Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 6, August 2001

'Transgender, queens, mahu, whatever':
An Oral History from Hawai'i

Andrew Matzner

  1. Last year, as part of an oral history project, I collected the life stories of fifteen people of different ages and ethnic backgrounds who live on the Hawaiian island of O'ahu. This project resulted in a book which will be published shortly called 'O Au No Keia: Voices from Hawai'i's Mahu and Transgender Communities. 'O Au No Keia means 'This is me' in Hawaiian and was chosen as the book's title by Hina Wong, one of the project's participants. All of the people I worked with were born as males, but have crossed socially approved boundaries of gender, in terms of identity, appearance, and/or behaviour.
  2. It is difficult for me as a researcher to propose a singular term with which to 'label' this group as a whole, as some of the participants are comfortable using the term 'transgender' to describe themselves, while others prefer 'queen' or 'mahu.' Mahu is a Hawaiian word which locals typically use in a disparaging way to refer to drag queens and gay men. In pre-contact Hawai'i, this word did not have the negative connotations it has today. As males or females who behaved and/or appeared in ways associated with the opposite gender, it appears that mahu held privileged positions in their communities. Some of the people I spoke with who are of part-Hawaiian descent and knowledgeable about pre-contact Hawaiian culture have decided to identify themselves as mahu in order to re-establish a link to a Hawaiian past in which they believe people like themselves did not face the discrimination so often found in present-day Hawai'i.
  3. 'Queen' is another significant term which was used by many of the participants. This word was felt to be a term of respect, especially among those who were born and raised on O'ahu. On the other hand, most of those participants who had come to O'ahu later in life (and who tended to be older, Caucasian and more highly educated) were comfortable with the term 'transgender.' This word has two definitions. According to the first, a transgendered person is someone who lives full-time as the opposite gender, but does not undergo sex-reassignment surgery. In its second, less narrow definition, transgender is a general label which refers to a wide range of gender-variant identities. In this capacity as an umbrella term, this word also has political connotations, for it has been employed by those seeking to form a 'transgender movement' (along the lines of the gay and lesbian movements) in order to fight for social equality and justice. However, people of colour and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have generally felt excluded from this nascent movement because it is largely composed of Caucasians from middle and upper class backgrounds. Therefore, the term 'transgender' did not personally resonate with several of the people I interviewed in the oral history project, and they did not wish to be identified by it. Accordingly, while it was tempting in this paper to use the term 'transgender' in its broadest meaning to describe as a whole the people with whom I worked, I recognise that such a choice would have been problematic.
  4. Although in previous writing I have privileged 'transgender' as a general descriptive term to refer to people who engage in non-normative gendered practices, I realise that the labels I choose in my capacity as researcher must also take into account the meanings such labels might have among those in the population with which I work. The sense of discomfort and ambivalence about various labelling terms which can occur among one's informants is especially apparent in the life history which forms the body of this article. In her account, Paige refers to herself and those like her with the terms 'mahu,' 'queen,' and 'transgender.'[1] Yet in spite of her use of 'transgender,' Paige is explicit regarding her dislike for this word, stating, 'Transgender ... I don't like to identify myself as a transgender because I don't know what is that word. I can identify with mahu because it's a Hawaiian word for us—transgender.' Therefore, when in this paper I have need to refer to the people with whom I worked as a group, or wish to refer as a whole to others in Hawai'i who cross gender boundaries, I employ phrases such as 'differently-gendered,' 'gender-variant,' or 'marginalised genders.' Although clumsy, these terms draw attention to the problematic nature of using a descriptive term not necessarily favoured by participants in one's research.[2]
  5. This article is based on the talk I gave at the AsiaPacifiQueer conference held in Sydney in early 2001, and in it I will briefly describe my project and explain why I chose to use oral history as a methodology. Its more immediate purpose, however, is to offer a complete edited version of a life history from one of the project's participants. All too often, academic discourses concerned with analysing the lives of those who are differently-gendered lack the voices of their subjects. To redress this situation I provide Paige's contribution to 'O Au No Keia.
  6. In briefly contextualising the unique location in which my project took place, it is important to note that one's experiences growing up and living life as a differently-gendered person on O'ahu are influenced by the fact that mahu as in other places throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia - once had an accepted and important place in pre-colonial Hawai'i. Although little in-depth research has been done on this topic in the Hawaiian context, according to some Hawaiian elders (kupunas), neither effeminate males nor masculine females—both of which were known as mahu—were stigmatised in Hawaiian society.[3] It is not clear to what extent mahu lived as the opposite gender. Describing mahu in both past and present-day Hawaiian culture, Hina, who is in her late twenties, told me, 'They have the sensitivity for caring and the soft side which is more associated with wahine [women]. Yet they have enough aggressiveness and enough strength - the backbone. Not to say that Hawaiian women were not strong ... But the mahu had qualities of both man and woman in them.'
  7. Several participants in the oral history project who self-identified as mahu told me that they learned from their own kupunas that mahu were particularly respected as teachers, usually of hula dance and chant. Kaua'i Iki explained that in pre-contact times mahu performed the roles of goddesses in hula dances that took place in temples which were off-limits to women. Mahu were also valued as the keepers of cultural traditions, such as the passing down of genealogies. Kaua'i Iki also told me that traditionally parents would ask mahu to name their children, a custom which she continues to carry out.
  8. It is significant that like Kaua'i Iki, who is of Hawaiian-Filipino-Spanish-Chinese background, none of the other participants in the project who identified as mahu were of 100 percent Hawaiian descent. Nevertheless, each one privileged that side of their ancestry in their search for validation of their gender-variant identity. During our talk Kaua'i Iki told me: 'I believe in my culture; I'm an accepted and integral part of my culture.... Because of assimilation into Western culture and Christianity, less mahus are willing to or want to show their true colours. They're finding it confusing and difficult to act out their role in society today. So they become drag queens or go into prostitution - they go into all of those things that are stereotyped for mahus. And those are only stereotypes because mahus have much more to offer society as a whole. To bring beauty and sunshine and warmth and colour and culture to the world.'
  9. Due to the belief that mahu once occupied an accepted role in 'traditional' Hawaiian culture, today Hawaiian and part-Hawaiian families are generally believed to be more accepting of children who engage in non-normative gendered behaviours than are families of Western and Asian immigrants, although whether or not this is indeed the case is unclear. Furthermore, due to a number of popular press articles in nationally syndicated publications which have drawn attention to the place of mahu in Hawaiian culture, this state has a reputation among gays, lesbians and transgendered people on the United States mainland as being extremely tolerant of sexual minorities. Nevertheless, a great deal of prejudice and discrimination does exist in Hawai'i, particularly against those who are differently-gendered. This occurs for several reasons. First, a significant percentage of the population is devoutly Christian or Mormon. Intolerance towards those who do not follow sanctioned sexual or gendered behaviours is often initiated and maintained by members of the clergy. Second, families of Chinese and Japanese background, of which there are many, also have relatively less tolerant views towards those who are gender-variant. Finally, there is a large number of military personnel stationed on O'ahu. For differently-gendered people who do not pass as women, the potential for verbal or physical harassment by off-duty soldiers is quite high.
  10. Regardless of prejudice and familial non-acceptance, marginalised genders in Hawai'i maintain a visibility not found on the U.S. mainland. In fact, regardless of their ethnic background, locals are coming out at increasingly younger ages, and it has reached the point where some high schools have support groups and social programs just for their differently-gendered students. It was this visibility which led me to begin my oral history project. For in spite of their numbers and the extensive social networks which criss-cross the island, virtually no research has been done about this population in Hawai'i. In particular, I was interested in challenging the local media's consistent linking of differently-gendered people with prostitution. With an active tourist industry and large number of military bases, the commercial sex trade thrives. Many gender-variant local people do find themselves engaging in sex work because it is often the only available means of earning money. However, there are also those who are no longer prostitutes or who have never worked on the streets. Nevertheless, their lives are rarely given attention by the media.
  11. The media focus on prostitution occurs because during election campaigns police, in highly publicised actions, 'clean up' the streets. Likewise, community members occasionally organise with police to get rid of prostitutes in their neighbourhoods. In both instances, stories on gender-variant prostitutes easily make their way into local newspapers and news programmes because of their titillation value. The underlying reasons which cause people to engage in sex work in the first place are seldom examined. Instead, gender-variant prostitutes are represented as nuisances, threats to public morality, or poor unfortunates who need to be religiously saved. The underlying reasons which cause people to engage in sex work in the first place are seldom examined.
  12. I believed that by initiating an oral history project, I could create a forum in which gender-variant people of various ages from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds could talk openly about their experiences of living in Hawai'i. I thought this would provide an understanding of their lives which went beyond a one-dimensional media image. For this project, I gathered participants' stories about their lives by means of in-depth interviews, during which I asked each to speak at length and in detail about her life. Although I began each interview with specific questions, the actual process varied widely. Some participants wished to be prompted with questions, while others preferred to speak at length on their own. Likewise, some focused on particular events or issues which were especially meaningful to them, while others narrated their life histories in a linear fashion.
  13. I chose to use the oral history technique for several reasons. First, it allowed me to get stories from people of very different backgrounds. This was important because I did not have enough time to conduct an in-depth ethnographic study of one particular segment of the larger gender-variant population. That is, due to a planned long-term trip overseas, the window of time I had from the initiation of the project until my departure was approximately six months. My initial interviews occurred through personal contacts; once word spread about my project and that I could be trusted, I found that I was able to easily move within and between a wide range of social networks, some of which had little contact with each other. I approached potential contributors by explaining my desire to change negative images the public has of differently-gendered people. I told them that I believed that their experiences, once transcribed onto paper and bound into book form, had the potential to change attitudes and affect lives. In addition, because they could approve the final draft of their narratives, the contributors knew that they would have total control over how their story appeared in print. This sense of collaboration gave them the confidence that their stories would not be sensationalised, and that particular statements would not be taken out of context. It was this editorial oversight in addition to my demonstration of empathy, respect and a willingness to listen, which allowed contributors to comfortably place their trust in me and the project. The second reason I wanted to collect oral histories is that while this type of project has been done with a multitude of groups, very little has been done with marginalised genders. While there are biographies and autobiographies, particularly of well-known transsexuals and drag queens, there are virtually no books containing a broad range of lengthy first-person experiences of differently-gendered people from various social classes and ethnicities. This absence implies that their stories are not worth hearing. Third, and most importantly, I felt that oral history was a vehicle through which volunteers could gain a measure of personal empowerment. That is, the project allowed each participant to speak directly to the public. Many who took part told me that having the chance to address a reader who is not necessarily sympathetic was very attractive because of the possibility that their stories might change negative attitudes.
  14. Although my goal with the 'O Au No Keia book was to present first-person accounts of what it is like to live as a gender-variant person in Hawai'i, I also recognise that my own presence implicitly pervades the narratives. That is, during interviews I asked contributors specific questions and guided conversations in particular directions. However, I should note that with several participants I modified the process, in that we worked together prior to the interview to come up with a list of questions they felt I should ask. Another way in which I interfered with the answers that came out of the interviews was that I edited them into relatively seamless first-person accounts. This entailed removing my questions and rearranging the internal organisation of the narratives to read smoothly. This also meant shifting and deleting portions, as well as correcting grammar. But at the same time, the participants were also very involved in this process. After my editing was done, I provided each with a written copy of her contribution to proofread and revise. This was necessary because I wanted them to be in control of what would actually appear in print.
  15. Before proceeding, I would like to briefly discuss why I believe oral history is an important research tool, and why it is especially worthwhile when available to the public in book form. First, oral history interviews are a rich source of information which can be utilised not only by researchers, but also by people such as journalists, filmmakers, historians, and activists. This is because oral history can provide extensive firsthand accounts of experiences which are otherwise not available outside of the specific communities of people. This 'writing history from below' allows marginalised people to speak for themselves and, in doing so, two types of stories emerge: individual and communal. First, there are the personal events which were directly experienced by the speaker. But secondly, oral history also preserves what can be called 'oral tradition.' This refers to an ever-increasing communal body of knowledge which, in some cases, has been transmitted over several generations. Rather than personal anecdotes, these stories are told to the narrator of the oral history by someone else, and are about important events or personalities somehow related to the community of which this speaker is a part. This collective property of a group of people is, in a sense, a mythology, as these narratives often focus on themes which have lasting resonance.
  16. As for interpreting oral history narratives, oral history goes well with the theoretical approach called 'grounded theory' as proposed by Barney Glaser.[4] This entails the development of interpretations which are 'grounded' in experience, rather than imposed by theory. That is, one does not begin with a theory, and then prove it. Rather, one begins with an area of study, and what is relevant to that area is allowed to emerge through careful observation. The way this works with oral histories is that by closely reading and comparing narratives, a researcher will flag and categorise patterns and incidents. After identifying properties shared by newly emergent categories, the researcher can begin to construct an explanatory theoretical model which is based on issues relevant to individuals and communities. In addition, there is a reciprocal relationship between oral histories and the creation of future research questions. The more a researcher listens to or reads oral narratives by a specific group of people, the more educated about that group she or he will become. In subsequent interviews, a researcher can utilize this newfound knowledge by directing questions into fruitful areas of inquiry.
  17. Another important aspect of this methodology is its privileging of the spoken word over the written text. In the popular press, the majority of edited collections of first-person experiences are typically made up of written essays. For those who are disinclined to write or too busy to set their thoughts down on paper, participating in an oral history project provides the opportunity to be heard, and to make one's words available for the public record. Hesitant or even negative attitudes towards writing also play into issues of class and education. That is, due to a lack of training or opportunity, some people feel more comfortable expressing themselves in speaking rather than writing.
  18. Story telling has cultural importance as well. For instance, participants presented their life-experiences to me by 'talking story.' This narrative-form is a customary, time-honoured way of expression in Hawai'i. Whether young or old, the ability to tell a good story is a well-respected skill. This love for 'talking-story' can also be seen as a connection to pre-European contact Hawai'i, which was an oral culture. In that society, stories were passed on from generation to generation by means of lengthy, intricate chants.[5]
  19. Role models are also an extremely important issue. During the project I heard over and over again from participants about the lack of role-models, particularly for two groups: youngsters struggling with the decision of whether to come out, and people who have turned to work on the streets for survival. In fact, there are role models available; for instance, there are those who left the Waikiki streets to become counsellors, office-workers, and even lawyers. But it is first necessary for a connection to be made between an inspirational story and the listener who needs to hear it. A book in which these stories are collected makes alternate realties - which offer messages of hope - available to the public. Further, it is vital to preserve the experiences and stories of elders because when they die, they often take their memories with them. One participant lamented that a lot of the younger queens weren't interested in listening to stories about doing drag in 1950s Honolulu. Certainly, if nobody records those stories, they will soon be gone.
  20. I would like to conclude with an example of a life narrative—that of Paige. I believe that reading it will help us to appreciate the courage, determination, and perseverance of a person who publicly transitions into womanhood while living in a society which harshly condemns gender-variant behaviour. Unfortunately, outsiders rarely have the opportunity to learn exactly why such qualities are so necessary. In this sense, oral histories are a wonderful way to present the humanity of a group of people who, in Hawai'i at least, are all too often stereotyped as being prostitutes or sexual deviants. With understanding, comes acceptance.

  21. My name is Paige Peahi. I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai'i and I'm twenty-nine years old. I'm Hawaiian-Portuguese-Chinese. I've been living my life as a transgender for over ten years. I noticed a lot of differences in me at a very young age—in first, second grade. I had a high-pitched voice, boys wouldn't want to hang around with me, girls would constantly hang around with me. So, I had a lot of girl-friends instead of boy-friends. At first I really didn't identify with having a sexual identity, it was just that I felt different. I didn't know what to call it. I felt I was different from the rest of the boys and girls. But I related more to the girls. The boys ... some things about the boys I could relate to, but most of it, no. I didn't know what it was ... I was just completely lost. And so I didn't really put my finger on it, I didn't really dwell on it. I just lived my childhood years. When I got a little older, maybe fourth or fifth grade, then I started to get a lot of teasing: 'Oh, you're a girl, you're a sissy, you're a faggot.' But more so a 'sissy,' because I had a high voice, my voice wasn't deep. I faced a lot of torment growing up ...
  22. My family didn't really react to anything because they were going through their own problems. So they didn't really focus on me. And basically I didn't have ... I did have supervision, but actually I didn't because I got to do whatever I wanted to do. If I came home late, they wouldn't say anything. I pretty much was growing up myself, my own self. But whenever I had any problems, then I would go to my mom. My father didn't really play a role in my life because he was so busy with work. He was a truck driver, with this company for years. He was trying to survive, keep a roof over our heads, food in our mouths, clothes on our backs ... Basically my father taught me how to survive. But he really didn't play a role in my life. Also ... my father was an alcoholic and when he was under the influence, I was afraid of him because of his temper. I was scared, basically, of a person who was under the influence, and I didn't really face it. So I would always go to my mom because she was there to support and guide me. My mom was basically my mother and father.
  23. I didn't really face my sexual identity until I was in the seventh, the ninth grades ... between those years. I was afraid to tell my mom because I didn't want to be rejected. I didn't want to be disowned. I loved my family and I didn't want to lose them. So I really didn't say anything until I graduated from high school. Because the most important thing to me was to graduate from school. And then, when I graduated, I met up with a lot of transgenders who were out already, and they looked good; they looked like females. That's what I wanted to be. And I met Kaui. She became my queen mother. She taught me how to survive on the streets, because that's what they were doing. Basically Kaui just introduced me to a whole different new world that I really didn't know existed. Then when I knew it, that's when I made the move to do my transitioning.
  24. Before I could do my transitioning I went to my mother. Well, actually, I didn't go to my mother. I went to my sister. I have two sisters and a brother; I'm the youngest in the family. And my sisters knew already what I was going to become. But I didn't act on it. So I told my one sister who I'm very close with that I wanted to live my life as a woman. She said, 'Yeah, I knew that. So what do you want me to do?' I asked her, 'Could you go and tell mom, because I'm so afraid to tell her.' So she did. She went to my mom and told her, 'Oh, your son Kaipo wants to live his life as a woman.' My mom was like, 'So? I knew that already!' That was such a relief to me when I heard that—'She said OK? Fine, I'm going.' So I went to the hormone doctors and took my first hormone shot. It was then I just started to live my life.

    * * *

  25. I went to McKinley High School. There were other mahu there. There was only one who was really flamboyant, and her name was Tara. She would wear makeup and dress androgynously. But I didn't want to do it yet because I wanted my friends to hang around with me. Tara didn't have a lot of friends. She would hang around with the girls, but they would usually stay away. She would be by herself. From time to time I would say, 'Hi, how are you doing?' She would say, 'Fine, girl....' We would talk a little while, but then go our own ways.
  26. Growing up, there were other queens who I had met who had the guts to go ahead and dress in female clothing and go to school like that. When I look back now, I wish I had done that. But the reason why I didn't want to do it is because I didn't want to upset my family. Because they're gonna get a call from the school, 'Hey, you know your son is in women's clothing?' So I just didn't want to go through that embarrassment. I didn't want my family to face the embarrassment. So I didn't do it. Because my family was important to me.
  27. I still have my family and they respect me for who I am today. My father passed away about seven years ago from alcohol. I'm kind of upset at my father for going that way because I wanted a family. I wanted my father to be a part of my life, but he had his own issues and his own problems. When he passed away I didn't cry. I just was sad. He did it to himself. And ever since my father died, everything has changed. We don't go to family gatherings anymore. We don't have those things anymore because my father is not alive. His brothers passed away, too. After he died, then a couple of months later his other brother died. So there were no family functions again. Those were the most important and good memories to me, because that was a family thing, because I'm so family-oriented.... Now we don't usually do those kinds of things anymore. That's what I miss the most—the gatherings; seeing all your cousins, telling them how you're doing.
  28. It's a funny and sad thing. When I was just about to transition, that's when my father passed away. So he really didn't get the chance to see me during my transition. But I know that my father, deep down in his heart, knew I was going to be this way. He already knew. Because I have a brother who is not gay, who is straight as can be. So he never worried about my brother. But me.... He picked on me a little.... Actually, I was kind of like his slave, a little bit. He would always tell me to go to the store and buy him cigarettes. So I would always have to do that. I did it because I loved him, because I would do anything for him. That was a way of him accepting me, for me doing something for him. Which is kind of sad.
  29. My family today, we're very tight. When I told my brother, though, he was the difficult one. He was upset. He was not having it. He wanted to beat me up. Right then and there. We were at a family party and I came in full drag—he didn't really dig that. He was upset. Also he was drinking.... So he was getting on my case—he wanted to beat me up right then and there. My sisters came to my rescue and told him to shut up, that he had better not do that because it's my life. They said, 'He does it. Whatever he wants, he'll do. You can't do anything. You cannot change him. Only he can change himself.' My brother was like, 'What about the family name? Who's gonna carry the family name?' And I'm like, 'Wait a minute! You're the one who's going to carry the family name!' He didn't understand that this is what I wanted to be. After that incident I didn't see him for three years, until we had a family reunion. We were all invited so we went. And I looked a little bit more female than I looked before. When he saw me, he didn't recognize me. He was asking my sister, 'Who's that?' My sister told him, 'That's your brother.' He was like, 'What?!' He was shocked. He said, 'Eh.... Bra.... Oh.... OK.... Bra.... You look good.' He was telling me that I looked good, that I looked real. Then he asked me if I was happy, and I said, 'Of course I'm happy.' So he goes, 'Well, that's the main thing.' From that time on, everything was fine. Now they are really accepting. And I'm there, I'm there for my family. Whenever they're in need and they need help, I'm always there. I'll do anything for them.
  30. You know, during elementary school I thought I was by myself, and that there was no one like me. I was going through a struggle. I thought I was the only one. How I discovered myself was.... When I used to go to my family gatherings, there were these two queens who I respected as aunties. They were my cousins-in-law. I didn't know that they were then, but my mom told me that they were mahus, and I said, 'What?' But then it clicked and I thought, 'Oh my gosh!' And I'm there, right next to them, observing everything there is to know about them. They would do shows for my family. Like this one time, my Auntie was impersonating Patti LaBelle and she looked exactly like her—I was standing in front of the stage, just in awe. 'Oh my gosh! Oh wow! Oh my gosh! Look! Look!' I was so excited. I was thinking, 'That's what I want to be!' I would stay there.... They would drink and party with all my aunties there, and I would stay there right next to them and listen to what they would talk about and see how they would act. So I was actually learning how to be a mahu. It got me thinking, 'Oh my God.... OK - now I know what to do with my life.' Everything was confirmed for me. 'I can be this way.'
  31. At this time I was fifteen, sixteen years old. And I would always ask my auntie about them - 'When are they coming back? When are they coming back? When are they gonna come and sing and play 'ukulele?' She would ask why I wanted to know. So I'd say, 'No reason, I just want to see them again.' I always looked forward to all of the family gatherings because they would always be there to entertain. So that's how I got exposed. I could say to myself, 'You know what, I can be this way, too. I can be mahu and an entertainer.'
  32. Later, one of them was the person who became the choreographer for our performance group; she helped us. She wasn't surprised about me. She told me, 'I knew you were gonna be mahu. I knew you were gonna be mahu.' She asked, 'Do you want to be a showgirl?' 'Yes, auntie, I want to be a showgirl.' 'OK, then you've got to do it this way, you've got to work it this way....' So she started to teach all of us. She told her sister about me. 'Remember da kine?'[6] 'Yeah.' 'Well, she's mahu now!' And when she saw me, she said, 'See, when you were young, a young little boy, I knew you were going to be mahu. You were always standing there watching us, how we were acting.' I said, 'Yeah, because I wanted to be like you, but I just didn't know how. How do you get yourselves looking so real?' 'Hormones, Mary, hormones.'[7]

    * * *

  33. It's easier to be transgendered here in Hawai'i. People grow up with mahu and know how they are, like in taking care of the family. So they know what they're capable of. That's part of why my family accepts me for what I am. Because I'm there to help the family. If I were in a family that wasn't Hawaiian, I think I would have a harder time with my sexuality. I think I would probably kill myself, or run away, get away, or something....
  34. When I came out, when I did my transitioning, I met this one sister of mine—we're best friends today—and actually, we were volunteers for the March of Dimes Haunted House. They used to have a haunted house right on Fort Street Mall, the old Crest Building, and so they turned it into a haunted house. I was with my cousins, who were interested in volunteering, and I went with them. So it was our first day of meeting and discussing things. Then this one particular person came in and ... I kind of knew.... He was a little feminine.... We really didn't go up to each other and introduce ourselves until we were starting to put on our makeup for the haunted house. Then he came on over and asked me if I could put on his makeup. So when I was putting on his makeup ... during that time I had long nails, and when I was putting his makeup on I scratched the bottom of his eye—accidentally! I didn't do it purposely. But ever since the time I scratched her eye we clicked and became best friends, right up to today. So we would hang out with each other, and basically we were doing our transitioning together. That's how me and my sister Leikia got together. We're best friends and Kaui is our queen mother. She is the one who taught us the ropes.

    * * *

  35. The most difficult thing about transitioning was dealing with society. Torment. That was my problem. 'How can I deal with this?' So whenever somebody called me names, my feelings got hurt really fast. I was so weak. My heart is so ... so loving, that I'm weak. I get really depressed sometimes when society just really puts me down and tells me that I'm not supposed to be this way. That you're a man. And my mentality was driving me crazy. That's why I turned to drugs—to take away the problems. But they don't! I learned that over the years—they don't. But they helped me build myself, to be stronger. It's nothing to me now when people do those kinds of things to me. To this day I still face it, but not as much as before. But I still face people calling me names. And I'm like, 'Whatever. That's your problem. You deal with it. I know what I am. I'm secure. I love myself. I accept myself for who I am. And if you don't, then get out of my face—You don't have to be in my face.'
  36. When I was doing my transitioning I would have to go to the girls' department.... I traded in my men's underwear for panties, and things like that [laughs]. Which was kind of a bizarre experience, because I would go to the women's department and the women would be like looking at me and giving me looks, and I would be thinking, 'Oh, hurry up! I just want to buy this and get out of here.' I just didn't want to face that. So that was kind of a barrier for me. But I broke that barrier because I was starting to be faithful to my hormone intake, and things like that.

    * * *

  37. Me and my best friend Leikia met other girls who were tall, transgender, queens, mahu, whatever, and then we saw a show called The Glades. A lot of the older girls would tell us stories about it, and that's why we wanted to become entertainers ourselves. We wanted to be just like those girls who were on stage, with lovely costumes and looking so womanly—that's where we wanted to be. So one day we decided to put our own group together. We picked the girls, the ones that we wanted, because we wanted tall girls. We didn't want short girls, because the taller the better. They're more exotic, they're more 'Wow!' They're more 'Ooh! Ah!' So we just came together, and then met this other older girl who had been in those shows—she had actually been the choreographer. So she came on board and taught us everything there was to know about the show that they had before. Actually, the performers taught us the old production numbers that they had learned, so it's like passing it down from generation to generation.
  38. For the first couple of years it was hard because we were just starting out. We didn't have money for costumes, so we had to work it to where we could look at least a little bit decent.... We would go to the Goodwill and Salvation Army and look for dresses. We'd put some glitter on it, put some sequins on it, to make it look more showy. It was a struggle for us, but then we started to get a little bit better, we started to be on it, we started to be more professional—a little bit. And then people would hire us to do parties. Especially Leikia. Her family enjoys entertainment from transgenders because they've been to the Glades.... So the family would hire us to do these shows and we'd get paid. I was like, 'Whoa! This is what I want to do!'
  39. We'd been doing it for years and years, until we decided that we wanted to go into a club. And what came about was, Fusion Waikiki was Garbo's before Fusions, and they used to have a show and ... being young, we would get into the club underage and we would be passable, so we'd get into these clubs and watch these shows. I remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, they are so beautiful.' The show is so lavish. 'That's what I want to be. That's what I'm gonna do.' So we'd been going to the club for years, and then all of a sudden we didn't see any drag shows. That was our opportunity to go to the management and introduce ourselves and tell them that we wanted to perform in their club. That's how we got hired to do Fusion. We are called 'The Gender Bender Lip Gloss Revue'. Actually, the first name we had was Vogue International. I don't know why we named it that.... Then we started to really think about it because we began to get more gigs and were getting more recognised, so we decided on a name. And we've been performing for over five years now.
  40. I like performing because it gives me self-esteem. Being in front in total strangers and just showing them who I am. So it really helped me boost my self-esteem up because it had been kind of low because I didn't know if living this way was a good thing for me or a bad thing for me. But it helped me a lot, because we were performing for families that were straight. So that was a comfortable thing for me. I have learned that they do appreciate us for who we are. That's how I got to feeling, 'Oh my gosh - this is what I wanted!' So it even made me happier and made me feel that I still wanted to do this. I want to have us do it in a hotel, or something. Find a better club than Fusion to house us, to do just daily shows. That's one of our goals. We're still working on that....
  41. As for my personal goals, I want to be a part of an organization that serves transgender people. Because the girls are not getting what they need. And the girls need a lot of help. Our community needs a lot of help. Housing, employment.... There isn't any information about how you deal with being transgender.... The only way they know is through older girls who have already lived the life and experienced a lot of b.s. That's basically how we learn, from the older girls, because they've lived a lot. They've lived through hell for us.... They were paving the way for us and getting society to at least look at our community, because there's no organization that knows how to help transgendered people. The only people who know are the transgenders. Because nobody can go to school for it, nobody can get a degree for it. You have to live it in order for you to understand it. So I want to be everything that they need. I want to be there to help them get through thick and thin. I want them to have a good life, too. I don't want them to miss the opportunities that are out there.

    * * *

  42. Things are really changing in Hawai'i. Ever since we had the Ke Ola Mamo conference in Waikiki[8] we've gotten a lot of respect from a lot of people from all different kinds of fields. We got respect, and that's what we really liked and wanted. That was a good thing, and I think that was a start for us. We're also the pavers and the movers and the shakers. So I think society is more understanding now. They are recognising that we exist now. But there's also the understanding of being transgender. There are misconceptions. People say things that really aren't true. Hearsay. That's what they use and that's what they believe in. When they see a particular transgender and say these kinds of things we wonder, 'What are you saying?'
  43. More and more people are recognising us now because we're out there, we're in their faces, we're in their high schools.... We're teaching them about alternative lifestyles.... So we're doing good. It's about time that somebody did. It's a funny thing.... When I first started at work, we only had Ashli. That was the only transgender who was in Ke Ola Mamo. Of course, they also had an MSM; he was local Hawaiian. But he wasn't really making any progress. Then Ashli started to recruit girls. And when she started to recruit girls, she asked me.... At the time I didn't have a job; I was a prostitute, I was on the streets - That's how I was surviving.
  44. Then Ashli gave me a job. A couple of months later Hina came along. It's a funny thing - we all came together.... There was a purpose for us to all be together because of the wonderful work that we've been doing for Ke Ola Mamo. We're making a difference. We're reaching out to our community, especially the transgenders. And they're really respecting us because this kind of program has never happened before for transgenders. Even the older girls say, 'What happened? Why wasn't there a program for us in those days?' We tell them, 'Well, we have it now. And we need your help. We need your kokua. We want you to be there for us to help the younger generation to live a better life and not go down the wrong road.' So they've been really happy that this has happened. They feel that it's been overdue. But now that we have this program we just hope that it will never finish, that it will still be here for them to come and be a part of. And it's so bizarre! Because when we're together, we say to each other, 'You know, we really do make a difference in people's perspectives and views.' Going to high schools, conferences, explaining to people what a transgender is....
  45. Transgender.... I don't like to identify myself as a transgender because I don't know what is that word. I can identify with mahu because it's a Hawaiian word for us - transgenders. Growing up, that's the word people used. Reading about Hawaiian history, I've noticed that there were mahus in the [Hawaiian] monarchy; they had a place. So I could really identify myself as a mahu in a positive way, not a negative way. The boys would yell, 'Hey, mahu! Mahu!' And they would mean it in a derogatory way. But I can identify myself as mahu. Actually, mahu is either more female or more male, so it's like ... androgynous.
  46. At one time I thought I was a woman, but I don't think I'm a woman now. I'm just right in the middle of everything. That's how I am now. But before I thought I was a woman because society told me I had to be either a male or a female. So I was like, 'OK, I'm gonna identify myself as a female then.' But ever since we had this conference and we heard from older women, kahunas, who told us that we mahu had place, that's when I said, 'Oh, you know what - I'm not a woman. I'm a mahu.' That's my word; I can identify with that. But anytime we go to a meeting, we've got to say that we're transgender, and I'm thinking, 'Oh God, I don't like that word.'

    * * *

  47. Don't judge a book by its cover. You have to look within a person. You have to get to know a person; that's the only way you're going to know. You cannot just look at that person and say that the person is stupid, mental, I don't get it. If you don't get it, ask the person. Be friendly. We're people, we're human, we're people. And another thing, too. If they see a transgender doing bad things, don't think that all transgenders are like that. They're responsible for their own actions, like everybody else is. Because I notice that a lot of people think like this. They've experienced a transgender who was getting really obnoxious, so they think every mahu is like that. No. N.O. No. There are a lot of transgenders out there who are nice, and there are the bad ones, too. But you've got to understand - they're at a different level. They're going through their phases, whatever that might be. Problems, whatever. And all transgenders are at all different levels. So you've got to see it and relate to it.
  48. Families trying to deal with a transgender son or daughter need to be really nurturing. They can't be telling them that they cannot do that. Do you remember being in school when you were young and the teacher asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up? The parents should let them do that, let them be what they want to be. Accept them for what they want to be. Whether it's being a police officer, or ... whatever it may be. Because that's how we're taught—how do you want to be? I always wanted to say, 'I want to be a woman,' but that wasn't realistic when I was young.
  49. For you men out there, don't think that just because a queen stares at you, it means that they want you sexually. And being that you're straight and that you're not into that, you need to recognise something—we're not always going to be into you. So for those men out there who think, 'Ugh,' with that kind of reaction towards transgenders, don't think that transgenders are necessarily interested in you. They're just looking at something which is beautiful or handsome. Take it as a compliment, not as a put-down or negative thought. But when men say something like, 'Ugh,' I know that deep down inside it's a fetish for them.
  50. The ones who are the most negative are the ones who really want to have a sexual relationship with a transgender, one way or another. On the street.... Oh my gosh—Yes! I mean, these were my classmates! The ones that hated me the most wanted to have sexual relationships with me. I just gagged—I was just totally tripped out that this guy had been teasing me for so long, and the reason he did it was because he just wanted me to do a sexual thing with him. That was so ridiculous! But it's the pride, the macho-ness, the masculinity. I'm just like, 'Get over it!' They need to be mellow, they need to mellow out.
  51. And women—they think that we're taking all the men. No, we're not taking all the men because the men are going back to them anyway. Because they're women, they can have children, they can have a family. I think I know that for a fact, men leave [their mahu partners]. Listening to a lot of the older girls, in their relationships, and how long their relationships last, I believe it's true because it's happened to a lot of older girls. I never did hear about even one relationship to where they've lived through their whole lives. Like how a man and woman have a relationship, get married, those kinds of things. I'm not really worried about that because I'm happy being by myself. I have a relationship with a guy who was straight—and I consider him straight—and we have a really good friendship because that's what I told him I wanted most of all—his friendship. Not a sexual relationship. Of course that plays a role in it. But I told him that I wanted his friendship most of all because that lasts a long time.
  52. For me, I don't want the surgery. I'm happy the way I am. And my boyfriend accepts me for what I am. If I really did get the surgery, I don't think it would last long. If he really wanted a woman, he could've gone out there and gotten one. But he chose me. Why? Because I'm different.


    [1] Paige presents herself in public as a woman, and prefers that people refer to her using female pronouns.

    [2] I would like to the thank the anonymous reviewers whose insightful and challenging comments forced me to rethink several of my basic assumptions. For a series of articles which critically examine the construction and use(s) of the term 'transgender,' see the special issue 'What is Transgender?' in the International Journal of Transgenderism 4, 3, July-September 2000, accessed 23 July 2001. In particular, see Michael 'Miqqi Alicia' Gilbert's essay, 'The Transgendered Philosopher', accessed 23 July 2001.

    [3] The first settlers of what is today known as Polynesia began arriving over a thousand years ago in a series of migrations which are believed to have originated from Southeast Asia. At present, one can only speculate to what extent, if any, Southeast Asian models of transgenderism were transmitted to the various Polynesian cultures. For discussions concerning indigenous forms of transgenderism in peninsular Southeast Asia, see Ian Wilson, 'Reog Ponorogo: Spirituality, Sexuality, and Power in a Javanese Performance Tradition,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 2, May, (1999); Josko Petkovic, 'Waiting for Karila: Bending Time, Theory and Gender in Java and Bali,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 2, May, (1999); and Carolyn Brewer, 'Baylan, Asog, Transvestism, and Sodomy: Gender, Sexuality and the Sacred in Early Colonial Philippines,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context 2, May, (1999).

    For an introduction to cross-gender behaviour in Polynesia, see Deborah Elliston, 'Negotiating Transnational Sexual Economies: Female Mahu and Same-Sex Sexuality in 'Tahiti and her Islands',' in Female Desires: Same Sex Relations and Transgender Practices Across Cultures, ed. Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999, pp. 230-50; and Niko Besnier, 'Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space,' in Third Sex, Third Gender, ed. Gilbert Herdt, New York: Zone, 1994, pp. 285-328.

    [4] Barney Glaser, Basics of Grounded Theory Analysis: Emergence vs Forcing, Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press, 1992. See also Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, Chicago: Aldine, 1967.

    [5] I do not mean to imply that oral narratives are more 'true' than those which are written. Spoken accounts, which are produced in specific contexts for various purposes and audiences, are just as constructed and partial as are written accounts.

    [6] This is a pidgin word used to refer to something without actually naming it.

    [7] Queens often refer to one another with this term.

    [8] Ke Ola Mamo is the name of the Native Hawaiian health care system on O'ahu, for which Paige works. In October 1999, members of Ke Ola Mamo organized a conference in Waikiki devoted to transgender issues in the Native Hawaiian community. Prior to the conference, few people within either the Native Hawaiian health care system or the Native Hawaiian community at large had taken these issues seriously.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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