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
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."
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!
Go 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
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
'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
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.