photo of members of UTOPIA Seattle

UTOPIA Provides Resources, Cultural Empowerment for Queer & Trans Pacific Islanders

by Kamna Shastri

When Taffy Johnson moved to Seattle from San Francisco in 2006, she felt alone and isolated. As a Queer Trans Pacific Islander (QTPI), there were no community organizations or gathering spaces where she could share experiences and access support with other LGBTQ Pacific Islanders. In San Francisco, Johnson had been part of a flagship organization called United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance (UTOPIA). The space had given her a glimpse of the building blocks needed to create something similar elsewhere.

“I realized that I didn’t want any other trans or queer Pacific Islander that’s migrating here to have the same struggles that I faced — you know, the lack of resources and lack of community that I faced,” Johnson told the Emerald.

In 2009, Johnson got a couple of her friends together and started what was, at first, just a social group for trans folks to come together, share resources, and support one another. The conversations and meetings started in a one-bedroom apartment, but Johnson’s passion propelled her to continue volunteering in the evening in addition to her job at the Department of Social Services.

After eight years of volunteering, in 2017, Johnson transitioned into her role as executive director at UTOPIA Washington, envisioning an inclusive and robust organization that can support and advocate for the needs and healing of our region’s QTPI community.

Community for Advocacy, Resources, and Healing 

The QTPI community that UTOPIA serves has a rich cultural heritage and history that includes a wider conception of gender identity than narrow Western ideas that have shaped our current world. However, the community also faces an intersection of oppressions — racism, transphobia, and homophobia, among others. Those pervasive oppressions affect everything from safety to physical and mental health, leadership potential, and economic opportunity.

“Our work is to address both the basic safety of our community and the systems and policies and beliefs that make us unsafe,” said Johnson.

In this way, UTOPIA approaches support from a vantage point of both tangible resources and access to opportunity. But also from the angles of decolonization and community healing work that can begin to address the deep-seated biases and ideological harms at the root of unjust policies. Queer and trans individuals face discrimination and hurdles when accessing everything from employment and stable housing, to education and health services. UTOPIA specifically aims to remove these barriers from a policy perspective, helping QTPI individuals navigate current systems and processes to access the care and essential services they need.

Johnson says the last 12 years have brought an increase of queer and trans Pacific Islanders to the Pacific Northwest in search of opportunity and livelihood. In addition to the stress of migrating and creating a new home, many individuals face discrimination while trying to find employment. With systemic barriers and bias at play in hiring processes, many QTPI’s have been forced to choose sex work, hard labor, or contracted state positions with limited healthcare options.

Many of the individuals UTOPIA works with have been criminalized for sex work while being HIV positive. “And with an arrest, a trans Person of Color or specifically a trans Woman of Color can lose their housing and be forced to seek out temporary shelter and have to face structural barriers which makes it even difficult to access, you know, services or benefits,” said Johnson.

Given the compounding challenges that QTPI individuals face because of their intersecting identities, UTOPIA has a robust arsenal of support tools. The staff — who are all queer and trans Pacific Islanders — hold workers and tenants rights trainings, facilitate a network for sex workers, and organize short term housing assistance particularly for trans Women of Color. 

“We have built a leadership of sex workers of queer and trans People of Color and incarcerated trans and gender-diverse community members where we believe that the liberation begins when we center those who are most marginalized in decision making but also in the movement work,” Johnson said. 

In addition to offering direct support and resources, UTOPIA also educates the community in civic affairs, from providing clear pathways to citizenship to know-your-rights training and voter-rights education. With this broad spectrum of services, UTOPIA makes sure to weave a shared cultural identity ethic into everything from decision making to the organization’s operations. 

“These identities — they have deep ties to land, to culture, and the family, and that’s very important to our community,” Johnson said. Centering cultural identity in the experience of queer and trans Pacific Islander communities means coming face to face with the deep, open wounds of colonial legacies. These histories have damaged cultural lifeways and traditions, leading to internalized discrimination within the Pacific Islander community. 

Johnson says that many individuals have faced the bitterness of exclusion from their own communities and families. “So this work necessitates the decolonization of our relationships to our bodies and the relationships to members of our community,” she said.

Decolonizing Gender Identity 

The history of Pacific Island nations and peoples — whether that be Hawai‘i, New Zealand, Samoa, or the countless other atolls and archipelagos that pepper the Pacific ocean — is marred by the brutal legacy of colonization and subjugation. The pattern of white settlers taking over land and stripping Indigenous peoples of their resources, dignity, customs, language, and worldviews is familiar the world over. 

In the Pacific Islands, the exploitation and colonization by first European powers, then American ones, shamed native communities for traditions, including the acceptance of a broader understanding of gender identity and fluidity.

Johnson explained that while each island nation has varying words to describe the wide swath of gender identities, the principle concept was shared: Pacific Island cultures did not see gender as a strict binary. In her Samoan background, the gender fluid identities of Fa’afafine (in the manner of a woman) and Fa’afatama (in the manner of a man) coexist with male and female concepts of gender. 

“Fa’afafine has been there even before Christianity came onto our shores. A lot has changed — during colonization we were written out of history when the missionaries came,” said Johnson. 

The Western ideology of a strict male/female binary thwarted many normalized gender-fluid identities that existed across the world. In Hawaiʻi, for instance, Māhū, Māhūwahine, or Aikāne, are gender fluid identities. In New Zealand, Maori people have an understanding of Takatāpui, an umbrella term or those identifying as queer. Assimilation and colonization projects relied on shaming these identities, painting them as “sinful” and “unholy” in the name of Christianity. Even today, as QTPI individuals continue to celebrate and uphold their identities, they face pressures on how to present their gender identities. 

“For the longest time … in order for you to be passable you have to have cosmetic surgery or you have to have top surgery. You have to look a little bit more feminine, so you need to take hormones,” said Johnson. The pressure to be seen as passable, to be considered a woman, has been an imposition of dominant Western ideas of feminine and masculine physicality.

“A lot of our community have been suffering internally, being oppressed because of what society deemed what a woman should look like,” said Johnson. 

These historic socio-cultural contexts inform the experiences of QTPI community members as much as the current systemic barriers that affect their quality of life. While some things — like access to housing — have a concrete solution, the deeper wounds of shame, cultural alienation, and colonial harm require space to process, confront, and heal in community. 

That is where Talanoa, UTOPIA’s community forums and listening sessions, came in. Talanoa, meaning “to bind with story,” has allowed for deep community connection, partnership-building, and funding opportunities to grow the organization. The Seattle Foundation’s Neighbor to Neighbor program helped expand Talanoa and gave community members a place to gather and share insights on what challenges community members faced as well as possible solutions. All this takes place while sharing food, music, and the warmth of a like-minded network.

These spaces are also for raw, real, and honest intergenerational discussion about painful histories, experiences, and harm. In these forums, all ideas of hierarchy — between elders and youth — are left outside the door to ensure true, open, and transparent storytelling and empathy building. 

“We’re unpacking a lot of trauma — unpacking a lot of hurt to our community. So we also want to be able to provide a space for folks to find feeling in our community. So anywhere between a youth community to an elder can be in the same room having a dialogue where we’re able to bridge gaps between them,” said Johnson.

COVID-19 Response

During the initial COVID precautions, UTOPIA continued to advocate, convene Talanoa sessions, and respond to community needs through digital means. During the first half of 2020, they prioritized meal delivery and food distribution, expanding services to anyone in the community who needed assistance whether or not they identified as queer, trans, or Pacific Islander. In fact, the organization was one of the first to mobilize and get food to families in need as the region burrowed into lockdown. They partnered with King County to deliver food and meals and after a few months, were able to contract with a produce company in Kent to distribute food boxes. 

The pandemic also brought on opportunities for growth. UTOPIA went from a staff of four to 10 within a year. Johnson said the organization takes pride in being able not only to give back to the community through support services but also through opportunities for employment at a liveable wage and with 100% of healthcare covered for all employees. 

As UTOPIA forges ahead, Johnson says its reach has spread as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, south to Los Angeles, and into Nevada. Its members envision a world that looks beyond just equality, equity, and policy transformation. This is a world with a heart change, free of hate, and where women do not fear violence, can have autonomy over their own bodies, and can celebrate their cultural grounding. 

“[Our] vision is creating a world of cultural health, dignity, healing, and liberation for QTPIs that honors our ancestors and supports future generations and ourselves.” 

This is the second of a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center, and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.

Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.

📸 Featured image is courtesy of UTOPIA.

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