A Place in the Middle

Gender Fluidity Is a Part of Hawaiian Culture. How a Children's Book is Reclaiming That - Today on NBC

"Ho'onani: Hula Warrior," a children's book based on a 2014 documentary, can help make conversations about gender identity easier to navigate.

by Randi Richardson for Today on NBC - June 30, 2022:

Hawaii is known for its hula dancing, luaus, leis and other widely commercialized aspects of the culture. But a lesser-known tradition is giving a voice to people who may feel like they don’t belong.

Pacific Island culture has long normalized gender fluidity with a variety of terms used across the region for sexual expression and a third gender, according to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In Hawaiian culture, there are wahine (female), kāne (male) and māhū, for people who do not subscribe to any gender.

It’s a complex subject that author Heather Gale embraced in her children’s book, “Ho’onani: Hula Warrior,” which tells the story of real people and is based on the 2014 documentary “A Place in the Middle.”

While the book serves up a rousing tale of a child overcoming obstacles — in this case, Ho’onani challenges traditional gender roles to perform as a hula warrior — it also deftly weaves in elements of culture and gender in simple language that kids can understand. Gale said people have thanked her for providing such an accessible story about a complicated topic.

“Quite a few have reached out to say they wish they’d had this book before, when they were this age, to be able to understand it better,” she told TODAY in a phone interview from Toronto. “I’ve also had a parent reach out and say that it has been such a help to be able to start the subject and the process of talking about it, because you can read the book together, and then it gives the child and you — it’s quiet time — a chance to broach a possible subject that’s sensitive.”

Gender fluidity in Native Hawaiian culture

Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, who identifies as māhū and is featured in “A Place in the Middle” (she also served as the documentary’s writer), said that Hawaiian culture has never strayed from viewing gender fluidity as an integral part of its history. The only difference now is that Hawaii is no longer an independent nation; Europeans colonized it in the 1700s and the United States annexed it in 1898.

“In Hawaii, Tahiti, and across the Pacific, māhū and other gender fluid identities have traditionally been respected and valued, integral to every family,” she told TODAY by email. “This was a shock to the first foreigners to arrive here, but for us it was a normal part of life.”

Wong-Kalu said that colonization nearly erased māhū from Hawaii’s history even though their presence on the islands dates back to the 1100s, when community members admired them for their balance, freedom and wisdom, and they were seen as revered keepers of traditional practices such as hula dancing and chanting.

“In this time of great sickness and strife around the world, I want people to know that māhū are especially well known for their skill in caretaking and healing,” Wong-Kalu said. According to legend, she said, it was four māhū who first brought the healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaii. “They were so loved and admired for their gentle ways and miraculous cures that the people built a monument to honor them.”

That monument is named Kapaemahu, or “the row of māhū” in English, and is located in the middle of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

Wong-Kalu said that while Hawaiian culture is far ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to accepting LGBTQ people, it still has a long way to go.

“Beginning with the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, there has been a tremendous effort, and much success, in reclaiming many aspects of our culture and traditions — our language, hula, songs and chants, navigation and voyaging and much more,” she said, adding that LGBTQ people involved often go uncredited for their work.

For example, she said, the accompanying plaque to the Kapaemahu monument “does not even mention the word māhū or acknowledge that these traits of gender duality were intrinsic to the healers’ talents and skills.”

Wong-Kalu said she hopes Hawaii’s history and contemporary commitment to reclaiming it offer hope during turbulent times for the LGBTQ community. As of March, state lawmakers across the country have proposed a record 238 bills in 2022 that would limit LGBTQ rights, and there have been almost 670 of these bills filed since 2018, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the American Civil Liberties Union and LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom for All Americans.

Turning the documentary into a children’s book

When Gale stumbled upon the documentary in 2016, she knew she had to turn it into a children’s book.

“Ho’onani just caught me off my balance because of her inner strength that I really saw come through, and she’s just such a strong, young person, and she was so unusual for that,” Gale said. “Her parents were so supportive of her, as well as her teacher and her peers, and it was just incredible. ... With family support, she could be who she wanted to be.”

Gale said that while she was unfamiliar with Hawaiian history and the māhū community in particular, she leaned on her Maori heritage since the two cultures share Polynesian roots.

“Ho’onani is who she is because of her family, friends and teachers, while Hawaii’s culture and history are also a large part of her,” she said. “This is true for everyone and helps us all recognize parts of ourselves in a complex story.”

Gale said that she researched as much as she could to respectfully establish the right tone. “I preferred that the gender aspect was subtle yet strong, much how I imagined Mahu once were in their communities,” she said.

Another big challenge was “distilling the story’s first 40 words until they showed Ho’onani as a person and her biggest obstacle,” Gale said.

Wong-Kalu and Gale said the main point of our existence is to experience life and joy while learning along the way with others.

“I saw it in Ho’onani: What brings her happiness is playing a ukulele,” Gale said. “And even though it’s considered a genderized activity — males only play the ukulele — it brings her joy. So she does it.”

Gale said the message of her book can be that simple: Do whatever creates joy.

“Take a step back and (see) some joy in being together,” she said.

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