Queer and transgender Pacific Islanders facing challenges due to gender identity, cultural and other biases often lack the sense of community and connection needed to not just survive but thrive. They might find a safe space for Pacific Islanders, but discover their queerness isn’t welcome there. Or find a space for trans people, with no Pasifika representation.

“There is not enough representation or support services for the Pacific Islander trans and queer community,” says Sui-Lan Hoʽokano, cultural program manager for the Enumclaw School District. But that is changing.

Growing up away from their homelands of Samoa, unable to speak the Samoan language, and grappling with aspects of their identity, Mane Tuia’ana, youth program manager at UTOPIA Washington, felt isolated and their connection to their culture, elders, and the land was severed. Tuia’ana has felt the impact this lack of cultural connection has on Pasifika youth. Tuia’ana was born and raised on Duwamish territory (South Seattle) and now lives on the traditional lands of the Puyallup Tribe (Federal Way).

“I always found myself disconnected from the school community for there was no safe space for Pacific Islanders to celebrate who we were as students of color and even as a closeted queer, Fa’afafine student, our GSA club wasn’t a welcoming space for QTBIPOC (queer and trans Black, Indigenous, people of color) youth,” Tuia’ana says.

A transfer to Federal Way High School, where Tuia’ana found a larger population of Pacific Islander students, opened new doors to connection through the Pacific Islander Club. “For the first time, I felt at home and supported. I was no longer the only non-speaking Samoan youth there.”

But the challenges were not quite over, and finding spaces where acceptance encompassed the full expression of being was elusive. “Even fulfilling my love for who I was as a Samoan was not enough. My identity as a closeted queer, fa’afafine, was still not able to feel free or safe enough in our cultural space.”

UTOPIA Washington, primarily led, staffed and volunteered with queer and transgender Pacific Islanders, builds safe places for QTPIs and their allies. They provide programming tailored to QTPI communities. This sense of community has been a game-changer for many, including Tuia’ana.

“I went to my first PRIDE parade with UTOPIA Washington after publicly coming out to my community via Facebook,” Tuia’ana says. “When I attended the parade for the first time, I felt connected both as a Samoan and as a queer, fa’afafine.”

This sense of connection is critical, but it’s only the start. Wellness is a key facet in UTOPIA’s work to honor all of the intersections that make us whole. Basic needs must be met before anything else can happen. The people they help may need access to resources, gender-affirming health care, COVID-19 vaccinations, case management, food and clothing.

“Toloa o le Vai” — loosely translates to “though the bird may fly away, it always returns to its waters,” — is the name of UTOPIA Washington’s youth-focused program. By connecting with students in schools, at home and in their communities, the nonprofit can foster connections, provide wrap-around support that honors all of our identities, and develop the leadership of youth and future generations.

“UTOPIA in my language is HĀ to so many of our youth — sharing the breath of life — which was sacred in my (Hawaiian) culture,” Hoʽokano says. “Along with the Muckleshoot Tribe, UTOPIA is a partner that works with our youth and community at the high school level providing support and resources for students in various ways. For example, they offer educational pathways, health and wellness, social and emotional learning, food, housing, clothing and whatever else is needed.”

Students have shared with Hoʽokano that through their relationship with UTOPIA Washington, they saw themselves reflected and realized they, too, can take on leadership roles in the community. Under UTOPIA’s tutelage, Pasifika youth have gained the courage to sit on speaking panels; support other students in times of need; build relationships; advocate for social, racial, gender and environmental justice and so much more, explains Hoʽokano.

United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance (UTOPIAW) is a queer and trans people of color-led, grassroots organization born out of the struggles, challenges, strength, and resilience of the queer and trans Pacific Islander community.