Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 8, October 2002
Andrew Matzner

'O Au No Keia:
Voices from Hawai'i's Mahu and Transgender Communities

USA: Xlibris Corporation, 2001.
Paperback, 293 pp., ISBN 0-7388-6161-8

reviewed by Sam Winter

  1. Recently, while searching for works on transgender, I found 235 humanities studies conducted over the last ten years. Unfortunately, nearly 90 per cent of these focused on North American and European transgender, with much of them springing from a psychopathology framework, foisting relatively superficial methods of study upon large samples and seeking to make grand generalisations. These generalisations may not even tell us much about the experience of transgender in North America and Europe. They tell us even less about the experience of transgender elsewhere.
  2. Andrew Matzner has been working in the field of transgender for some time and much of his work has so far been available on his 'Transgender in Thailand' web site, now a major resource for those researching transgender in Asia. Taking an oral history, qualitative, approach in terms of methodology in his new book, 'O Au No Keia: Voices from Hawai'i's Mahu and Transgender Communities, he gives voice to a number of transgendered people. Through this case study, he demonstrates how responses to transgender are socially, culturally and historically contingent. He also shows that we in the 'West' have a lot to learn, not only about transgenders but also about ourselves, from the ways in which other societies actually respond to transgender.
  3. The book, 'O Au No Kei, which means 'This is Me', provides a vehicle by which MtF [male to female] transgenders (diverse in age and life circumstances) living on Oahu (the most densely populated island of Hawai'i) tell their life stories and reflect upon the transgendered experience. His fifteen informants include ten locally-raised (but ethnically diverse) Hawaiian mahu [the local term for MtF transgenders], four Anglo-Saxon transgenders who came to Hawaii at some point in their lives, and one other who was born and raised on Oahu. A black and white posed photo of each informant accompanies each chapter.
  4. Matzner's idea for the book came from a radio news report about some Oahu residents protesting against prostitution (largely transgendered) in their neighbourhood. It occurred to him that the residents seemed to have little understanding of the factors that might drive some members of the transgendered community into prostitution and that, there being little hope of the residents and transgenders sitting down to get to know each other, a book such as this might perform the same purpose.
  5. Matzner's open interview method allows his informants to focus on what is salient for them, rather than foisting upon them a research agenda of his own. After each interview, his informants are presented with a written transcript to proofread and verify, which, the author argues, puts them in control of the process, letting them act as their own historians. Beyond being in keeping with the accepted ethics of fieldwork, the method echoes Hawaii's ages-old oral traditions, and allows readers a glimpse of his informants' lives in a way that is quite rare in transgender literature.
  6. Matzner's method is simple. He switches on the tape recorder and lets each interviewee talk, prompting them with questions only where necessary to keep the dialogue going. He allows his informants to focus on what is salient for them, rather than foisting upon them a research agenda of his own. After the interview, he makes a point of presenting a written transcript to each informant, allowing each to proofread and correct, arguing that in this way he puts them in control of the process, letting them act as their own historians.
  7. Some of his informants tell their stories in the Hawaiian vernacular. They employ words that may be difficult for non-Hawaiians (e.g. aikane [friends], haole [Caucasian, foreigner], 'ohana [family], mana [divine power], for non-Americans (e.g. 'The Imperial Court' is a national gay/lesbian fund raising community, p [good, positive, beautiful]) or for those not familiar with transgender culture (e.g. t [transgender], muffy [effeminate], clocked [recognised]). Matzner provides a glossary to help the reader navigate this sort of vocabulary.
  8. The book conveys a sense of how special Hawaii is as a place in which transgenders can grow up and live. On one hand Hawaii is a very multicultural society. The rich cultural mix is reflected in the ancestries of Matzner's informants, which are Filipino, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic, Portuguese, Native American, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon, as well as indigenous Hawaiian. One senses that this multiculturalism may have bred in contemporary Hawaiian society a tolerance towards minorities of all kinds; including transgender. On the other hand the informants make perfectly clear that in any case indigenous Hawaiian culture traditionally accepted, even respected, the mahu, affording her a valued social role in society.

      Hina: Mahu, in our communities now, are known to be a lot of things. One of the good things is that they are the caregivers. They will either care for the young, the babies and kids around the house, or they will care for the elderly, which is something I did. Or they are the teachers. They teach hula, crafts, lei-making, chanting, singing. They sew clothes, they clean the house. ... Mahu are, in many ways, the keepers of the Hawaiian culture because they know the chants. Mahu are the ones who teach hula, the stories, the mo'elelo, of all the different places. They remember all the aunties and uncles, they know the genealogies. And they're the talented ones in the family. Or at least the most recognised ones (221).

    The consequence is that Hawaiian society appears to accept transgender to an extent unusual elsewhere in the developed world, though common enough in places like Thailand.

      Ashliana (upon meeting her mother after a long absence, during which she has made her transition). In the morning I took a taxi to my aunt's house and walked up to the front door. My mother looked straight at me and asked if I was her son. I said 'Yes mum, its me'. She reached out and hugged me so hard and long that I was out of breath. Then we sat for a long time (211).

  9. True, the mahu telling their stories in this book tell tales of being teased, harassed and bullied. Yet throughout one also sees parents who, despite initial misgivings or concern for the welfare of their child, accept the life that their child has chosen; siblings who learn (eventually) to enjoy their new sister; high-school teachers who show kindness to their unusual students; and older mahu who become queen mothers', taking upon themselves the role of mentor; and community-minded transgenders actively involved in taking issues of transgender into the schools, and offering support to mahu through hotlines, safe-houses, vocational training and education.
  10. The book also shows, however, that traditional attitudes towards the mahu are under threat from the modern mainstream American culture (Anglo-Saxon, Christian and urban in its nature, but increasingly global in its reach) which sees humanity in terms of two genders (each associated with a biological sex), which views anyone who steps outside those categories as disordered or deviant (bringing to bear its own tradition, a psychiatric one, that marks a transgender as fundamentally flawed) and ends up marginalising him/her.
  11. A consequence of all of this is that the very word mahu today is a pejorative term; employed in unkind taunts and insults. Significantly, the term has been somewhat erased from local accounts of culture. In an epilogue Matzner tells of stones on Waikiki beach that commemorate the story of four healers. The stones are under the care of the City and County of Honolulu, and a plaque tells the tale without at any point mentioning a key fact; that these healers were mahu. Matzner presents the suppression of this information as an allegory for transgenderism in present day Hawaiian society; something that mainstream society would now rather not know about.
  12. One of the saddest symptoms of these changing times is that the term mahu is occasionally disowned or viewed somewhat ambivalently by some local transgenders themselves.

      Jennifer: I don't really feel passable right now. But I still feel like a woman inside.... And as for the word "mahu"—I do not like that word at all (270).

      Hina: I hated the word mahu. There's just a lot of stigma attached to the word mahu. That was a the last thing I would want to be called. I hate to be called fag, queer, homo, gay, sissy, bend-over buddy ... you know, the typical stuff. And they fly it at you when you're not expecting it. But actually I would rather be called mahu than any of those other name (219).

  13. Life the is not easy for the mahu. One of the themes going through this book (one that Matzner picks up on himself) is that almost all his mahu informants had at some time been involved in prostitution, often dropping out of school as a result of adjustment problems associated with their gender, finding it difficult to get jobs elsewhere, and simply needing money to support their transition. Another reason for the street work is proffered by one of the informants.

      Hina: Why do the girls have risky behaviours? Because this is their only chance to be with somebody who wants to pay attention to them, even it's only for a sexual favor. If you tie that back into culture, you've got to use our native culture which tells us that we had a place. And which tells us that we had a place. And which tells us that we were all right. We were the spiritual people, the spiritual keepers, officiating over the spiritual matters of the land (225).

    On a note of optimism, the word mahu is enjoying somewhat of a contemporary renaissance as many Hawaiian transgenders, taking advantage of a resurgent Hawaiian cultural movement, attempt to reoccupy their traditional place in society.

      Kaua'i ki: I give my fullest to my culture when I can be myself by acting out the roles I am supposed to. For example, naming children. Doing all the different things which traditionally were—and still are—for mahu to do. People come to me to ask me to name their children. That's what I'm here for, that's my role. I don't have any other purpose other than to act out my role. And if it's my role to be mahu then it's my role. I accept it graciously. It's not an easy role to play. It's even more difficult because of Westernization and Christianity. It's harder to be in that role and feel comfortable. But I do it (44).

  14. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of these accounts is that some of Matzner's informants seem comfortable with an identity as mahu, are happy to remain mahu, and reject the very notion of sex-reassignment surgery.

      Kaua'i ki: I'm known not just in the mahu community, but also in the community at large, in the hula community. They know I'm mahu. I want them to know I'm mahu. I am mahu, and I am proud. What are you going to do? I cannot help how I look. I'm only enhancing what the Lord has given me. What the gods have given me, I just work with (47).

      Paige: 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 (150).

  15. Matzner says his goal in writing this book was to promote understanding of transgenders among those who are not, but also to empower transgenders themselves. He wanted to challenge stereotypical notions of transgendered as prostitutes and sexual deviants and portray them first of all as humans.
  16. In the aims he set for himself in this book Matzner is entirely successful. What he allows us to see are ordinary individuals growing up with a difference. We see also that the difference brings pain to the individual (becomes 'dysphoric') only to the extent that family, friends and society find themselves unable to accept that difference. We see people who have struggled to create lives for themselves, perhaps pursuing a Ph.D., maybe returning to school or college to get the education they missed out on first time round, perhaps taking care of a family, or indeed getting involved in the transgender community as queen mothers or through involvement in transgender organisations.
  17. How could the book be improved? Well, there are a few typos. More substantially, one might wish Matzner had employed some informants from islands other than Oahu. One suspects that on the off-shore islands one might get a clearer view of old mahu culture. One might also wish, having read the book, to hear family members tell of their reactions to their transgendered kin. But that would be another book, with other aims.


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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