The term "mahu" originally referred to transvestites in pre-colonial Polynesia. Much like the native American cultures, throughout Polynesia, the mahu were not only accepted in their communities, but they were also regarded as gifted and divine, possessing the qualities of both the male and female gender.
Since the islands were colonized, mahu has broadened to include cross-dressers, drag queens, female impersonators, and transsexuals. The term has taken on a bit of a derogatory and negative connotation in recent years, which is why the local Tahitians prefer the term "rae rae".
"Rae rae" is the term that is most commonly used now to describe transvestites. The rae rae in the islands are pretty well respected in fact. They tend to have jobs in the service industry and you’ll definitely come across them in the hotels, restaurants, in dance performances, and on the airlines.
There have been many conflicting stories and articles that have been written about the rae raes and how this phenomenon occurred throughout Polynesia. The most common theory was that a family that did not have any girls would raise one of the boys as a girl. Over the years reports have noted that it was the first boy, or the second boy, or the last boy, or the forth boy. If you ask a rae rae that was raised this way, meaning it was not necessarily by choice to be raised as a girl, they will probably tell you that there was no rule as to which child it was in terms of order.
Today, although Tahitians are no longer choosing to raise one of their boys as a girl as their ancestors had, there is a new generation of rae rae – those who have chosen this path. Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” French Polynesia included a segment with interviews of five rae raes. Shot on the waterfront in Papeete at les roulottes, these girls had dinner with Tony and then took him to the Piano Bar for some drinks and dancing.
The Lonely Planet guide on Tahiti and French Polynesia offers readers a pretty good description of gay friendly Tahiti and her Islands:
“There are no networks or associations for gays in French Polynesia but French Laws prevail and there is no legal discrimination against homosexual activity. Homophobia in French Polynesia is uncommon. You will meet a lot of very camp mahu working in restaurants and hotels…The Scorpio disco behind the Vaima Centre in Papeete is popular centre for popa'a (western) gays as well as rae rae, but it’s also frequented by heterosexuals.”
Comments from Tahiti Travel Specialist Angelo Chaddad
For those who enjoy shopping, there is plenty to choose from around the island of Tahiti. Shops are opened from Monday to Friday 7:30 am to 11:30 am and from 1:30 pm to 5 pm/6 pm. Most of them are open on Saturday mornings are closed on Sunday. In Papeete, the market is open every day. The food market is located on the basement but in this 3-floor building, you can find all kinds of souvenirs, locally made clothing, accessories and beauty products, pareus, hats, Tahitian cultured black pearls, perfumes, soaps, creams and body oils, flavored teas and coffees. Tahitian black pearls are world famous for their quality and what better place to buy them than in their place of origin.
Nightlife is pretty low-key – as Tahiti is a very relaxing, rejuvenating destination. There are however several small nightclubs in downtown Papeete. From the main hotels in Tahiti, a cab ride would run about 3000 CFP (about $35 USD with the current exchange rate – to check today’s exchange, please visit: www.oanda.com)
At the Piano Bar you’ll find some of the servers are drag-queens with high heals and vertical hair-doos – it’s easy to spot them from all corners of the club to order drinks, etc. The club is pretty big with about 4 or 5 different rooms which more or less progress in a circular shape. All the rooms are inside, but the air-conditioning seems to hold pretty well for the demand and to neutralize all the cigarette smoke.
Music is excellent! A house mix of French/American music with local Polynesian tunes. The crowd is 80% gay and 20% wild/straight. Lots of beautiful looking transvestites that aim for perfection. Some regular local gay people, which were easily recognized, but most were American and European tourists. Many crewmembers from cruise ships docked right in front of town as well. 1500 CFP (about $20 USD) to get in, which includes one free drink.
They also serve local and imported beer and an array of mixed drinks. We learned that the drag-queen shows are only during the week on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Weekends they are very crowded and have beer bust on Sunday night.
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