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The fortress of Molokai

By Matthew Link

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"Aloha!"
  The woman behind the rental car counter lifted her heavy eyelashes and gently waved her long jungle-red nails. Her face, complete with large hibiscus flower tucked behind her ear, lit up like a marquee at the sight of us. Which was saying something for Molokai, a molasses-slow Hawaiian island proud of the fact it has no traffic lights or neon signs or buildings taller than a palm tree. She slowly winked at us as we signed the rental agreement.
  I knew about Molokai's famous mahu residents -- the gender-bending queens descended from Polynesia's historical acceptance of crossdressing men. On Molokai, a rural island of just 7,500 inhabitants, mahu were even known to "marry" the local policemen. But this was quite the cultural jolt.
  I had come to Molokai in a quest to hunt down Auntie Moana, the most famous mahu on this, the epicenter of mahus.Along with driving the local school bus and running a florist shop, she wins international awards with her hula troupe.
  But as my haole (Caucasian) boyfriend and I drove around Molokai, we felt a chill. The locals' stares were as cold as the Arctic (where, ironically, the natives are sweet as Eskimo pies). It's what the Hawaiians succinctly call "stink eye." The description of Molokai as The Friendly Isle is one of the cruelest tourism-board jokes I've ever run into. Ancient sorcerers used to set up shop here while concocting spells to keep visitors away.
  When I finally worked up the nerve to speak with Auntie Moana on the phone, she was distant and vague about when and how to meet. I was a haole from the mainland, after all, part of a long line of invaders from Captain Cook to Elvis Presley. She cautiously invited us to her flower shop.
  The shop was a tiny affair that Auntie Moana opened whenever the mood struck her, and it was situated on a quiet road outside town. A large mahu with greasy hair pulled up in a rubber band on top of her head held a laundry basket on one hip and told us "Auntie" was inside. She said the word as a royal term, like duchess.
  We stepped into the warm, tiny shop, tropical flowers pressing up against the refrigerated glass. I smiled hard at Auntie. At 6'2" and 200-odd pounds with a wig and huge sunglasses, she was an imposing sight. She asked us to sit down. We did as we were told. If we wanted anything to drink, her other "sister," petite and with a bad blonde dye job, would get it for us.
  "She is your sister?" my boyfriend innocently asked.
I nudged his leg hard enough to bruise.
  A pause.
  "I call her my sister," Auntie politely replied. Her deep baritone strained to remain hidden under her lilting tones.
  I carefully began to ask some simple questions about her hula. That warmed Auntie up. She pointed to awards on the walls and pulled some pictures out of a drawer of her and some of her "sisters" at the local high school hula contest. It looked like they were running the whole show, with Auntie taking over the microphone. I could imagine her manhandling the school-bus steering wheel and yelling at the kids behind her, all the while keeping her rouge from dripping in the humidity. I got the feeling no one messes with her.
  "Everyone is courteous here," Auntie explained. "There is no name calling or anything like that. The teenagers are respectful. We are a part of the community here. The culture and hula are coming back full force, and the kids want to be involved."    
  An emotion hit me as we left the shop. I guess it was hope. If this small, somewhat redneck island outpost could accept mahu, maybe anywhere could. The feminine man, the one who valiantly holds on to the beliefs and stories and art forms of a people long after those things are deemed passŽ, is the bastion of the world's cultures. Moana was an unapologetic fortress, a citadel, a force to be reckoned with, and she knew it.
  As we drove away, I blurted out to Wayne, "Moana is scary!"
  Wayne quickly admitted, "I know, she scares me, too."
  It wasn't until months later that someone told me they had known Auntie Moana when she was a he.
  "Oh yeah, she used to be in the Army."
  "The Army?"
  "Yeah, her real name is Butch. But don't call her that! The last guys who called her by her real name got beat up pretty badly."


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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