By AUDREY McAVOY and TY O’NEIL Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Drag queens donning the white, red and blue of the Hawaiian flag shimmied across the
stage to a throbbing techno remix of “Aloha Oe,” a song composed by Hawaii’s last reigning monarch.
Spectators roared as a performer shook her hips in a Tahitian-style dance.
All were “mahu” — a Hawaiian term for people with dual male and female spirit and a mixture of gender
They starred in a drag show this week called “Mahu Magic” on the sidelines of a Native Hawaiian
convention in Las Vegas to remind the world of the respected place gender-fluidity has held in Hawaiian
culture for hundreds of years, while also making a foray into the national conversation about
“It’s a little different from other drag shows because this one has a very specific purpose,”
Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, who is mahu, a community leader and a master teacher of hula and chanting, told
the audience midway through the event.
“It is meant to reinstate the rightful place that mahu have between kane and wahine,” Wong-Kalu said,
using the Hawaiian words for man and woman. The crowd erupted in raucous cheers and applause.
Adam Keawe Manalo-Camp, an ethnohistorian who identifies as mahu and queer, said mahu also can include
people who would be nonbinary, would define themselves as third gender and those attracted to someone
of the same gender.
“That’s what mahu does — mahu offers a space between the concepts of male and female,” Manalo-Camp
The Hawaiian language makes it easier to inhabit that spot because it doesn’t have gendered pronouns.
In the Western context, Wong-Kalu uses “she” and “her” but prefers the word “o ia,” which is a Hawaiian
language pronoun used for all people.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re coming from male to female or female to the male, and it doesn’t
matter what your physical articulation is,” Wong-Kalu said. “We have elements of both. Sometimes we
completely walk away from one and walk to the other. Sometimes we stay in the middle.”
The “Mahu Magic” show on Tuesday was sponsored by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, a
nonprofit organization better known for administering rent relief and job training programs. The
council normally holds its conventions in Hawaii but met in Nevada for the first time — coincidentally
during Pride month — in an acknowledgement that more than half of all Native Hawaiians now live outside
Council CEO Kuhio Lewis said he wanted to shine a spotlight on gender-fluidity for those who have lost
touch with Hawaiian culture because they’ve had to leave the islands due to rising housing costs and
Some Native Hawaiian families now have two or three generations born outside Hawaii and need help
connecting to their homeland, Lewis said.
But he also aimed to reach Native Hawaiians who have drifted from their culture in a Hawaii that’s
increasingly shaped by continental U.S. influences. About one-third of the 1,200 attendees flew to Las
Vegas from Hawaii, while the remainder already lived outside the state.
“Unless we do something to honor, to recognize who we are, we’re going to lose our identity,” Lewis
A panel discussion addressed how traditional roles of mahu have evolved over time. More broadly, the
convention featured workshops on topics like hula, Hawaiian language and affordable housing.
One dancer in “Mahu Magic” wore a white pantsuit, cape and towering feather headdress while lip-
synching to “Sky” by Sonique. A trio danced hula to the modern favorite “Hawaii Calls” in halter-top
gowns featuring red and white hibiscus flowers.
All 10 performers live as women. Many other drag shows feature men who live as men but dress as women
for the show.
Mahu often have had important roles in Native Hawaiian culture as teachers, healers and keepers of
knowledge and traditions.
One story reflecting this history is that of four mahu healers who visited Waikiki from Tahiti more
than 500 years ago. Hawaiians placed four boulders on the beach to honor them, which are still visible
Despite these deep roots, mahu awareness in Hawaii has faded during centuries of foreign influence.
Christian missionaries who first arrived in 1820 taught Hawaiians to shun anything deviating from
clearly defined male and female roles. In 1893, businessmen backed by the U.S. government overthrew the
Hawaiian monarchy and a few years later prohibited the teaching of Hawaiian language in schools. The
U.S. annexed Hawaii in 1898, making it a territory.
Leikia Williams, the drag show’s producer and a performer, said mahu was a derogatory word when she was
growing up in Honolulu in the 1980s. She remembers people saying, “Stop acting mahu.”
The support of her “drag house,” consisting of elder mahu and fellow mahu sisters, helped her cope.
Williams said her house mother taught her and her sisters to “be who we want to be; be who we are,
especially in public. To keep our heads held high.”
There’s more understanding today. Even so, a 2018 state report found transgender youth in Hawaii are
three times more likely to consider suicide and make a suicide plan than their peers whose gender
matches the one usually associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
Increasingly, anti-LGBTQ+ language has flowed into Hawaii from states that have enacted laws to keep
transgender children off girls sports teams and block them from receiving gender-affirming medical
Republican lawmakers introduced a bill at the Hawaii Legislature this year that would have required
“separate sex-specific athletic teams or sports” in schools. The measure didn’t get a hearing in either
the House or Senate, which are both dominated by Democrats.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed legislation enabling the state to replace marriage certificates for
people who change their gender or sex. Gov. Josh Green, a Democrat, on Friday indicated he would either
sign the bill or let it become law without his signature.
Wong-Kalu said influence from the continental U.S. exacerbates anti-mahu views in Hawaii and
highlighting mahu during the Las Vegas event was important in countering the prejudice.
“This, for me, is about decolonizing our people to the degree that we understand our rightful place in
our own home, of which we still do not have,” Wong-Kalu said.
Eight performers at “Mahu Magic” were Native Hawaiian and two were of Samoan ancestry, which Lewis said
was fitting because the conversation about mahu is also one for broader Oceania. Other parts of
Polynesia, such as Samoa and Tonga, have concepts similar to mahu. The Tahitian language even uses the same word.
Mahu also is similar to the term “two-spirit” used by Native Americans, Alaska Natives and First
Nations communities in Canada for people who combine traits of men and women.
Williams related how performances can change minds. She shared how she can sense at drag shows when
straight men in the audience are uncomfortable with mahu. But that changes when she takes the
microphone. Afterward, those same men thank her, offer food and help carry her bags.
“That’s educating people and letting them know that we’re real,” Williams said. “We’re human. We’re
McAvoy reported from Honolulu.