Equality Mag interview with Kim Coco Iwamoto
May 19, 2009
The latest issue of HRC's Equality magazine is hitting mailboxes across the country now - with articles on HRC's interactive "End the Lies" website, a new report on LGBT employees in the closet and the myths & realities about change on the Supreme Court.
There's also a Q & A with Kim Coco Iwamoto, the country's highest ranking transgender elected transgender official. She talks about everything from school bullying to racism to the reaction of her father, a well-known businessman in Hawaii, when he found out she was running for public office there. Her dad, in fact, promptly issued a press release in support of her bid. Iwamoto also talks about why self-esteem is so crucial, and how she got hers. "When I was 13 years old, my father told me he would be there for me no matter what gender I happened to be - the only thing that mattered was that I was his child and he loved me... So when I encountered random instances of harassment at school, I was able to dismiss the harasser with the thought that they did not know me at all: ‘My Dad knows who I am and he loves me.' ..."
read an excerpt of the interview after the jump...
Excerpt from HRC's Equality Magazine: Spring 2009 Q & A
Kim Coco Iwamoto Catching Up with the Country's Highest Elected Openly Transgender Official
When Kim Coco Iwamoto told her father over lunch one day that she had decided to run for the Hawaii Board of Education, he didn't miss a beat. Her dad, one of the state's top business owners, said it would be a "great learning experience," warned she'd lose the race and then asked her how much money she needed.
Well, Robert Iwamoto Jr. was right - on at least one point. Her race was a great learning experience. But he was wrong about the outcome. His daughter won. And she's now the country's highest ranking transgender elected official.
Equality magazine recently spoke with Iwamoto, a civil rights lawyer by trade, about a range of issues - homophobia in the schools, Proposition 8, being a foster parent and, of course, her dad.
You wear so many hats in your community. In testifying before Hawaii's House of Representatives for the state's civil rights bill, you could have spoken as a civil rights attorney, an activist, a licensed therapeutic foster parent or as a business owner. Yet you testified in your official capacity as a member of the state Board of Education. Why?
Because it provided an important perspective at the hearing. As a Board member, I had access to statewide surveys that indicated that 13.3 percent of our high school students reported that they had been harassed because someone thought they were gay, lesbian, or bisexual and 18.5 percent of our public high school students seriously considered committing suicide. This is the highest rate in the nation.
The State of Hawai`i serves over 45,000 high school students. This means that over 6,000 students are being harassed because someone thought they were gay, lesbian or bisexual, and more than 8,000 students have seriously considered committing suicide in the past year. Even if only 13.3 percent of these 8,000 students who seriously considered committing suicide did so because they could not endure the homophobic harassment, we still have 1,100 children in anguish every year.
I testified as a Board Member to remind the legislators about these 1,100 students. I wanted the legislators to fully understand that if they continued to deny equal rights to gay and lesbian families, they would continue to legitimize the homophobia behind the harassment that these students were experiencing in our high schools.
When you were elected to office, your father immediately issued a news release.
When my father and I met for lunch to discuss my candidacy for elected office, the first thing he told me was: "You're not going to win, but it will be a great learning experience. How much money do you need?"
My response was: "Dad, you need to have a press statement ready because when I win, things may get ‘crazy' and I don't want you to be caught off guard. And I am going to give you a 50-percent discount off the maximum contribution allowable by law."
As it turned out, my father had already booked a cruise months earlier that coincided with the date of the election. The morning after the election, the media called my father's offices for a quote and the press statement was ready and waiting.
My father has been supportive of me personally in many ways, at various times, but we are both very strong individuals who do not always agree politically. Sometimes his political ideology and actions are hurtful to me personally. Sometimes, mine are hurtful to him financially. I am very expressive with my gratitude and appreciation of my father's support, and I let him know when I am disappointed.
Why do you speak out so often about the importance of self-esteem?
When I was 13 years old, my father told me he would be there for me no matter what gender I happened to be - the only thing that mattered was that I was his child and he loved me. Those were not his exact words, but that was the gist of what I remember him telling me at that time. So when I encountered random instances of harassment at school, I was able to dismiss the harasser with the thought that they did not know me at all. "My Dad knows who I am and he loves me."
It keeps things in perspective if you have something positive to reflect upon. This is why it is important to make sure all young people, gay and straight, hear these affirming messages from people they look up to. I know the bullies themselves have not heard enough of these nurturing messages - had they had this basic need met, they might not have felt the need to bully. Right? .............................
In an interview with your local paper, you compared the passage of California's Proposition 8 to the internment of Japanese Americans after World War II. What connections do you find between racism and homophobia?
During World War II, my mother, her family and other Japanese-Americans were rounded up and interned in Poston, Arizona. What happened to my mother over 60 years ago is what came to mind when I heard that voters in California took away fundamental rights from GLBT families. I wondered: "How long will America, as a freedom-loving nation, continue to take away freedoms from certain Americans based on irrational fears and uncensored bigotry?"
The internment of Japanese Americans and the denial of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans have another intersection of injustice: military service. My maternal uncles were invited to leave their family in the internment camp and serve the American military in a time of war. They were willing to risk their lives to preserve the American ideals of liberty and freedom that their own family was being denied.
This is exactly the same hypocrisy that gay and lesbian soldiers in America have had to face. If they make it home alive, they return to an America that continues to deny them and their families the very freedoms they were willing to die for.
To read the rest of the interview, get the latest copy of Equality, HRC's quarterly magazine, free to members. Click here to find out how.
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