The social media maven here at My Son Wears Heels, Naomi Waxman, who I’m proud to say is now also a TA at Marquette University, is back from a trip to Hawaii with a guest blog that takes a look at beauty and gender in our 50th state.
My mom’s family lives on the island Oahu. I don’t get to visit very often, but whenever I do I try to learn something new about Hawaiian culture. I remember how often I would see rainbows around the island, and my grandmother taught me that Hawaii is considered the rainbow capital of the world. I typically associate rainbows with a flag waving proudly in a parade or the magical route to a pot of gold, but rainbows hold special meaning in Hawaiian culture.
According to folklore, they are a walkway for the gods, a celestial path by which they may visit Earth. The rainbow represents a means of journeying from one world into the next.
Much like the transformation of dark clouds into a stunning rainbow, Native Hawaiians understood there were people within their culture whose gender identity empowered them to take on essential societal roles.
Often assigned male at birth, māhū people donned women’s dress and were entrusted with protecting and celebrating Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) culture. They acted as spiritual leaders, healers, educators, and Hula instructors. Māhū are the keepers of their history and rituals. Passing their knowledge to the next generation, they play an essential role in the survival of Kanaka Maoli culture.
The arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1800s had a profound impact on Hawaiian culture, and the importance and beauty of māhū was utterly lost. These travelers feared what they did not understand, and māhū were increasingly stigmatized and excluded from society. The term itself became a slur.
Through my research I became familiar with the māhū teacher Kumu Hina, who has elevated understanding about the continuing role that māhū play in modern Hawaiian society. Through a wonderful PBS documentary as well as the Hawaiian anti-bullying initiative A Place in the Middle, Kumu Hina and her “in-the-middle” students reveal not only the complexity of gender identity, but also the damage inflicted when sacred rituals and ideas are torn away from a people.
In the māhū tradition, Kumu Hina has chosen to dedicate herself to teaching young Hawaiians how to keep their history and rituals alive. Chants are the oral history of Hawaii and play a fundamental role in Kumu Hina’s lessons, as do hula dances, which, as in their original conception, are religious performances. The students learn how to honor Hawaiian gods and goddesses through dance. According to Kumu Hina:
“My purpose in this lifetime is to pass on the true meaning of aloha: love, honor, and respect. It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously.”
I’ve watched the PBS documentary on Kumu Hina several times, and the love, respect, and pride shared between Kumu Hina and her students always strikes me. She encourages students to embrace their identities fully, to remember the responsibility and honor required to be the “warriors of today,” making sure their way of life is not forgotten.
In an effort to describe māhū, English-speakers might use the term transgender. But in her bestselling memoir, Redefining Realness, Janet Mock emphasizes why this application isn’t quite accurate: “Māhū defined a group of people who embodied the diversity of gender beyond the dictates of our Western binary system.”
I would add that these people have existed and persisted throughout history, all over the world. Transgender, māhū, two-spirit, and East Indian hijira identities, among many genders found around the world, are not a trend. They highlight the endless variation and multiplicity of the human experience, a beautiful rainbow of perspectives that should be celebrated.
Check out this fantastic, comprehensive map from PBS to learn more about non-binary genders across the globe:
A parent of one of Kumu Hina’s students expressed her support for her “in-the-middle” child beautifully:
“Love is the biggest thing that we should always teach our children…if you love a person for who they are and let them be who they are, that’s the whole circle, right?”
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