LGBT Pacific Islanders in Utah face discrimination

Story and photos by SHAELYN BARBER

It takes a village to raise a child, but what happens if that child does not fit into male or female gender identities? In Pacific Islander culture, it is not an issue.

Across the Pacific Island cultures, these individuals are known by many different names. In Samoa, they are Fa’afafine. In Hawai’i, they are Māhū. In Tonga, they are Fakaleiti. These are the people who are not male or female, but somewhere in the middle: a third gender.

The third gender is an integral part of traditional Pacific Island culture, and individuals who fall into this spectrum are highly respected members of society. People who are part of the third gender category do not adhere strictly to stereotypical characteristics of male or female genders, and often display characteristics of both. The Pacific Island third gender category can include people who act or dress in a way that is not associated with the sex they were assigned at birth or people who are sexually attracted to someone of the same gender.

“It’s important to see the similarities between Māhū and transgender identities here in the U.S., but also it’s not just a direct translation,” says Maile Arvin, a native Hawaiian and assistant professor of gender studies and history at the University of Utah. “I think it’s just a little bit different than transgender in the sense that that was a defined role that was honored in Native Hawaiian society, that has its own history.”

Arvin says that traditional gender roles in Pacific Island societies are balanced and are not necessarily matriarchal or patriarchal communities. Within them, masculine and feminine roles are distinctive but receive equal amounts of respect. Men are typically the protectors, workers and financial supporters of their families. Women take on the role of caretakers of the family and the home. People who identify in one of these third-gender identities have a role within traditional Pacific Island societies as well: they are usually the leaders and teachers of spirituality and culture.

“Sometimes it’s hard for non-Hawaiian people to understand what Māhū means,” Arvin says. “So, in some contexts it might just be more convenient to identify as transgender instead of going into explanations about what Māhū is.”

People who identify as a third gender in Pacific Islander societies often find it difficult to explain the meaning to others who are not familiar with it. Despite parallels to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) identities, the two are distinct. Someone can identify with both an LGBT identity and an identity in the third-gender spectrum.

“I’m not really picky but I know that I personally identify as feminine pronouns, but then when people see me they’re like, what the heck? I don’t get it,” says Leka Heimuli, who works as a secretary for the Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Salt Lake Community College South City Campus. Heimuli is Fakaleiti, the Tongan term for the third gender, and describes herself as a gay man who prefers female pronouns and typically dresses in a masculine way.

Leka

Leka Heimuli, secretary for the Office for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at the Salt Lake Community College South City Campus

Heimuli is a first-generation Polynesian Tongan American. Her mother and father both emigrated from Tonga searching for opportunities for work, education and a better life. They met in Utah, got married and had six children, a small family by Pacific Island standards, which Heimuli says typically have between 10 and 15 children.

“I feel like when colonialism came, you know, to our shores that’s when you kind of see that drift of, oh, that’s wrong. That’s bad,” Heimuli says. “I think now we kind of use those terms in a derogatory manner.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has raised controversy because of its doctrine concerning the LGBT community. According to church doctrine sexual and marital relationships should only be between one man and one woman, and sex or marriage between two people of the same sex is forbidden. According to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, the state of Utah has the highest percentage of constituents in the United States.

“We’re here, you know, like, you can’t control it,” Heimuli says. “There are members [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] I feel don’t come out because of like … that stigma that’s maybe placed on them from the church or maybe from the beliefs.”

Heimuli says that while the discrimination against LGBT and third-gender Pacific Islanders within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not extreme, these communities do face negative effects, comments and stigmatization from its members.

“Our belief and our history before Christianity came is that we have three genders. So, that’s a norm,” says Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR). “For some reason this plane ride, this 10-hour plane ride to America, changed that.”

Susi

Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources

Gallery creates a space for diversity

by STEPHANIE FERRER-CARTER

John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States of America, stated, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.”

During this year’s Pride at the U, artists of all sexual preferences found a venue for their visions.

“Art is a big part of queer culture,” said Bonnie Owens, 21, a senior at the University of Utah and an intern at the LGBT Resource Center on campus. “It’s a big part of any culture, so I thought it was important that it was included.”

The theme of the 2007 Pride Week held Oct. 15-20 was “Culture with a Q.” Owens was inspired by the theme, and chose to revamp the idea of an art gallery as part of Pride Week.

“In the past it’s never been successful, but I really wanted it to run well this year,” Owens said.

The art show was originally titled “Beautifully Obscene,” but was renamed “The Good Stuff” after some concern over what would be displayed in the gallery located in the U’s student lounge.

“The best thing about the gallery is that it crosses so many different boundaries,” Owens said. “We’ve got staff, faculty, alumni, community members and students all in here.”

Though it was labeled a LGBTQ art gallery, Owens said anyone could submit their art. Artists did not have to describe the subject matter, just the dimensions of their work.

“Something like this is so odd,” Owens said. “It’s so queer to have a gallery designed for queer students and faculty. So it’s very, very liberating for an artist that’s having a hard time finding their niche. It’s a good place to be.”

A variety of art was displayed in the gallery, including photography, drawings, oil, water color, mixed media and pottery.

While some works were more subdued, the gallery did feature a series of nudes painted by a former alumna who lives in Santa Quin County. Owens said the woman found out about the gallery through a culture article in the Salt Lake Tribune and was eager to show her work, not only because the county did not have a gallery that would display the nudes, but also because two of the woman’s children are gay.

The gallery became a canvas of emotion and statement for some.

Orbin Rockford, 27, submitted five pieces from a series of 25 Sharpie and acrylic paint drawings to the gallery. The dark images portrayed, both in color and tone, stood out starkly from their clean, white backgrounds.

The inspiration came from an emotional break-up that happened while Rockford was in college at a Boston art school.

“I was in a relationship that was totally messed up,” Rockford said. “It was my first real relationship with a guy.”

Drawing, Rockford said, is a form of therapy, what he calls “instinct art.”

“It’s a great outlet,” he said. “It’s been about coming to terms with myself.” 

But Rockford said he does not want his artwork to be defined only by his sexuality.

“It’s very much a part of my work, some pieces more than others,” he said.

Aside from putting the show together, Owens also submitted her own series of black and white photographs. Each one featured student leaders and activists from the U’s LGBTQ groups.

“They [Owens’ photographs] were designed to be shown, so they’re a little more apparent,” she said. “They’re something that you can look at them and say, why is this queer, what is going on here.”

The pieces were on display for the week, and the gallery full of artwork was proof of a goal accomplished, according to Owens.

“Pretty much everyone from different identities and cultures submitted something, which is something the resource center has had a hard time with in the past,” Owens said. “A lot of events this year cater to people who are often forgotten in programming like this, so people of color, transgender individuals, women, straight allies especially. So it’s great to see some of their work in this.”