Mahu is a term for gender-variant people in Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and Tahitian cultures. In folk speech among people in multicultural Hawai‘i, however, “mahu” can be a derogatory word for anyone in the LGBTQ community.
With the arrival of the Gay Liberation movement in Hawai‘i, LGBTQ people of the Kanaka Maoli have worked to restore the word “mahu” to its traditional meaning within the context of Hawaiian identity. They also caution non-Hawaiians from trying to fit the traditional context of mahu into a pre-set understanding of trans, homosexual, or drag queen/king, although mahu may themselves use these identities as they deem appropriate.
Before extensive contact with non-Polynesians, Hawaiians and Tahitians lived under the kapu/tabu system, restricting certain activities and objects to some groups and imposing rules of separation between genders and classes. Activities, dress, association, and diet were rigidly set according to one’s gender and inherited social status. The ali‘i (ruling class) and the priesthood had spiritual authority based on mana, an invisible force that permeates all things, but not necessarily with the same intensity. People could increase their mana in two ways: victory over somebody of higher status, and procreating with somebody of higher status. Both victory and procreation dealt with the potential for taking life and the making life through intimate physical contact, thus the ali‘i forbade contact between themselves and the maka’ainana (common people) so that mana for the upper class would be preserved.
In terms of gender, mahu were exempt from rigid rules that separated men from women in much of daily life. As such, mahu were able to cross barriers separating people, and were accepted as part of wa kahiko (classical or pre-Contact) Hawaiian/Tahitian society.
Societies in Moana Nui (a vast triangle in the Pacific encompassing the area between Hawai‘i, Rapa Nui, and Aotearoa) have certain things in common. A similar dynamic of free association between men/women and people of different status for gender-variant males appears in traditional Samoan and Tongan cultures: the Samoan fa’afafine (“woman-like”) and the Tongan fakaleiti (also “woman-like”) identities. In current Native Hawaiian reckoning, a mahu can be mahuwahine (a male who is woman-like) or mahukane (a female who is man-like).
In wa kahiko Hawaiian society, one did not have to be mahu to be seen as an appropriate same-sex partner. There is also the aikane, a close masculine male confidante to another masculine man, and with whom there might or might not have been a sexual relationship. Because sex with an aikane did not result in offspring, the relationship was considered beneficial to both parties: release for the ali‘i and potential for social advancement for a low-ranking aikane. Wa Kahiko Hawaiian culture honors the aikane, with aphorisms such as he aikane, he punana na ke onaona (“an aikane is a nest of fragrance”). King Kamehameha I had aikane with whom he was erotically intimate, as did many of the rulers before Christian missionaries undermined the official status of aikane-as-lover.
Although there appear to be no references to aiwahine (a close feminine woman confidante to a feminine woman) in the historical record, the term is used in twenty-first century Hawaiian LGBTQ discourse. The absence of aiwahine could be due to the lack of interest in women’s culture by non-Hawaiians who recorded the earliest histories. Or aiwahine could be a new word, created in response to awareness of worldwide LGBTQ identities and the adaptation of Gay folk identity discourse to Hawaiian traditional language. The same may be true with the gender-refined identity markers mahuwahine and mahukane. The relationship of same-sex lovers and transpeople in Native Hawaiian society should be understood within a general attitude of tolerance for various configurations of gender and erotic expression. Overall, aikane and mahu identities were considered acceptable and relatively unremarkable.
Among the Maori of Aoratearoa, there does not appear to be the same emphasis on mahu as found among Kanaka Maoli and Tahitians. Maoris do have, however, the gender-neutral term takatapui (“partner of the same sex”) for aikane/aiwahine.
Pukui, Mary Kawena and Samuel H. Elbert. Hawaiian Dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1986.
Roughgarden, Joan. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People. Berkeley: University of California, 2009.