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Like a Lady in Polynesia

The Māhū of Tahiti, the Fa'a Fafine in Samoa, the Fakaleiti in Tonga and More

by Roberta Perkins
Article appeared in Polare magazine: March 1994 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: September 2015

The early Europeans visitors to the Society Islands were amazed to find Tahitian males who lived as women and were totally accepted in this role by the island community.

... the condoned social condition of males living as women existed right across the many islands of Polynesia, from Hawaiʻi to New Zealand and from Tonga to Easter Island.

Tahiti has long had a romantic reputation for sexual permissiveness. Indeed, young people were encouraged to freely engage in sex and experiment with various sexual behaviours with many partners as a precondition of later satisfactory marriage. And, as 18th and 19th century seafarers discovered, Europeans were considered most desirable by Tahitian girls because their white skins indicated they were gods and nothing could be better than giving birth to a demigod.

The early Europeans visitors to the Society Islands (of which the island of Tahiti is one) were also amazed to find Tahitian males who lived as women and were totally accepted in this role by the island community. They were soon to discover that the condoned social condition of males living as women existed right across the many islands of Polynesia, from Hawaiʻi to New Zealand and from Tonga to Easter Island.

There is an amusing tale about a sailor aboard the British frigate Mercury in 1789 who on making a short stop at Tahiti was smitten by a beautiful dancing girl. He gave gifts of beads, combs and other knick-knacks in the hope of pleasing her and then persuading her to go with him on board the ship. She consented, but to his surprise (perhaps shock) when she removed her lap-lap the body of a young male stood before him. The Tahitians showed their obvious enjoyment of the episode by laughing aloud on the beach at the sailor's embarrassment. Such was often the way Englishmen were introduced to the māhū of Tahiti, the fa'a fafine in Samoa, the fakaleiti in Tonga, or other terms for them on the other islands, which was often followed by much mirth on the part of the islanders. Perhaps the nearest interpretation to these terms is that given by Samoans when asked about the fa'a fafine, which is like a lady, you know 50/50. So, in traditional Polynesian societies male-to-female transgenders were not seen as women, but as something in between. Nevertheless, they were widely accepted by the Polynesians. King Kamehameha I of Hawaiʻi even had them dwell near his house because he considered them lucky, and in Tahiti every village had one māhū because it was thought to be fortunate for the village.

The universal incidence of transgenders across Polynesia is a remarkable phenomenon, especially when in neighbouring Melanesia (New Guinea, the Solomons, New Caledonia, Fiji etc) individuals changing gender were almost unknown in pre-European days (although ceremonial transvestism, homosexuality and male pederasty was prevalent and widespread), Perhaps, the concept of gender crossing had not occurred to the older island settlers of Melanesia, whereas, the newer Polynesians, who arrived in the Pacific only about 500 years ago, may have brought the idea with them from South East Asia, where gender crossing has been an important function in traditional societies there for many millennia.

For the English, French and Dutch seafarers who visited the South Pacific Islands in the 18th century, confronting the Polynesian transgenders was a mixture of shock, fascination and repulsion. The best reports of these early contacts come from the H.M.S. Bounty expedition to Tahiti (1789 - 91) under Captain William Bligh. One of his officers, Lt. Morrison, wrote: "They have a set of men called māhū. These men are in some respects like the eunuchs of India but they are not castrated. They never cohabit with women but live as they do. They pick their beards out and dress as women, dance and sing with them and are as effeminate in their voice. They are generally excellent hands at making and painting of cloth, making mats and every other woman's employment" Being a thorough gentleman who considered it his duty to investigate everything, Captain Bligh's curiosity got the better of him "I found with her a person, who although I was certain was a man, had great marks of effeminacy about him and created in me certain notions which I wished to find out ... The effeminacy of this persons speech induced me to think he had suffered castration ... Here the young man took his mantle off which he had about him to show me the connection. He had the appearance of a woman, his yard and testicles being so drawn in under him, having the art from custom of keeping them in this position ... On examining his privacies I found them both very small and the testicles remarkable so, being not larger than a boy's five or six years-old, and very soft as if in a state of decay or a total incapacity of being larger, so that in either case he appeared to me as effectually a Eunuch as if the stones were away." One can imagine old stiff and proper Captain Bligh in full dress uniform fingering the māhū genitals with his starchy white gloved hands.

An unexplained phenomenon on Tahiti was that just one, and only one māhū resided in each village at any one time. As one Tahitian pointed out: "When one dies then another substitutes ... God arranges it like that ... It isn't allowed ... two māhū in one place. I've travelled around Huahine (the Society or Tahitian Islands) and I haven't seen two māhū in one place. I never saw it." How this phenomenon worked is still a mystery, but obviously some sociological mechanism must have been at work in each village to ensure that not more than one māhū lived there at a time. Since, as we know the desire to change gender is spontaneous and not an orderly event, how then did such precision occur on cue? Perhaps a young māhū growing up in a village which already had an established older māhū may have been forced to seek a village where none existed. Another suggestion is that a māhū was made by the community, who selected a boy to be raised as a girl to replace the established māhū when she passed on. The question remains, though, what criteria was used for this selection? However it was achieved, māhū were accorded great respect and dignity.

Bligh observed: "The women treat him (māhū) as one of their sex, and he observed every restriction that they do, and is equally respected and esteemed." Anthropologist Robert Suggs reported a similar attitude towards māhū on the Marquesas Islands, while another ethnographer, Donald Marshall, said much the same for Cook Islanders, and by all accounts it was similar on Hawaiʻi. On Mangaia, the māhū were not only well regarded by the rest of the population, but they excelled at women's tasks, sang in an excellent high pitch falsetto and were better dancers than all other women. Anthropologist Robert Levy claimed that the māhū on Tahiti served as an object lesson for demarcating the sexes. Since the sex roles were similar in many respects and some tasks were performed equally by men and women, the māhū was pointed to as neither wholly man nor wholly woman. However, this does not explain the presence of māhū in more warlike societies such as the Marquesans, the Hawaiʻians or the Maoris, where the sexes were clearly defined by the warrior status of men.

According to Captain Bligh: "These people (māhū), says Tynah, are particularly selected when boys and kept with the women solely for the caresses of the men ... Those who he connected with him have their beastly pleasures satisfied between his thighs, but they are no farther sodomites as they all positively deny the crime." Indeed, it seems that anal sex, even in heterosexual relations was not practised in Tahiti. The māhū then was a diversion for oral sex, since many Tahitian men claimed that it's just like doing it with a woman, but his (māhū) way of doing it is better than with a woman ... When you go to a woman it is not always satisfactory. When you go to the māhū it's more satisfactory. The sexual pleasure is very great." However, fellatio was not reciprocal, as one Tahitian explained: "I was "done" by a māhū ... He "ate" my penis. He asked me to suck his. I did not suck it ... He offered me money. I said I would hit him. I did not want that sort of thing, it is disgusting." Despite this, there was a Tahitian belief that semen is like a vitamin supplement. "(māhū) really believe that (semen) is first class food for them," said one Tahitian man. "Because of that māhū are strong and powerful. The seminal fluid goes throughout his body ... I've seen many māhū and I've seen that they are very strong." Sodomy was also denied by other islanders. The mangaians, for example, thought anal sex ridiculous, yet were quick to point out that it took place on the other Cook Islands. It is possible, of course, that the Polynesians were quick to realise the disgust with which white men regarded sodomy, and in their eagerness to accommodate them as trading partners flatly denied any such behaviour in their community. So, Europeans began to view māhū not as substitute women, nor as sodomites, but as an alternative sexual arrangement for the sole gratification of men.

As for the incidence of female-to-male transgenders across Polynesia, it seems to have been unknown, or, at least, rare, for anthropologist Donald Marshall was told of the existence of women who insisted on doing men's work (though not cross-dressed), on Mangaia, though he had never seen one.

The māhū tradition continues today on Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga and the other islands, but due to the intrusions of white missionaries to Polynesia in the 19th century it is much modified from its pre-European development. māhū no longer have the respect of their communities and many have migrated to such cities as Papeete, Fagatogo, Nukualofa, Auckland and Honolulu, where transgender subcultures similar to those in Australian cities have formed. But the western cultural influence in these cities has resulted in the derogatory image of "drag queen" and the kind of persecutions that we transgenders in Australia are familiar with. As a consequence, some māhū have returned to their traditional communities where, in spite of a predominance of judgmental Christian dogma, at least the extremes of western oppression do not exist.

Māhū of Tahiti

From the A.B.C. "Foreign Correspondent" website: External Link In the South Pacific island paradise of Tahiti - traditionally a conservative place with a missionary background - reporter Trevor Bormann finds a society that's not only multi-cultural and multi-lingual - it's also multi-sexual. He meets the Māhū - Polynesia's "third sex": people of 'ambiguous gender' who physically remain men but act like women. The Māhū have been a part of Polynesian life for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. "Its always been the case in some families that the eldest boy would be raised as a girl" says Bormann. "The Māhū take on traditional female roles like cooking and helping to raise the children". Māhū are not just tolerated in Tahiti culture, they hold a very special place in it. They are thought to possess the virtues of both men and women. In modern Tahiti effeminate men are maintaining the custom and role with pride. "I am proud of being a Māhū because in Polynesia we belong and we are recognised in this society", says Coco, a māhū. "We belong in everyday life." But the māhū tradition is struggling. When thousands of French soldiers arrived for the nuclear testing program there weren't enough local women to entertain them so many māhū turned to prostitution. As Bormann reports, it's given a traditional phenomenon a very bad name.

© Copyright A.B.C. Television "Foreign Correspondent"
Series 14: Episode 28 Tuesday 22nd March 2005
Reporter: Trevor Bormann

Fa'afafine of Samoa

From Wikipedia External Link Fa'a fafine are the gender liminal, or third-gendered people of Samoa. A recognized and integral part of traditional Samoan culture, fa'a fafine, born biologically male, embody both male and female gender traits. Their gendered behaviour typically ranges from extravagantly feminine to mundanely masculine. Fa'a fafine are known for their hard work and dedication to the family, in the Samoan tradition of tautua. Ideas of the family in Samoa and Polynesia are markedly different from Western constructions of family, and include all the members of a sa, or a communal family within the fa'amatai family systems. It is a mistake to attribute a Western interpretation and mislabel the fa'a fafine as "gay" or "homosexual". In Samoa, the people claim that there is no such thing as being "gay" or "homosexual". Fa'a fafine, as a third gender, have sexual relationships almost exclusively with men who do not identify as fa'a fafine, and sometimes with women. This third gender is so well accepted in Samoan culture that most Samoans state that they have friendship relationships with at least one fa'a fafine. Traditionally Fa'afafine follow the training of a women's daily work in an Aiga. Being a fa'a fafine is said to be thoroughly enjoyable by this group. Many would state that they "loved" engaging in feminine activities as children, such as playing with female peers, playing female characters during role play, dressing up in female clothes, and playing with female gender-typical toys. This is in contrast to women who stated that they merely "liked" engaging in those activities as children. Some fa'a fafine recall believing they were girls in childhood, but knew better as adults. There is little to no ridicule of or displeasure with a biologically male child who states he is a girl in Samoa. For instance, one study showed only a minority of parents (20%) tried to stop their fa'a fafine sons from engaging in feminine behaviour. Being pushed into the male gender role is upsetting to many fa'a fafine. A significant number stated that they "hated" masculine play, such as rough games and sports, even more than females did as children.

Further Information

A.B.C.: Fa'afafine - Samoan boys brought up as girls External Link
Redefining Fa'afafine: Western Discourses and the Construction of Transgenderism in Samoa External Link
Pacific Beat Street Episode 167 - What is a Fa'afafine (Video) External Link

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