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March 2010 Email this to a friend
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Hawaii's secrets

By Matthew Link

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When my boyfriend and I landed on the rural Hawaiian island of Molokai, we stopped in our tracks at the open-air car rental counter. There, in all her glory, stood a tall, smiling transvestite. Tastefully adorned in a bright tropical muumuu, she dangled our car keys from her rather large hand.
She wasn't the last crossdresser we would encounter on this molasses-slow island with not a single traffic light. They served us breakfast, and we bumped into them at flower stands. We even discovered that Auntie Moana, who taught hula to the kids and had won many awards, was the best-known crossdresser on the island. She. Her real name, believe it or not, was Butch.
As I spent time writing and researching the first gay guidebook to Hawaii, I put together the pieces and realized that Molokai was one of the last bastions of the ancient Polynesian practice of the "mahu." A sort of third sex, mahu were brought up as girls in families that had only sons, or they were simply boys who felt more comfortable living with the womenfolk and taking on their attributes.
Today in Hawaii, crossdressers are often treated with more respect than masculine gay guys -- a strange twist on our mainlander thinking. To understand it all, it's necessary to peel back the layers of the eyebrow-raising homo history of the Aloha State.

A 'shocking inversion'
Hawaii is one of the most geographically isolated places in the world, so it's no wonder that a distinctive culture flourished here, largely untouched by outside influences. When the first Europeans arrived on Captain Cook's ships in 1779, the crews' journals detailed a bizarre society that was confusingly bisexual to their Western eyes.
Cook's men wrote aghast accounts of intimate relationships among the island's ali`i (royal classes). "A shocking inversion of the laws of nature, they bestow all those affections upon them that were intended for the other sex," one sailor gasped.
Cook recorded that the kings of Maui, Kauai and the Big Island all had their own male aikane, lesser royals who had homosexual relationships with higher royals. Their sexual friendships with higher ali`i increased their mana, or spiritual power.
Aikane relationships didn't seem to be regulated by any kind of "top or bottom" order, regardless of age or ranking. Although aikane were usually young male sexual companions to the ali`i, they often had their own wives and children and were not seen as less masculine in any way. There were also female aikane (the word occurs often in the Pele goddess legends), but since women were subjugated in many aspects of society, the caste of royal aikane was male-dominated.
One interesting journal entry recounts how Chief Kalanikoa of Kauai asked if a certain young and handsome European sailor aboard Cook's ships would be willing to become his personal aikane. He even offered six valuable hogs to seal the deal. (It's not recorded whether the sailor agreed to it or not.)
Although heterosexual historians don't like to mention it, the journals also recorded that the great leader of the Hawaiian Islands, the celebrated King Kamehameha (1758-1819), brought along one young aikane while traveling aboard Cook's ship. (According to tradition, some children were raised specifically to become aikane to the chief.)
But the king also had two wives and numerous courtesans. Whether King Kamehameha was bisexual, or merely carrying on the aikane tradition, is unknown. But the aikane tradition didn't end with King Kamehameha. History records that his grandson, King Kamehameha III (1815-1854), had his own aikane, too.
Ironically, you'll hear the word aikane thrown around the island nowadays as simply meaning "good friends." This is despite the fact that the literal translation is ai (to have sex with) and kane (man). Another unflinching term for homosexual partners, not in use anymore, was upi laho, which translates to something like testicle pressing, or literally "scrotum squirting."

Hitting liquid
Obviously, old Hawaii was a world where blunt sexual openness was the norm. Polynesians revered the procreative ability of sex. They performed mele ma`i, or songs in honor of genitals, at important events, like the birth of a great chief. One mele, called "You Are Erect," is performed as a reclining dance (a hula l 'helo), in which the suggested motions provide vital meaning:

Indeed, you are erect, you place it, hit liquid
You are erect, you place it, hit liquid!
Tentacle, tentacle, tentacle, tentacle, tentacle, tentacle!
The thing is mean, the big thing!
Thrust out, thrust out, thrust out!
Kaualiliko`i, liliko`i, hit liquid!
Return up!
Go down below!
Return up!
Down below!

Genitals were often given names as a matter of course: King Kalakaua's penis had the impressive title of halala (literally translated as "to bend low"), and Queen Lili`uokalani's vagina was called `anapau (which means "frisky").

Gorging on bananas
An interesting illustration of just how gay Hawaii was, right up till the 19th century, is the case of writer and poet Charles Warren Stoddard. A one-time secretary to Mark Twain and friend of poet Walt Whitman, the "Boy Poet of San Francisco," as he was known, took off to Hawaii in 1864. At the tender age of 21, he found all the adventure he could have wished for. Corresponding with his friend Mr Whitman, he explained that in the islands he could act out his "nature" in a way he couldn't "even in California, where men are tolerably bold."
Stoddard fell in love not only with Hawaii's beauty and culture, but with a bevy of "coffee-colored" teenaged boys. His descriptions of rapturous evenings spent with island youths (with the blessing of their families) fill his stories with blatant homoeroticism, like this passage from a story about a boy on Molokai in 1869:

Again and again, he would come with a delicious
banana to the bed where I was lying and insist upon
my gorging myself.... He would mesmerize me into
a most refreshing sleep with a prolonged and
pleasing manipulation.

At the time, homosexual escapades were not considered a topic worth discussing, and many critics on the mainland brushed Stoddard's work off as colorful and even silly. Stoddard made a number of trips to Hawaii and Tahiti, each time falling in love with "untrammeled youths." His tropical affairs were passionate and earnest, but typically ill-fated. Stoddard's accounts always seem to end in an agonizing departure, unable to fulfill this "impossible love." His personal accounts shed a revealing light on homosexuality in the Hawaii of the 1800s.

'The People's Republic'
Although Hawaii is seen as one of the most left-leaning states in the US (earning it the nickname "The People's Republic of Hawaii"), the current political reality for gays in the islands is complex. Strong Mormon and Catholic influences have brought more homophobia than the islands ever knew in their past.
Hawaii became the focal point of international gay politics in the early '90s when it looked as though it would become the first state to legalize same-sex marriages. Since Hawaii was the first state to legalize abortion and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, the state seemed like a shoo-in for gay marriage, and in 1993, the Hawaii State Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay couples applying for marriage licenses.
The irony is that Hawaii has a fairly politically indifferent gay community, rural and traditionalist voters, and an island culture that discourages forwardness and boat-rocking. Add to this the national backlash against same-sex marriage, both in the local media and in other states' legislatures, and it's no surprise that when a referendum on same-sex marriage was presented to Hawaii's voters
in 1998, it was soundly defeated.
Years later, thanks to Hawaii's initial spark, a handful of other states have now allowed same-sex marriage. It will be interesting to see if Hawaii in the 21st century can remember the strong roots of her tolerant and sexually forward past, or if she will remain lost in the clouds of modern ignorance and homophobia.

Click on Honolulu for info about the gay scene of Hawaii today.

Author Profile:  Matthew Link

Matthew Link has written for numerous magazines and has appeared on many television and radio shows. His documentaries have aired on PBS stations and in international film festivals.

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