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  • Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynold

Musings of a Modern Māhū

Mauatua Fa’ara-Reynolds (she/they)

Coined by the Niuean human rights activist Phylesha Brown-Acton, MVPFAFF+ is essentially the Pasifika equivalent of LGBTQIA+, acknowledging the incredible myriad of gender identities in the Pacific. It stands for Māhū (Hawai’i and Tahiti), Vaka sa lewa lewa (Fiji), Palopa (Papua New Guinea), Fa’afafine (Sāmoa), Akava’ine (Cook Islands), Fakaleitī (Tonga), and Fakafifine (Niue). And, of course, the + represents identities from other regions and islands. These identifiers do not have clean-cut English equivalents; they’re culturally specific terms.

Because of the intersection between race and gender/sexuality, MVPFAFF+ erasure occurs on several fronts. We are neglected in our heteronormative settler-colonial society, ostracised by our own communities (thank you, Christianity), and also othered in Western LGBTQIA+ spaces. Moving forward, we need culturally specific terminology that acknowledges the intricacies of indigenous queer identities. We also need representation of these identities so that they’re more widely validated and appreciated by non-Pasifika. So now, without further ado, I present my people, māhū Mā’ohi.

During early European contact, māhū was used to define what we’d consider (in the Western world) a transgender woman or a gay man. Now, amongst Ta’ata Mā’ohi and Kānaka Maoli, māhū is used to refer to all non-heteronormative or cis-gender identities. Within te ao Mā’ohi, māhū play vital social, cultural, and spiritual roles. In familial settings, many māhū are fa’a’amu parents, similar to whāngai in te ao Māori. Culturally, they’re often extremely talented dancers, choreographers, and costume designers. And, not to toot our own horn, but we’re also considered to be a product of divinity. Since we have both feminine and masculine spirits, our mana is extremely tapu, and we’re thus considered to possess God-given abilities. 

Despite our contributions to the social fabric of te ao Mā’ohi, British and French settlers saw māhū as abominable and beastly, therefore warranting our subjugation. Colonial powers in Mā’ohi Nui sought to control morality (as colonisation often does), and due to the perceived link between morality and sexuality, māhū, who epitomised sexual deviancy, became a prime target. Thus, in 1842, the Pōmare Code was introduced, prohibiting same-sex sexual activity (even though members of the monarchy had open sexual relationships with people of the same gender). And, because gender and sexuality are so intertwined in the Pacific, one can imagine that this extended to non-conformist gender expressions, too.

In his piece “The Queer Third World” (2020), academic Ilan Kapoor discusses how colonisation involves an intentional construction of the Third World as queer, effeminate, and sexually perverse, thus reinforcing the West’s paternalistic and masculine status. Ashamed and embarrassed, the Third World attempts to ‘unqueer’ itself, which is evident in the structural implementation of heteronormative ideologies (e.g. homophobic laws and policies) and in intra-communal relationships. In the context of Mā’ohi Nui, the queering of our people has meant that many Mā’ohi have internalised the idea that māhū is something of a freakish identity that serves as a reminder of our defeat and inferiority. 

My family back in Tahiti never talk about māhū unless it’s an uncle having a giggle at an effeminate tāne on the street or an aunty giving a dirty look to the ageing māhū on the sidewalk wearing lipstick. Thus, my introduction to māhū came from family members dismissing and ridiculing them. So, I repressed any feelings of discomfort I had around my gender identity or sexuality because I knew in family settings, I’d probably experience something similar. And God forbid I disappoint my feti’i.

The last time I was in Tahiti was for my Mum’s work at the cultural centre, where they were holding a tapa-making workshop. There was one tapa-maker who I was absolutely captivated by (I should also clarify I was 15 and still learning about queerness and how I fit into it). They had short black hair, a gold nose stud, a deep but soft voice, and wore a muscle tee with low side cuts, revealing a light brown binder.

This was my first time meeting a visibly queer Tahitian who wasn’t a gay tāne or transgender vāhine. At the time, I thought those were the only queer identities that existed in Mā’ohi Nui, of which I was neither. So, because I felt that there was no place for me, I thought I’d have to surrender my cultural identity and adopt the Western framework for gender and sexuality. In some ways, this made me feel like a traitor, that I’d be rejecting my people in favour of whiteness and becoming the worst thing a member of the diaspora could be: culturally inauthentic.

But meeting that queer tapa-maker was monumental in helping me realise that (of fucking COURSE) my cultural identity can coexist with my queer identity, and being queer doesn’t mean I have to leave my culture behind. In fact, my culture has a very special place for me, in which I’m deeply valued and cared for. But it took a chance encounter for me to learn this. Because academic literature, mainstream media, and common cultural knowledge never gave me (and probably never would) the opportunity for self-discovery.

If you try researching māhū (whether it be historical accounts or contemporary ethnographies), you’ll find an extremely limited body of work about transmasculine or lesbian-adjacent Mā’ohi. In some texts that I’ve read about māhū, authors have gone so far as to suggest that there were (and are) no transmascs or lesbians in Mā’ohi Nui, due to the fact that there isn’t really any mention of them in any historical records—this is just a big fat stupid lie. Absence does not mean non-existence. Just because white men in the 1800s didn’t write about us in their silly little diaries doesn’t mean we weren’t there. Because I exist, don’t I? So surely they existed too? My tūpuna were queer as fuck, and so were yours—we have always been queer. 

In the same vein, queer indigenous people are so often invisible in queer spaces, because they’re so dominated by pākehā and pākehā expressions of queerness. I’ve never really fit in in these spaces. And it’s partly because I’m still figuring out my queerness, partly because I’m not visibly queer or fit neatly into any of the LGBTQIA+ categories, and partly because in those spaces, I’m one of the few people that looks like me. Not only am I often physically different, but my expression of my queerness is too. And thus, another issue that emerges for Indigenous people in the context of globalisation and the spread of Western ideals of being/acting/doing, is the tension between the ‘global gay’ and ‘traditional’ expressions of gender and sexuality. 

I’m not transgender, nor non-binary, nor pan-sexual. These labels don’t really apply to me, so when I’m in these spaces, I can’t properly identify and position myself. Which I recognise can make people a bit uncomfortable, since I seem like a cishet woman intruding on a safe space; a privilege in itself. But I should clarify that my queerness is primarily internal, not only for safety but for cultural reasons. And just because I don’t externalise my queerness (at least in conventional ways), doesn’t mean I’m ashamed or disapproving of my queerness. Absolutely not. I’m just māhū, and I embody queerness in a non-Western way.

Now that we’re starting to make progress in dismantling colonial control and demolishing the binary, more and more young people are reclaiming indigenous gender identities and sexualities. And to call oneself māhū, takatāpui, vaka sa lewa lewa or any of those beautiful forms of being is an act of decolonisation and a refusal to let our worlds disappear. 

That’s all from me. Stay sexy, stay safe, stay queer. 

Lots of love,

Your local māhū xx


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