Book Review: ‘O Au No Keia

Life is as beautiful as a tropical island, is it not? In the midst of all this Bailey bigotry, a visitor to the site sends me one of the most wonderful and interesting books I have read this year on transgenderism.

The title is Hawai’ian for “this is me,” and it’s well chosen. Author and historian Andrew Matzner has compiled an insightful and delightful collection of first-person narratives of fourteen women who are part of Hawaii’s unique mahu and transgender communities.

Mahu is the Hawai’ian word for someone who is intersexed, although over time, it has become attached to transgenderism, and is now generally used as a slur.

For those unaware, Hawai’i has been undergoing a quiet revolution of trying to revive traditional Hawai’ian heritage (right down to putting an apostrophe back in Hawai’i). Many of the more “sinful” aspects of their culture were crushed by Christian missionaries and western occupation.

The women portrayed run the ethnic gamut from haole (Caucasian mainlander) to pure Hawai’ians, to wonderfully hyphenated combinations like Hawai’ian-Portugese-Chinese, or Hawai’ian-Irish-Chinese, or Hawai’ian-Chinese-Filipino-Samoan, or even Hawai’ian-Filipino-Indian-German-Spanish (!). Below are synopses of each woman featured:

Kaua’i Iki: Known as Glamour Boy growing up, she began going to Honolulu’s famous The Glade in 1973, when she was 12. Now a college graduate, she tells a colorful story of life in the club scene as a teenager and young adult.

Raquel: Who recalls The Glade’s glory days of shows and competitions (the dying culture of “high drag” that is disappearing stateside as well). This old school drag queen is going to die a drag queen, she says, and she talks all about what it’s like to be a showgirl.

Cheryl: A late transitioner and Navy veteran who talks candidly about suicide, The Imperial Court system, and about the importance of her own relationship with God.

Kaui: A tough girl who tells it like it is about street hustling, and about the boyfriend who taught her the self-respect she needed to see beyond it. She tells a great story about a retreat sponsored by support group Ke Ola Mamo, where girls put aside (most of) their cattiness and had fun while building a community. Kaui now has several “daughters’ she supports and is planning to attend Honolulu Community College.

Li Anne: A mainlander who transitioned after moving to Hawai’i in her forties as part of a job transfer. Li Anne supervises a large office and is getting a Master’s degree. She tells of paddling with a women’s canoe club and about a courageous lawsuit she filed.

Paige: A friend of Kaui’s who transitioned right after high school with complete family support. She talks about the relative ease of transition in the islands, where it’s not as big a deal. Paige also talks about the critical importance of the Ke Ola Mamo conference, and how it brought the community respect.

Bubbles: She talks at length about the importance of aloha (love) and pono (morals) in her upbringing and her life. She talks of shows and streets, but the real beauty of her story is her understanding of what a unique microcosm Hawai’i is.

Mely: She believes she may be the first transsexual at University of Hawai’i to defend a dissertation, and she talks about the difficulty of growing up being perceived as bakla (gay) in the Catholic-dominated Phillipines.

Jonz: An old school drag queen who talks about shows influenced by The Glade, and life in the House of Chandelier, and the Gender Bender Lip Gloss Revue. Very entertaining commentary.

Tracy Ahn: After graduating from University of Hawai’i, she opened a beauty parlor and lived an in-between life until committing to full-time in the 1990’s. She makes a lot of interesting observations on class, especially differences in middle-class and working-class transitioners. She also tells of her courageous run for Hawai’i state senate.

Ashiliana: She began transition in New York City at 16 and talks about the importance of ohana (family) in making support work. She has a degree in Hawai’ian studies and makes many interesting observations about the mahu role in carrying on traditional culture, by keeping hula and chants alive.

Rebecca: A haole (foreigner) who now lives in Hawai’i. Born in the Midwest, she tells of scouring every possible reading resource for information on our condition. Eventually, she joined the military, which took her overseas. After her kids were grown up, she left her spouse and began transition.

Jennifer and Phoebe: are friends who do a great tandem interview. They talk at length about a support programs for teens called Chrysalis, and how it got them away from thinking that their only futures were as prostitutes (which they do now) or housewives. They also have a great section on the influence their queen mothers had in shaping their lives. Both have a lot of energy, and with luck, they’ll be able to do great things.

Mr. Matzner ends with a fascinating exploration into the legendary transgender history of the Wizard Stones, a group of four rocks placed in honor of four beautiful Tahitian healers who came to Hawai’i in the 1500s. The cover art shows these mysterious stones. Legend has it that the healers were mahu, and one of their names ends in -mahu.

An author with ethics

Perhaps the reason this book is such a treasure is that the author approached the community with respect and without judgment. While people like Bailey are burning bridges, authors with morality and ethics are building them. Mr. Matzner notes:

I insisted on this cooperation because historically transgender people have been unable to control the ways they are represented to the general public. They have been written about, most often by psychologists, academics, magazine writers, and news reporters who had little interest in actively involving their subjects in the writing and editing process. Often, assuming that they will be treated fairly, transgender people speak with writers and reporters in good faith. Frequently the opposite occurs, and they discover they have been misquoted or portrayed in a negative light. It is no wonder then, that in the early stages of this project people mistrusted me; previous experiences had made them reluctant to share personal information with someone they did not know. But it was precisely because I wanted to change that dysfunctional relationship between writer and interviewee that I was committed to sharing power with ‘O Au No Keia’s participants.

Perhaps someday all scholars will understand the importance of listening with an open mind, rather than focusing on prurience and pathos. Mr. Matzner is certainly ahead of his time, and we should all support this kind of inclusive and respectful depiction of our diverse community.

After many weeks of slogging through some of the most depressing clinical literature and state investigations I have ever read, I cannot tell you how uplifting I found this book. Those who would try to lump us all into two categories would do well to read it. Like those wonderfully hyphenated ethnicities of the women who share their wisdom, our community can never be described as some pathetic either/or.

This book tells of a community that’s vibrant and rare and beautiful, like a flower that has evolved on a remote tropical island.

Purchasing information

‘O Au No Keia: Voices from Hawai’i’s Mahu and Transgender Communities.
Andrew Matzner
ISBN 0-7388-6161-8
Xlibris, 2001, 293 pages

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Order via the publisher Xlibris (includes an excerpt)

Gendertalk interview from 2002