Carol Forsloff–I had just finished my visit to the women’s rest room at Goodwill Industries, washing my hands in the sink before returning to work, when a tall figure beside me asked in a definitive alto, if I might pass a paper towel. It was Cheryl who taught me a lot about living mahu, or transgender, in Hawaii.
That day I stood, mouth open, looking up at someone half a head taller than my 5’9,” with shoulders broad like a man and with large facial features and a thick neck, asking a question in a voice that sounded like a man’s falsetto. It was Cheryl, a mahu of Hawaii, who turned out to be one of the nicest people I met during my first few of the almost 30 years I have lived in Hawaii.
Cheryl, whose name I have purposely changed in order to protect her identity while at the same time struggling to recall her last name from so many years ago, was a remarkable Goodwill employee. She sat at the front desk greeting everyone with a smile. Everyone loved her, staff and clients alike. And as a Goodwill counselor, I loved that greeting as well, since elements of the job could at times be stressful.
In Hawaii the mahu is long known to be among those who do not live in the shadows in Hawaii but works alongside others as a respected citizen. The mahu is the man who lives as a woman, transgender or transvestite, and whose sexuality is not the topic for discussion in the Hawaiian culture. It is what it is, the mahu a person of value; and this journalist came to value Cheryl as another supportive employee of Goodwill Industries just as did everyone who worked there in the early 80’s.
Many of the hula dancers, entertainers and artists and others in Hawaii are mahu and live without the shame associated with homosexuality or being a transvestite or transgender that was the way of life for so many for so long on the mainland. Tourists might stare, but local folks usually do not, for the mahu might be a cousin, a brother or a very dear friend. One’s sexuality simply was not, and is not, discussed, just the identification of the individual made so the opposite sex might not assume the possibility of the mahu as a partner in the romantic sense of the word.
As one Hawaiian writer, Kalikiano Kalei, describes the mahu among the Polynesian people: Transgendered and transexual individuals greatly disturb most God-fearing Christians, who believe that everything other than ‘conventional’ marital sex is a mortal sin. The ancient Hawaiians were not as tightly strung, in their graceful understanding that all human beings possess a complete Tao of male and female qualities within themselves. ‘Mahu’ is a Hawaiian term that describes a man who has chosen to live as a woman and in the ancient (pre-missionary) culture, such individuals were respected and regarded as important members of the community.
While Hawaii voted against gay marriage, and the law allowing it was put in place by former Governor Neil Abercrombie without popular support, in many cases it was not the issue of being gay but being married in some formal way that brought folks to object. What was already known and culturally accepted in many ways need not be formalized as the man-woman marriage that has been the custom in the religions and cultures of Hawaii, or some people thought. Why change, folks said, when what is here works well and does not need more than it is to make people value the mahu as friend, colleague and someone worthy of friendship and support. Transgender people are, for the most part, like anyone else in Hawaiian culture and embraced for their character, personality and skills.
Of course living mahu, or transgender, remains not the same in many ways because certain fundamental beliefs cause people to turn aside from a close relationship at times with someone who seems very different than the mainstream individual. Besides the cultures outside of Polynesia have different attitudes. Still the island courtesy remains with everyone, so the mahu waiter or entertainer or the person hosting a bus tour of Hawaii is simply like everyone else when it comes to everyday living, a person deserving of respect and kindness after all. Living mahu in most ways is living like everyone else and part of the diversity that makes Hawaii unique.