What Native Hawaiian Culture Can Teach Us About Gender Identity
As the documentary Kumu Hina reveals, living between both genders is the more powerful “mahu" way.
In traditional Hawaiian culture, creative expression of gender and sexuality was celebrated as an authentic part of the human experience. Throughout Hawaiian history, “mahu” appear as individuals who identify their gender between male and female. Hawaiian songs often contain deeper meanings—called kaona—that refer to love and relationships that don’t conform to contemporary Western definitions of male and female gender roles.
As a 21st century mahu, Hina’s experience is not unlike many others who defy Western gender classifications.
Expressions of sexuality and gender by mahu individuals were often reflected in Hawaiian arts, particularly in traditional hula and music, which continue today. The 2014 documentary Kumu Hina follows the journey of Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (“Hina”), a teacher—or kumu—at a Hawaiian charter school in Honolulu, who is mahu. Kumu Hina explores the role of mahu in Hawaiian society through the lens of a Native Hawaiian who is deeply rooted in the traditions of her ancestors and committed to living an authentic life.
As a 21st century mahu, Hina’s experience is not unlike many others who defy Western gender classifications. Born Collin Kwai Kong Wong, she struggled to find acceptance throughout her youth. Today, Hina presents herself as a female in her dress and appearance, though she embraces both masculine and feminine aspects of her identity equally. And while the film focuses on her journey to become Hina, it characterizes her by more than her gender identity. The film presents a portrait of Hina as a devout cultural practitioner and educator whose most fundamental identity lies in being Hawaiian.
As a kumu at the charter school Halau Lokahi, Hina instills time-honored traditions and cultural values in her students. One student in particular, middle schooler Ho‘onani, traverses the ever-treacherous waters of youth with the additional strain of identifying as being “in the middle.” Hina relates to Ho‘onani’s journey and challenges the students to create a safe and accepting environment. This proves transformative for Ho‘onani, as her determination to define herself and prove her capability garners her the lead role in the school’s all-male ensemble, which the boys do not dispute. Due to the example Hina sets, her classrooms embrace a new “normal” that openly acknowledges all identities. The result is a confident, empathetic community of young people who validate the complexities of Ho‘onani’s reality and provide her with a compassionate place to grow up.
“It’s all a natural thing,” Ho’onani explains. “Kumu’s in the middle too. Everybody knows that, and it’s not a secret to anybody. What ‘middle’ means is a rare person.” Under Hina’s mentorship, Ho‘onani flourishes, excelling in all areas of study, including music and hula, and earning the respect of her peers. As she prepares for a school event, Hina instructs that shell leis be worn by students based on color: white for the girls and yellow for the boys. Without hesitation, Ho‘onani suggests she wear both, and Hina agrees. “See, you get both—because she’s both,” she explains. This is Hawaiian mahu, unique in its perspective that an individual who has embraced both sides of their gender identity does not require exclusive definition. Those who identify with being mahu may exude more masculine or feminine qualities, but their inner experience is one that ebbs between the two with the grace and subtlety of the ocean tide.
When I interviewed Hina for MANA magazine’s 2014 feature “Beyond the Binary,” she explained: “A mahu 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.” The “changing times” Hina refers to began with the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1800s and the imposition of Western values on the Hawaiian community. They banned cultural expressions that celebrated diverse sexual views and traditions they believed to be profane, such as hula, and drove them underground. The suppression of traditional Hawaiian values and practices marked a turning point in Hawai‘i’s history, one in which mahu began a struggle to find acceptance.
Kumu Hina lifts the veil on the misunderstood and marginalized experience of “other” gendered individuals whose identity cannot be defined by the broad strokes of contemporary Western categorization.
One of the greatest journeys of the human experience is the struggle to accept oneself and live authentically. Kumu Hina lifts the veil on the misunderstood and marginalized experience of “other” gendered individuals whose identity cannot be defined by the broad strokes of contemporary Western categorization. For many Native Hawaiians, authenticity is at the heart of the human experience. Living authentically is one of the highest honors individuals can bestow upon themselves, their families, and their communities. By embracing her identity, Hina not only fulfills her own personal journey to find love and happiness, but she is able to positively influence the lives of students like Ho‘onani who are grappling with their own identities.
To continue promoting Kumu Hina’s message of acceptance, a 24-minute version of the film and teaching guide were created as an educational resource. This short film, called A Place in the Middle, premiered in February 2015 in Germany and played at Toronto’s TIFF Kids International Film Festival in April. According to co-producer Joe Wilson, the film “has struck a chord with educators and other professionals in need of resources on gender diversity and cultural empowerment.” The film demonstrates healthy ways to address gender identity in the classroom and promotes a safe academic environment for youth to thrive.
Thanks to the determination of Hina and others, the Hawai‘i Marriage Equality Act of 2013 was passed in November 2013. And though further efforts are needed to reach equality, Hina finds validation in her home. “I’m fortunate to live in a place that allows me to love who I love,” she says. “I can be whoever I want to be. That’s what I hope most to leave with my students—a genuine understanding of unconditional acceptance and respect. To me, that’s the true meaning of aloha.”