Ancient Gender: Oceania

It’s easy to think that the current dialogue on gender identity and fluidity is some newfangled modern invention, but even our indigenous ancestors were comfortable with the grey areas of human sexuality and expression.

I’ll be sharing a short three-part series taking a look at third-gender communities around the world, with a highlight on places I have visited including Oceania (New Zealand), Asia (Thailand, Japan), and North America (US, Canada, and Mexico).

I’ll also do a quick vocab refresher so it’s easier to follow along:

  • Biological sex determination exists on a spectrum with genitals, chromosomes, gonads, and hormones all playing a role. Most fit into the male or female category but about one in a hundred may fall in between.”¹
  • Gender is an amalgamation of several elements: chromosomes, anatomy (internal sex organs and external genitals), hormones (relative levels of testosterone and estrogen), psychology (self-defined gender identity), and culture (socially defined gender behaviors).” ¹
  • “Third gender or non-binary refers to a category of people who don’t identify as male or female but rather as neither, both, or a combination of the two.”³
  • Transgender is an encompassing term of many gender identities of those who don’t exclusively identify with their sex assigned at birth.”⁴ 

Oceania (New Zealand)

Indigenous roots

Navigating by stars, birds, and swells from Taiwan to the far-flung smattering of islands in the middle of the Pacific, the matrilinear people of Polynesia are known to be a historically resourceful people.


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View of Te Aroha, New Zealand


They’re also no strangers to the concept of gender liminal individuals; third-gender persons exist throughout its many islands such as the Samoan fa-afafine, Hawaiian māhū, Tahitian Maohi, and the Tongan fakaleiti. ⁵ Third-gender individuals were often associated with good luck and/or healing powers; for example, in Samoan, the word mafu, means both “to heal a wound” and “a male homosexual”.⁸

One of the things that struck me when we were in New Zealand was the sheer volume of signs written in both English and Maori, the language and name of the indigenous Polynesian inhabitants of the island. I think we can all agree that Aotearoa (meaning “the land of the long white cloud”) sounds much more ethereal than the decidedly prosaic “New Zealand”.

To have a frame of reference regarding the outside cultural influences, here’s a mini timeline of events:

  • —- 1280: Initial settlement of Aotearoa by Polynesians
  • —- 1642: First European explorers arrive from The Netherlands
  • —- 1840: Treaty of Waitangi is signed, bringing New Zealand into British Empire ¹²

When we visited the exquisite Te Papa museum in Wellington, I found an exhibition focusing on the questionable translation of the Treaty, which may have led the Maori to believe they would retain ownership of their land and self-governance.¹³ White missionaries in the 19th century interrupted the pre-European development of the native Maori people and their sexual customs, as described by Dr. Jolly:

The fluidity of their gender and sexual identities [was] at odds with Western categorizations, which rely on tighter definitions of men and women, heterosexual and homosexual identities.

Dr. Margaret Jolly, a brilliant Australian historical anthropologist who writes extensively on Asian-Pacific gender and sexuality, released a paper documenting the struggle between imperial and indigenous expressions of masculinity across Oceania. She weaves together essays by three indigenous Hawaiian and Maori male authors: Dr. Brendan Hokowhitu, Dr. Ty P. Kawaika Tengan, and Dr. Isaiah Helekunihi Walker.¹⁴

The essay describes the modern-day concept of a Maori man as the quintessence of hypermasculinity aggressively stressed and reiterated by the colonial “cultivation” of men through elite schooling, war, and rugby. As Hokowhite elaborates:

“Mäori masculinities must be seen through a historical lens that highlights their colonial relation with settler masculinities, a configuration of hierarchy and hegemony that belies the promise of the bicultural contract of Aotearoa/New Zealand.”


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Bridal Veil Falls, New Zealand


Today, many identify as “takatāpui”, which in 1832 was defined as “intimate companion of the same sex”, but in modern parlance means something closer to the word “queer”.⁹ The term comes from the ancient Maori love story of the daughter of a great chief, Hinemoa, and her star-crossed lover, Tūtānekai.¹⁰ About a decade ago, scholars found that one of the earliest accounts of the story tells that after being separated from his male best friend, Tiki, Tūtānekai tells his father “I am dying for love for my friend, for my takatāpui, my beloved, for Tiki.”¹¹ Last month, Takatapui scholar Dr. Elizabeth Kerekere released her dissertation (based partly on the above love story) asserting that “pre-colonial Maori were sexually experimental people who openly accepted gender and sexual fluidity.”⁷


The Maori LGBTQ community began to really coalesce at the height of the AIDS epidemic, in the late 1980s.  And in April 2013, New Zealand became the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to allow gay marriage.⁶

Although the treatment of gender non-conforming individuals today is different from that of pre-colonial times, many continue their traditions in larger cities of Polynesia, where transgender subcultures have a more robust presence and support. ⁵

It’s helpful to consider concepts of gender and in this case, masculinity, as constructs that ebb and flow in relation and resistance to imperial forces as opposed to static snapshots of a people.


  9. Mcbreen, Kim. (2012). AHUNGA TIKANGA AND SEXUAL DIVERSITY. Ahunga Tikanga. 1. 21-35.
  14. Jolly, M. (2008). Moving masculinities: Memories and bodies across Oceania. Contemporary Pacific, 20(1), 1-24,288. Retrieved from

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