5 Indigenous Oceanic people redefining gender identity

Shedding light on Indigenous gender identity practices and traditions

Many in the Oceania region practice some form of the third gender. The third gender is used to define those who are not strictly male nor strictly female. It was not uncommon to find incredible reverence for these indigenous Oceanic people who bucked Western gender identity definitions.

Prior to Western contact, they often fulfilled high roles amongst society including teachers, priests, and healers.

But the post-colonization era left many of these indigenous Oceanic people who bucked Western gender identity expectations severely stigmatized in their communities. This was mostly due to Christian fundamentalism becoming the determining factor of moral righteousness.

People like the Fakaleitī of Tonga, the Māhū of Hawaiʻi, or the Faʻafafine of Sāmoa had their livelihoods redefined simply because they identified outside of the inherited gender binary.

For generations after, these indigenous peoples were not able to wholeheartedly embrace previous gender identity practices and who they were meant to be. With this can come a gradual cultural erasure.

But there are a courageous few who are challenging these lasting and seemingly insurmountable effects of imperialism. Those who are reclaiming the gender identity of indigenous Oceanic people.

Below are five Oceanic individuals who are aiming to reclaim the third gender, and ultimately transform its perception from a pejorative to a celebration of self-identity.

Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu

Born and raised on the island of Oʻahu, Hinaleimoana Kwai Kong Wong-Kalu, or known most popularly as Kumu Hina, is one of the prominent voices for the Māhū of Hawaiʻi. 

Aside from starring in the eponymous documentary Kumu Hina, Wong-Kalu also founded the Kulia Na Mamo transgender health project. In 2020, she directed, produced, and narrated Kapaemahu — an animated short film based on the story of four Māhū who brought healing arts from Tahiti to Hawaiʻi.

Alex Suʻa

President of Faʻafafine Association of SSāmoa and lawyer Alex Suʻa lawyer.
Image courtesy of Stowers and Suʻa Lawyers

By trait, Alex Suʻa is a lawyer. Through that platform that he has primarily been able to reclaim gender fluidity and the subsequent cultural traditions for his people. He is president of the Faʻafafine Association of Sāmoa. He helped spearhead the organization of Sāmoa’s inaugural National Faʻafafine Week and Forum, a community mobilization aiming to address Faʻafafine rights and health issues utilizing local-based strategies.   

Additionally, in 2020 Suʻa played a key role in getting the Constitutional Amendment Bill across the legislative line. This bill included much needed reformation in the protection of individual rights, comparable to guaranteed safeguards in the United States put in place by Lawrence v. Texas.

Honey Julia Solofa

Miss Sāmoa Faʻafafine showing Honey Julia Solofa.
Image courtesy of The Samoa Observer

Also hailing from Sāmoa, Honey Julia Solofa used her tenure as Miss Sāmoa Faʻafafine to shine a spotlight on some of the unjust victimization the Faʻafafine have been forced to endure.

After the pandemic forced a cancellation of recent Miss Sāmoa Faʻafafine competitions, Solofa decided to make numerous charitable contributions to ensure that the Faʻafafine Association of Sāmoa could continue with its mission. The competitions had served as the main source of fundraising for the Faʻafafine Association of Sāmoa.

Joey Joleen Mataele

Tonga Leitis Associatoin cofounder Joey Joleen Mataele.
Image courtesy of GiveOut

In 1992 Joey Joleen Mataele co-founded the Tonga Leitis Association (TLA). Initially serving as an organization advocating for Fakaleitī education in Tonga, the modern TLA now represents something much broader, and is now one of the most prolific LGBTQIA+ movements in the Oceanic region. 

Mataele is also the Pacific Island representative on the International LGBTI Association Executive Board, and Chairperson on the South Pacific Men Who Have Sex With Men Network Group. 

Kaumakaiwa Kanakaʻole

Singer Kaumakaiwa Kanakaʻole posing for a photo.
Image courtesy of Pasifika Artists

Gifted musical abilities and a passion for activism both come naturally for Kaumakaiwa Kanakaʻole. Born in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, Kanakaʻole is the grandchild of Edith Kanakaʻole, one of the leading figures of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance. 

With five Nā Hōkū Hanohano musical awards under her belt, Kanakaʻole strives to incorporate provocative indigenous thought into her music. She perpetuates traditional cultural experiences, including many of her own as a modern Māhū Wahine.

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