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Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong on Western and Hawaiian understandings of gender and sexuality

Hinaleimoana Wong
Hinaleimoana Wong

Oct. 11 was National Coming Out Day, referring to "coming out of the closet." Today, Hinaleimoana Wong’s coming-out story. A respected educator and cultural leader, Kumu Hina met HPR in Waikiki. We visited Kapaemahu, the majestic healing stones at the edge of Kūhiō Beach that are linked to healers who were not specifically male or female. Kumu Hina co-produced an animation about Kapaemahu, Waikiki’s healing stones — and composed a Hoku award-winning anthem, "Ku Haʻaheo."

Interview Highlights

On the differences between Western and Hawaiian understandings of gender, sexuality and more

From a Western and American perspective, the understanding of transgender can take on a whole different kind of nuance, a whole different meaning and a whole different perspective. But from Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander views, those of us who occupy a space and place in the middle, those of us who have both elements of male and female, kane and wahine, each individual is to his or her own varying degree. We don't necessarily fall into distinct categories.

In Western culture, especially in American culture, there's great emphasis placed on a label. Are you gay? Are you bi? Are you lesbian? Are you trans? What are you? And we as Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, we identify by our name, by our family. We identify by either the town or the village that we come from. We identify by the island that we call home. We know the streams and rivers and the mountains of our places — and we come from these places. We are attached to these places. We come from generations of a people who populated the Pacific. As Pacific Islanders, when we say who we are, my name is not just Hinaleimoana and from the American perspective — oh and by the way, I'm transgender. That's not how we look at the world. I am Hinaleimoana, I am the keiki, I am the kama, I am the hānau — the offspring of Georgette and Henry.

I do not have to identify by the articulation of my gender identity or by my sex. I do not have to tell you that I have a vagina or a penis between my legs. I do not have to tell you that I was born my family's son, but I have fully transitioned to become their daughter. I don't have to identify by those things because those things are rather irrelevant to what my family and the society that I come from say about me, and my worth, and my value. Western and American culture place great emphasis — it's almost like they put a penis or a vagina on your forehead. So you have to identify by that. When you walk up and say, "Hi, I'm so and so and I'm gay." Well, what's the purpose of saying that? Why does somebody have to identify as that? Why can't you and I look at each other — Hi, your name is Noe, my name is Hina. "Hi, what do you do?" "This is what I do." You know — "Where are you from?" "This is where I'm from."

On coming out to family and fulfilling familial expectations

My personal preference, I am someone who is attracted to men, biological men, but my preference is irrelevant. In the culture that I come from, it shouldn't matter. I will bring home whom I feel is worthy of not only my love, time and attention, but I will bring home somebody whom I feel that my family might take favor upon. And then again, even if they didn't take favor, I might just bring them home with me anyway. But that's my independent choice. And, you know, there are some families who would deal very well with that, and some families who won't.

Well, everybody, you know, initially focused on "are you changing?" In my Chinese family, I did exactly what was the expectation of me — and my father was very staunchly Chinese, even though he grew up here in Hawaiʻi. It was humility, and filial piety, and loyalty to the family. I was loyal to my father and my grandmother. I was loyal to the values and the ideals that were espoused in our household. And I did as my father said, and when my father said, "I only have two things that I want of you. I want you to finish school and take care of your grandmother; and after that, I don't care what you go do, you can be a rubbish picker for all I care." His exact words. And I fulfilled that. I fulfilled it, above and beyond the call of duty. So I earned my father's love and respect. And no matter how much he may like, dislike, agree or disagree with my life's direction and choices, it's irrelevant because I fulfilled my father's charge for me to do. I transitioned in front of my father. And no matter how many years pass, I will always have my father's support. Even when I screw up, and when I mess up, I will always have my father's support and unconditional acceptance. And I say, with confidence, will I be a disappointment? I might be to a certain degree, but it doesn't mean that he's going to stop loving me.

I know I'm very fortunate. But Hawaiian society, in my Hawaiian household, same thing. I was raised by my grandparents on both sides. And my mom's mom raised me and infused me with the understanding to be strong — in as much as I could do for Hawaiian language and people and culture. And to do things Hawaiian, and to honor it, to cherish it, to promote it, perpetuate it, promulgate it. And my grandfather, he was a man of prayer above all else. My grandfather was a staunch member of The Church of Latter-day Saints. And so his being Hawaiian was secondary to that. But his prayer life is what I carry with me today. So too was it in my Chinese side, so too was it in my Hawaiian side, that I had to fulfill duties and responsibilities made of me. For that, I have earned the respect on both sides of my family. So now in my adult life, I really wanted to say that it doesn't matter how you identify in Western terms. In Hawaiian and Pacific Islander understanding, again, I am the child of so-and-so, I'm the grandchild of so-and-so.

This interview aired on The Aloha Friday Conversation on Oct. 15, 2021.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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