A Third Sex Around the World
( 3 ) The South Seas
The indigenous cultures of the South Pacific were at one time, and in many cases still are, among the most isolated in the world. Prior to their discovery by Europeans from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, these societies had little if any contact with outside civilizations. The vast region includes Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand and all of the various Polynesian islands of the Pacific Ocean.
When Europeans first explored the South Seas they found large, thriving settlements along many of the island coastlines. Some of the more inhabited islands, such as Tahiti and Hawaii, had populations of up to two hundred thousand and were comparable in size with many European and American towns of the same time period. Within these communities, homosexual and transgender natives were well documented by early French and British explorers such as Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, James Cook, William Bligh, and others. Third-gender natives were evident in all of the major Polynesian islands including Tahiti, Fiji, New Zealand, Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, etc., and to a lesser degree among the dark-skinned aborigines that formed smaller tribes along the coasts of Australia and New Guinea.
In Polynesia, European explorers were surprised to encounter societies that had long regarded bisexual, homosexual and transgender conduct as normative. Third-gender natives were common on all of the islands and known by different names. In Tahiti, for instance, male-to-female transgenders that lived and behaved as women were called mahu. In the Hawaiian Islands, whose inhabitants are believed to have originated from Tahiti, the mahu were also present along with the aikane—sexually related or “friendly” men that were essentially masculine-type homosexuals and bisexuals. In Tuvalu, the word pinapinaaine substitutes for mahu, as does the word fa’afafine (“like a woman”) in Samoa and fakafefine in Tonga. All of these various terms referred to the different types of transgender and homosexual men found among the South Sea natives. Polynesian mahu lived and worked alongside the women and excelled in traditionally female tasks such as lei making and basket weaving. They did not perform castration but instead tied their genitals up tightly against the groin. Hawaiian aikane and their counterparts on other islands were commonly engaged as male servants, messengers, guards and confidantes to the royal class. Both the mahu and aikane were known for their talent in the elaborate dance ceremonies performed throughout the islands. Bisexuality was quite common in Polynesia and many island kings kept both male and female partners in their royal huts for intimate relations. Lesbians were less reported in the South Seas although early British ethnographers observed such women in several of the western islands, such as New Hebrides (Vanuatu). Among the Maori tribes of New Zealand, intimate companions of the same sex were known as takatapui and often engaged in homoerotic or bisexual relations. Two Maori ancestors, Tutanekai and Tiki, were renowned as takatapui and are traditionally portrayed playing their flutes together under the moonlight on a secluded island.
Polynesians worshiped a wide range of gods and island spirits but eventually abandoned their indigenous beliefs to adopt Christianity. Soon after their conversion, islanders began stigmatizing the mahu and enacted laws to punish homosexuality. French Polynesia, consolidated under France in the nineteenth century, was the exception and never established sodomy laws. The small Pacific nation is comprised of the Society Islands, which include Tahiti, as well as the Austral, Marquesas and Tuamotu Islands. Several Polynesian islands decriminalized homosexuality during the late 1900s such as American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, Micronesia, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Most islands, however, retained strict, British-inherited sodomy laws well into the early twenty-first century. The Cook, Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon and Tuvalu Islands all punished homosexuality with up to fourteen years of prison; the Marshall, Niue, and Tokelau Islands prescribed ten years and Western Samoa, seven. Sodomy laws in Polynesia were based on strongly held religious beliefs and many of the islands were extremely reluctant to abandon them. In Fiji, for instance, laws prohibiting private homosexual conduct were invalidated by the High Court in 2005 but the ruling was highly criticized and challenged by many islanders.
Hawaii’s first written laws were established in 1833 and did not specifically mention sodomy. In 1850, however, a law was enacted under British supervision that prescribed up to twenty years imprisonment with hard labor and a fine. The new sodomy law remained in effect after the U.S. annexation of 1898 and cases were occasionally brought to trial. Hawaii’s last sodomy case was tried in 1958, one year before statehood, and the law was eventually repealed by the state legislature in 1972. Hawaii took a step backward in 1998 when it became the first U.S. state to effectively ban gay couples from marriage through a constitutional referendum. It legalized civil unions, however, in 2012 and same-sex marriage in 2013.
In New Zealand, homosexuality was punishable by hanging under early British rule but no executions were ever reported. During one famous trial from 1836, six young Maori men accused the Reverend William Yate of sodomitic relations. The Reverend, second in line to the Bishop of Sydney, was not convicted but forced to return to England in disgrace. In the mid-nineteenth century, New Zealand replaced the death penalty with long prison sentences. Few cases were ever brought to trial, however, and sodomy was eventually decriminalized in 1986. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was outlawed throughout New Zealand in 1993, civil unions established in 2004 and gay marriage legalized in 2013.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, much of Polynesia scorned homosexual and transgender behavior but indigenous third-gender traditions persisted throughout all of the islands, whether rural or urban. In modern cities such as Auckland, Honolulu, Papeete and Suva, homosexual and transgender locals aligned with their Western counterparts to form small but thriving gay communities.
Early European explorers also reported homosexual and transgender behavior among the aboriginal tribes of New Guinea and Australia. The Portuguese first sighted New Guinea in the sixteenth century and the Dutch discovered Australia in the early 1600s. Throughout the islands of New Guinea, the Papua Gulf region and western Melanesia, the practice of ritualized homosexuality has been observed among various tribes such as the Samba, Anga and Keraki for many years. In these unusual ceremonies, young boys from the age of seven to fifteen, without exception, are made to perform oral sex on older boys and swallow their semen in a series of initiation rites. The rites are believed to instill male potency in the youths and after the age of sixteen they are considered fully potent and married off to women. From that point onward, all homosexual behavior stops with very few exceptions. In a similar tradition found among the Marind-anim tribes of Irian Jaya in Western New Guinea, tribesmen honor an ancestor known as Sosum by dancing around a giant red effigy of his penis while performing homosexual acts on young initiates. According to local legend, Sosum’s mother-in-law cut off his penis when he was having too much intercourse with his wife. The Sosum ritual similarly warns new initiates not to emasculate themselves by overindulging with their future brides.
Another unusual occurrence in this region is the above-normal birth rate of female-to-male intersex children (pseudohermaphrodites). The Sambia tribes of New Guinea are so familiar with this particular intersex condition that they rarely misidentify it and acknowledge three distinct sexes in their culture—male, female and kwolu-aatmwol or “transforming into a man.” Kwolu-aatmwol tribe members are accommodated within Sambian society but quietly disparaged and isolated. They are also somewhat feared—kwolu-aatmwol are believed to have mystical powers and often become shamans or witchdoctors. Most world cultures accept intersex people either by passing them off as ordinary men and women or through the recognition of a third sex category. In many indigenous societies, intersex children are raised as shamans while in other cultures they are given to monasteries and encouraged to live as celibates. A few societies have been known to kill their intersex infants at birth, such as those of ancient Greece and Rome. Most intersex conditions, however, are either unnoticeable at birth or mild enough so that the majority of intersex people live relatively normal lives.
Several countries ruled over Papua New Guinea until the island nation achieved full independence in 1975. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than ninety percent of Papua New Guinea’s population was Christian and British-derived sodomy laws punished homosexuality with up to fourteen years in jail. Native tribes, on the other hand, lived in isolated regions and were able to maintain traditional practices and beliefs with little interference.
In Australia, aborigines existed for thousands of years prior to European contact. Early Caucasian settlers were hostile toward the dark-skinned Native Australians and came very close to exterminating them. As a result, little is known about the traditional beliefs and practices of Australia’s original inhabitants although most scholars believe they were similar to other tribal cultures in the region. Early but unsubstantiated reports mention sightings of crossdressing aborigines, sodomitic rituals and homosexual apprenticeships along Australia’s northern islands and eastern coast. Captain James Cook rediscovered Australia in 1770 and a British penal colony was established in the area of Sydney in 1788. Under British rule, homosexuality was punished by hanging and sodomy cases were routinely brought to trial. Australia’s first hanging for sodomy occurred in 1828 and executions reached a peak during the 1830s. Beginning in 1864, long prison sentences replaced the hangings while floggings were meted out for minor sodomy offenses. In late nineteenth-century Australia, homosexual men and women thrived in private social circles and an urban homosexual subculture emerged by the 1920s. Authorities launched several crackdowns on homosexuality after World War II but the persecution ended in the 1960s when Western attitudes toward sexuality were liberalized throughout much of the modern world. In 1975, South Australia was the first state to repeal its sodomy laws while Tasmania was the last, in 1997. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Australia was a mostly conservative, Christian country but largely tolerant of its homosexual and transgender citizens. Modern gay communities thrived in cities such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, and various civil rights were offered from state to state. Most states had civil union laws but same-sex marriage was strictly prohibited.
(Tritiya-Prakriti: People of the Third Sex, pp. 198-202)
[Continued in Part 4...]