As Americans grapple with the firestorm of controversy ignited by the passage of the divisive “religious freedom” bill in Indiana, they would do well to turn to the nation’s 50th state for inspiration. In Hawaii, the right of LGBT people to live free of discrimination is viewed not as an attack on faith but as an intrinsic part of the spiritual belief in aloha — love, honor and respect for all.

Typical of Hawai’i’s embrace of diversity is their view of māhū — people who embody both male and female spirit, or what Westerners refer to as transgender. As shown in the accompanying animation from our upcoming PBS documentary Kumu Hina, māhū were valued and respected not “despite being that way,” as you might hear on the continent, but precisely because their gender fluidity helped them in their roles as healers, caretakers and teachers of ancient tradition, passing on their knowledge through hula, chant and other forms of wisdom.

When Christian missionaries arrived in the islands in the 1800s, they failed to comprehend the spiritual and cultural significance of māhū and did everything they could to abolish them. But Hawaiians have great reverence for their ancestral beliefs, and so, māhū have continued to play an important and visible role in society.

Kumu Hina

Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, right, instructs members of her hālau or hula school. The subject of a documentary film set to screen next month on PBS, Kumu Hina is both a teacher and a māhū, or transgender woman.

Hina Wong-Kalu, the main subject in our documentary, is a striking example. The film chronicles a year in her life as a kumu (teacher) at a public charter school where she empowers her students, many from economically disadvantaged families, through traditional culture, including one remarkable young girl who she helps to become leader of the school’s all male hula troupe.

In the community, Hina serves as the chair of the Oahu Island Burial Council, protecting Native Hawaiian burial sites and ancestral remains against the constant threat of development and desecration. Last year, she announced her candidacy for a position on the board of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an agency that works to better the conditions of native Hawaiians through programs supported by the revenues earned from lands taken during the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Tellingly, several of Hina’s election campaign supporters were classmates from her high school days at Kamehameha Schools, where she was still Collin Wong. Were anyone to disrespect their friend on the basis of her gender identity, they would see it not as an exercise of religious freedom but as the exact opposite: a serious breech of the spirit of aloha, tantamount to sacrilege.

Viewers across the United States will have their first wide exposure to Hina’s teaching and the Hawaiian understanding of māhū on Monday, May 4, with the national broadcast premiere of Kumu Hina on PBS’s popular documentary program Independent Lens.

Folks in Indiana, Arkansas and everyplace else where people think that religious and LGBT rights are an either/or proposition, should take a close look. There is a lot to learn from Kumu Hina’s Hawai’i.

Editor’s Note: Kumu Hina will be shown April 21 at 5:30 p.m. in a free screening at The People’s Hale — The Hawaii State Auditorium. See the special event’s Facebook page for additional details.

• This commentary was originally published on HuffPost Hawaii.

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About the Authors

  • Dean Hamer
    Dean Hamer is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker, New York Times Book of the Year author and NIH scientist emeritus. He formed Qwaves with partner Joe Wilson to produce insightful and provocative documentaries about often overlooked social issues. Their films have been supported by Sundance, ITVS and Pacific Islanders in Communications, won awards at over 100 film festivals across the world, and used as outreach and educational tools by a wide range of community and educational organizations.
  • Joe Wilson
    Award-winning documentary director/producer Joe Wilson got involved in documentary filmmaking through his social activism on human rights issues. Frustrated by the limitations of traditional organizing and advocacy, he picked up a camera with hopes of reaching broader audiences with stories that would inform and compel people to act. In addition to Kumu Hina, Wilson's filmmaking work include Otros Amores and Out in the Silence.