TRANSCRIPT: Translash Podcast Episode 70, ‘AAPI and Trans’

Imara Jones: Hey y’all, it’s me, Imara Jones. Welcome to the Translash Podcast, a show where we tell trans stories to save trans lives. Well, May, in addition to being my birthday month, is also Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. That’s why we want to take this entire episode to lift up trans Asian Americans who are thriving and doing powerful work. Of course, AAPI leadership has always been important to our broader movement. And today we’re going to hear from two Vital Trans AAPI leaders with decades of experience who are advocating for their communities. First, I’m joined by outgoing executive director of the Transgender Law Center, Kris Hayashi, who shares his reflections on 30 years of organizing work.

Kris: While I believe that trans organizations don’t have what we need or deserve far from it, that the trans movement overall is definitely stronger than we’ve ever been.

Imara: Next, I’ll talk with Hawaiian cultural ambassador and community organizer Hinaleimoana Wong Kalu, about trans identity outside of a westernized context.

Hinaleimoana: If I were living 250 or 300 years ago, my life would not need to be reconciled according to any kind of sexual preference or gender identity. I could just be me and I could just be identified by my genealogy.

Imara: This is going to be a rich conversation, but first, as always, let’s start out with some trans joy. [music] Murals are a powerful way to bring underrepresented perspectives and identities to the forefront of public life. Lauren Ys is a Los Angeles based artist whose work can be found everywhere from the walls of Osaka, Japan to the stages of Coachella. With influence from their Asian American heritage and themes of dreams, mythology, and animation. Lauren’s work is unapologetically bold and colorful. Here’s Lauren to tell us more.

Lauren: For a long time I think people like me have been really drawn towards like numerical creatures, you know, um, femme characters that are half spiders or half centipedes or have, you know, animal parts. I think it’s a fun, cool visual way to talk about liminality or mixedness or transients. But the thing that is most standout about being half Chinese and non-binary for me is just the level of flux that I experience with it. And when I was younger I always thought that was sort of a, like a frightening thing and I feel like that’s a common feeling for a lot of like immigrant children and mixed children and um, you know, people under the queer umbrella. But in the past years what I’ve come to understand is that that liminality or that state of being in between is actually a destination in itself.

Imara: Lauren Ys, you are trans joy. [music] I’m so glad to be talking with trans activist and outgoing executive director of the Transgender Law Center, Kris Hayashi. Kris has been working on social, racial and economic justice organizing for nearly three decades. He took on his first executive director position at only 23 years old at Youth United for Community Action in California. Just a few years later, he became the executive director at the Audrey Lorde Project in New York City where he helped launch the annual NYC Trans Day of Action. Kris joined the transgender law center, the largest trans led organization in the country as deputy director in 2013. He later stepped into the role of executive director where he served until just earlier this year. While Kris is currently in between gigs, he continues to serve on the board of the California Endowment. For disclosure purposes, I should say that I am chair of the Transgender Law Center Board and served with Kris in that role during his last year. Kris, thank you so much for joining me.

Kris: Yes, of course. Thank you so much for having me.

Imara: So first I wanted to start with your youth and where you grew up. Where did you grow up? What was your neighborhood like and what about your parents? Like set the stage for young Kris

Kris: [laugh] Sure, absolutely. So I grew up in Seattle, Washington. I was born in 1975, so you know, 70’s, 80’s, early 90’s in Seattle. But my family actually almost all of my family is in Hawaii. I am fourth generation Japanese American, uh, or [inaudible]. So my family on both my mom’s side and my dad’s side came to the US in the early 1900s. On my mom’s side to work on the sugar plantations. And my dad, they were actually dentists, which is kind of weird. So I grew up in Seattle, but I have always very much seen Hawaii as also one of my homes. So at a time where that was very different than Seattle is now, you know, Seattle is a pretty diverse city but tends to be less diverse than places like New York City or the Bay Area, which is also where I grew up.

So, and I was always this super gender non-conforming Asian kid from a very, very young age. I would say from a very young age. Like I can remember it being three years old and understanding that my gender was not what was being placed on me though, just didn’t have the words to describe it. And I was just super fortunate that my parents were generally okay with that. You know, I will say it was really different when I went to school cause I- I really looked like a little Asian boy for pretty much all of my uh, childhood.

Imara: I’m wondering how your parents reacted to their gender non-conforming kid. Were they supportive? Were they not supportive? Were they curious? What was your parents’ experience of your gender?

Kris: Because they’re from Hawaii, there’s- I mean it’s a term that’s- that is understood in many communities and cultures, but there’s definitely an understanding of like tomboy. So I think that they were like, oh, Kris is a tomboy. That was a way for them to kind of understand who I was and how I presented in terms of gender. I will say that as I got older, that shifted, like that was okay when I was younger. But as I got older it became a little bit more less accepted by them. But overall like they were okay knowing that I was always gonna be kind of tomboyish. So I was really fortunate with my parents. However, you know, it was really different at school. Like at school I definitely faced a good amount of harassment and intolerance from teachers and from other students. Like I can remember at one point being in like maybe first grade or something and up until that moment the teachers had seen me as a boy and there was this big like crisis.

There was like this state of emergency when all of a sudden the teachers were like, oh, like Kris is not a boy, Kris is a girl. And it became this huge kind of crisis which only they were experiencing [laugh], you know, I clearly was not experiencing it. So it wasn’t until probably my early 20’s that I even actually understood, uh, or really knew about trans people. I mean that was a really different time that was like way before you could just go to the computer type trans into Google and have all this information pop up.

Imara: Were you shy? Were you quiet? Were you rebellious?

Kris: Yeah, I would say that when I was like a kid I was not quiet and was more on the kind of active, I don’t know, rebellious. But you know, I was definitely always like out and about doing things. However, I will say that I definitely became really quiet probably around like middle school through the early of high school.

Imara: You know, one of the things that strikes me about your story is that your parents were Asian American who grew up in a Hawaii long experience there. And that means that your experience of your family includes that of World War II.

Kris: Yes.

Imara: Which means that they have experience with the oppression of Japanese Americans in the United States and dispossession and other things. And I’m wondering, was that a part of your family’s direct impact or experience during World War II?

Kris: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a great question. Um, so yeah, all my family was in Hawaii during World War II and they were not in internment camps. I mean, there was a small internment camp in Hawaii. But the reality is, and what I’ve gathered from stories that they’ve shared, and honestly the- there are very few instances where my family has even talked about that period is that it was pretty much a police state though Hawaii overall. And there was real fear about being identified in any way with Japan and what that could mean for folks’ lives and realities. And so I will always remember one of my aunts telling a story about how they were so afraid at that time that they burned and destroyed all of our family pictures, heirlooms, clothing, anything that could possibly connect us to Japan. So, you know, to this day, like we don’t actually really have very much that connects us back to Japan because folks had so much fear at that time about being associated and what it could mean for their kind of lives. So yeah, it definitely very much has shaped my family and also who I am as a person. This kind of fast forwards a little bit, but part of what also is true is that I didn’t even really learn about World War II or Japanese internment until college. There was maybe like one line in a history book in high school, but I didn’t learn about it at all until college. And so I remember when I did just feeling this incredible amount of rage at that history had been kept from me, you know,

Imara: You said that you grew up as a kid who really didn’t speak out but then have spent most of your life speaking out. And I know that as a part of traditional Japanese culture there is connection to ancestors

Kris: Mm-hmm

Imara: This across many cultures, but also in Japanese culture. And your ancestors experienced a part of this history that was unspoken. And I’m wondering if you feel in any way that this unspoken history in your family was also at work in your decision to ultimately become an activist?

Kris: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I will say that towards my later years of high school, that I definitely became much more outspoken. So I probably had a period in middle school, elementary school, or maybe even throughout elementary school where I really was just trying to hide and be invisible. And then in high school that shifted and a lot because when I was in high school I just met other young people who were different. Some who ended up being queer and trans actually, but not that anyone I necessarily identified at the way in the time, but just were viewed as different. And I think having connection to that community really gave me much more of a voice. And you know, at the time it was less, I think connected to issues around gender or sexuality, but a lot just about inequities between what kind of Seattle public schools had and what resident surrounding areas.

So there were definitely moments in high school where, you know, and we had no idea what we were doing to be honest, but we were trying to figure out like how can we organize to like get books that aren’t torn apart or when the Gulf War started, how can we as young people protest and speak out against that? So it probably started in my kind of later years of high school that I- I feel like I started to speak out more from this real understanding of injustice that I do think also was- well I couldn’t articulate it at the time, was rooted in a lot of what I also experienced as a young child and kind of in my younger years. In terms of gender in particular,

Imara: There’s so many ways that people can be activist. What led you to focus on social justice within your own community with regards to gender identity? You could have done environmentalism or you could have done so many other things.

Kris: I really entered movement work, I would say with the real privilege to be brought in by some folks who were definitely to me at the time, elders. Even though probably in age, they were not so much so, you know, who were super rooted in movements around environmental racism, black nationalist movements, migrant justice and immigrant rights. And in particular, I was really involved in a lot of the youth led young people of color led movements that were happening in the California Bay Area in the like early 90’s, mid 90’s. And there was a real sense of bias for us of youth leadership and organizing. And so that’s really how I- how I came into the work. And at the same time I was starting to understand and put words to my gender and sexuality. So first as a- a queer person and then as a- a transgender queer person. For me, as someone who at that point was really clear that my commitment and purpose was about organizing and movement building, particularly for black and brown communities.

It was a- a coming together of my identity and my community and organizing a movement building. When I was in the Bay Area, I did a little bit of queer and trans work. Actually I was on the board of the GSA network around when they first started like way, way back when. And after I left the Bay Area, I went to Portland, Oregon for about a year. And that was around the time that I started to transition medically more. And definitely there was involved in some organizing that was happening around gender. But I would say that- that the first opportunity I had to really go deep with bringing together my movement building, my community organizing around racial justice, around social justice with gender and sexuality and LGBT communities was at the Audre Lorde Project.

Imara: For those people who are unfamiliar. Can you say a word about what Audre Lorde Project was and is?

Kris: The Audre Lorde Project is an LGBTST People of Color Organizing Project based out of New York City that has been around at this point, I think a few decades. I- I actually can’t remember, but has- has been around for a while and for- for a long time was one of the only organizations nationally that was specifically by and for LGBT people of color communities.

Imara: One of the things about your career is that you span kind of the life cycle of the latest generation of trans organizations. Ones that were small, highly focused on community, small amounts of money constantly on the brink, and working really hard to get people to pay attention to us and our issues to now on your way out leading the largest trans led nonprofit in the country, that finds itself in a very different place on resourcing in part because of the moment that we’re in. And I’m wondering, when you look at that kind of lifecycle of organizations, all of the types of organizations that you’ve been in involved with over the years, what strikes you about where we are?

Kris: I can remember when I was at the Audre Lorde Project, which would’ve been from 2003 to 2013. And we had started up trans justice, which at the time was one of very few trans people of color organizing projects in the country. And at the time there were trans organizations all across the country doing work for our communities. But the space and the opportunity for us to connect and build with each other was very limited. Like at the time, I can remember when I was at the Audre Lorde Project, we knew of maybe three or four other similar organizations around the country. So there was a real feeling of lack of kind of connection between organizations and absolutely of lack of resource and support. So, you know, that was 2005 ish on, and now you know, we’re in a really different place. I mean there are, I- I believe there have always been trans organizations all across the country and now there are even more so.

And I do believe that local trans organizations and definitely national trans organizations like TLC, are much more resourced than we have ever been. And honestly, I can say that when I was at the Audrey Lorde Project and even when I started at TLC, I don’t think that I could have ever imagined that there would be trans organizations the size of TLC. Like that just seemed unimaginable. And yet still, you know, the majority of trans organizations, particularly if we’re talking about local trans organizations, state trans organizations, the ones who are really on the front lines fighting back against the anti-trans legislative attacks that are really ramping up and escalating in this moment. Like those organizations are absolutely struggling to get resources to get funding, to get the support that they need and really deserve. And you know, some of those orgs are getting more than they’ve ever gotten, but it’s nowhere near enough.

And if those resources had been flowing five years ago, a decade ago, all of our organizations would be in such a different place and so better positioned to meet this current moment. So I would say that the types of anti-trans attacks were seen from the right, I mean that’s been building for a decade at this point and it’s something that trans leaders have been raising the alarm around for- for many, many years. And you know, thanks to work that you have done in particular, I think has really made it so much more visible to- in terms of what’s happening to our communities and the real- the real roots of why it’s happening. On the flip side, I’ll say that while I believe that trans organizations don’t have what we need or deserve far from it, that the trans movement overall is definitely stronger than we’ve ever been.

And I say that being able to look back on a good two decades at this point, and you know, there’s others who can look back much further of course, but in terms of the connections between organizations, in terms of the coalitions that have been built, in terms of the organizations and trans leaders who have built up powerful bases and campaigns in their communities to fight back against the anti-trans legislative and policy attacks that have been happening. Like we are definitely stronger than we’ve ever been. And at the same time we continue to have to fight to be at tables which are ultimately about our lives and our survival in our communities. And that’s gotten better, but it still continues to be a fight.

Imara: Yeah, I think all those are such powerful points. I mean, just on the funding point, I always say that even if one organization or a couple get massive amount of funding, they’re still relatively under-resourced because they were under-resourced for decades.

Kris: Exactly.

Imara: [laugh] So one or two years of great funding doesn’t make up for that. And as you say, the vast majority of trans organization aren’t even close.

Kris: Yeah.

Imara: As you conclude your time at TLC, what are you most hopeful about? It sounds like you’ve just answered that, but I’m just wondering if you have any sort of valedictory thoughts.

Kris: Yeah.

Imara: As you end your time at this organization, you’ve spoken about the challenges, but what do you look out and say, all right, this is- this is why we’re gonna make it.

Kris: Yeah, that’s such a great question and you’ve again have- have done so much work and put out so much good information around the anti-trans attacks from the right and that the right is really using, attacking trans people as a tool to roll out rights for many communities and ultimately, you know, attempting to attack what is known as US democracy. And I think what that means is that actually trans leaders, or local, or national are folks who have a lot of the answers around how to fight back against the right. I have a lot of hope and faith in trans leaders because we have years and decades of experience about how to fight back against anti-trans attacks, how to build community, how to support each other. So I have a lot of faith in that and that broader movements see it and center and raise up trans leadership and voices because I think if that happens, uh, there’s so much possible in terms of the ways in which we can actually win and create different visions for the world.

The other thing that I’ll say is that, so TLC is the largest trans organization in the US possibly the world. And what brings me a lot of hope is that when I started at my role in TLC, I really believed that we could build an organization that centered the leadership of trans folks of color that centered the leadership of trans communities who had been most invisibilized, who had been given the least access to resources. So of course including black, brown, indigenous folks, but also trans women, fems, migrants, young people, people living with disabilities, low income folks. And while there will always be so much more work for TLC to do- to really center those communities, TLC has really become an organization that strives and holds those principles and values. And I know that when I started at TLC and when we started down that path, I think that there was a lot of disbelief that- that could happen within LGBT space.

So even looking at TLC’s trajectory over the last decade and how the organization has grown and shifted and changed to meet different moments, that brings me a lot of hope of what is possible. And in particular, you know, I actually just remember a conversation I was having with someone who’s based more in like reproductive rights and- and justice movements and you know, talking about the many kind of challenges within repro rights in terms of representation of folks of color, trans folks, LGBT folks, migrants, and that as the largest trans organization that TLC was starting from a place of saying, no, this is what we need to do and sure we’re gonna make mistakes around the way, but this is our goal versus, you know, what she was saying, a lot of the repo rights groups having to go back and try to fix things. That brings me a lot of hope of what’s possible if our broader movements really do take to heart the need to lift up trans leadership in particular in this moment, that broader movements are, will look entirely different, you know, when overcoming years if that happens in powerful ways.

Imara: Well Kris, thank you so much for taking the time today and for your leadership and wishing you all the best on a well-deserved rest.

Kris: Thank you. Thank you. And again, so much appreciation for all your work, Imara. I mean really before you laid out and really did the work and research to make visible the roots of a lot of the anti-trans attacks that were happening, you know, it was something that was so low on everyone’s radar and you’ve really exposed it in a way that’s powerful and has meant so much in terms of what’s possible with trans organizing.

Imara: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Kris: Yeah, absolutely.

Imara: That was Kris Hayashi, the former executive director of the Transgender Law Center. [music] I am honored to be joined by Hawaiian community leader, cultural ambassador and advocate Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kulu. Hinaleimoana title Kumu means teacher and represents the many ways she works as an educator and spokesperson for Hawaiian language history and culture. In addition to her role as ambassador of culture for the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement, she’s also served as a Hulu teacher, cultural director of a public charter school and educator for incarcerated Hawaiian men. Hinaleimoana is a talented composer and filmmaker. She started her career in film as the protagonist of Kumu Hina, a documentary about her struggle to maintain Pacific Islander culture within a westernized Hawaii. She has also worked as a producer and director on award-winning films like Lady Eva and the PBS feature documentary Leis in waiting about her transgender sisters in the Kingdom of Tonga. Hinaleimoana has also found time to advocate for trans health issues and serves as the board president for Kalia Na Mamo, an NGO that strives to improve the quality of life for trans Hawaiians. In recognition of her decades of advocacy, she has also been named one of USA, today’s Women of the Century from Hawaii, as well as a native Hawaiian community Educator of the year and a White House champion of change. Hinaleimoana, thank you so much for joining me today.

Hinaleimoana: Aloha Imara and thank you for having me.

Imara: Aloha. Thank you for joining us. The different time zones make scheduling an issue. So we found a time and made it work. I appreciate

Hinaleimoana: Mahalo.

Imara: One of the things that you spoken about a lot is how you knew that you were different when you were younger, but within the context of where you went to school and the Westernization of Hawaiian culture, it was really hard for you to come to terms with that. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Hinaleimoana: Yes, Mahalo, from as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be beautiful like my mother. And one of the hardest parts of wanting to be that is knowing that, well, it’s kind of hard because I was born my parent’s son and so these thoughts that I had in my head and my heart, I could only really just indulge myself in those thoughts and look in the mirror and try to see something that I just didn’t know. You know, when my mother would leave me alone [laugh], I would ransack her closet and [laugh] imagine myself in my mother’s shoes, literally in her shoes and in whatever outfit that I thought that she looked really beautiful in. But not being able to be my true and authentic self meant that- that was only when mom wasn’t home. That never happened when I was at either one of my grandparents’ houses, my mom’s parents, my father’s parents, of which I grew up pretty much between my two sets of grandparents’ houses and my parents having been divorced, it meant that my time to truly look in the mirror and try to see something different was very limited.

So that’s my childhood growing up. And when I think back about living my authentic life, I could not say what I knew at that time was going to be followed by either ridicule or scolding. Whether it be for my mother, cuz my mother was my primary disciplinarian getting the spoon or getting a hand. It was only my mother and no one else. And I actually took offense. If anyone else even tried to posture in that way towards me. I- it would take me to become 17 years old before I could be even acknowledging of my true and authentic feelings.

Imara: How did you come to terms with acknowledging those feelings?

Hinaleimoana: When I got to middle and high school, I- there were two boys that I liked and there was a third one who, I liked him for different reasons and I appreciated him so much more because he gave me time of day and he gave me unconditional friendship, which allowed me to be close to him, but not quite like other kids who were in school and- and who happened to be dating in school, at least back in the late 80’s.

That was not the norm, that was not the thing to do. And I wasn’t about to subject myself to ridicule, I was surrounded by the other boys that I was close to from sports in high school. I finally found the confidence as that first year into college. I called the boys again, the same boys that I played sports with, and we were all close, even as we all found our way through college, I called them all together and we gathered and for 45 minutes I sat them there hemming and hawing and they were all looking at me like, well, hurry up, you know, what do you gotta say? And they just let me take my sweet time. And finally I spit it out and I told them that I had a boyfriend, but I wasn’t even able to say I had a boyfriend. Like I- I had to say I’m seeing somebody and it’s not a girl.

I could not- I- I just could not say it. My greatest fear was having to tell my mom. But I thought that my mom at that time was better prepared to receive the information that I was going to share with her. And I miscalculated because my mother was not prepared. Now that I’m older, I know that how can you expect a parent to be prepared for something that maybe they’re just not ready or willing to- to talk story about? And it- that wasn’t my call, that was completely my mother’s and I have to give her room to feel whatever she wants to feel. Even though she knew that her child dealt with issues of being teased and throughout my entire growing up, she knew that other kids called me. All those words, sissy, faggot, queer homo till today. It influences part of the reason why I don’t try to own things from a western conceptualization of this experience in life.

Imara: Why do you say that your experience with your mother grounds you into and propels you even further into Hawaiian culture?

Hinaleimoana: Emerging into the world, into my true form has required me to be absolutely grounded and absolutely clear in being Kanaka, being Hawaiian first. And if anybody knows anything about the history of Hawaii, one would know that the coming of foreigners meant the eventual a near collapse of population, decimation of culture and degradation of everything of Hawaiian life that a Hawaiian would want to remain connected to in our own homeland. And so I am a very fortunate Hawaiian in the 21st century that can speak my language. My mother does not speak it, my grandparents did not speak it. And I’m fortunate I’m privileged to be able to have that capacity because then I put on that hat and Hawaii becomes my mainland through colonization and through the illegal takeover and subsequent illegal annexation of Hawaii by the United States of America, which in and of itself is owned quandary because foreigners who came to Great Turtle Island slaughtered native Americans by the millions.

And so it does not escape us here in Hawaii, that history as well. And thus my respect and my affection to any of you who are the natives of wherever you may be, may blessings abound as a Kanaka- as a native Hawaiian here in my homeland, I will always echo that I am that Hawaiian. Whenever things Hawaiian are referenced. For example, we had our last governor put up tables and chairs and tents to sign three bills talking about the transgender community because it had to do with healthcare. They set it up in front of my museum exhibition and he got up on the stage and said, Hawaii has had a long history of diversity and inclusion. Well, to my dismay, the last governor did not give a great platform to the word Māhū or to a Māhū to even speak, but did set it up in front of my exhibit that had to do with Māhū

Imara: A couple of times. You’ve referenced the word Māhū. Can you tell us what Māhū is and what it encompasses and how it’s different from western concepts of gender and sexual orientation?

Hinaleimoana: From a very generalized standpoint, a rough equivalent or general equivalent to- to the L, the G, the B, the T, the Q I and A plus our general term in Hawaii is called Māhū. Now Māhū could be a gay man or a lesbian woman, but not necessarily it stretches as far as the male to female transgender and the female to male transgender as well. What’s most important is the duality of heart and spirit in the mind. When one looks up in our dictionaries of the Hawaiian language, one will see that it focuses on sex and sexuality, which is as important a component as it can be. It does not scratch the surface on the reality of a person. It does not speak to us about who they are.

Imara: What would you say are the elements to Hawaiian identity, including, but maybe even separate from, uh, gender identity?

Hinaleimoana: When thinking about the word Māhū, it’s not only the person who’s defined as homosexual by a physical act, Māhū as we understand it, not necessarily saying that it’s defined so articulately in a dictionary, but as we know it to be through life experience. Māhū is that person whom has more than just gender binary male and gender binary female. And how they express their place in life is completely up to them. So again, anywhere underneath designation of LGBTQIA, and you could be referring to in my culture Māhū, we also have a term called [inaudible]. And [inaudible] means close, intimate friend or companion of the same sex. When you say [inaudible] that’s very specifically saying intimate companions of the same sex that sleep with each other or sleep together, but a sexually intimate relationship is not necessarily the- that hallmark of the [inaudible] relationship.

I liken it to modern day romances. You know, when you see men who are always up in each other’s business and inseparable, but they may not- they may not necessarily be sexually intimate, but that’s just how they are. And likewise with women, of course, I believe women have had far much more freedom to have those kinds of close knit relationships along with Māhū. We’ve had those close-knit relationships for far longer in- in a pronounced manner and [inaudible] I would characterize it to be residing or d- domiciled in a same sex relationship. To give this better context, I’d have to call people’s attention to how Hawaiian and how Pacific Islanders identify ourselves. I would rightfully introduce myself as Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, and I am the child of [inaudible]. I am the grandchild of [inaudible]. Also, I’m the grandchild of [inaudible].

They are my grandparents. I am their child, I am their grandchild. And it is customary for Hawaiians to identify ourselves by our genealogy. We then identify ourselves by our land. I am born in the island of Oahu, from the district of Kona, known better to the world as Honolulu. I live in the valley of Nuuana between the boundaries of Liliha and Puunui. In the highest mountain peak in the valley of Nuuana is known by Lanihuli. That’s the name Lanihuli. And the three streams in the valley of Nuuana are [inaudible] and they flow to the sea fronting this large area here. And it is called [inaudible]. That is how a Hawaiian identifies oneself. Hawaiians don’t jump to identify by their genitalia and by their pronouns of which the Hawaiian pronoun is only one word and it is he, she and it all rolled up into one. We say oya.

Imara: What strikes me is that if you had been born 250 years or so ago, this struggle that you described in high school likely would have not been possible because within the history of your culture, you people who are gender expansive, who have all of the different variations from Western prescribed gender, had a place in culture, had a place in society. And we see that throughout the Polynesian world. And I’m wondering what your reflections are on that because you know, a lot of times people like to think rather that, you know, western society is so advanced and western is society is so superior in their eyes. But in many ways, I think one of the things you’re describing is that Westernization for people like you and the place that you are in, has been the opposite.

Hinaleimoana: The coming of Westerners to Hawaii, following the economic, expansive and invasive interests of foreigners, followed by Christianity, followed by continued and enduring colonization and Westernization, it only served to truly set my people back. And not unlike many other native people’s experiences. I come from a society not just here in Hawaii, but throughout Polynesia in the areas of the Pacific. I know specifically amongst, uh, those of us who are part of the larger Polynesian family. That includes Hawaiians, Samoans, Tongans, Tassian, Maori Rapanui, [inaudible] and many other countless islands. Our pronoun is only one word, and depending on the dialect, it’s either [inaudible] or [inaudible]. So there’s no need to differentiate whether someone has a penis or a vagina. There’s no need to differentiate what their genitalia is.

[inaudible] is referring to the third person. So that tells you something about the society and the culture that we come from. And it says that we have this great understanding of existing in that space between male and female. Uh, for those of us that do in traditional society, we feel in the gaps where there might be gaps. And it’s not unheard of for us to take on roles, especially for those whom go beyond just preferring to sleep in same sex company, but to those who are actually of a greater, more expansive spirit, a duality or multiplicity of spirit. Some westerners don’t really understand all of that and don’t like to engage in that discussion. But Pacific people understand that sometimes there’s a boy and there’s a girl, there’s a man and a woman in the person. So in Hawaii we call that [inaudible]. And if I were living 250 or 300 years ago, I anticipate that my life would not need to be reconciled according to any kind of sexual preference or gender identity. I could just be me and I could just be identified by my genealogy and by my land base where I come from. That is how we Pacific Islanders see one another.

Imara: I’m wondering if this then ties into my last question. One of the things that’s really striking to me about your work is how your skills and abilities as a storyteller and a creator and a teacher, you could apply those to anything, but you’ve specifically applied those to the emphasis on and preservation and extension of native culture in Hawaii. And I’m wondering what drives that. Is it in part understanding that, that culture is one that has space for you and does have space for you? Or is it driven by something else?

Hinaleimoana: The drive for me to do the work that I do is driven by several things. One is clearly, uh, the fact that I was raised primarily by my grandparents, all four of them. And I especially give credit to my Hawaiian grandmother, my mom’s mom, for instilling within me the responsibility to carry the torch for things Hawaiian. It’s from there that I acknowledge my passion and my commitment and dedication. It makes me absolutely staunch in it, and it reminds me to be eaten all about it. And when I think then of the- the larger picture of the people in my- in my circles who inspired me for culture, I had what we call [inaudible] or sort of adoptive or uh- uh, an English word is calabash, a- a calabash, you know, mom number two and a mom number three, one from the island of Toga, one from the island of Niihau. Niihau is here within the Hawaiian islands and Togas are related Polynesian cousins in the South.

I also had, um, another mom who was Samoan. And you know, these motherly figures all were extremely strong and very deliberate women whom each one of them had a particular zeal and a particular fervor for cultural rooted understanding of one’s self. And so that coupled with my own family experiences, it helped to shape who I am and it informs what I do. And also I know from many spiritual experiences along the way that I was gifted with the understandings that I’m given. And I have a responsibility to share what I know. And while I may not know much according to some what I do know, I will share my actions and my choices in life are determined by what I am grounded to and where my umbilical cord is.

Imara: Which is in your native land.

Hinaleimoana: Yes.

Imara: What do you hope is the lesson that you’ll leave behind from your life to others? Like what’s the thing that you hope will be what people have a greater understanding of by the fact that you- you lived?

Hinaleimoana: I hope that people will see that beyond the confines, beyond the boundaries and the trappings of Western society, which is predominantly Euro-American, centralized, just the whole construction of LGBTQIA, those are not narratives that arise from our native cultures. Whether it’s a native culture of the Pacific, whether it’s a native culture of Native Americans, Alaska, natives, Africans, I know that for all of the people who were brought against their will to the US and wherever else they were brought through slavery and through dominance and subjugation by foreign fair-skinned people that thought that they had the right to do that, I call out to the ancestral spirits of all of our peoples and remind everyone that we have realities that we can aspire to, the degree to which we achieve that remains up to us.

Imara: Well, I think that we can all learn lessons from the way in which you and your culture approach the very existence of people who are outside of the gender binary, not even recognizing the gender binary and also the way that you’re deeply connected to the land, the air, and the water around you. And I just want to thank you so much for taking the time for joining us today.

Hinaleimoana: Thank you so much.

Imara: That was Hawaiian teacher and cultural leader Hinaleimoana [music] Thank you for joining me on the Trans/podcast. Now listen all the way through to the end of this show for something extra but special thanks to Post Humorous for giving us a five star review on Apple Podcast. Post Humorous says, I just stumbled onto this podcast and the anti-trans hate machine, and wow, Imara is so thoughtful with her guests and questions. Thank you so much for all of your hard work on this pod. Love, love, love. Well, we love you too. And we just wanna let you know that we’ve been getting some hateful comments since being included in the Apple Podcast, women’s History Month collection. So if you want to help us drown out all of this negativity, make sure you go over and leave your five star review on Apple Podcast. You might just hear it on the show if you do. The trans/podcast is produced by Trans/Media. The trans slash team includes Oliver Hash Klein and Aubrey Calloway. Sandra Adams is a contributing producer to the show. And our sound engineer digital strategy is handled by Daniella Capistrano. The music you heard was composed by Binge Ragi and also courtesy of ZCK records. The trans slash podcast is made possible by the support of foundations and listeners like you [music]

This week, what I’m looking forward to, oh, next week is my birthday [laugh], um, on May 9th. So I don’t know what I’m doing yet because everything’s been crazy, but I’ll be doing something I guess Janet Jackson’s gonna be in New York that day, so I might want to go see, but sometimes I- I- I don’t do it on the day cuz it’s always- beginning of May is always weird, at least weather-wise here. So sometimes I’ll do it later in the month. But yeah, I’m looking forward to my- my birthday. It’s gonna be fun even if I don’t mark it that day, it’ll be fun.


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TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.



TransLash tells trans stories to save trans lives. As a trusted source for journalists, thought-leaders, movement activists, researchers, and those wanting to know about trans people, we produce narratives about and for the trans community—accurately and reliably. At a time when disinformation about trans people is being used to undermine democracy and human rights, TransLash Media serves as a beacon of hope through the voices that we share with the world.


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