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The culture and traditions of Hawaii are rich and complex. Among the many facets of Hawaiian culture is the concept of mahu, which has origins in native Polynesian identity and gender variance.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Mahu is a Hawaiian term referring to those who embody both male and female spirit and exhibit both masculine and feminine traits. Historically, mahu were respected and valued in traditional Hawaiian society.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the meaning and significance of mahu in Hawaii. We will examine the origins and history of the mahu identity, look at how mahu individuals were viewed and treated in ancient Hawaiin culture, and discuss the evolution of the role of mahu into present-day Hawaiian society.

The Origins and Meaning of Mahu

Mahu is a term that holds significant cultural and historical significance in Hawaii. It refers to individuals who embody both masculine and feminine qualities, blurring the traditional gender boundaries. Understanding the origins and meaning of Mahu provides valuable insights into the rich Polynesian culture and its embrace of gender diversity.

Etymology and Literal Definition

The word “Mahu” originates from the Hawaiian language and its literal translation means “in the middle” or “in between.” This definition perfectly captures the essence of individuals who identify as Mahu, as they exist outside the binary understanding of gender. Their unique identity challenges societal norms and offers a fresh perspective on gender roles.

Connection to Polynesian Identity and Gender Diversity

Mahu individuals have long been an integral part of Polynesian societies, including Hawaii. They have historically played important roles as healers, counselors, and caretakers. Mahu are deeply connected to the land, sea, and spiritual practices, contributing to the cultural fabric of Hawaii.

The acceptance and celebration of Mahu in Polynesian cultures highlight the reverence for gender diversity and the recognition that gender is not simply limited to male or female. This inclusive mindset fosters a sense of unity and respect for all individuals, regardless of their gender identity.

Mahu as a Third Gender

In Hawaiian culture, Mahu are often considered a distinct and recognized third gender. They occupy a unique space within society, embracing both masculine and feminine qualities without conforming to societal expectations. This recognition demonstrates the cultural understanding and acceptance of diverse gender identities that have been present in Polynesian societies for centuries.

Mahu individuals play a crucial role in challenging rigid gender norms and promoting inclusivity. Their presence encourages a broader understanding of gender identity and serves as a reminder of the fluidity and complexity of human experiences.

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The Role and Status of Mahu in Ancient Hawaiian Culture

In ancient Hawaiian culture, the term “Mahu” refers to individuals who embody both masculine and feminine qualities. They are often described as having a fluid gender identity and are recognized as an important and respected part of the community. The role and status of Mahu in ancient Hawaiian society were unique and held significant cultural significance.

Mahu as Respected Community Members

Mahu were highly regarded and held an esteemed position within Hawaiian society. They were seen as having a special connection to the spiritual realm and were often sought after for their spiritual abilities. Mahu were considered to possess a balance of masculine and feminine energies, which was believed to give them a unique perspective and insight into various aspects of life. As a result, they were often consulted for advice, guidance, and spiritual ceremonies.

Furthermore, Mahu were also valued for their artistic talents, such as hula dancing, chanting, and storytelling. They played a vital role in preserving and passing down traditional Hawaiian culture through their artistic expressions. Their contributions to the community were greatly appreciated and celebrated.

Responsibilities and Societal Contributions

Mahu played an essential role in various aspects of ancient Hawaiian society. They were often involved in occupations such as healers, midwives, and teachers. Their knowledge of both masculine and feminine perspectives allowed them to bring a unique approach to these roles, providing valuable insights and support to the community.

Mahu were also responsible for mentoring and guiding younger members of the community, particularly those who showed an inclination towards embodying both masculine and feminine qualities. They served as role models and helped these individuals navigate their identities in a society that embraced and accepted gender diversity.

Treatment and Social Standing

Mahu were treated with respect and acceptance by the Hawaiian community. They were not subjected to discrimination or stigmatization based on their gender identity. Instead, they were celebrated for their unique qualities and given a place of honor within society.

The social standing of Mahu was reflected in various cultural practices, such as the inclusion of Mahu in significant events and ceremonies. They were often invited to participate in important rituals, dances, and festivals, where their presence was considered to bring blessings and good fortune.

It is important to note that the understanding and perception of Mahu may have evolved over time, and modern interpretations may vary. However, the historical significance of Mahu in ancient Hawaiian culture remains an integral part of the cultural fabric of Hawaii.

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The Evolution of Mahu Identity in Modern Hawaii

The term “Mahu” holds a special significance in Hawaiian culture, representing individuals who embody both masculine and feminine qualities. Historically, Mahu were highly respected and held important roles within their communities. However, the meaning and perception of Mahu identity have evolved over time, influenced by various factors such as Western culture, Christianity, changing attitudes, and efforts to restore visibility and acceptance.

Influence of Western Culture and Christianity

With the arrival of Western explorers and missionaries, Hawaii experienced a significant shift in its cultural landscape. Western beliefs and values began to shape the perception of gender roles in Hawaiian society, causing a gradual decline in the acceptance and visibility of Mahu individuals. The introduction of Christian teachings, which often emphasized strict gender binaries, further marginalized Mahu identity.

As Western influence grew, traditional Hawaiian practices and beliefs were often suppressed, including the recognition and celebration of Mahu individuals. This led to a loss of cultural knowledge and understanding surrounding Mahu identity, pushing it further into the shadows.

Changing Attitudes and Increased Marginalization

In the modern era, the marginalization of Mahu identity continued to persist, particularly due to societal pressures and the stigmatization of non-normative gender expressions. Mahu individuals often faced discrimination, prejudice, and limited opportunities for self-expression.

However, it is important to note that attitudes towards Mahu identity have gradually started to shift. There is a growing recognition of the importance of inclusivity and acceptance, challenging the binary notions of gender. Efforts have been made to create safe spaces and support networks for Mahu individuals, fostering a sense of community and empowerment.

Efforts to Restore Mahu Visibility and Acceptance

Today, there are various initiatives and organizations working to restore the visibility and acceptance of Mahu identity in Hawaii. These efforts aim to reclaim and honor the cultural significance of Mahu individuals, highlighting their contributions to society and challenging prevalent stereotypes.

One example is the Mahu Collective, a group that promotes cultural education and empowerment for Mahu individuals and allies. Through workshops, events, and advocacy, they strive to create a more inclusive and understanding society.

Another initiative is the Mahu Surfer Project, which celebrates the achievements of Mahu surfers and raises awareness about their unique experiences. This project aims to break down barriers and challenge societal norms, inspiring others to embrace their authentic selves.

By restoring Mahu visibility and acceptance, these initiatives contribute to a more diverse and inclusive Hawaii, where all individuals are celebrated and respected for their unique identities.

Significance and Impact of Mahu Today

In Hawaii, the term “Mahu” holds immense cultural significance and plays a significant role in shaping the island’s diverse and inclusive identity. Mahu refers to individuals who embody both masculine and feminine qualities, often transcending traditional gender norms. The concept of Mahu dates back centuries and has long been celebrated in Hawaiian culture. Today, Mahu continue to face unique challenges while making important contributions to their communities.

Continued Struggles for Equality and Representation

Despite progress in recent years, Mahu individuals still face ongoing struggles for equality and representation. Discrimination and social stigmatization persist, making it difficult for many Mahu to fully express their true selves and participate fully in society. They often face barriers in employment, healthcare, and education, which can have a profound impact on their overall well-being and sense of belonging. Efforts to raise awareness and promote acceptance are crucial in creating a more inclusive and understanding society for all.

Advocacy and Activism

Mahu individuals and their allies are actively engaged in advocacy and activism to address these challenges and promote equality. Organizations like the Mahu Movement and the LGBTQ+ community in Hawaii are working tirelessly to raise awareness, fight discrimination, and provide support for Mahu individuals. Through education, community outreach, and political engagement, they strive to create a more inclusive society that recognizes and values the diversity of gender identities.

Cultural Pride and Empowerment

Mahu individuals take great pride in their cultural heritage and play a vital role in preserving and promoting Hawaiian traditions and values. Through their unique experiences and perspectives, they enrich the cultural fabric of Hawaii. Many Mahu individuals are leaders within their communities, actively involved in traditional arts, hula, music, and storytelling. Their visibility and contributions serve as a source of empowerment for others, encouraging self-acceptance and challenging societal norms.


The indigenous Hawaiian concept of mahu has complex roots linking back to traditional Polynesian culture and perspectives on gender. While the status and treatment of mahu individuals has evolved significantly over time, mahu remain an important part of Hawaii’s heritage. The meaning and significance of mahu continue to be shaped by ongoing activism and the lived experiences of Native Hawaiian people who embrace their mahu identity with pride.

Though marginalized throughout periods of history, the mahu community symbolizes the richness of Hawaiian culture and the aloha spirit’s embracing of all people. As Hawaiian society progresses, there are hopes that mahu will reclaim their former status and be respected as vital members of the culture, truly honored for embodying the duality of masculine and feminine essence.

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