The Island Paradise That Embraces All Genders

Many forms of gender identity on the Islands of Tahiti predate European contact

People doing traditional dance in French Polynesia

Holger Leue / Getty Images

It’s Pride Month! We’re kicking off this joyous, meaningful month with a collection of features completely dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers. Follow along on a gay writer’s thought-provoking Kentucky road trip and learn about the tropical honeymoon hotspot that embraces all genders. Then, find inspiration for your future trips with our guides to the ins and outs of gay cruising, charming LGBTQ+ bookstores you can support, and the world’s most vibrant gay villages. However you make your way through the features, we’re glad you’re here with us to celebrate the beauty and importance of inclusivity and representation within the travel space and beyond.

French Polynesia (also known as The Islands of Tahiti) is a welcoming destination for LGBTQ+ travelers. As a semi-autonomous country within the French Republic, marriage equality is the law of the land, and there are significant protections for LGBTQ+ citizens from discrimination.

But many travelers may be unaware that French Polynesia is also a socially conservative country, particularly outside of the Society Islands (which includes Tahiti and Bora Bora), where most of the country's visitor traffic is destined. Particularly incongruous with this social conservatism is that many visitors will encounter genderqueer people early and often throughout their visit.

Understanding the complexities of gender identity in French Polynesia, which has commonalities with other cultures in the Pacific, is essential to gaining a broader perspective of the islands' culture. If you're planning a trip, here's what to remember.

Mahu

On my first visit to Tahiti, the front desk agent at the resort was a man but with feminine qualities. He wore the male uniform but had long hair pulled back into a bun, held in place with a flower crown. A form of gender identity in French Polynesia that predates European contact is that of the mahu, which roughly translates to "in the middle."

There's not an easy explanation outside the Pacific for mahu. Often mistaken for transexuals, they are best described as "third gender." Neither male nor female, but mahu—in the middle. It's not an altogether uncommon gender identity in Polynesia or other parts of the Pacific, or even among the indigenous peoples of North America. It's Western ideas of gender that seem most confused by mahu.

The term mahu refers specifically to gender identity—mahu can be of any sexual orientation, even celibate—to varying degrees of acceptance in their communities.

Rae-Rae

Transgender women assigned male at birth in French Polynesia are known as rae-rae. Unlike the third gender mahu, rae-rae undergo medical gender confirmation. While rae-rae are gaining acceptance in French Polynesia, there is lingering stigma, as distinctly transgender identity is viewed as a French or European import to Polynesia, contrasting with the long-held understanding of mahu.

Rae-rae are achieving greater visibility as of 2022. Trans actress Pahoa Mahagafanau just starred in "Pacification," which was an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival (she wore a custom dress made from Tahitian tapa cloth on the red carpet). And trans beauty queen Abel Hauata recently became the first transgender winner of the Miss University pageant.

LGTBQ+ Communities

With the context of mahu and rae-rae in French Polynesia, there is still a developing understanding of homosexuality among cisgender individuals. Jean-Philippe Lo Siou, a 30-something gay man of Chinese and Tahitian heritage who was born on Tahiti, explains that when he ultimately came out to his parents via video chat while he was living and working in the United States, their minds immediately went to rae-rae. They asked him if he wanted to be a girl. He says their perspectives changed over time, but it wasn’t easy.

In contrast, he found coming out to his siblings went smoother, noting “they took it well and most of them already knew,” he says. While it was a relief, he still notes that it was difficult being a gay teenager growing up in Tahiti alongside such nuanced notions of gender and sexuality, pointing out that some mahu are married to women and have children.

Lo Siou credits imported movies and television shows from both France and the United States for fostering a better understanding of cisgender LGBTQ+ people in French Polynesia. Seeing gay, lesbian, or bisexual characters in mainstream television shows has softened attitudes and helped pave the way for a small, tightly-knit LGBTQ+ community to start gentle advocacy.

For example, while France’s marriage equality law is applicable in French Polynesia, allowing same-sex couples to marry, the PACS, or civil solidarity pact (the closest equivalent in the U.S. would be a palimony agreement) was not automatically extended to French Polynesia. A local LGBTQ+ advocacy group, Cousins Cousines, is working to change that.

What to Know Before You Go

So what should be top of mind on your next trip to French Polynesia? First and foremost, it's important to remember that local notions of gender identity don't belie progressive views on gender and sexuality—in the Western sense, those are evolving.

"The Tahitian people are known to be very welcoming and tolerant—they love to share their culture and daily life with visitors," said Tahiti Tourisme CEO Jean-Marc Mocellin. "They also have respect for others, and they will accept gay couples without even asking questions." Mocellin noted that despite this tolerance, some same-sex couples may still be uncomfortable with overly intimate displays of affection in public.

As many visitors to the South Pacific have found before, there's more to these islands than is readily apparent on the surface. As with travel to any destination, the best advice is to take cues from local residents—approaching what you see with an open mind and willingness to understand things in the context of a different culture.

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