A Place in the Middle

"Kumu Hina and A Place in the Middle: New Inspiring Films Explore Gender in Hawaiian Culture" - Welcoming Schools

By Beth Sherouse, Ph.D., May 01, 2015 - Welcoming Schools:

Numerous indigenous cultures across the globe have traditions of recognizing a third gender, people who don’t fit within traditional gender binaries or whom we might now call transgender.

While European colonialism sought to suppress or marginalize these identities, some of these traditions have survived and are seeing renewed interest and attention. In some indigenous North American cultures, for example, people identify as two-spirit. In Thai culture, people assigned male at birth but who live as women identify as kathoey.

In native Hawaiian culture, people whose gender identity or expression is somewhere "in the middle" of the binary sometimes identify as māhū, which is the subject of the new documentary, Kumu Hina, premiering Monday, May 4 on the popular PBS series Independent Lens. The film follows the story of Hina, a teacher (or a Kumu in Hawaiian) who identifies as māhū, and her 11-year-old student, Ho’onani, who describes herself as “in the middle.”

The filmmakers, Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer have also made a shorter version of the film called A Place In the Middle – which focuses on Ho’onani and her dream of leading the boys-only hula group at her school – available as a resource for educators to help facilitate discussions on gender. The film is available to stream or download for free from their website.

Filmmaker Dean Hamer explains that "Kumu Hina recognizes that when the class lines up, boys on one side and girls on the other side, there needs to be a place, an actual physical space in the middle” for Ho'onani and other students who don't naturally belong on one side or the other."

“In the end, Ho'onani becomes an incredible force and leads the boys into the final performance of the school year, and they come to not only respect her, but really embrace her,” says Hamer. “The strong girl wins at the end.”

“Unlike most educational films, it’s not just about kids, it’s for kids,” says Hamer, and Ho’onani narrates much of her own story. Hamer and Wilson have prepared a guide to help teachers facilitate discussions based on the film about “how gender is interpreted by culture, and how instead of just accepting people who are ‘in the middle,’ this culture celebrates them.”

HRC Foundation Welcoming Schools consultant Tracy Flynn has used A Place In the Middle to work with educators on what welcoming school environments can look like for LGBTQ and gender-expansive kids.

“This film shows one culturally specific story with the universal message of acceptance,” Flynn explains. “It’s an amazing tool to help educators understand the need for acceptance for each and every child regardless of gender expression.”

For more ideas on talking about gender in the classroom, check out the resources available from HRC’s Welcoming Schools. For ways to support transgender and gender-expansive children and youth, visit hrc.org/trans-youth.

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