The annual Maui Pride Festivities always provide great excitement for our island’s LGBTQ community, but this year has much greater significance. In June the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down the Defense of Marriage laws, and later this month our own state Legislature convenes for a Special Session on the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage.
The Maui Pride organization, which is now two years old, provides outreach for individuals questioning their sexuality and acts as a liaison for other organizations such as the Maui Aids Foundation (MAF) and Both Sides Now. The organization also organized 10 events for the community in the last year. One of their crowning achievements is their scholarship program–in just one year, they doubled the available funds for students to $5,000.
At the festival, the schedule of events is loaded with all-ages events and 21-and-over parties. After Friday’s reception, all ages are welcome to attend the LGBTQ 80’s vs 90’s dance party at Moose McGillycuddy’s in Kihei starting at 8pm. Saturday highlights include a hike up Kahakuloa ridge, followed by the daytime Pride Festival at Maui Tropical Plantation with live entertainment from Kings of Spade, Shea Butter and the Crème and the Deborah Vial Band.
There’s a lot to celebrate, but it’s also a time of tragedy. On Sunday, Sept. 29, dedicated Maui Pride activist and HIV counselor Rodger “Chef Raja” Shortell suddenly passed away. He was 45.
Those of us in the MauiTime office always appreciated the sunshine that came along with a visit from Chef Raja. He made Maui his home and a better place to live. His work at Maui Aids Foundation and his company Tiki Torch Productions, his stint on Food Network’s Extreme Chef and amazing smile and personality will be a lasting legacy for the island.
Scroll down to see my Q&A with Raja on what Pride meant to him.
Even now, in 21st century America, sexuality is still to a great extent a taboo topic. We like to think of our nation as modern, but too often when the topic of homosexuality and transgendered rights comes up, deep-seated fear and dogmas rear their ugly heads. This has many people across Hawaii outraged.
“Put your votes toward equality,” said Kasi Nunez, lead singer for Kings of Spade when I recently asked her about what straights can do for the LGBTQ community. “If someone in your circle is prejudiced toward gays, speak up. Nothing opens minds more than someone you love asking you to maybe think about things in a different way. When I was younger, my mom was absolutely disgusted with the fact that her own daughter was a queer. So I stayed away from the family. After a while, she missed me. She had to deal with her prejudice and judgement and realized I was the same loving daughter I had always been and who I chose to sleep with was none of her business. Now she has come around to being 100 percent supportive of the queer community. She is very warm and welcoming of my partner. It took some time, but it was a beautiful metamorphosis and is possible with anyone.”
Hawaii will be facing this head-on this month during the legislative special session. The recent US Supreme Court ruling striking down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act reportedly spurred Governor Neil Abercrombie to call for the special session.
“On June 25, the Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Law unconstitutional,” said Lois K. Perrin, Legal Director at the ACLU of Hawaii. “They found the 1138 benefits defined by federal law that married couples enjoyed that were being denied to same sex couples.”
Those benefits include basic rights to social security payments, COBRA, employer provided health benefits, child custody, and tax issues ranging from earned income credits to estate taxes–plus many others for those checking off the “Married” box on their tax forms. There are currently 13 states that have legalized same sex marriage.
“The Supreme Court has done their part,” said Dean Wong, a prominent member of Maui’s LGBTQ community. “Now it’s time for Hawaii legislators to move quickly, do their part and pass marriage equality in Hawaii. Denying committed couples the right to marry is unacceptable—end of story. So as we celebrate this historic ruling in favor of basic civil rights, we need to insist on the Hawaii state legislature to pass marriage equality.”
Same-sex marriage has considerable economic ramifications for the state. A study by Professor Sumner La Croix, an economist with the University of Hawaii, and Lauren Gabriel of the Richardson School of Law, estimates that $217 million that would otherwise go into the state economy will be lost if same-sex marriage remains illegal here.
Sure, Hawaii has “civil unions.” But they fall short of what constitutes a proper and legal marriage.
“Love is Love,” said Michael McFall, The Pride Guide of Hawaii‘s publisher. “The reason for the Special Session is because of IRS joint filings and an economic boost to Hawaii’s tourism and wedding industry. Since same-sex marriages are allowed in California and Washington, same-sex ceremonies in Hawaii are way down. Civil Unions just do not cut it.”
The tide is turning nationwide against discriminatory marriage laws. Just last week, a New Jersey Superior Court judge ordered the state to allow same-sex marriage, stating that it was unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to certain citizens.
Still, while there’s a lot of support throughout Hawaii for the upcoming Special Session, it’s not a slam dunk.
“At this point, it seems the only opposition is coming from a handful of major religions, but even that opposition is fading,” said Bob Kincaid, the president of Maui Pride. “A few weeks ago, we heard that the Bishop of the Catholic Church’s Hawaiian Diocese had urged members to speak out and oppose the legislation. Surprisingly, a few days later, his boss–the new Catholic Pope–spoke out about the misguidance of the Catholic Church in its ‘obsession’ with gays and abortion. It seemed the comments were directly related to the Bishop of the Hawaiian Catholic Diocese’s call to action and instead encouraged a more open and tolerant church. What once was the main theme of the argument against gay marriage, religion, can no longer be a mainstay. Most encouraging was the letter to the Hawaiian Legislature calling for full marriage equality that was signed by the leaders of 20 major organized religions.”
Despite several faiths supporting the legalization of same-sex marriage, others aren’t going along with it so easily. Perrin of the ACLU said that the remaining challenge for that organization is the confusion about the religious portion of the proposed law. She has read the draft of the proposed bill and said there’s no question that the ACLU supports the language.
“The ACLU is in an interesting position because we support both religious freedom and marriage freedom,” said Perrin. “The religious exemption in our Hawaii bill needs to be fully understood. No clergy is going to be forced to marry a couple that they do not want to.”
State Senator Gil Keith-Agaran, D–Kahului, said the key discussions in the upcoming session will be on the scope of the religious conscience exemptions. But he also said that with the Special Session focusing just on the same-sex marriage bill, proponents and opponents will get better notice of opportunities to testify than they would during a regular session where so much more is going on.
For Representative Kaniela Ing, D-South Maui, the whole matter is clear.
“The evolution of society is to recognize that loving committed relationships should have legal rights,” said Ing. “But those who have held on to certain views long enough have ideological differences. The debate in the House tends to shift. It started with why homosexuality is bad, but that’s a slippery slope. Then it moved on to religious freedom, and whether this law should be a constitutional amendment. At the end of the day, it’s rigid ideological differences.”
The ACLU’s Hawaii office will be holding Community Action Days to support the same-sex marriage bill. Maui’s will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 16 (5-7pm) at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s Higashi meeting room. There they will dish out tips on testimony–in fact, if you bring your laptop, notebook or mobile device, you can submit your comments on the spot. Dinner will be served, too. For more information and to RSVP go to Acluhawaii.org.
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It’s really a shame Chef Raja won’t see the results of the Special Session. Regardless of how it goes, the coming weeks are among the most important ever for Hawaii’s LGBTQ community.
Back in October 2012, I spoke with Chef Raja about Maui Pride, but for one reason or another the interview never ran. Running it now seems more than appropriate:
MAUITIME: What does Maui Pride mean to you?
CHEF RAJA: Pride means people coming together to celebrate our similarities through diversity. It’s not to say we are special, but more so, everyone’s special in their own unique way. Pride means nurturing the best in me and being aware of the best in you… and that is something to take pride in and celebrate!
MT: Tell me about yourself. What do you do on Maui?
CHEF RAJA: I am a personal chef island-wide and also I’m a counselor/tester/educator/outreach rep for the Maui AIDS Foundation (MAF). I work with a kickin’ team in prevention and a long list of dedicated colleagues here at MAF. I think it’s important to be a positive influence on the community as well as have passion for what you do.
MT: How do you identity with pride?
CHEF RAJA: Growing up as a minority and being made to believe I was something to be ashamed of was never easy. I see kids trying to survive every day. If I can, in any way, be a positive role model and not only tell but show our youth it definitely gets better–preventing suicide, hate crimes, self-loathing, denial and quite possibly substance abuse–how could one not identify with that? I identify because I was there and always wished someone else understood what I was going through at the time. Be the change you want to see… Pretty simple.
MT: What does LGBTQ pride mean? Why celebrate it?
CHEF RAJA: There is no easy answer to this question. So many views on sexuality, deviation, religion, gender roles, society, etc.–and why the need to have a special day to celebrate what some seem to think is a choice? The simple answer is personal and pure: I celebrate equality! Celebrating is what we do as humans to say to one another, “I’m so glad you are here with me. Shall we dance?”
MT: Why is important to recognize Gay Pride no matter the size of the community?
CHEF RAJA: I think Dr. Seuss put it in Horton Hears A Who: “…even though you can’t see or hear them at all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We are all brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, doctors and lawyers, artists and politicians, volunteers and editors… each serving a vital role in society and independent stewards of Aloha here in Hawaii. When we don’t recognize, we discriminate. As a team we should learn to live, love and work together. Surely, if my left foot discriminated against my right, I would find myself flat on my face and going nowhere fast.
MT: What are some of the issues facing the LGBT community?
CHEF RAJA: If I have to pick one, I’d have to say preconceived notions of a community members character based on one’s personal beliefs and/or religion that are not based in fact. Persuasive rhetoric is a dangerous and misleading weapon of choice used against many minorities. In that we celebrate pride to prove it has no place in equality or love for every woman, man and child.
MT: How does Maui’s Pride Festival measure up to other festivals you’ve attended?
CHEF RAJA: Every Pride is different, and that’s the beauty of it all. Though I will say they embrace the same overall theme. Be the best you. Celebrate your unique qualities and embrace others.
MT: If you’re part of the LGBT community does that mean you’re gay? Does it mean you are “out”? What do those things mean to you?
CHEF RAJA: I think it is all up to interpretation. For example, I could move to Africa where I would be happy to be a called a member of a particular community, though would not consider myself African. The same can be said of moving to Hawaii and becoming hanai or considered local after so long…yet I would not consider myself Hawaiian. I think my point is that there are many supporters to equality in it’s many forms, who consider themselves part of the LGBT community through friendship, family or sexual orientation. Personally I do, I am OUT–and it means living life honestly with integrity for others as well as myself. I support others who believe in equality, gay, straight or transgender. I don’t see a community of color, gender or sexual preference. I see a community as an entity with a common goal that works together regardless its differences.
MT: What part of Maui Pride are you most looking forward to?
CHEF RAJA: Seeing people smile.
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MAUI PRIDE FESTIVAL SCHEDULE
Friday, Oct. 4
The Sunset VIP Reception – 5:30-7:30pm (Sold Out). This kicks off Maui Pride. The Mayor’s office will give a proclamation and there will be announcements as to the awarding of scholarships. This year, Maui Pride will provide $5,000 in scholarships to youth for continuing education.
80’s vs 90’s Dance Party – 8pm-10pm, all ages; 10pm till midnight, 21 and over. Dance as the best of the ’80s goes against the jams of the ’90s. There is a suggested $5 cover charge. Moose McGillicuddy’s in Kihei.
Saturday, Oct. 5
Maui Pride Culture Hike – 8:30am (meet at Starbucks Queen Ka’ahumanu Center for carpool). The Maui Pride culture hike will take place at Kahakuloa Ridge. The carpool will leave Starbucks at 8:45am. After the hike, everyone caravans back to the Maui Tropical Plantation for the Pride Festival.
Maui Pride Festival – 11am-4:30pm. The Maui Pride Festival–which is free–will take place at the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu. It’s open to all ages. Bring your beach chairs and blankets because there will be live music from Kings of Spade, Shea Butter and the Crème and the Deborah Vial Band. There will also be a pet parade from the Maui County Humane Society and Drag Races. Enjoy more than 40 vendor booths, food, drinks and a beer garden.
Maui Pride Dinner Show – 6-7:30pm. It’s an evening with Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand and their closest friends. Enjoy a delicious buffet dinner as you watch the show. They will dazzle you with numbers from Whitney Houston, Lucille Ball, Reba McIntyre and more. Limited tickets available. $60, Maui Tropical Plantation.
Closing Celebration – 7:30-10:30pm. Dance as everyone celebrates the closing night. $5 cover, 21 and over, Maui Tropical Plantation.
Official After Party – 10:30pm-2am. Head over to Ambrosia Martini Lounge in Kihei for the after party. Dance some more or just lounge with friends.
Sunday, Oct. 6
Maui Pride Breakfast Social – 10am. After all that dancing and celebrating, you know you’ll be hungry Sunday morning. So get to Stella Blues in Kihei for breakfast. Bring your friends and family as they celebrate the end of another great festival.