The Transgender Law Center ranks Hawaii as “medium” for its laws promoting LGBT equality. Twenty-one states have an equal or higher ranking.
LGBT advocates say Hawaii’s native culture traditionally accepted more nuanced gender roles, and current attitudes toward gender and sexual identity in Hawaii have been affected by colonization, land seizures, the suppression of Hawaiian language and culture, and the imposition of moral codes by Western missionaries.
Before Hawaiians’ contact with outsiders, for example, Wong-Kalu says mahu individuals were respected, but faced increasing intolerance as native Hawaiians were supplanted by colonial settlers.
The term, once used respectfully, has been appropriated and displaced, said Wong-Kalu, who contends that today’s lack of acceptance is the result of colonization.
“Our own culture is used against us,” she said. “Mahu are denigrated and disrespected because of the imposition of foreign ideology.”
Gender-based prejudice can be found at every level of society in Hawaii, including workplaces, houses of worship and schools. As in the continental U.S., the question of which bathroom they can use can be a source of uncertainty for LGBT students.
Mandy Finlay, advocacy coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, wants Hawaii’s Department of Education to clarify its policies on school restrooms and locker room use for LGBT students, and “whether forcing kids to use a separate restroom constitutes any sort of discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sex.”
In a written statement, the Hawaii State Department of Education responded, “The Department is actively working with schools on guidelines regarding transgender students and bathroom access. In the meantime, schools work with students who identify as transgender on appropriate accommodations.”
In Hawaii as across the country, transgender persons face a wide range of problems from discrimination by employers, landlords and in the public sector to higher rates of substance abuse, homelessness, health problems and suicide attempts.
Hawaii’s largest insurance provider, Hawaii Medical Service Association, does not offer coverage for gender reassignment procedures and treatments.
Kyle Kajihiro, a board member with Hawaii Peace & Justice, said the most pressing issues in the struggle for LGBT equality in Hawaii are jobs and housing.
“There is still aggression and discrimination happening below the radar,” he said. “You don’t see it but it’s happening every day and it’s still a big problem.”
Kathryn Xian, a human rights advocate based in Honolulu, recalled how during Hawaii’s campaign for marriage equality in the late 1990s, outside groups opposed to same-sex marriage funneled money and an anti-gay message that homosexuality was being “imported” into Hawaii.
“Things are challenging,” she said. “But in some ways it’s a lot easier for LGBT persons to live here — the fact that the Hawaiian culture is the root of acceptance and precedes any sort of bigotry transplanted after Western contact.”