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