In (pre-colonized) Native Hawai’ian and Polynesian cultures, the idea of someone who embodies both the male and female spirit, also known as māhū, is not only accepted but revered as an asset.
Labeled transgender in Western society, māhū are traditionally thought to inhabit “a place in the middle,” where the ability to embrace both male and female qualities empowers them as healers, teachers and caregivers.
“Māhū is the expression of the third self,” Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, a Native Hawai’ian activist and performer told Mana magazine. “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.”
Kumu Hina, a 2014 documentary tells the story of Hina Wong-Kalu, a māhū teacher (or kumu), cultural practitioner, and community leader, to explore the struggle to maintain traditional values within Westernized modern Hawaiʻi.
“I didn’t take to life as my family’s son,” Hina told Mana. “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.”
From the producers:
The film traces Hina’s evolution from a timid high school boy to her position as a married woman and cultural director of a school in one of Honolulu’s grittier neighborhoods. As she contemplates who should lead the school’s all-male hula troupe in their final performance, a surprising candidate presents herself: Ho’onani, a sixth grader who is proud to be seen as a mixture of boy and girl. As Kumu Hina helps Ho’onani to negotiate the mixed reactions of her classmates and her family, the power of culture to instill a sense of pride and acceptance becomes clear.
The film also delves into Hinaʻs pursuit of a dream of her own — a fulfilling romantic relationship. Her tumultuous marriage to a headstrong Tongan man offers insight into the universal challenge of loving somebody outside the norm, and a glimpse of Hawaii never before seen on film.
“This film introduces us to an unforgettable and courageous woman whose life is simultaneously grounded in ancient tradition and on the forefront of one the most contemporary movements in society today,” said Lois Vossen, founding and deputy executive producer of Independent Lens. “Gender fluidity is a concept that has been understood for thousands of years in Polynesian culture, but is only now beginning to be accepted in the West. Kumu Hina teaches us all how to love and
accept ourselves as we are.”
Directed by Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, the feature will air on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, May 4, 2015 at 10/9c pm.