopted’ home), in addition to having the largest proportion of pure and nearly pure-blooded Hawaiians outside of Ni’ihau (the ‘forbidden island’), also has the largest proportion of modern ‘mahu’ (cross-dressers/transvestites and transgendered individuals) to be found in the islands, all of whom live openly and are fully accepted by the community.]

When the missionaries imposed their Christian god on the Hawaiians, with its concurrent standards of severely conservative ‘Christian’ moral censure, while the ‘mahu’ subculture was forced to remain hidden from public sight and go culturally underground, the ‘aikane’ tradition was stringently condemned as an intolerable (and grossly deviant) mortal sin. The consequence of this was a great internalized and highly disruptive homophobia that sprang into being on the islands, directly imported as it was from the American mainland by the evangelical Pentacostal missionaries. Today, the 'aikane' tradition has all but vanished entirely (or been absorbed into 'regular' sexual irregularity, or Western style gay culture). The 'mahu' tradition almost vanished, but has come back as a renewed aspect of organised support for 'sex workers' in the major Hawaiian urban areas (e.g in Honolulu: see the URL following this article).

In modern Hawaii, the most profoundly strong moral influence from a religious and cultural aspect remains Christianity. Up until recently, a continuing consequence of this shift in beliefs has been the displacement of traditional Hawaiian attitudes of fluidly loose morality and sexuality by their Christian counterparts. Under that set of narrowly contrived ethical standards that characterise Western religious convention, moral conduct of individuals have come to be regarded exclusively in strict terms of moral black and white. The biblical standard of sexual ‘normalcy’ (i.e. ‘conventional’ sex between a married man and woman) remains a fixed and unyielding given throughout the modern Hawaiian culture, and by virtue of that fact the importation of extreme bias against ‘gays’ and other ‘sexual deviants’ (as characterised by Christian dogma) has taken equally strong hold in much of haole colonised Hawaii. Fortunately, with the recent fostering of acceptance of gay people brought about by the gay rights movement (and the growing unity of ‘diversity’ proponents), these formerly unassailably rigid attitudes of moral censure have somewhat yielded to a far more moderate sense of forbearance. [QED: Molokai’s colony of ‘mahu’].

It is a generally agreed upon precept that adoption (or forced imposition) of a religion by one culture upon another unavoidably brings with it the secular, political, economic, and social context of the culture that introduced it. Acting in concert with the enthusiastically adopted American mainland's juvenile pop-culture media that promotes male bias, reinforces stereotyped ‘macho’ masculine patterns of behavior, and assumes a stance of female subservience (e.g. the ‘good Christian wife’ model, at least within the more conservative subsets of the Christian community, or the ‘gangsta ho’ in the gang milieu), broad cultural bias against those perceived to be ‘gay’ or homosexual conflicts directly with the ancient and traditional Hawaiian outlook on all expressions of human sexuality being ‘normal’.

That above background material on traditional Hawaiian morality (as contrasted to its modern polar Christian counterpart) is vital, I feel, in more completely undersrtanding and discussing my colleague’s client’s case-study involving narcissism (self-love, for our present purpose) and what I earlier referenced as ‘autogynephilia’, or ‘the practice of obtaining erotic fulfillment from wearing the opposite gender’s intimate apparel’. In more proper terms, autogynephilia may be defined as ‘a man's paraphilic tendency to be sexually aroused by the thought or image of himself as a woman’. This was the term coined by sexologist (yes, there is such a discipline within psychology) Ray Milton Blanchard in 1989. Until that time, although the condition was thought to be symptomatic of a form of intense narcissicism (or ‘self love’), this special definition of transgender eroticism had yet to be culled out and formalized with its own distinctive appellation.

To borrow a brief passage from an online definition of the condition: “It has been theorized to motivate cross-dressing as a sexual fetish (transvestic fetishism) in biological males and to motivate gender dysphoria in non-homosexual biological males (as compared with homosexual transsexuals, who are driven by their attraction to men). Autogynephilia has also been suggested to pertain to romantic love as well as to sexual arousal patterns. Terms that refer to a person's sex-of-birth (such as "homosexual transsexual") have been criticized by theorists such as Harry Benjamin and Bruce Bagemihl for not referring to a person's concept of sexual identity.”

“Autogynephilia is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association, which indicates that of individuals with gender identity disorder, ‘The adult males who are sexually attracted to females, to both males and females, or to neither sex usually report a history of erotic arousal associated with the thought or image of oneself as a woman (termed autogynephilia).’”


The development of narcissism, or extreme self love, may often be attributed (so it is thought) to an extremely distant emotional relationship suffered by a child early in life: for example, in circumstances wherein a child has sustained a remote and profoundly austere disconnect from a father or mother's love. As a result, the child turns to him or herself as a source for that critically absent element of supportive parential nurturing and love; as the reflex becomes increasingly internalised, the 'self-love' gains a strong hold at a sublimated level of consciousness until it emerges in the form referenced.

In the case of autogynephalia, the 'self-love' takes on a whole new aspect of complexity in that the grown-up child internally visualises him or herself as that gender object completion within a sexual context and 'loves' the polar internalised opposite gender identity through the enabliong medium of a symbolic fetish (clothes, objects symbolic of the opposite sex, etc.). Thus (for a male) wearing female garments provides both a love fulfillment AND a sexual (Oedipal) fulfillment component.

In light of the above, the interesting contrast between Western psychcology’s understanding of what is regarded as a sexually deviant behavioral circumstance, and the ancient Hawaiian culture’s tradition of ‘mahu’ should be fairly apparent from the onset, since under Western precepts of psychosocial understanding, a mainland individual’s autogynephiliac tendency is a subconsciously motivated mechanism employed to induce eroticism or sexual titillation, while in the ancient Hawaiian culture, there was no deliberate focus on the sexual gratification aspects of adopting a female persona as much as there was a conscious choice by the ‘mahu’ to adopt a responsible and supportive female role in Hawaiian society. The ‘mahu’ was therefore regarded (and doubtless regarded himself) as a ‘normal’ variant in terms of gender and social role in traditional Hawaiian society, while a transvestite’s or cross-dresser’s within the Western (mainland) frame of reference is narrowed to a definition of obtaining purely sexual fulfillment through a form of (deviant) narcissistic fetishism. Clear as mud? Sound a bit complicated? You betchum, Red Ryder!

The mainland autogynephilia patient my colleague was referencing obtained his sexual fulfillment from donning tight-fitting woman’s clothing (especially underclothing) and women’s swimming apparel. Masturbatory fantasies always accompanied these acts that were typically carried out in total privacy and complete secrecy, in contrast to transgendered or transvestite individuals who are not essentially narcissists obtaining sublimated sexual release through fetishistic behavior, but individuals who in a manner similar to the Hawaiian ‘mahu’ feel compelled to openly embrace a totally female identity, despite their male biological origins.

It can been seen from the preceding paragraphs that sexuality in the Hawaiian islands was traditionally quite diverse and totally unfettered by any constraints bearing simularity to those Christianity (and other monotheistic Western religions) imposed with the coming of the missionaries. The parallels between the Hawaiian ‘mahu’ tradition and modern Western transgender practices are both fascinating and illuminating, seen from the broad minded viewpoint of one (such as myself) who does not invest even the most remote quality of ‘sinfulness’ in the personal sexual preferences of others.

In stating all this, I am reminded of that popular throw-away line of the 70s that went “If it feels good, do it!”. Hopefully, those who want to 'feel good by doing’ it will be wise enough and mature enough to understand the consequences of violating modern requirements of appropriate health and hygiene habits, since as with most aspects of human behavior, nothing ever comes without substantial responsibilities!

Lastly, I feel compelled to say in defense of my observations that all of the foregoing expostulations are just ruminative reflections of an enthusaistic amateur gazetteer and do not presume to bespeak authority, since the legitimacy of my mail-order degree in abnormal psychiatry from the Moe, Curly, and Larry Psychiatric Institute is somewhat suspect. [No bottles of expensive Napa/Sonoma County wine were wasted in the preparation of this article, nor were any vineyards damaged or varietals destroyed in its formulation (several bottles of cheap French wine were, however, laid waste to…).] As for Bacon's inspired quote, there may indeed be some spectacular strangeness to be found in Hawaii's 'perfect beauty', but only to those narow-minded malihini (mainlanders) who are not motivated to look deeper in all matters of the human experience, sub rosa......

Me ke aloha pumehana. Malama pono!


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