When I walked into the room within the King County Courthouse, I saw many Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Pacific Islander faces. They were speaking in a compelling manner about how their organizations empower their communities. The hosts, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski and his (Japanese American) Chief-of-Staff, Kristina Logsdon, were smiling. The purpose was to celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. After everyone finished speaking (and after quickly downing some cake and coffee), we all went down to the King County Council Chambers for a reading of the ‘Proclamation of May 2023 as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Month’. Part of the Proclamation commemorated the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to the United States on May 7, 1843.
After the Proclamation was read in front of a packed house, one group was given the spotlight. UTOPIA is the largest queer and transgender Pacific Islander organization in the Northwest. They have created the first free health care clinic founded by queer and transgender Pacific Islanders in the state of Washington.
UTOPIA founder Taffy Maene-Johnson and Health Care Director Tepatasi Vaina both introduced themselves as having a gender identity of Fa’afafine. Fa’afafine translates in Samoan as “in the manner of a woman.” They spoke on the needed social justice and wellness in queer, trans, and gender diverse Pacific islander communities.
UTOPIA is important as there is a growing coordinated national campaign to target transgender people, trans children, and their rights. Anti-trans legislation and book bans are a part of this campaign. For example, a new Iowa law prohibits instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through sixth grade.
The campaign against trans identity contributes to violence and intimidation against transgender adults and trans children. Transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violence committed against them. (Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law)
The conversation on Trans rights sounds like the conversation on AANHPI rights. There is a movement around the country to legislate a ban of certain schoolbooks and to put limits/restrictions on school discussions that deal with conscious and unconscious racial bias and systemic racism.
Tennessee is one state that has put restrictions on teachers teaching about race and racism in public schools. Would John Okada’s No No Boy fall into that category?
On the other hand, there is a growing national organization called Make Us Visible. This bipartisan coalition is promoting that Asian American and Pacific Islander history be included in K-12 curriculum. The Florida chapter of Make Us Visible recently succeeded in having Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sign into Florida law the mandatory statewide inclusion of AANHPI history in Florida’s schools’ curriculum. This would include the subject matter of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. (Note: It is a complicated political nuanced landscape, as earlier this year, Governor DeSantis banned schools from offering a new Advanced Placement African American Studies course.)
And in the state of Washington, The Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC) is promoting “active citizenship”, keeping people engaged on pending AANHPI-related legislation, teaching how to lobby with legislators on AANHPI matters, and fostering cross-generational leadership.
In short, the political and social landscape may be complicated and unsettling. But the diverse AANHPI communities should appreciate and uplift each other’s voices (including underrepresented NHPI voices) to prevent any erasure of their diverse history, many identities, culture, and physical well-being.