Qwaves / PBS

‘Mahu’ demonstrate Hawaii’s shifting attitudes toward LGBT life

Advocates say gender tolerance, common in Hawaiian society, has been weakened by US influences

LIHUE, Hawaii — Growing up in the largely Hawaiian community of Waianae on the west side of Oahu, Kalani Young enjoyed a diverse upbringing that included attending Catholic, Mormon and evangelical churches and a Buddhist temple, in addition to prayers and rituals rooted in Hawaiian spirituality.

However Young also recalled being an effeminate young boy who was bullied by male family members who, she said, wanted to “beat the girl out of her.”

The 33-year-old identifies as mahu — a gender role in traditional Hawaiian society that refers to people who exhibit both feminine and masculine traits.

“You’re someone in the middle. That’s all it means,” said Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a hula and Hawaiian studies teacher on Oahu, about the mahu term, which she prefers to transgender for its inclusivity.

Known as a multicultural melting pot, Hawaii is often portrayed as among the most liberal states in the country based on its support for progressive positions on issues like climate change, gun control and same-sex marriage. Hawaii became the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013 and the state constitution, enacted in 1959, protects equal rights for all sexes.

However LGBT communities undoubtedly still face discrimination in the Aloha State, a fact some advocates attribute to the imposition of Western values on the Hawaiian people that began in the 18th century.

In a highly publicized case in March 2015, Courtney Wilson and Taylor Guerrero, two women vacationing on Oahu, were confronted by an off-duty Honolulu police officer after kissing one another in a supermarket.

The encounter led to a physical altercation and the couple’s arrest and imprisonment. Their case generated national attention and a lawsuit filed against the 26-year veteran police officer and the City and County of Honolulu. The couple’s attorney, Eric Seitz, said this was the first such case that he’d heard of in Hawaii.

“[T]he police officer acted in an outrageous manner, based upon his own moral outrage, and the police and prosecutor subjected our clients to a period of incarceration and a felony prosecution that should never have occurred,” Seitz said in an email.

The Honolulu Police Department confirmed that the officer involved in the incident remains on full duty.

‘You’re someone in the middle. That’s all [mahu] means.’

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu

Hawaiian studies teacher

Oahu residents both for and against Hawaii's same-sex civil unions bill gathered at the Hawaii State Capitol building in Honolulu on July 6, 2010. Hawaii legalized same-sex marriage in 2013. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
Eugene Tanner / AP

The Transgender Law Center ranks Hawaii as “medium” for its laws promoting LGBT equality. Twenty-one states have an equal or higher ranking.

LGBT advocates say Hawaii’s native culture traditionally accepted more nuanced gender roles, and current attitudes toward gender and sexual identity in Hawaii have been affected by colonization, land seizures, the suppression of Hawaiian language and culture, and the imposition of moral codes by Western missionaries.

Before Hawaiians’ contact with outsiders, for example, Wong-Kalu says mahu individuals were respected, but faced increasing intolerance as native Hawaiians were supplanted by colonial settlers.

The term, once used respectfully, has been appropriated and displaced, said Wong-Kalu, who contends that today’s lack of acceptance is the result of colonization.

“Our own culture is used against us,” she said. “Mahu are denigrated and disrespected because of the imposition of foreign ideology.”

Gender-based prejudice can be found at every level of society in Hawaii, including workplaces, houses of worship and schools. As in the continental U.S., the question of which bathroom they can use can be a source of uncertainty for LGBT students.

Mandy Finlay, advocacy coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, wants Hawaii’s Department of Education to clarify its policies on school restrooms and locker room use for LGBT students, and “whether forcing kids to use a separate restroom constitutes any sort of discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sex.”

In a written statement, the Hawaii State Department of Education responded, “The Department is actively working with schools on guidelines regarding transgender students and bathroom access. In the meantime, schools work with students who identify as transgender on appropriate accommodations.”

In Hawaii as across the country, transgender persons face a wide range of problems from discrimination by employers, landlords and in the public sector to higher rates of substance abuse, homelessness, health problems and suicide attempts.

Hawaii’s largest insurance provider, Hawaii Medical Service Association, does not offer coverage for gender reassignment procedures and treatments. 

Kyle Kajihiro, a board member with Hawaii Peace & Justice, said the most pressing issues in the struggle for LGBT equality in Hawaii are jobs and housing.

“There is still aggression and discrimination happening below the radar,” he said. “You don’t see it but it’s happening every day and it’s still a big problem.” 

Meanwhile, same sex wedding tourism is making headlines in the islands as the impact of LGBT visitors grows while still appearing to fall short of economic forecasts by the University of Hawaii.

Kathryn Xian, a human rights advocate based in Honolulu, recalled how during Hawaii’s campaign for marriage equality in the late 1990s, outside groups opposed to same-sex marriage funneled money and an anti-gay message that homosexuality was being “imported” into Hawaii.

“Things are challenging,” she said. “But in some ways it’s a lot easier for LGBT persons to live here — the fact that the Hawaiian culture is the root of acceptance and precedes any sort of bigotry transplanted after Western contact.”

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