Cross-dressers, queer concubines, and the Sin of Onan — the Hawaii of pre-European contact had it all.
Most LGBT travelers to Hawaii think of the islands as a languid society, a “hang loose” place of tolerant politics where cultural differences are easily celebrated. But few tourists realize just how queer Hawaii actually was before the Europeans showed up.
It was in 1779 that the celebrated South Seas explorer Captain Cook became the first official non-Polynesian to happen upon Hawaii. It was while on the Big Island that Cook met his death after a skirmish with the natives. But before his demise, his crew kept detailed journals of the island’s strange goings-on. They learned of concubines (often male) whose business, as the journals put it, “is to commit the Sin of Onan upon the old King”—a reference to oral sex. “It is an office that is esteemed honourable among them,” continued the shocked log writer, “and they have frequently asked us on seeing a handsome young fellow if he was not an Ikany [aikane] to some of us.”
The Hawaiian word aikane referred to a whole rank of people who were granted special political and social status as a result of a sexual role with the royalty, and who increased their mana, or spiritual power, this way, since royals were believed to be descended from the gods. Cook’s sailors recorded the kings of Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island all having male aikane. “A shocking inversion of the laws of nature, they bestow all those affections upon them that were intended for the other sex,” gasped one log entry. “They talk of this infernal practice with all the indifference in the world.”
To underscore the point, the great uniter of the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha, even kept his own aikane, according to the ship’s logs: “He with many of his attendants took up quarters on board the ship for the Night: among them is a Young Man of whom he seems very fond, which does not in the least surprise us, as we have had opportunities before of being acquainted with a detestable part of his Character which he is not in the least anxious to conceal.”
In context, it’s no surprise the Hawaiians were so fluid with their sexuality. Private property in terms of marriage was unheard of, and mates were merely given the poetic label of noho ai, or “one to lie with.” Many scholars have said that old Hawaii was neither purely a heterosexual nor homosexual, but a bisexual culture. Same-sex relationships were evidently frequent, and many men and women had close friends or “favorites” that were at times involved sexually. No particular shame was associated with same-gender sex at all, and sodomy was not considered wrong. The words ho`okamaka and moe aikane were common terms used to denote same-sex relations. The more explicit way to put it was upi laho, which translates to something like testicle pressing, or literally “scrotum squirting.”
Another notable queer aspect of old Hawaiian culture that is still strong today is the concept of the mahu. Transvestitism is common in parts of Polynesia, where men choose to don women’s apparel, grow up as a girl, and even become a wife of another man, sometimes even cutting his/her thighs to “menstruate.” Some traditions dictate that a male, usually a younger brother, is compelled to take on the feminine role of family caretaker when a suitable daughter is lacking. Whether or not that connotes homosexuality is not important. Mahu hold a necessary role in the communal family and are usually not outcasts in Polynesian society.
Now that modern media and politics have flooded Hawaiian culture, the word mahu is often used in a derogatory way to describe an effeminate man, or a gay man in general. But the mahu tradition refuses to go away: An annual transvestite beauty pageant, The Universal Show Queen, packs in crowds in mainstream Waikiki hotels. And Kim Coco Iwamoto, who is transgender, holds a seat on the state’s board of education — the highest office ever for an elected transgender person in United States. So there is hope that history will repeat itself, and the 50th state can draw on its ancient traditions to become a trailblazer of tolerance in the 21st century.
Adapted from The Out Traveler: Hawaii by Matthew Link, Alyson Books, 2008. Visit Alyson.com to purchase.