Portraits of Gender and Sexual Identities in the Hawaiian Community

By 2013, the move to legalize same-sex marriage was being debated by thousands of people in and out of the state Legislature. As the larger community grappled with the emotional issue, others looked to Hawaiian traditions for guidance.


Editor’s Note: Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu shared her experience as a kumu, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and māhū with Mana Magazine editor Jade Snow as part of this feature story that first appeared in the March 2014 issue of Mana, our sister publication that’s no longer in print. 



Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole

“I want the concept of māhū to take itself out of the sexual context, exclusive of gender. Gender not as it applies to female and male as biological, but a natural, spiritual definition of gender,” says Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole pictured here at dawn in Waimānalo. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



In November 2013, the state of Hawai‘i was captivated by SB1, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. The uproar, which included over 4,000 residents offering public testimony, not only highlighted a great divide in Hawai‘i’s population, it also brought to light divergence over what is truly considered Hawaiian tradition when it comes to gender and sexuality.


For some, devotion to the Christian faith accepted by revered ali‘i was a means of honoring the wishes of their ancestors. For others, acknowledging the practices preceding missionary contact is true to Hawaiian tradition. When it comes to expression and identity, what does it mean to represent the culture of our ‘āina hānau?


Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu is no stranger to this divisive discussion. Wong-Kalu is a kumu, an activist and a cultural practitioner whose passion for open dialogue on issues of sex and gender have garnered media spotlight for years.


The film Kumu Hina, scheduled for release this year, documents Wong-Kalu’s journey as a māhū owning her place in society and supporting the younger generations’ pursuit of identity. “I didn’t take to life as my family’s son. I wanted to be their daughter. However, for me to expand my own personal journey and the challenges in my life, I’ve had to embrace the side of me that is the more aggressive, the more Western-associated masculine when I need to. But that’s the beauty of being māhū, that’s the blessing. We have all aspects to embrace.”


Generations of cultural misappropriations affected not just the tangible traditions, such as practices like mahi‘ai or lawai‘a. It has also affected language, as words like māhū have been stigmatized and carry negative sexual connotations over decades of misuse.


Wong-Kalu offers an alternate understanding that broadens the term beyond its now-derogatory implications: “A māhū is an individual that straddles somewhere in the middle of the male and female binary. It does not define their sexual preference or gender expression, because gender roles, gender expressions and sexual relationships have all been severely influenced by the changing times. It is dynamic. It is like life.”


SEE ALSO: In Transition: Hawai‘i’s Transgender Teens



Before we consider Wong-Kalu’s binary-bending perspective, perhaps we should start with a foundation known by our kūpuna as le‘a.


Traditional Hawaiian culture celebrated a highly expressive community in all aspects of life. Le‘a was the pleasure principle from which a person not only determined fulfillment individually, but also as a member of the community. Individuals were encouraged by this principle to fulfill their desires in both their sexual and gender identities. It was not just healthy to explore your gender and sexual identities, it was virtuous.


To understand the gender and sexual identity of our ancestors, however, we have to speak the same language. Hawaiian views of gender and sexuality are documented in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i in mo‘olelo, nūpepa articles, oli and mele, layering cultural and historic ideologies within deeper meanings known as kaona.


Sex was considered expression – the act being more significant than the actors. Fulfilling one’s sexual desires resulted in le‘a, a euphoria so highly regarded it was openly celebrated in artistic expression. The unique lyricism of Hawaiian language embodied in kaona spoke volumes about Hawaiians’ approach to sexual expression. Mary Kawena Pukui describes these in Nānā I Ke Kumu: “Where sexual jokes were concerned, Hawaiians had a natural advantage. They had always used euphemism, allusion and metaphor in their speech. They had a natural aptitude for grasping the kaona, the ‘hidden meaning,’ of a word or phrase.” Such playful double entendre can be seen in countless mele, often comparing genitalia or the act of lovemaking to elements in nature.


Wong-Kalu and Kame‘elehiwa

Wong-Kalu (right) credits Kame‘elehiwa (left) for instilling inclusive Hawaiian values in her. Kame‘elehiwa reciprocates with pride and respect for the way in which Wong-Kalu represents herself as a cultural practitioner who challenges gender stereotypes. Kame‘elehiwa is currently working on a new book, Hawaiian Sexuality: Ka Le‘ale‘a o Nā Kūpuna: An Ancestral Celebration of Life. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



“The sexual act,” Pukui writes, “was accepted without shame … as being both creative and one of the supreme pleasure.” The greatest sexual kapu (taboo) within traditional Hawaiian society depended solely on class distinction. The function of sex for procreation was of greatest concern to those of the highest rank, mō‘ī and mō‘ī wāhine, because of their political duties.


Ali‘i lineage was considered so sacred to the lāhui that the purity of bloodlines determined their favor with the gods. The way to ensure the purest of ali‘i blood, therefore, was to propagate generations within the same concentration of blood mana known as nī‘aupi‘o mating relationships (pi‘o: brother-sister, naha: half brother-half sister and wohi: first cousins).


Typically, the genitals of ali‘i were named in infancy, and songs were written when the individuals were young so they might be predictive or set expectations. Among these songs and poems were mele ma‘i honoring the genitals to encourage procreation.



On the other hand, maka‘āinana were free to enjoy the pleasures of sex without the pressure of political procreation, a practice known as moe aku, moe mai (sleeping here, sleeping there). Dr. Lilikalā Kame‘elehiwa explains that “in the Hawaiian world, pregnancy is only a danger if you’re a high-ranking person sleeping with someone of low rank because the child could damage the rank of the high-ranking person, in which case the child would either be exiled or killed.”


Ali‘i often took ‘aikāne lovers of the same sex to practice “safe” sex. Without the possibility of procreation, they could fulfill their desires without threatening the bloodline. Within the context of sacred virility, ‘aikāne relationships were openly and commonly practiced.


Kame‘elehiwa explains: “A lot of same-sex lovers came into the court because there was a desire formed for their brother or sister, but [the ali‘i] couldn’t have them because that would interfere with the nī‘aupi‘o lineage if they bore children. Many male ali‘i nui were bisexual, and the ‘aikāne relationship offered a male certain pleasure without any threat to his lineage, unlike a liaison with a beautiful but low-ranking woman. Thus, the ‘aikāne was chosen out of a sense of desire, not out of duty to one’s lineage.” It has been widely acknowledged that ali‘i such as Kamehameha, Kalaniōpu‘u, Kauikeouli and Liholiho all had ‘aikāne lovers in addition to various female partners.


Sexual exclusivity was another story in itself. Marriage did not exist with the same European contractual boundaries. Marked by the notion of moe aku, moe mai, traditional Hawaiian relationships did not include marriage ceremonies “beyond the first mating of a very high female ali‘i nui,” says Kame‘elehiwa.


Relationships transcended the physical, however. They required respect, transparency and connection. Sharing sexual partners was an accepted practice (punalua, two lovers sharing one mate, or po‘olua, the offspring of multiple partnerships denoting a child with more than one father). The ‘ohana unit consisted not only of immediate relatives, but every individual who shared intimate affections. The definition of ‘aikāne denotes companionship of an intimate nature and was not exclusive to one sex.


“A māhū is an individual that straddles somewhere in the middle of the male and female binary. It does not define their sexual preference or gender expression, because gender roles, gender expressions and sexual relationships have all been severely influenced by the changing times. It is dynamic. It is like life.”



Christian thought brought a shift in perspective, in which Hawaiians’ social boundaries moved closer to that of European society. ‘Ōiwi scholar Noenoe K. Silva wrote: “In 1820 puritanical missionaries arrived, who, we suppose, were shocked by the kānaka maoli’s unabashed expressions of sexuality. Hula performance can be viewed as suffused with sexual expression, especially hula ma‘i. It is reasonable to suppose that the missionaries sought to silence this rather obvious public demonstration of sexuality on the grounds that it was vulgar, savage and a violation of their Christian morals.” The radically different social views meant modest attire to cover the body, abolition of hula practices, institutionalizing marriage and abiding by Christian sexual practices.


After the death of Kamehameha I, succession of Liholiho to the throne and abolition of the kapu system, drastic changes continued. Christian missionaries introduced new organizations of faith, government and education. Maka‘āinana soon followed the ali‘i in adopting these practices. Such faith continues to flourish today as many churches include devout Polynesian communities.


Former fire chief and executive pastor of New Hope O‘ahu, Kenneth Silva, has been active in the church for 13 years and shares the foundation of the church’s perspective. “We consider ourselves Bible-based. We believe that the Bible is without errors. It was written by people, but God breathed into them. We follow what the Bible tells us. It’s not for us to say what is right or wrong, it is just what we believe in.”


Silva’s native Hawaiian ancestry and education at Kamehameha Schools allowed him the opportunity to learn about the pre-European-contact traditions. He questions whether modern Christians are aware of such practices to acknowledge ‘aikāne and nī‘aupi‘o relationships. And he questions whether those traditions are the right path for the future. “As a native Hawaiian, having roots that go back generations here, I don’t think it’s for me to judge. The mores and the values and all of the pressures of that time, we really aren’t able to understand. If you really didn’t know another way, if that’s the society you lived and thrived in, then everything would appear to be acceptable because that’s what society accepted at that time. But, for me, in today’s world, knowing the different things that we do, my question is how shall we live now?” says Silva.


“Māhū is the expression of the third self. It is not a gender, it’s not an orientation, it’s not a sect, it’s not a particular demographic and it’s definitely not a race. It is simply an expression of the third person as it involves the individual.”



The November 2013 special session brewed what seemed like a perfect storm between views like Silva’s and others like Wong-Kalu’s over what could really be considered the Hawaiian way. It has also highlighted how more fluid constructions of gender and sexual identities of Hawaiians’ past continue to thrive today even without words like ‘aikāne being prevalent.


Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole is a scholar, activist, practitioner and performer who was raised among cultural wells of wisdom (grandmother Pualani, aunt Nālani and mother Kekuhi Kanaka‘ole are all icons in our community). Kanaka‘ole embodies what she describes as “the third self” and has a uniquely inclusive perspective on māhū.


“Māhū is the expression of the third self. It is not a gender, it’s not an orientation, it’s not a sect, it’s not a particular demographic and it’s definitely not a race. It is simply an expression of the third person as it involves the individual. When you find that place in yourself to acknowledge both male and female aspects within and accept the capacity to embrace both, … that is where the māhū exists and true liberation happens.”


photo by uilani friedman

“The impetus has always been Puna. For me, he’s the muse…I’m not a very demonstrative person, so what has happened was that a lot of those deep-seated feelings that I have surfaced through music, and through the poetry,” says Reichel pictured here with Krauss (right) on the morning of their wedding. Photo: Uilani Friedman



Kanaka‘ole, like Wong-Kalu, encourages people to challenge a binary understanding of gender and sex and not rely so heavily on semantics to define us. “I want the concept of māhū to take itself out of the sexual context, exclusive of gender. Gender not as it applies to female and male as biological, but a natural, spiritual definition of gender,” says Kanaka‘ole.


Kanaka‘ole believes embracing what she calls the third self has helped her as a performer. “I think that’s where, in the arts particularly, we excel, because it becomes another form of birthing. The expression of art (visual and performance alike), we tend to have a knack for it because it’s the closest we as the third gender can get to procreation. It’s the closest we get to creating new life-giving life to something.” Kanaka‘ole continues, “I think that’s also why there are many in the māhū community who gravitated toward hula – because the performance value was noa (free, not taboo), and in the ‘auana genre in particular, one was almost expected to be a little bit more outlandish … and acceptedly so.”



Few artists have experienced the depth of cultural practice and global success like Keali‘i Reichel, who we know as a kumu hula, singer and cultural practitioner. For him, the word punahele is a title, a name and a relationship with such profound kaona that it has defined the entire scope of his music.


What many may not know, however, was that, buried in the kaona of his original compositions, Reichel expresses his love for his own punahele – Fred Kawaipunaheleopalikū Krauss to be exact. Reichel gifted Krauss with his Hawaiian name when they began dating 28 years ago.


Reichel describes how some of his most famous songs were merely vehicles for him to express his love to Krauss during a period of separation many years ago. “I was so heartbroken … and that’s when I started to write songs. When you [listen to] the Kawaipunahele album and the songs that were chosen, they are all heartbreak songs. I think the underlying power of the compositions and the choice of songs, the words, I’m assuming now in retrospect, that it hit a chord with people at the time.”



Kanuha (right) shares that she and Issari (left) “believe that ‘Ānela picked us” to be her family and are loving life as new moms. Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino



Music not only allowed Reichel to openly profess his love, but it was also the catalyst for reconciliation. On the day of his debut album release, they moved back in together and have been together ever since.


Throughout his career the two made a conscious decision not to publicly reveal the identity of Reichel’s muse so as not to overshadow the music. Some of his most successful mele, such as “E Ho‘i Ka Pili,” “Kauanoeanuhea” and “Ku‘u Pua Mae‘ole,” were written to honor his ipo, without ever addressing the inspiration behind them. Reichel playfully jokes that Krauss is “the most celebrated māhū in Hawaiian music history, but people don’t know!” Reichel’s expression of love has been woven into 20 years and eight albums of award-winning music.


Though Reichel has chosen to let his music remain genderless over the past two decades and not speak publicly about his relationship, the uproar over SB1 led him to share. “It was time,” Krauss agree. In January, the couple celebrated an intimate wedding ceremony and legally committed their love after 28 years together. Regardless of differing opinions, we can all agree that Reichel’s legacy of music has transformed the fabric of modern Hawaiian culture, thanks in large part to the profound love that inspires it.


“The greatest definition of pono, to me, is not being righteous, but being the most authentic. Neither right nor wrong, both are acknowledged and both are valuable.”



Reichel and Krauss’s formal union speaks to the changing tides sparked by SB1 (which was signed into law as the Hawai‘i Marriage Equality Act of 2013 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie). Much of the SB1 debate centered on the health of the family. While both sides had dramatically different opinions of what a healthy family should look like, one Hawaiian’s story suggests a third narrative.


After 20 years together, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Department of Sociology Professor and Chair, Dr. Valli Kalei Kanuha and her partner, Kata Issari, realized their dream to become mothers. After 10 years trying to get pregnant, they were gifted a beautiful daughter, ‘Ānela, with the help of an open adoption agency in Portland, whose transparency regarding adoption is similar to hānai. The couple was introduced to a woman whose decision to have them raise her baby was actually based on their relationship as a lesbian couple.


Kanuha believes the birth mother’s personal history of violence led her to choose them as parents. “We found out that the birth mother picked us because she wanted a same-sex couple. She was a victim of domestic violence and worried that a heterosexual couple might have the same problems she had. This is a mother who made the ultimate sacrifice to have her child have a better life and, to her, having a better life would be with a gay couple. A lesbian couple would give ‘Ānela the benefits and safety and protection that she felt she couldn’t give her,” Kanuha recounts.


The word pono continues to be integral to these discussions about family and marriage on both sides of SB1. Kanaka‘ole gives her insights on the meaning of the word: “The greatest definition of pono, to me, is not being righteous, but being the most authentic. Righteous implies a champion of your values. Ho‘oponopono is a verb – the action of being authentic, the action of being a champion of your own values. Neither right nor wrong, both are acknowledged and both are valuable.”


In considering Kanaka‘ole’s call for authenticity, perhaps it’s best to look to our kūpuna’s original measure of fulfillment: le‘a. What is it that leads us to greatest fulfillment as individuals and a collective lāhui? Is it a gender and sexuality binary? Is it something fluid like the mele ma‘i rooted in our history or the kaona in modern mele like Reichel’s? Perhaps when we can come to a collective answer or an agreement to respectfully disagree, our lāhui will be a bit closer to the le‘a our kūpuna once held in such high regard.


Explore more long read stories linked to Native Hawaiian culture in a hardcover collection of Mana Magazine.


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Read about the journeys of Honolulu’s transgender teens, some of whom were inspired by Wong-Kalu, in the June 2019 issue of HONOLULU. Available on newsstands in June, or purchase the issue at shop.honolulumagazine.com. Subscribe to the print and digital editions now.