Camille Frigillana || PR Mangager
In the town of Honolulu, Hawaii, 11-year- old Ho’onani is a hula dancer yearning to be a part of the boy’s hula dance for her school’s performance. The problem isn’t that Ho’onani’s dancing skills aren’t good enough, but it is because Ho’onani is a girl trying to get on an all-male group.
In the 2015 documentary “A Place In The Middle,” directors Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson use Ho’ onani’s story in order to challenge gender norms that are in place in today’s society. The story is told through the perspective of Ho’onani, a girl who identifies herself as a mahu. The concept of mahu in the ancient Hawaiian tradition is defined as one who does not identify with one gender or the other, but rather places themselves in the middle, identifying with different traits from both genders.
“This film is told through the young person’s point of view. It’s in her voice and it’s her experience. It’s not experts talking about the concept of the gender spectrum. It’s just her experience,” co-director Joe Wilson said.
“A Place In The Middle” is a spin off of Wilson’s 2014 documentary “Kumu Hina,” which follows a transgender hula dancer as she petitions her future husband to immigrate from Tonga to Hawaii. Hamer and Wilson have been long time advocates for the LGBT community, having previously shot a documentary about a gay teen from a small town in 2009.
“For many years, we have been working on the issue of how to raise visibility of the LGBT people—youth in particular—and find ways to overcome prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face,” Wilson said.
While filming the documentary, a mutual friend from Hawaii introduced Wilson and Hamer to Kumu Hina, who quickly learned that she was a respected and revered figure in her community, despite seeing herself as mahu.
“Hina just invited us to become more involved in helping to share her story because she realized, too, that there’s a lot of things people can learn by seeing an indigenous perspective on how gender is embraced and respected in many other cultures,” Wilson said.
The film explains that mahus were once highly regarded in the Hawaiian culture. But once Christian settlers came to the island and condemned their type of people, mahus became something of a taboo.
“The term mahu—you know, just like the term in English ‘queer’ had been used negatively—mahu has also been used like that over many decades. So just now over the last couple of years Hina and a couple of other mahu are now working to reclaim the word. It’s a slow process but we’re in that period now where the stigma is still there, but little by little the cracks are peeling that negativity away,” Wilson said.
“A Place In the Middle” is now being used as a tool for schools in Hawai’i to talk about the concept of mahu to the young and old alike and to break the stigma surrounding it so that conversations can begin to take place and the term’s historical significance can be restored to what it was before.
The Western world can definitely learn a thing or two from this film, as it is there that the harshest stigmas and stereotypes are present. Even though this film is focused on one particular culture, aspects of it can also relate to the general idea that certain ideologies can hinder a full understanding of people who may be deemed as different than the norm.
“When you realize that those people that we’re always taught were the ‘other’ are just like us, then it just becomes normal. The prejudice and the other things just kind of dissipate in a natural way,” Wilson said.
A Unique Perspective
Sophomore biblical studies major Ashli Lomeli’s father came out to her as transgender when she was 11 years old. The stigmas attached to transgender is something that she knows, and once believed to be true.
“My mom comes from a Mexican Catholic family, so it was very shocking for her, but more shocking than it should have been. So I modeled my response after my mom’s. But I knew something was up because he started talking hormones even before he told us. If I hadn’t been as shocked as I was, I would have probably been okay with it,” Lomeli said.
Now, Lomeli is willing to help her father, who now goes by the name Dee, during this transition. Dee remains steeped in her Christian faith, and Lomeli appreciates their Bible studies together. However, there is one thing that Lomeli won’t do, and that is refer to Dee as a she.
“When you’re their kid, you refer to them as what they were to you. I don’t call him mom because he claims that he will always be my father. It’s not a matter of gender but a matter of parental role. So I call him dad out of respect of that fact that he is my father. He doesn’t want that added stress of me having to change pronouns all the time. He knows that when I call him ‘he’ it’s not out of disrespect, but out of the fact that he is my father,” Lomeli said.
But, Lomeli and her mother weren’t the only ones in the family to be angered by her father’s decision. Growing up, Dee’s parents wanted her to act more masculine. But now that Dee has fully accepted who she really is, her family barely even talks to her anymore.
“We heard countless stories about how he felt growing up. When he was three, his parents had to cut his hair really short and they said that he was crying for days. And then during picture days when he would have to wear a tie and do his hair, he hated it,” Lomeli said.
Dee entered the army and became staff sergeant before she left, which made Dee’s father very proud of her. She continued on as part of the California Highway Patrol Officer and father to Lomeli.
“It was just 40 years of him being unhappy and trying to please everyone,” said Lomeli.
After coming to Lomeli, it took her four years to finally start talking to her father again and take the time to learn about who she is.
“I lived with my dad during the summer when I was 16. We would go out in public and he would wear feminine shirts, long hair, makeup. It was different but it was still my dad. The only way I could tell it was different was how everyone was looking at my dad,” Lomeli said.
Now, Dee is more comfortable with dressing up and putting on makeup in public, not paying attention to the stares that she might get. However, because she lives with her elderly mother who still disapproves of her being transgender, Dee seems to be living a double life as she has to wear her long hair in a hat and dress in baggy clothing.
With her unique experience, Lomeli at first wondered why she picked such a school that didn’t necessarily believe in what her father was going through. But now she sees her purpose on campus.
“I think my job is to answer people’s questions, educate people about it or bring up the topic when other people don’t because I think it’s important to take the stigma away,” Lomeli explained, pointing to the negative stereotyping that can be attached to transgendered individuals in a Christian community.
The Fight For Acknowledgement
Many Christian universities now have to face the issue head-on with an updated Title IX. When Title IX was passed in 1972, it was originally intended to help female athletes get equal treatment with their fellow male teammates, according to titleix.info. But that changed in 2014 when it extended to protect transgender students and faculty.
With the expansion of Title IX to protect students that identify as transgender, the battle for equality within universities is becoming more and more evident, especially at Christian Universities. Title IX now allows for those who identify as transgender to use restrooms, locker rooms and dorm rooms with the pronoun they identify with. It also allows for them to dress appropriately, or maintain their right to keep their status a secret. Many Christian universities, however, are putting in requests to be exempted from Title IX because it goes against their religious freedom.
APU is commonly considered to be liberal when it comes to Christian universities, but that does not mean that many students and faculty are ready for an open conversation about transgender and LGBT issues. An anonymous faculty source hopes that there will be more of a willingness for students to reach out to LGBT community members and start a conversation.
“You can read all the books and articles you want on the issue, but it’s not the same as face to face interaction and getting to know that type of person,” the anonymous source said.
Because of people like Wilson, conversations are now slowly starting around the country. Hawaii is finally starting to restore an identity that was once highly regarded.
“Think about the concept of aloha, which is just unconditional acceptance and respect, and how it can be applied to your own community in order to make places of inclusion for everybody. Because this is really about everybody having an equal opportunity and finding their way in life,” Wilson said.