For Trans Awareness Week, the Emerald is publishing interviews by the Ingersoll Gender Center with important trans community members and the work they are doing for gender equity. This content is produced by Ingersoll Gender Center and provided to the Emerald for publication. To read the other interviews in this series, click here.
by Alphonse Littlejohn
Isyss Honnen works with the Pride Foundation, TRANSform Washington, and UTOPIA. Alphonse Littlejohn of Ingersoll Gender Center interviewed Honnen on Tuesday, November 6th.
Can you tell us about who you are and what you do?
Talofa — it means “Hello” in Samoan. I am Isyss Agaiotupu Honnen. I identify as fa’afafine. Fa’afafine is a cultural identity that is native to Samoa. It’s translated as “like a woman” or “in a manner of a woman,” as well as identifying as a queer, trans, femme individual. I’m also a QTPI, a queer and trans Pacific Islander. I was born and raised in American Samoa, left for college at 17 and have been living in Washington on and off since 2006, permanently since 2011.
I’m a community organizer — my day gay job is working as the Community Engagement Coordinator for TRANSform Washington, a public education campaign focused on elevating the voices of transgender and gender diverse identities and educating and increasing public understanding and empathy. TRANSform Washington started as a storytelling campaign to educate the voting public during the I-1515 and I-1552 anti-trans bathroom bill campaigns in 2016-17. It is a project of Pride Foundation that has evolved to include Trans 101 trainings for businesses, community organizations, schools, and government agencies. Our storytelling has also grown to include Virtual Reality storytelling, working with queer and trans people of color through the Alphabet Alliance of Color Coalition, which collects stories of QTPOC communities and uses those stories to build a policy agenda that benefits them.
We are also a part of Inclusive Washington, a coalition of trans students, their parents, and trans parents who are working to advance the lives of students in K-12 Washington schools; and the Coalition for Trans Prisoners, a coalition of trans-led organizations, direct legal service organizations, and incarcerated trans people working to ensure incarcerated trans folks are being treated with respect and dignity and that they are receiving the care they need.
I started with TRANSform Washington sharing my story. A lot of the trans movement was so focused on transgender people it left little room for people who were gender diverse people, people like me who could also be fa’afafine, fa’atane, mahu, or Two Spirit. Last year, I was brought on as the TRANSform Washington Community Engagement Coordinator and Finance Associate for Pride Foundation.
Prior to Pride Foundation, I was and am still a volunteer community organizer with UTOPIA. UTOPIA, United Territories Of Pacific Islanders Alliance, is a queer and trans Pacific Islander organization that is working to advance the lives of QTPIs and provide sacred spaces that strengthen the minds and bodies of queer and trans Pacific Islanders through community organizing, community care, civic engagement, and cultural stewardship.
UTOPIA is my political home — they were there for me when I was going through a lot of difficult things in my life. I was living in Vegas prior to moving here in 2011 and was still dealing with the trauma of being disowned. I engaged in sex work to make a living and turned to drug use to cope.
I had a chance to come back to Seattle to visit, and my sisters at UTOPIA convinced me to stay, helped me secure a job and put a roof over my head, so a lot of what informs my work is drawn from that experience and how this community stood up for me when no one else would. As part of UTOPIA’s working board, I volunteer as a co-facilitator for TRANSaction, the support group for trans and gender diverse sex workers, and as the organization’s Co-Chair. Now, my work is focused on community building between trans-led organizations and building the leadership of trans people of color.
Why do you do all of this work?
For me, I love this work. I wouldn’t even call it work; I would call it do what you need to do to care, protect, and be there for your family, your community. As much as I know how important it is to fight for policies that protect trans people, for me, I’ve always been more interested in the one-on-one relationships.
The policy-driven work needs to be done, but there are people who don’t have a place to stay or food to eat and all of that needs to be at the forefront. I want to make sure that people’s basic needs are met. Coming from a collectivist culture, we can’t move forward without everyone moving forward. As a sex worker, we looked out for one another. For many of us, we did not have families to return to.
When I came out to my mother my freshman year of college, I was disowned due to her faith, and it was a tough spot to be in because my Mama and mom were the most important people in my life growing up. When the two most important people in your life tell you that you are no longer part of the family and insist that you no longer reach out to any family member, it’s heartbreaking and it’s something you can’t ever really let go of. It’s hard to heal from that, it will always be there, but you learn how to cope with it.
Since then, I’ve always been on my own. I’ve engaged in survival sex work to make sure I had food, shelter, security. Not having my family, I was fortunate to have the help of my fa’afafine community, the trans community, so a lot of that sisterhood and bonds that I’ve fostered over the years with sex workers informs a lot of my work and how I choose to show up for my community. As much as I love the top level policy work, I love one-on-one relationship building. I use my experience and how my community has shown up for me as a way for me to show up for others.
What is the largest boulder you’re trying to move in your work or the largest barrier your community faces?
We have this family of trans and gender diverse people, and while there are definitely external threats, I want to acknowledge there are a lot of interpersonal threats, too. We can’t continue to give ourselves wholeheartedly to our community if we are not taking care of ourselves and each other. In this work, we sometime lose sight of what is truly important: It’s the people we are trying to create a better present and future for. It’s thankless work. We don’t do it for recognition; we do it because our people need our love, our care, and our support.
A lot of our people don’t have the access, the resources, the experience, the safety net to speak up for themselves, so we want to help them advocate for themselves and also be there if they are put in harm’s way.
The biggest boulder. As someone who is fa’afafine, we’ve spent so many years fighting for a seat at the table, to have people realize our identity as fa’afafine in this broader transgender movement and conversation. Now that we’ve accomplished that, we are trying to go back to our roots. We’ve always done decolonizing work, but now it’s really important because we’re not on our island anymore, right?
The children we are raising, the Pasifika diaspora, we are detached from our land, and for us and any culture, land is very important. When you lose your land, your culture goes with it: Your language, your customs, traditions, all of that. So we are working on maintaining our culture and language, reclaiming our identities and making space for ourselves within the Pacific Islander community. With this current administration, we are fighting back. We have always existed throughout time, we are still here and won’t be erased.
Where do you see your work 3-5 years from now?
I and a number of friends are part of the Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network. It just started and the focus is on making sure the basic needs of trans people of color are met. We help fundraise through using allies for gender affirming surgeries … If someone has their surgery covered by insurance, they can still use that moment to fundraise money in their circles and donate it to the Transwomen of Color Solidarity Fund. A lot of nonprofit funding go to direct services, but people also need food on the table and clothes on their back and you can’t really get funds without having to go through some sort of bureaucratic magic. Hopefully in three to five years, it turns into a more sustainable fund that helps provide for basic needs, surgeries or gender affirming care.
Hopefully, there will be space for organizing that’ll bring transwomen of color together. We have been in these silos — Asian and Pacific Islander trans women are over here, Black trans women are most affected and are being pushed out of Seattle, and our Latinx siblings have a lot to deal also with this administration, too, our Native siblings are often left out of the transgender movement. There is more collaboration now, but we need true siblinghood for liberation.
As far as UTOPIA, they have created this space within the larger LGBTQ community, but also the Pacific Islander community. They are finally seeing us as people, as siblings, their family members that have always been there, right? Even when our own family members would push us away we were always there — taking care of babies, taking care of our elders, our parents, our community members. In three to five years, I see UTOPIA making more connections with queer and trans leaders and communities across the United States and Pacific islands. For TRANSform Washington, I see all aspects of our work growing. I am excited to collect more stories of our community to add a fuller version of our transgender and gender diverse collective story. Also, I’m super excited about the Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network. I just want trans women of color to thrive, to be in love, to be happy, to live full lives free from discrimination.
What makes you feel most powerful in doing this work?
What makes me feel most powerful is knowing I have a solid network of friends, my family, and this fa’afafine and fa’atane siblinghood that has always been there for me and will continue to be there for me.
I’d say also my truth, being fa’afafine. When I think back on our rich history and how we were and are truly part of our culture, we weren’t categorized, we were just people who had special talents and abilities just like anybody else and contributed to the betterment of the family and community. Knowing my trans ancestors, my fa’afafine ancestors have paved the way for me gives me power. It’s important for me to honor them while celebrating and lifting up the people we have here now and future generations that we are building a better world for.
Anything else you’d like to add? Are there ways cisgender people or those outside of the fa’afafine community can support your work?
Yes. You can support amazing trans-led orgs and trans people at LGBTQ organizations that are working day in and day out to care for our community: UTOPIA Seattle, POCAAN, Ingersoll Gender Center, Pride Foundation, Gender Diversity, TRANSform Washington, Gender Justice League, Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, QTPAX, Seattle Nonbinary Collective, API Chaya, Somos Seattle, Queer the Land, Gay City, and others. Donate to all of these orgs; make it unrestricted! Also, just help trans women of color, trans people of color. If they need money, please give them money!