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Transgender activist looks back on a life of upholding Pacific Island culture

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Hina Wong-Kalu knows what it is like to be caught between two worlds. Raised by her Christian grandparents in a highly religious environment, Wong-Kalu often struggled with her identity as a māhū, a third-gendered person who embodies both male and female spirit. A Hawaiian native of Chinese and Hawaiian descent, Wong-Kalu never chose between her two heritages — instead, she shaped her own.

On Saturday night, Wong-Kalu spoke with students at the Burke Museum to share her story about growing up as a transgender woman struggling to maintain Pacific Islander culture in modern Hawaii. Co-sponsored by the Northwest Association of Pacific Americans and jointly hosted by the ASUW Pacific Islander Student Commission and the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, the event featured a range of traditional Polynesian food and artwork in a space filled with dozens of other historical artifacts.

Toka Valu, a UW advisor at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, began the evening by leading the audience in a Catholic prayer spoken in his native Tongan tongue.

“I think that speaking in Tongan was the most trusted way in honoring the event,” Valu said. “I prayed for blessing our evening, blessing our food, and giving thanks.”

For the next hour, the audience was given a screening of Wong-Kalu’s 2014 docudrama “Kumu Hina.” The film chronicled Wong-Kalu’s efforts as a Kumu, or great teacher, to inspire a young girl to lead her school’s all-male hula troupe while struggling through her marriage to Hema, a headstrong Tongan man with whom she would spend six years of her life.

Following the screening, Wong-Kalu took questions from the audience about the film and the events that took place after it. As she discussed, her marriage with Hema ended sometime after the film debuted and her hula school eventually closed. She now teaches incarcerated people in the Hawaiian prison system, a career she finds as challenging and fulfilling.

As a transgender woman, Wong-Kalu does not see herself as a survivor. Being a survivor, she said, suggests that her struggle has been a matter of life and death. Instead, she sees herself as a someone who simply met the challenges she faced head on.

Above all, Wong-Kalu said that listening to herself was one thing what kept her going before and after her transition.

“The trans experience is simply me being honest with myself,” Wong-Kalu said. “I didn’t need a doctor to tell me whether I was ready to transition.”

Commenting on the rise of LGBTQIA+ rights in the 1970s, Wong-Kalu said that she did not always relate with its approach.

“Growing up in the ’70s, the LGBT movement seemed like such a separatist movement,” Wong-Kalu said. “It was like an acknowledgment that we are unique. In Hawaii, there was no need for a [gay pride parade] because everyone is in it.”

Wong-Kalu credits her grandparents with allowing her to grow up in a loving home. Despite being a spiritual person herself, Wong-Kalu said that while she does not believe in Christianity the way her family did, she still sees it as a means of community.

“I know the role Christianity played in the decimation of Hawaiian culture, but if I denounced it, I would never have a life with the people around me,” Wong-Kalu said. 

Having observed the American gay rights movement in its infancy, Wong-Kalu said her stance on gay marriage was not always simple to explain to others. She sees marriage as a deeply spiritual commitment first and a legal one second.

“I do not support gay marriage in the context you put it in,” Wong-Kalu said. “Marriage is built around around the parameters of ownership. When I told my husband it was over between us, all I needed to do was to say it; paper was secondary.”

For Wong-Kalu, no one is qualified to be a critic of other people’s bodies or identities.

“What’s between your legs is your business,” Wong-Kalu said. “What someone else is putting between their legs is their business.” 

Afterwards, UW freshman Tulili Tuiteleleapaga-Howard led the audience in a series of Polynesian chants and claps in celebration of Pacific Islander culture. 

The exercise echoed some of Wong-Kalu’s final comments that evening, in which she expressed her commitment to the place she calls her one true home.

“Hawaii will be my home to my very last breath,” Wong-Kalu said. “That is my mainland.”


Reach reporter Tim Gruver at Twitter: @T_TimeForce

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