ANAHOLA, Kauai — To his family, friends and schoolmates, he was Dylan Kawaikupau Kuwamura of Anahola, a talented 20-something who worked as an Island Air flight attendant until the company shut down last October.

To the drag community on Kauai — a social milieu larger than many may realize — he was Diamond West Williams, star performer and a creative force behind a revue that in August started with the first of a planned monthly show series at the Anahola Marketplace.

Tragically, the second revue Saturday night turned into a fundraiser for his burial.

About 300 people attended the Saturday night drag revue in Anahola. Allan Pararchini/Civil Beat

Anahola is nearly surrounded by Hawaiian Homelands property. It is a stronghold of Native Hawaiian life, values and politics.

The Marketplace is the brainchild of Native Hawaiian activist Robin Danner, CEO of the Homestead Community Development Corp. and a forceful advocate for Native Hawaiian causes ranging from micro-enterprise to housing to self-governance. Feared within some government agencies, Danner generally has a take-no-prisoners approach to bureaucratic obstacles thrown in her way.

Dylan, or Diamond — the name used depending on social context — had attracted Danner’s attention by helping to stage karaoke and other performance events at her Anahola facility. It includes the Pu‘u Wai cafe and bakery, sandwich shop, retail outlets, thrift store and other amenities that many obliviously speed past on Kuhio Highway.

Robin Danner took this selfie picture with Dylan Kawaikupau Kuwamura just a few days before his death. Courtesy of Robin Danner

Dylan had been despondent since his job at Island Air disappeared. He was short of cash and, some nights, had no place to sleep. Danner and Sherry Cummings, president of the Anahola Homestead Association, took him under their wings, serving as aunties and giving him hot meals and a place to stay.

They also gave him an opportunity to produce the drag revue, which seemed to have relit his fire, Danner said.

So when he called and told her he was checking into the Courtyard Kauai at Coconut Beach for a couple of days to chill and get his head together, she thought nothing of it. It was familiar behavior.

The next day, Danner said, he was found dead by hanging, at the end of a rope attached to a balcony at the hotel. He was 29.

A couple of months earlier, Dylan had asked Danner if she’d consider letting him stage drag revues. If you know Danner, you know it takes quite a bit to bring her up speechless. Dylan’s request did. It was an artistic milieu with which Danner was unfamiliar.

But she said yes and the first of a planned monthly series of shows occurred Aug. 15 before an enthusiastic audience that came from as far away as Waimea. It was Danner’s first drag revue and it immediately made her step up her feminine game: “I went immediately home and shaved my legs and plucked my eyebrows.”

Anahola is a hardscrabble community with a high crime rate. Substance abuse issues co-exist with masses of regular working class families struggling to make ends meet.

Luna, one of the performers at the Saturday drag revue. Allan Pararchini/Civil Beat

For people from the haole — a term Danner uses unabashedly — world, thinking of Anahola as an illogical place for a drag revue is to simply not understand community culture. Non-Hawaiians are presumed outsiders. Historically, she points out, the Native Hawaiian community has been tolerant of many social systems that today’s straight, white-dominant culture may dismiss as aberrant or out of place.

Culturally, she said of Anahola as a drag show venue, “It’s completely grounded. It’s the norm,” in the context of historical levels of tolerance of alternate lifestyles through Hawaiian history.

But it’s not entirely welcoming to people outside the heterosexual norm. Dylan was bullied in the community. So much so that Danner’s next project is forming an Anahola Neighborhood Watch especially to look out for bullies and drug dealers.

Danner said of Dylan: “He died for lack of housing and lack of opportunities.”

On Saturday, a second drag revue was billed as a fundraiser ($15 per person requested) for Dylan’s burial.

Chastity, one of the cast members, said she hadn’t known Dylan long. But “over the past month, as it became clear that this was going to be a fabulous show,” they became close friends.

It was entirely a community affair, attended by about 300 people, including dozens of families with children and babies in arms. It was mellow, full of fun and respectful — even when people rushed the performers to jam dollar bills in their bras.

It was so mainstream that Mayor Bernard Carvalho and his wife, Gina, and Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, stopped by as if it was simply another event on an evening’s public appearance list.

Mayor Bernard Carvalho and his wife Gina stopped by the revue Saturday, where he spoke briefly about the need to better understand suicide. Allan Pararchini/Civil Beat

In brief remarks, the mayor made an eloquent plea for better understanding of suicide, its warning signs and its toll. Carvalho acknowledged what police and social service officials know too well: “Suicide is a big part of our island. We need to stand strong.”

For Dylan, the Island Air job was a dream come true. But when the airline went under, he was unable to find anything else in the industry. His housing arrangements fell apart. He was short of money and grew increasingly despondent.

He repeatedly called Hawaiian Airlines looking for a new gig, without result, Danner said. Then he encountered problems common across the island. He couldn’t find anywhere to live. He couldn’t find a job even remotely consistent with his talents and experience.

He started to lose his grasp on reality, according to Danner and others.

She and Kipukai Kualii, a former County Council member and now nonprofit executive who’s running again for council, were among Dylan’s closest advisers. Despite his problems, his death left them blindsided.

Writing on Facebook, Danner railed: “I’m tired of suicide being shucked aside as just a mental illness. Dylan died from lack of an affordable rental that he could pay for. I’m tired of ‘thoughts and prayers.’ Build affordable rentals, or facilitate those nonprofits on island that can.”

Said Kualii, who is closely identified with the Anahola Native Hawaiian perspective, in posts on Facebook:

“I don’t want to believe it at all. I know he had struggles with addiction demons, but, I believed with all the love and aloha so many of us were surrounding him with that naturally resulted from all the aloha that he brought to us, I was sure that he was winning the battle and going to be just fine.

“This is shocking and truly breaks my heart!”

The day after he died, Danner said, the phone rang where Dylan was staying. It was Hawaiian Airlines, she said. With a job offer.

The Anahola Drag Revue will continue on the third Saturday of every month.

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