As Donald Trump follows through on his campaign promises to bully and harass every minority he can in order to divide and conquer the American people, it’s more important than ever for state governments to stand up for the most vulnerable among us and show a better path forward.

This is especially true for the most recent target of the Trump administration, transgender youth. By rescinding the guidance — provided by the Departments of Justice and Education under the Obama administration — that protects the rights of gender diverse students to express their identity at school, Trump sent a clear message that it’s OK to discriminate against those who do not fall neatly into the gender category they were assigned at birth.

Residents of Hawaii are fortunate to live in a state with a long history of embracing and modeling diversity and inclusion. Before Western contact, those who embodied both male and female spirit, known as māhū, were valued and respected as caretakers, healers, and teachers of ancient tradition.

A mahu trio. The Kumu Hina Project

In modern times, as more and more transgender and gender nonconforming students have begun to express their authentic selves, the Hawaii State Department of Education, with an occasional push from local communities, has developed its own guidelines aimed at creating a learning environment where every child can feel supported and integrated into the school community.

These guidelines, which were announced last June and are now posted on the DOE website, are straightforward: schools should recognize a student’s sincerely held gender identity, address them by their preferred names and pronouns, and give them access to the activities and facilities that align with their identity. And yes, that includes restrooms, with the reasonable proviso that if any student feels uncomfortable or wants additional privacy they should be provided with an alternative.

The DOE also suggests ways that schools can educate and raise awareness about the need for such guidelines among students, teachers, staff, parents and the general community. Trainings have already begun in many areas, including schools across Kauai, and seasoned advocates such as Jo Chang are including presentations about them in their work with youth-serving agencies, including Hawaii’s juvenile justice system.

The guidelines have already had positive effects. Wendy, the mother of a second grade transgender girl whose elementary school made news headlines when it was revealed that administrators were not properly prepared to support her or her child, reports that “the school has stepped it WAY up this year, beyond expectations,” and that teachers and the entire staff now show that they “truly care” by implementing a safety plan that works for everyone.

Things have also improved at Kahuku High School, where the principal responsible for denying a transgender student’s right to walk in her graduation has been replaced, and implementation of the new guidelines has helped to significantly improve school climate.

“We’ve always had māhū at Kahuku,” said a veteran teacher at the school. “It’s very common in this community. The difference now is that these students don’t have to hide or worry about being penalized just for being who they are.”

Hawaii’s embrace of transgender students is a legacy of both the state’s progressive political traditions and its Polynesian roots. The fact that the guidelines have been implemented with so little controversy or backlash is indicative of the way that respect begets respect.

It’s a lesson that Donald Trump is probably incapable learning, but that other states would do well to emulate.

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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.
  • Hina Wong-Kalu
    Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu is a Native Hawaiian teacher, cultural practitioner and community leader and recipient of the 2016 National Education Association Ellison S. Onizuka Memorial Award for her impact on education and the achievement of equal opportunity for Asians and Pacific Islanders. She is the subject of the award-winning 2014 documentary, Kumu Hina.
  • 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.