Honoring Māhū: Kānaka Resurgence Beyond the Gender Binary and Why it Matters Now
As our LGBT+ community reflects upon Transgender Week of Awareness, which was last week, I found myself thinking a lot about not just the sheer number of trans siblings murdered but on the various intersecting identities and lives that they led. As I reflected on the Advocateʻs memorial to the Trans siblings we lost thus far in 2017, I kept returning to the question of how did these powerful, amazing people live? Indeed, as Aaryn Lang of GetEQUAL writes for them.us, many observances of Transgender Day of Remembrance and Transgender Week of Awareness, in addition to the plethora of content produced in its procession, reinforce “a narrative that makes “transgender” and “death” almost synonymous.” Of course, in light of incredible violence, a solemn response is not only expected, but often necessary. However, as Dr. C. Riley Snorton notes in an Op-Ed for Lambda Literary, many vigils during Transgender Day of Remembrance have begun “to include a memorialization of the dead as well as a celebration of the resilience of the living.” This celebration of life and empowerment of those we have lost creates a space for both the Trans community and their allies to not just heal but to imagine liberated futures.
While the violence is overwhelming, frustrating, and must be highlighted to ultimately seek liberation and empowerment for our trans siblings, I couldn’t help but come back to the many trans people in our communities and the Māhū (two-spirit) ancestors in my Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) genealogy and community that speak not to politics that marks trans people as doomed to violence and death, but to a hope, a resurgence, and a power that comes from living beyond colonial binaries. Particularly, in Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) culture, there is strength and power that comes from our Māhū siblings in both our past and our futures.
Although as a gay cisgender male, I am systemically privileged to not experience these violences and recognize this positionality, I am compelled by the culture, language, and history that I owe to my māhū ancestors and siblings to honor them during this season of remembering and resurgence. Centering māhū Kānaka Maoli and the importance of centering Indigenous voices that are beyond the binary is key during this time of reflection and remembrance. To understand the power of our māhū siblings, however, the story must begin where our pre colonial peace ends.
In 1819, just 14 years after half of the Kānaka Maoli population was wiped out by various diseases brought by European colonizers, the rapid and sudden death of thousands of Kānaka led to anxieties about the future of Hawaiʻi’s Indigenous people. This mass experience of death and grief, coupled with the pressing assertions of Calvinist missionaries that death and disease could be stopped through the adoption of Christianity and the vehement denial of Kānaka culture and religion led, Queen Kaʻahumanu, who was acting regent at the time, to abolish the ʻAikapu, a set of policies rooted in Indigenous sensibilities that governed Hawaiian society, and save her people from certain death. Following the abolition of the “old ways,” Christianity slowly became the state religion of the Hawaiian Kingdom over the coming years. However, with the abolition of hula, chant, and the practice of Hawaiian religion came the death of culture. In this time of persecution and the abolition of hula, māhū became the protectors of our practices that would become incredibly important.when our people eventually began to reclaim our history, language, and culture.
In the landmark film advocating for trans youth in our schools, A Place in the Middle, Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu (known better as Kumu Hina), a māhū Kanaka Maoli cultural practitioner, educator, and leader, tells us that “every person [in Hawaiian society] had their role … whether male, female, or māhū — those who embraced both the feminine and masculine traits within all of us.” Kumu Hina, through radical acts of remembering and retelling, further says that, in times of colonization, māhū became the kīpuka (places, spaces, or people where Kānaka culture has survived the forces of colonization) of culture that allowed for our traditions to thrive in our present day. Thus, māhū, in addition to striking a revered balance between Kū and Hina (masculine and feminine energy), māhū became keepers of precious knowledge, preserving the love for and relationship with the land that Kānaka Maoli hold in the depths of our hearts.
Kumu Hina, herself, is an example of how māhū continue to serve as powerful and graceful leaders in our Kānaka communities. Having served as the cultural director and educator at Hālau Lokahi Public Charter School, a charter school focused on Native Hawaiian values, culture, and language, Kumu Hina and her work to create a “place in the middle” for students who are māhū is highlighted in A Place in the Middle. In contemporary Native Hawaiian politics, where issues of land, life, and sovereignty are often of the utmost urgency, Kumu Hina through protecting, educating, and equipping the next generation of Kānaka — whether māhū, kāne (male), wahine (female), or anywhere in between — reminds us that strength is often found in vulnerability, compassion, and a staunch pursuit of liberation for all expressions of gender, race, class, and sexuality. In spite of a Kānaka community that often does not understand an a colonial empire predicated upon her erasure, Trans and Two-Spirit activists like Kumu Hina continue to tell their stories and create space to grow and to thrive as a collective.
With the powerful stories of our siblings in mind, we must also remind ourselves that Transgender Day of Remembrance is as much about remembering as it is about resurgence; that, as we mourn for those stripped of justice, we, too, should honor our siblings who resist, empower, and educate each and every day. As a visible, queer, cis Indigenous man, it is my duty to honor māhū as we enter the time of Thanksgiving, where colonization is celebrated across an imperial nation, and depart from the soft reflection and deep contemplation that comes with remembering the Trans siblings we lost on the path to collective liberation. Māhū and the history of resistance and resurgence beyond the gender binary in Hawaiʻi is just one example of the power and agency of our Trans siblings. Surely, as māhū protected sacred knowledge of our decolonial futures, so, too, were Trans people key in the liberation of queer people at Stonewall, in courtrooms, and in picket lines. As Kānaka Maoli, as queer people, as cis people, we must not forget that, to our ancestors and to our descendants, our māhū, Two-Spirit, non-binary, and Trans siblings represent not antiquity and fear but power and radically liberated futures. As we end 2017, let us take time to not just remember and reflect but also reimagine resurgence that comes from the amazing things we and our siblings do each day in spite of transphobia, racism, colonization, homophobia, and all other oppressive projects that seek our destruction.
For those in our communities looking to take action, consider donating to the Lavender Clinic of Honolulu, which provides invaluable support to the Transgender community in our islands. The Lavender Clinic is starting a Māhū and Polynesian support group on the Leeward Coast of Oʻahu in 2018, where those who identify outside of Western gender binaries within our Kānaka communities can find the very empowerment and inspiration that they need and deserve. To learn more about māhū identity and activism at the intersections of Indigeneity and queerness, visit kumuhina.com.