In Search of Mahu

Nancy Nangeroni

It was in the early fall of 1997 that videographer David Gottlieb, photographer Mariette Pathy Allen, and I – Nancy Nangeroni, transgender radio talk show host and activist – visited the small Hawaiian island of Moloka’i in hopes of meeting and interviewing local native transpeople, or mahu.  The project was initiated by David, who had infected Mariette and myself with excitement at the prospect of meeting and interviewing some transgender people who been fortunate enough to grow up in a climate that was more accepting of gender difference than was ours.

In preparation for the trip (and at David’s prodding), I made a few phone calls.  David had told me that on the island of Moloka’i there was a hula teacher who was transgender, and who was a leader among a local population of trans girls.

Kim Coco Iwamoto, a transplanted Hawaiian living in New Mexico, confirmed David’s information.  Dr. Milton Diamond (in Honolulu), author of the groundbreaking paper exposing the “Joan/John” story of the failure of intersex infant genital surgery, was friendly and helpful.  He seemed discouraged, though, by his experience of 30 years in advocating for acceptance of gender diversity.  When I told him we were hoping to find an alternative transgender spirituality on the tiny island of Moloka’i, he said we would be wasting our time.  He said that, while the island culture was more accepting of gender difference than that of the mainland, the transgender people we would meet would be little different from those of any mainland city like New York or Boston.  He did, however, confirm the concentration of Mahu on Moloka’i, and that the hula teacher there acted as sort of a mother for the girls.

A few more phone calls revealed that local Mahu leader Moana Dudoit ran a Hula Halau (hula school), and also that the inn on Moloka’i where some of the girls worked was called the Pau Hana.

We planned a weeklong visit, and David and I arrived a couple of days before Mariette, who was doing some photography in California.  We hoped to scout out the local scene, so that by the time Mariette arrived, we would be ready to start interviewing.  Things didn’t quite turn out that way, though.

We started our search at the Pau Hana Inn, which we found a stone’s throw from the center of the island’s main town, Kauna Kaka’i. The town consisted of a couple of blocks of small shops and a few stop signs, looking much like small town mainland America.  The Pau Hana seemed simply a modest inn at first, but walking through a breezeway, we discovered a breathtakingly beautiful courtyard bar, walled on the far side by the immense banyan tree, whose giant limbs arched overhead, sheltering and creating a natural — and large — outdoor theater.  A low stage sat under the tree between the courtyard and the ocean barely a pace beyond.  We ordered drinks from a waitress who was probably 5’10” tall, with relatively coarse features and a heavy set body lacking substantial breasts or hips — clearly Mahu.  I tried to strike up a conversation, but she seemed preoccupied with something that was making her unhappy.  We finished our drinks and left, figuring we had plenty of time to find others, and knowing that we wouldn’t make friends by forcing ourselves on people.

We did better at a pizza place where we stopped for dinner, striking up a conversation with a couple of women at the table next to ours.  One of them, Carol, owned the local variety store, while the other, Susan, worked at the police station.  Contrary to what you might guess from their occupations, Carol appeared somewhat tough, while Susan was warm and sweet.  We didn’t know it then, but Carol would turn out to be our most reliable source of friendly information during our stay on Moloka’i.  She was of Portuguese extraction, and had been living on the island since she was a young girl 40 years ago.  She told us of how, when she was young, the local kids had hated her, taunting her with cries of “haole!” and beating her up at regular intervals.  Finally, one day when a girl was picking on her one time too many, she swung her metal lunch box with all her might at the other girl, catching her across the face, gashing her forehead.  Seeing the blood running down the other girls’ face, Carol said simply “I hope you die!” and stomped off.  After that, the other kids left her alone, she told us with pride.  I was impressed, and we struck up a bit of a friendship.

I asked Carol where and how we might meet local Mahu.  She told us that there were plenty of Mahu to be found, and that the Pau Hana was the place to meet the girls.  She also told us of the hula teacher, Moana, who was indeed the girls’ “auntie,” and that, when not teaching hula, she drives a school bus, and also works in a flower shop.  Auntie’s house was easy to find, because it was the one with the school busses in front, near the “20 mile marker”.  (The road running from town along the south coast towards the east end of the island sported mile markers which served as landmarks.)  Clearly, Moana would be the best person for us to talk to, but she and her hula halau were in Arizona.  Just our luck!  We’d come all that way, only to find that the person we most wanted to meet was on the mainland.  Carol thought she’d be back in a few days, but didn’t know for sure.  In the meantime, she said, everyone else would be at the Pau Hana on Saturday night, and we could surely meet other Mahu who would talk with us.  Carol was planning to be there, and we assured her that we would, too.

Saturday evening we returned to the Pau Hana to find a tropical party in a magical setting. Onstage, a six-piece band played infectious rhythms, while the lights of the bar reflected off the undersides of the Banyan tree branches giving the appearance of a large natural room.  Beyond the stage, moonlight reflected off the gently rippled water.  For some reason, I felt shy about approaching any of the girls there, until Carol appeared and led us over to the table where five girls sat.  She introduced me to a largish girl, tastefully dressed in an elegant white evening dress with skillfully-done makeup, named Tracy.  She could have been a well-dressed queen or crossdresser in any American city.  She smiled easily, and welcomed David and I, although only I could hear her over the loud music.  I told her who we were and why we were there, but the combination of alcohol and fatigue sapped my interest in doing much more.  She told me that, not only was she transgender, but so too were a couple of the girls sitting with her – to my surprise, as the girls with her were quite beautifully feminine.  I asked if we might meet the next day, and she suggested that we visit her the next evening at the inn’s restaurant, where she works as a waitress.  We agreed to do so, and I made an exit with David, more or less gracefully.

The next evening we found the restaurant empty of customers, which left Tracy plenty of time to talk with us.  We plied her with questions.  First, we asked about whether the word Mahu was a friendly term that the girls used for themselves, or a pejorative term imposed on them by others?  Tracy told us that none of the girls on the island would enjoy being called a Mahu, that it was used as an insult.  We asked if it had always been that way, but she didn’t know.

She told us that Auntie Moana was the mother figure for the girls, and that she ran the hula halau, but that she didn’t teach anymore.  Her cousin, Raquel, also trans, now taught the young girls.  Tracy talked at length about the hula, and we her to show us some basic moves (it didn’t take much coaxing).  Pretty soon we were getting a hula lesson from a graceful Moloka’i transperson.  I tried briefly to imitate her movements, but found myself sorely lacking the grace needed to do even a reasonable facsimile.  Hula is a language spoken with the hands, and hers moved with a fluid grace I could only envy and enjoy.  For a long time, she told us stories with a grace and dignity that belied her size, and spoke of a culture infused with charming and elegant tradition.

Finally, the evening grew late and it was time for her to clean up and shut down.  She told us that auntie Moana would be returning from Arizona the next day, and that she would tell auntie about us and our wish to talk with her.  We agreed to meet Tracy there at the restaurant again the next night, to meet other girls and possibly even be introduced to auntie Moana.

As it turned out, though, the next day yielded little.  We arrived for our evening meeting a bit late, missing all the girls except Tracy, who now gave us a cold shoulder.  Apparently the girls had counseled against talking with us, so we were left with auntie Moana as our last lead.

Wednesday morning, our second-to-last day on the island, we finally met Moana at the flower shop, along with her sister Raquel and Jody, an older transperson in Moana’s care.  Moana immediately impressed us with her charm and intelligence.   We introduced ourselves, and gave her copies of Mariette’s book “Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them” as well as a recent copy of Transgender Tapestry magazine.  All three looked the materials over, and seemed suitably impressed.  Moana couldn’t talk long then, but invited us to interview her on camera at her house that afternoon.

We arrived at Moana’s house a bit early, eager and refreshed.  Moana wasn’t home, but Jody greeted us warmly, and invited us to sit with her on the porch.  The house was a modestly beautiful little place nestled between two hills forming a small valley overlooking the channel between Moloka’i and Maui.  It was very clean and neat, Jody told us, because Moana liked it that way.  David began videotaping and Mariette photographed while I interviewed Jody on the couch, looking out over the green grass, tall palm trees, sandy beach, fresh blue water and sky.  Jody is the oldest mahu on Moloka’i, 60 years old.  She had been living with Moana for many years.

“I was in kindergarten when I loved to play with dolls and wear my cousin’s dress to school.  I wasn’t ashamed, but the teachers didn’t like it.  My father would have to pick me up after school and tell me, “you’re a boy, you’re not supposed to wear dresses.”

I asked her about the word Mahu.

“To us, Mahu is a bad word.  If someone calls us that, we get angry,” she said.

She told us that she is treated well by the other islanders. “I like to dress up, and people like the way I dress,” she told us.  “They say to me, ‘you are the best dressed, I wish I could get my wife to dress like that’.”

When we asked why Moloka’i might be more friendly to people like us, she answered, “We live together, so close, like brothers and sisters.  We’re not stuck up.”

When we had finished our questions, she took us to her room and showed us a collection of shoes and dresses to die for.  From lacy white cotton, to black lace with sequins, vibrant colors and exciting fabrics, her collection spanned the gamut of style and color.  I found myself admiring her good taste and resourcefulness in acquiring such a collection in such a remote location.  She told us that she got the dresses on her travels with the hulau, and then resold many to others on the island.

Although Jody was friendly and open, it was Moana, widely respected for her intelligence, grace and commitment, and a board member of the local Nature Conservancy, whom we had come to interview.  We were not disappointed.

We asked Moana about the word mahu.  She told us, “That’s what they call men who are soft, feminine.  It wasn’t a bad word, but people made it bad.  It’s an everyday Hawaiian word, but when it’s used in a certain way, it becomes something people don’t like.”  She said that Hawaiians didn’t care whether you were soft or not.  “But if you were royal family, they would have cared.”  She wasn’t teased in school “because my parents were upstanding citizens of the community.   They picked on the other mahus very, very much.” Moana owns the contract for school bus transportation for the island’s children.  “…if I was in the states, I don’t think they’d accept a mahu to be transporting their children, I don’t think the parents would allow a homosexual to be transporting their children to and from school.”

“One time they had a big controversy about Mahu, and the mayor from Maui county called me up personally and asked me if it was affecting my job, my position.  I told him no, it wasn’t affecting me, but it was affecting a lot of the other girls who worked here.  She told me to let her know right away if it affects me, and she would come over and tend to the people who were against mahus.”

Her Hula Hulau, a free school, takes the best dancers from other hulaus, and teaches students the more advanced dance moves.  Each year the hulau makes four trips to places around the world, all expenses paid by generous patrons, to perform for others.  She showed us gifts from Germany, Spain, the US mainland, Tahiti, and many other places, that she had received from grateful hosts.

“The hula is a very sacred to me, because it tells the story of  what happened a long time ago.  Especially the old chants.   My mom only spoke Hawaiian.  She always sat us down and told us the story of how our people suffered.  They didn’t suffer before the 1800s, they were happy and respected their couples and demigods and all that, until Captain Cook came.  Disease came with him, and the people started to suffer.  Before 1865, when the first Chinese migration came, they brought Hansen’s disease, leprosy.  Even the royalty got sick, and they wondered what was happening. So in 1865 King Kamehameha decided he could not keep the people who were sick, so he had his men decide which island would be best for the people who were sick.  So he took them to Kalaupapa, and just dropped them off, pushed them off the boat.  And there they had to survive, with no doctors, nurses or medicine.  Women, children, old people, they just died there.  To this day, the waters where they dropped off the people are full of sharks.  The sharks knew that every week, the boats would come, and the sharks would have a lot of meals, because many people couldn’t swim to shore.  We go down to Kalaupapa every year, to do a show for the people there, and to show them that we care.  It’s a big full day for us, and the girls look forward to it.”

“The girls way of dancing is always a rippling of their fingers and a movement of the hips side to side like the palm tress, as the trees sway side to side.  Their storytelling is always more soft then the men.  The men are always close-fisted, and when they dance, they pound their feet.  But most of the dancers now are gay boys, so when they dance, they try to dance like the girls.  So you can tell who is gay, because their hips sway like the girls.  But their hands are not like the girls, their hands are always straight out, and no rippling of the fingers.”

We asked about female to males, and were told that there were such on the island, as many as mahu girls, but they lived in another area.

We asked her about the acceptance of mahu.

“Hawaiians are brought up to love their children, no matter what.  My dad, on his deathbed, told my brothers, ‘I want you to take care of Moana, because Moana is not like you folks, Moana is different, and  don’t let nobody harm her.’  When my father died, one of my brothers told me ‘Daddy loved you, because he made us promise that we would always take good care of you.’”

“If [islander’s] sons turn to mahu, they will not disown them, they will love them more, because that’s the one who will take care of them in their dying days, and my family is the same thing.  When my mom went to the hospital, she wouldn’t let the nurses bathe her, I was the one to bathe her.  My sisters were so mad at her, because they wanted to be the ones to bathe her.  But I was the one.  So all the mahu that I know, their mothers and fathers love them more.  Hawaiians are very loving people, so I tell the [mahu] kids, ‘don’t go to the mainland.  People will tease you.’  I don’t get teased, they call me her, and don’t bother me when I use the ladies room.”

“The mahus take care of one another.  On our island, the males don’t tease the mahus, because they know one another, they were brought up together.  You can tell the boys that were raised here, because their parents taught them to respect the mahus. So when we walk around, nobody tends to look at us, because we’re just like anyone else.  That’s how this island is, that’s why it’s called the friendly island.  I’ve been all over the world, and it’s good to go traveling, but there’s no place like home.  There’s no noise, no traffic, just the ocean, and during the whale season, the whales make the biggest noise, pounding and giving birth.”

That evening we watched Moana and Raquel direct the hula hulau.  It took place in a school gymnasium, and about 20 girls participated.  While they were instructed in the fine art of hula dance, Mariette snapped photos, David videotaped and a small group of family and friends looked on.  I found myself entranced by the graceful fluidity of their movements.  I longed to move as beautifully, to tell stories with my hands and dance with flowing grace.  It seemed the essence of at least one aspect of femininity: grace and beauty in movement.

Later that night we stopped by the Pau Hana for a drink, and found patrons engaged in friendly karaoke. We met with a young mahu, Tori, and arranged for an interview the next day.

For our last full day on Moloka’i, we had arranged a morning meeting again at the flower shop, this time planning to shoot some footage of Moana, Raquel and Jody about the island. This time, though, nobody showed up.  We drove to a nearby store and phoned Moana.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t talk with you” she said.  “Some of the parents were upset, and said I shouldn’t talk with you any more.  I’m sorry.”   She told me that they feared that the Moloka’i ranch, which owned one third of the island and sponsored the hulau’s travels, would withdraw their support if word got out that the hulau was run by a transperson.  They feared that people on the mainland might not be understanding, and might no longer invite the school to visit.

Moana could not ignore the threat to the hulau, the parents were clearly acting to protect their daughters, and we couldn’t blame them.  Although we had to admit that their fears were at least somewhat justified, we were stunned.  With that phone call, we went from enjoying our island visit to feeling like subversive intruders in a precarious paradise.

We drove to Moana’s house to take some photographs and video of the setting.  It felt eerie, almost clandestine, although we were only walking along the street and shooting views as if from a car.  Clearly we had caused some ripples in island society, and we were loathe to make more.

We still had an interview to do with Tori.  We tried our best to put on a happy face, and met her at her family’s house.  Her family was friendly and supportive, and Tori was photogenic and friendly.  We relaxed a little, but couldn’t help but feel like intruders, and our interview was awkward.  We tried taking Tori for videotaping and photos to the high school where she had served as Junior Prom King one year, and then Senior Prom Queen the next, but Tori was unable to relax, and we felt uncertain about shooting on school grounds without explicit permission to do so.  Finally, as the daylight waned, we gave it up, and confided in each other our relief that it was over.

The next morning, as we waited to board our plane to Honolulu, I noticed Moana sitting nearby, waiting for the same flight.  I walked over to her, and thanked her for her graciousness and for the time she spent with us.  I told her that I’d be sending her my draft of this story for her approval, but she shook her head.

“Just print it.” she said.

In that moment, I knew that we are of a common soul, that we were partners in spirit, engaged in the same struggle for simple human dignity and respect.  We parted to take our bodies separate ways, but our spirits, I think, are following similar paths.


One year later I spoke again with Moana.  David had heard a rumor that the Pau Hana had been bought and shut down by religious conservatives who disliked Mahu.  We feared that our visit might have prompted the repressive action.  Auntie Moana assured me that, though the Pau Hana had lost its liquor license, its ownership had not changed, and there had been no bad repercussions from our visit.