In Transition: Hawai‘i’s Transgender Teens

Finding yourself as a teenager is challenging. But for local trans teens growing into their identities, these years are critical. Here is how Hawai‘i is succeeding, and struggling, when it comes to supporting students in transition.


transgender teens

Moe Hoapili is one of an estimated 1,260 Hawai‘i high school students who identify as transgender. Photo: Leah Friel


At the base of a mountain in Honolulu are the concrete-block buildings of a local high school.


Painted yellow, they’re both friendly and forbidding—much like high school itself, anywhere: welcoming for some, isolating for others who fall outside of the norm.


For 15-year-old Theodore, the jump to a large public school from SEEQS, an alternative charter school serving grades six through eight, hasn’t been easy. Theo left a group of supportive friends and teachers on a small campus to start freshman year in this large, sometimes anonymous setting. When not being ignored, Theo often draws attention for being “the trans guy,” a reductive label that dismisses a talent for drawing, an offbeat style and a slightly dark, self-deprecating humor that refuses to see the world in simplistic terms.


Gender questions have gnawed at Theodore from an early age. Deeply uncomfortable as a girl, Theo adopted he/him pronouns in sixth grade and more masculine clothing. When it was time to claim a new identity, the experience felt unsettling. “Coming out is really scary,” says Theo. “I didn’t want people to think any differently of me. I didn’t want them to dislike me or feel like they have to treat me in a certain way.” Like many teenagers, Theo worries about being judged and has bouts of anxiety. Recently, Theo has been reevaluating the gender question and now identifies as nonbinary, people who identify neither as entirely male or entirely female, and uses they/them pronouns.


“I didn’t want people to think any differently of me. I didn’t want them to dislike me or feel like they have to treat me in a certain way.” — Theodore


Theodore is one of an estimated 1,260 public high school students in the state—3% of the student population—who identify as transgender, an umbrella term that can include gender-
nonconforming and nonbinary teens. The number of transgender students was largely unknown until the Hawai‘i Sexual and Gender Minority Health Report 2018, the first assessment of its kind, released by the state Department of Health in September. The survey’s figure may still be low as it doesn’t include students who have stopped attending school regularly or dropped out altogether, both common scenarios among kids who lack support. Beyond the numbers, the report offers a rare window into the lives of transgender teens and the challenges they face.


I am the mother of a transgender 17-year-old, Ariel, so I know what it feels like—a body slam of fear and confusion—when a child tells you they’re transgender. Is this a phase? How will they make it in a world full of anti-trans prejudice and violence? And, crucially, how can I get a grip on myself and help this child lead the fulfilling life she envisions? I also know how alienating school environments can be, and how caring teachers and accepting peers can help students feel validated and encouraged.


SEE ALSO: A Rare Glimpse into the Lives of Hawai‘i Transgender Professionals at Work

  transgender teens

Cousins Moe Hoapili and Kahale Sardinha-Viloria share a room in a large, multigenerational home in Kāne‘ohe. Photo: Leah Friel


Strong Policies in Place

While the daily reality for transgender students can be difficult, many adults with a stake in the school system are pushing for safe and inclusive environments, as well as other fundamental rights. On paper, the results are impressive.


In 2016, for example, the Hawai‘i Department of Education issued a set of guidelines that explicitly spell out how schools should accommodate transgender students. This past summer, the state Legislature extended Title IX protections to LGBTQ students, which neutralizes recent federal moves to exclude them from anti-discrimination law. And the DOE seems to be earnestly rethinking its anti-bullying policies, prompted in part by a 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights that found widespread bullying in schools, with transgender students often targeted.


Outside the classroom, the state has eased the process of issuing new birth certificates with the appropriate gender, banned conversion therapy for minors, and passed legislation that prevents insurers from denying or limiting coverage based on gender identity. Kaiser Permanente has gathered a team to provide transgender health care, that includes pediatric specialist Dr. Melanie Shim. In the past eight years, she has seen the number of young transgender clients increase exponentially, driven in part, she believes, by changing legislation, medical coverage and attitudes.


These are welcome protections and services. But while policies provide a framework, a student’s well-being ultimately depends on how these protections and services play out on the personal level—among teachers, peers and family members.


SEE ALSO: Summary of the DOE “Guidance on Supports for Transgender Students”


A Close-Knit Family

Moe Hoapili, 16, is a slender, self-assured sophomore attending Hawaiian language-immersion charter school Ke Kula ‘o Samuel M. Kamakau. Moe, who identifies as female, wore jeggings and a polo shirt on the day we met, but also loves dressing up, a passion that expressed itself early. “Even when I was 5, my mom said I had great fashion sense,” Moe says.


Growing up, Moe knew she was different. At 12, she came out as gay, but the label didn’t fit and she soon realized she was transgender. Moe kept the knowledge close, using two Instagram accounts—one that conformed to her birth gender and one that aligned with her real self. In a slip-up, a post from the real account was shared with Moe’s family and her identity revealed. It’s a precarious moment for transgender kids—and a trigger for rejection—but Moe is lucky to have an accepting family that encourages her to stand tall in the face of slights and taunts from peers.


Like Theodore, Moe struggles to find her place at school. But instead of feeling lost in the crowd, she feels hemmed in by the smallness. With just a few dozen students, her charter school is located off a rutted road snaking into Ha‘ikū Valley on O‘ahu’s Windward Coast. It’s a beautiful setting, but far from her interests. Moe likes art, clothes, and a range of music from Whitney Houston to Metallica.


But the school’s insulation has advantages. Moe is grateful for a concerned principal she can go to for help dealing with some of the social pressures. And she’s glad to be removed from the “shaming and meanness” that many relatives experience at other schools. “Kamakau is safe and one big family,” says Moe.


At home, a multigenerational household where Hawaiian is often spoken, Moe leans on her cousin, Kahale Sardinha-Viloria, a junior at Kamehameha Schools who admires Moe for her courage to express herself authentically. Moe’s older sister and mother also back her completely. “Moe’s mom knows that Moe is confident and knows how to stand up for herself,” says Kahale. That kind of support can help teens stay grounded and optimistic about the future.


Moe also finds strength through role models, particularly Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, the Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and māhū wahine featured in the prize-winning documentary Kumu Hina. Her story was adapted for classrooms in the 25-minute film A Place in the Middle, which explores the, Hawaiian tradition of embracing both the male and female spirit.


Wong-Kalu is just one of the success stories in Hawai‘i. Consider the impossibly glamorous Janet Mock, a best-selling author, magazine editor and activist who began transitioning at Farrington High School in the late 1990s before attending the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Or fashion designer Ariyaphon South-iphong, a Wai‘anae High School and Honolulu Community College graduate, who transitioned after her breakthrough on the TV series Project Runway, where she first competed as Andy South. Their ability to rise far in their fields is a testament to talent, effort and an internal strength nurtured by supportive communities.


SEE ALSO: Portraits of Gender and Sexual Identities in the Hawaiian Community

transgender teens
Find out more about Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, here. Photo: Courtesy of Joe Wilson


Allies Make a Difference

At Mid-Pacific Institute, a private pre-K–12 school in Mānoa Valley, Morgan Groves, 17, is a junior taking challenging art and humanities classes. He’s also transgender, a realization that struck the year before, after years of self-searching.


“I went so long feeling unhappy and unsure, with no purpose, because I didn’t understand what was happening inside,” says Morgan. “I felt like I was a gender variant.” When a friend gave Morgan a chest binder to try on, it was like a light was turned on. After bottoming out emotionally at the end of sophomore year, Morgan opened up to family, peers and teachers. While confusing for the adults to process, coming out as trans has radically improved Morgan’s academics, relationships and outlook.


With the help of his parents, Morgan has moved forward with the transition, including taking hormones, and feels far more hopeful and future-focused. The growth process applies to parents as well. “I didn’t understand at first, but I knew it was important to Morgan, so it was important to me,” says dad Rich Groves. “I went from thinking it’s a choice to recognizing that it’s not.”


At school, Morgan belongs to an active Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, club that includes gender-fluid and nonbinary members. The group works to educate the student body about gender and orientation, and gets together in and outside of school. In October, for example, students marched in the 2018 Honolulu Pride parade alongside participants from the Lavender Clinic, a local health organization that runs support groups for transgender youth.


Among the marchers was Paul Gracie, whose daughter, Esther, belongs to the GSA. He finds the group inspiring—and a far cry from his own youth in Minnesota, where being gay was uncommon, and transgender impossible. “I get weepy listening to the kids because they’re so confident and optimistic,” says Gracie. “They’ll never realize the groundwork that was laid by my generation.”


In many schools, GSAs are turning out the next generation of social justice leaders, says Kim Coco Iwamoto, a civil rights attorney who became the nation’s highest-ranking openly transgender elected official when she joined the Hawai‘i Board of Education in 2006. “It’s not just the administrators or parents, but the students—they’re taking a stand for their friends,” she explains. “In every civil rights movement, allies have been crucial.”


Theodore’s twin sister, Zoe, is a reliable lunchmate and confidante who sticks by her sibling. Theodore’s parents have supported their social transition and advocated with a supportive school administration, which has provided access to a gender-neutral restroom and requested that teachers use the right name. Substitutes, though, still call out birth names from the official roster, which stings.


The thread that runs through Theodore, Moe and Morgan’s stories is that people in their lives—family members, classmates, school personnel—embraced them and championed them. But many young people in Hawai‘i are outcasts in their own homes.


SEE ALSO: Teens at Risk: From the Hawai‘i Sexual and Gender Minority Health Report 2018


A Darker Picture

On a drizzly evening before Thanksgiving, Cathy Kapua, a service coordinator with the Kua‘ana Project, led the Transgender Day of Remembrance in the open-air pavilion at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies. The annual event honors the lives of murdered trans people across the world, including a recitation of the names of known victims and where and how they were killed.


It was a grim reminder of the dangers the community faces, especially trans women. The evening ended on a thankful note: In 2018, no trans people were murdered in Hawai‘i. But suicide, notes Kapua, remains a serious problem, particularly among transgender teenagers. A young person from Kaua‘i was memorialized at the event.


Striking and passionate, Kapua, who as a child prayed to wake up as a girl and who began her transition after graduating from Waipahu High School, works tirelessly for the community. She’s seen major strides, such as the gender-affirming health care law, but also many struggles. “Thirty-five is the average life expectancy for trans women of color,” she says. “I beat the odds.”


Her concerns are borne out by data from the Hawai‘i Department of Health report. Half of transgender and gender-nonconforming teens have attempted suicide in the past year, compared to 8% of other students. Nearly half live in unstable housing situations, versus 6% of other teens. A quarter have skipped school because they felt unsafe, compared to 7% of other teens. And only 45% have an adult outside of school they can talk to about problems, compared to 73% among their cisgender peers, whose gender identity matches their birth sex.


“Thirty-five is the average life expectancy for trans women of color. I beat the odds.” — Cathy Kapua, service coordinator with the Kua‘ana Project


“We created the policies, we created the safe spaces in schools, we created the protections,” Kapua says. “However, we haven’t really changed societal views of trans people.”


Iwamoto sees it differently. While schools may have policies and well-intentioned administrators, she says the data reveals a lack of resources needed to get results. Iwamoto would like to see more social workers and more effective anti-bullying training for teachers and staff, particularly as it relates to helping transgender and gender-nonconforming kids. “Simply
suspending a bully is wasting an opportunity to heal everyone involved,” she says.


But sometimes the bully is an adult. In written testimony submitted to the Hawai‘i Board of Education in September, Kumu Hina filmmakers Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer stated that they had “witnessed firsthand the harm and pain that prejudiced school administrators and employees can inflict on students. …  This is especially true for issues around gender identity and expression and sexual orientation.”


Given conditions, it’s not surprising only a third of the transgender students surveyed said they plan to pursue vocational training or college, though both can be lifelines.

  cathy kapua

Cathy Kapua. Photo: Leah Friel


It Can Get Better

As director of the LGBTQ+ Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, Camaron Miyamoto says he hears from students who wish that more had been done to support them in their younger years. His passion is to help everyone feel connected and valued. “People might ask, ‘Aren’t we done? We have marriage equality. Students are out. We have so many people in Pride.’ But we also have so many students who feel isolated.”


The LGBTQ+ Center has helped create safe gathering spaces, systemwide name changes on request, correct IDs, housing assignments by gender identity, and a designated Rainbow Village—two floors of dorms set aside in Gateway House for LGBTQ students and allies—all empowering measures for students continuing their educations.


One of those was Janet Mock, who entered on a scholarship in 2001, a crucial step in her journey from harassed teenager to national figure. In her December 2018 keynote address to the UH Mānoa graduating class, Mock recalled the challenges of “growing up black and Native Hawaiian and poor and trans and a girl in Kalihi.” She wrote her memoirs, Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty, to let others know they’re not alone—that “no matter how different, how unique, how invisibilized, misunderstood and marginalized, you are worthy … of being seen and heard, respected and affirmed, and given access to every single space.”


Young, vulnerable, but armed with information and the will to express the gender that matches who they are, Hawai‘i’s transgender students comprise a significant community in the population. As Miyamoto describes it, they’re part of the cornerstone that makes Hawai‘i special.


While the state offers a web of laws and protections, the goal of equality and inclusion is far more attainable when adults and peers step up and help make it happen. I’ve seen firsthand how both have impacted Ariel, who graduates this month after four years of questioning, floundering, transitioning in steps, and emerging as a confident person eager for the adventures ahead.


Resources for Students, Families and Educators


Gender Spectrum

Parent information, online groups and classroom resources.


GLSEN Hawai‘i

Educator workshops on creating safe schools, tools for student leaders.


GSA Network

Guidelines for starting a GSA club at school.


Hale Kipa

Wide range of services for at-risk/high-risk youth.


Hawai‘i Sexual and Gender Minority Health Report 2018:

A Focus on Transgender Teens


Kua‘ana Project

Health care, support and social services for the trans community.


Lavender Clinic

Support groups for trans and gender-fluid teens, parent groups, and health care services.


National Center for Transgender Equality

National social justice advocacy organization.


National LGBT Health Education Center

Educational programs and resources for health care organizations.


A Place in the Middle

Short film and classroom guides for learning about gender diversity, inclusion and Hawaiian culture.


UH Mānoa LGBTQ+ Center

Drop-in groups, events and support.