The ground floor of the open-air market at Raiatea is filled with vendors hawking exotic fruits stacked high on long wooden tables; several coolers of the mornings catch feature bonito, tuna and Dorado on crushed ice. Shaded from the mid-morning heat, an occasional ocean breeze blows the brightly flowered cloths stapled to the tables, revealing plywood boxes of even more fruit below. Shafts of sunlight slice the piles of yams and coconuts, mangos and bananas from skylights overhead. Business on a midweek morning is light but steady; the clientele mostly upscale French expatriates and sailors wandered over from the nearby marina. Talk among the wide, smiling women doing the selling is soft; mostly they sit quietly on tall stools, waving themselves with bamboo fans.
A wide balcony rims the two-story market and is chocked with stalls selling shells and woodcarvings, black pearls and pareos, mostly to tourists. A ukulele band plays in one corner. I prefer the fresh fruit scene if merely because after eight years it feels like I’ve seen every possible kind of knick-knack made from sandalwood, woven palm and batik. I do stop to bang a stick on a wooden drum, not paying much attention to the salesperson until a big woman with a big voice asks if I’d like a demonstration of how to play the drum. Looking up I am reminded of something still very unique to Polynesia: The sales person is tall, with thick arms, definitely not a woman though he wears a distinctly feminine pareo. His hair is long and braided, his beard has been plucked and he’s not shy about the very-male belly pooching from beneath his cut-off t-shirt.
Transgenderism is alive and well across French Polynesia, as it was long before Gauguin arrived. On the big island of Tahiti many of the maitre d’s in the best restaurants are men dressed as women; on the smaller islands – like Raiatea – they most often work in shops. Discrimination is kept mostly quiet. There are four or five working in the stalls on the balcony this morning, accepted by locals, standing out only to visitors.
Known as mahu, one theory is that the eldest male in a family was often raised to be feminine because work for women was more reliable, insuring the family a breadwinner. In small communities, only one mahu was allowed. But I’m going to let an expert fill in some details: Roberta Perkins is a transgender, living in Australia:
“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 behaviors 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 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 Hawaii 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 mahu 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 Hawaii even had them dwell near his house because he considered them lucky, and in Tahiti every village had one mahu because it was thought to be fortunate for the village.
“The universal incidence of transgenders across Polynesia is a remarkable phenomenon, especially when in neighboring Melanesia (New Guinea, the Solomon’s, 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 mahu. 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 mahu’s genitals with his starchy white-gloved hands.
“An unexplained phenomenon on Tahiti was that just one, and only one, mahu 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 mahus in one place. I’ve traveled around Huahine (the Society or Tahitian Islands) and I haven’t seen two mahus 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 mahu 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 mahu growing up in a village, which already had an established older mahu, may have been forced to seek a village where none existed. Another suggestion is that the community, who selected a boy to be raised as a girl to replace the established mahu when she passed on, made a mahu. The question remains, though, what criteria was used for this selection? However it was achieved, mahus were accorded great respect and dignity.
“Bligh observed: ‘The women treat him (mahu) 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 mahus on the Marquesas Islands, while another ethnographer, Donald Marshall, said much the same for Cook Islanders, and by all accounts it was similar on Hawaii. On Mangaia, the mahus 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 mahus 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 mahu was pointed to as neither wholly man nor wholly woman. However, this does not explain the presence of mahus in more warlike societies such as the Marquesans, the Hawaiians or the Maoris, where the sexes were clearly defined by the warrior status of men.
“The mahu 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. Mahus no longer have the respect of their communities and many have migrated to such cities as Papeete, Fagatongo, 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 mahus 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.”