In Western society, there is a rigid binary older than time itself. This binary determines the clothes that an individual can wear; who they are permitted to be intimate with, and their underlying role in society at large. This criterion is determined by one’s genitalia and recognizes only two types of people: male and female. This binary is, of course, the gender binary.
Over the past few decades, the gender binary has been relentlessly challenged by feminism and the transgender rights movement respectively. Opponents of these movements remain firm that this rigid separation of man/woman; male/female; bride/groom and masculine/feminine is a natural, ancient experience. Yet there are several cultures that recognize individuals who do not fit into this binary. This begs the question: are heteronormative gender attitudes a Western rather than a universal phenomenon?
Māhū: Hawaii’s Third Gender
There has been a recent wave of political activism that has taken the internet by storm since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. These ‘woke’ times have given way to other cultural concerns. At the centre of this political and social upheaval are discussions about the way in which colonisation has impacted various indigenous populations. Most notably, a TikTok discussing how American missionaries allegedly erased Hawaii’s third gender went viral this March and caused social outrage.
What are Māhūs?
Polynesians arrived in what is now known as Hawaii nearly two millenniums ago. And with them they brought the sacred traditions of the Kanaka culture. Three genders exist in Kanaka culture: wahine, which encompasses the feminine; kane, which encompasses the masculine and finally, māhū, which embodies both the masculine and the feminine.
There are several Hawaiian legends about how the māhū came to be. While these theories remain inconclusive, it is clear that, unlike Western understandings of gender, māhū is a gender identity not determined by the sexed body. In fact, gender in Kanaka culture is determined by behavioural expression alone: how an individual chooses to participate in gendered behaviour determines which of these three categories they fit into.
In Western society, those who do not fit comfortably within the rigid paradigms of the gender binary (i.e. those whose gender practices do not match their sexed body) are often ostracised. Dissimilarly, in early Hawaiian society, those who identified as māhū were revered and celebrated members of their community. Māhūs held several important roles. From healers to teachers responsible for passing down wisdom and ancient traditions to the next generation.
As a matter of fact, there was an overwhelming sense of gender fluidity throughout Kanaka culture. From polyamory to even homosexuality, traditional Kanaka culture reflected an indefiniteness and liminality that sharply contrasts more conservative Western constructions of gender and sexuality.
The Influence of Christianity
Theorists propose that the bible verse known as the ‘Macedonian call’ drove the missionaries to foreign nations like Hawaii. The Macedonian call recognises a group of people who are ‘in need of help’ (i.e. the natives) and another possessing the God-given authority to deliver such aid (i.e. the coloniser). In theory, this creates an inequitable power-based relationship that is legitimized by God.
When the first American missionaries arrived in Hawaii, they attempted to promulgate the Christian religion throughout Kanaka society. They attempted to shape these men, women and māhūs into ‘God’s image’, using violence, rape and even mutilation. This included the promotion of Christian ideals of gender, sex and sexuality. Christianity distinguishes only two gender categories and suggests that one’s sexuality identity should align with their biological sex. Theorists claim that the imposition of distinctively Eurocentric, Christian values altered the way in which the Kanaka people conceived of femininity and masculinity— creating a more rigid distinction between man and woman.
The māhūs didn’t just lose their positions as teachers and healers. With the gradual adoption of Western gender ideals came the enforcement of marriage and monogamy in legislation. It is argued that gender binarism and monogamy were imperative to America’s colonization of Hawaii. Prior to the missionaries’ arrival, Hawaii had a very egalitarian social structure. The bearing of children was everyone’s responsibility, not just the mother and father. If a child’s mother had more than one partner, both men were recognized as fathers. But through reconstructing gender fluidity and egalitarianism (both socially and legally) as ‘uncivilised’ and ‘sexually perverse’, the American missionaries established capitalist ideals of individualism as well as a family structure that did not include māhūs.
Māhūs in Modern Hawaii
The notion of the māhū does still exist within modern Hawaiian culture. However, māhū has completely altered in its meaning. Rather than indicating someone who embodies both masculine and feminine, the term māhū now has closer connotations to homosexuality and is often used to question the sexuality of males who act like “sissies”. This negative stigma highlights the influence that imperialism had on the gender structure in Kanaka culture. Modern Hawaiians share the same blood as their ancestors, but perhaps not the same values and cultural traditions.
Though this new cultural attitude has made it hard for māhūs to exist in this reformed Kanaka culture, many Hawaiian māhūs are reclaiming their visibility. Most notably, the 2014 documentary, Kuma Hina, explores the life of an openly transgender, māhū woman called Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, or simply, Hina. Throughout the documentary we are given an insight into what it is like to live as a modern-day māhū. From discrimination to the forgotten, sacred roles of māhūs in Hawaiian culture. The documentary has been praised for portraying Hina as a strong and venerable individual, despite the tribulations she faces.
Hina’s story is helping to breakdown gender binarism not only in Hawaii, but other cultures as well. The documentary has been recognized by several awarding bodies including the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary in 2016. Hina is truly a trailblaze and has pushed forward social conversations about whether gender and sexual fluidity are new phenomenon or can, in fact, be traced as far back as Christian ideals of monogamy and heteronormativity. Not only that, but she has raised concerns about the extent to which eurocentrism and imperialism have transformed modern-day Kanaka culture— particularly regarding issues such as transphobia, homophobia and adultery— and whether or not these new cultural ideals have benefited Hawaiian culture.
Two-spirit People: Native American Gender Practices
Throughout Native American culture, there was a similar sense of fluidity regarding gender and sexuality. Androgynous males were often married to or had sex with more traditionally masculine man (or at least in the Western sense of the term masculine). Likewise, more masculine females were married to or had sex with more traditionally feminine women. These individuals are now referred to as ‘two-spirit’ people. Parallel to the social attitudes held towards the māhūs in traditional Kanaka culture, ‘two-spirit’ people
were understood to possess both feminine and masculine energies. They were also central to sacred cultural practices including healing. These ‘two-spirit’ energies were revered in Native American culture and were widely believed to have come from the Creator.
When French explorers encountered these native tribes, ‘two-spirit’ or androgynous individuals were often referred to as ‘berdache’, which stems from the Persian word for an intimate male friend, bardaj. Through Western eyes, ‘two-spirit’ people were condemned as homosexuals rather than seen as people of a unique third gender. The Native Americans did share the same attitudes as their Western counterparts and were unconcerned with notions of homosexuality. In fact, spirituality is central in Native American culture. A person’s basic character is regarded as a reflection of their spirit. Hence, ‘two-spirit’ and androgynous people are seen as doubly blessed by the spirit world. This duality is viewed as a spiritual gift rather than a sign of condemnation.
As Christian and Western influences infiltrated Native American communities, attitudes towards ‘two-spirit’ people shifted entirely. By the 20th century, many ‘two-spirit’ people were forced to conform to heteronormative gender roles. Those who refused to conform either went underground or committed suicide. There was now an undeniable culture of fear and discrimination directed at ‘two-spirit’ individuals.
Cultural Renaissance: The Red Power Movement
Though with the rise of the red power movement in the 1960s, attitudes towards androgynous and gender fluid individuals in the Native American community began to change. The movement demanded autonomy for Native Americans, revitalizing a culture of pride being taken in ancient Native American traditions and practices. This included a newfound respect for androgynous and gender non-conforming American Indians, which theorists suggest was ignited by the rise of the gay and lesbian rights movements also occurring at the time.
There was a growing culture of respect, pride and resistance. This eventually paved the way for many young activists to reclaim and re-establish forgotten identities. In the 1990s, LGBT+ Native American activists began to dismantle Western perceptions of ‘two-spirit’ people, rejecting the term ‘berdache’ as they felt that it did not reflect the complexity and fluidity of what they believed to be ‘two-spirit’ people.
Not only have ‘two-spirit’ traditions been reembraced in Native American culture, but they have also been embraced by European and American gay rights movements. ‘Two-spirit’ traditions have been used to naturalize same-sex partnerships and have been used as models for marriage and gender equality.
Fa’afafine: Samoa’s Third Gender
Samoa is a Polynesian island country in Oceania. Similar to Kanaka and Native American culture, Polynesian culture also has a third gender known as fa’afafine. Fa’afafine translates to ‘in the manner of a woman’ and typically refers to biological males that embody both feminine and masculine traits.
Despite sodomy being criminalised in Samoan law, the fa’afafine community often steps outside of these boundaries, with many fa’afafine openly dating masculine men. They argue that who they date or sleep with has nothing to do with what they refer to as their cultural identity. In the fa’afafine community, there is no clear relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation that aligns with typical Western practices.
In modern Samoa society, fa’afafine are respected as educators of sexual health, charity and event organizers, carers, activists and even leaders of various church denominations like choir and youth groups. Nonetheless, Samoa’s adoption of Christian teachings following European contact may be threatening the fa’afafine community’s place in the church. Many church leaders are concerned that some members of the fa’afafine community now appear to be closer to the more feminine end of the gender spectrum, lamenting that the fa’afafine used to be more neutral in their dress and take on the responsibilities of both men and women. While the extent to which this concern is true remains unclear, Western and Christian influences have indisputably altered the way that modern Samoan society perceives and treats fa’afafine.
Westernising Indigenous Identities
Recently, there has been much debate about whether Western gender categories as well as Christian understandings of sexual orientation should be used to understand the fa’afafine community.
The fa’afafine largely reject Western labels such as gay, lesbian. queer, homosexual and even transgender. Many argue that fa’afafine is a cultural identity that is far too complex and varied to be understood by Western categories. For instance, one may assume that the Samoan category fa’afafine corresponds to Western understandings of transgenderism given that both identities encompass some sort of gender subversion, androgyny and liminality. Nevertheless, this understanding has been criticised for misunderstanding fa’afafine and Samoan society at large. Fa’afafine identities vary drastically, with gender presentations and expressions ranging from masculine gay men to feminine trans women and everything in-between. This contrasts drastically to more rigid Western understandings of gender where there is a clearer distinction between gay, trans and cisgender.
For this reason, it is difficult to try and understand fa’afafine identities using Western terminology without overlooking the cultural practices and traditions in Samoan society that give way to such identities
Significance in Anthropology
Prior to European contact, third gender people in many non-Western nations were respected and revered members of their communities. These stories and examples help to challenge Western fears that non-normative gender identities are unnatural or perverse. This also helps to challenge the idea that there are only two genders (i.e. man and woman) and that genitalia determines a person’s identity. More importantly, these cases highlight the complex relationship between gender and sexuality that exists throughout Western society. It is very easy to assume that effeminate males or butch females like the fa’afafine or māhūs are, in fact, just homosexual, transgender or even merely cross-dressers. Nevertheless, such assumptions overlook the unique cultural practices and traditions of these indigenous communities and suggest that such expressions of gender are invalid. Therefore, it is important to approach such cultural differences with respect and compassion.