'Weʻve Become Paolo for Everyone': Creating UTOPIA for Queer and Trans Pacific Islanders

November 08, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3 Episode 12
'Weʻve Become Paolo for Everyone': Creating UTOPIA for Queer and Trans Pacific Islanders
Show Notes Transcript

“I'm sacred, the next person is sacred, and all life is sacred. That connection we have to each other and to all forms of life is sacred and must be cherished. In the same way, the relationship we have with land and the relationship the land has with us should be honored.” - Agaiotupu Viena (Samoan) 

Colonization has disrupted the identities of queer Indigenous Peoples, and because of this, they practice deep forms of care, often making chosen families as a built space of refuge. In Samoa, one way to describe a refuge is “paolo,” which means “to give shade” or “protect.” Care and shade are inherently a part of queer and trans Pacific Islander identity.  

This summer, Seedcast producer Ha’aheo Auwae Dekker (Kanaka Maoli) was a guest at UTOPIA Washingtonʻs Hoʻolauleʻa, a community event dedicated to celebrating queer and trans Pacific Islanders, or QTPIs. In this episode, they share the sounds and music from the event along with wisdom from fellow QTPIs Ara Sifainu’ululei “Ara-Lei” Mahealani Yandall and Agaiotupu Viena. Both share about their experiences as fa'afafine, a gender identity embedded in the lands of Samoa, as well as the reason UTOPIA was created, and the unique role they play in caring for the wider Pasifika community and each other. 

Special thanks to Ara-Lei, Agaiotupu, and UTOPIA Washington for welcoming Seedcast into their Hoʻolauleʻa earlier this year and for sharing their time, stories, and energy with us. Thanks also to our Nia Tero colleagues Michael Painter, Nichlas Emmons, and Anne Quidez for their feedback on this episode. 

Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer and Audio Mix: Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. Story Editor: Jenny Asarnow. 


Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

'Weʻve Become Paolo for Everyone': Creating UTOPIA for Queer and Trans Pacific Islanders
Seedcast Season 3 Episode 12

November 8, 2023

[00:00:00] Jessica Ramirez: Hi, I'm Jessica Ramirez. This is Seedcast.  

[We hear the sounds of people cheering and clapping, and an announcer speaking]

Announcer: With that being said, you are in for a night of tears, laughter, and lived experiences of our queer and transgender Pacific Islander community. Can I hear it for our QTPIs in the house?

[we hear people cheering excitedly, and the sounds of the event continue in the background]

Jessica: This episode is about the wisdom we learned from being in relationship with each other. 

Indigenous and Native Peoples are a people of place. And because of this, we not only know how to take care of the land and waterways, but we know how to take care of each other—our communities are an extension of our relationship to the Earth.

[Seedcast theme music begins]

Colonization has disrupted the identities of queer Indigenous Peoples, and it is because of this they practice deep forms of care. Queer, trans, and nonbinary people often make chosen families for themselves. Creating the families we need, and the families we deserve, to thrive and be cared for—it's a built space of refuge.

In the Samoan community, one way they describe a refuge is “paolo.” Paolo means, “to give shade” or “protect”. We learn from them that care and shade is inherently a part of queer and trans Pacific Islander identity. 

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:56] Jessica: The story you're about to hear is a love letter to the work of queer and trans Pacific Islanders, also known as QTPIs. I'm going to turn it over to Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker with today's episode. Ha’aheo is a queer Kānaka Maoli filmmaker and artist from the Big Island of Hawai’i. They joined us this year on Seedcast as an associate producer. 

[00:02:24] Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker: Aloha mai kākou. I'm excited to share with you all a night of uninterrupted queer Pasifika joy that I recently experienced. 

[we hear the sounds of the performers during the UTOPIA Ho’olaule’a event, Tausi]

I'll get to that in a minute. For me, being QTPI has been both a privilege and my superpower. QTPI is an acronym used by queer Pasifika peoples, and it stands for Queer and Trans Pacific Islander. I feel so privileged to know that I can trace my genealogy of gender years back to my ancestors, and to know that this has always run deeply in our blood. This is something that we, as queer and trans Pacific Islanders, can grab onto and remember. Our gender identities and cultural identities are tangled together. 

This was laid out for me when I got to speak with two other queer Pacific Islanders. I was so in awe of their beauty and the mana they carried. Their wisdom was powerful, and I knew that their words weren't just theirs—the words came from their entire community. 

[00:03:52] Ara Sifainu’ulelei Mahealani Yandall: I'd say, like, before I’m anything else, I’m Samoan, of course, but also I'm fa'afafine. I'm that before any other Western label, and I say that because I think the world has yet to really hone in on the beauty that rests and lies within this community.

Talofa lava, my name is Ara Sifainu’ulelei Mahealani Yandall. I serve as the Cultural Program Director, also known as MANA, here at UTOPIA Washington. I'm originally from American Samoa, Tutuila Manuʻa, also from the island nation of Samoa, independent Samoa. My parents are [says names of parents].

[00:04:43] Ha’aheo: Ara works for UTOPIA Washington. UTOPIA Washington is a grassroots organization born out of the struggles and resilience of the queer and trans Pacific Islander community in South King County on what is Coast Salish Territory, and they're a grantee of Nia Tero. UTOPIA was built in order for QTPIs like myself to have a refuge to find each other. I met her along with her colleague, Agaiotupu Viena. 

[00:05:13] Agaiotupu Viena: My name is Agaiotupu Viena. I am the daughter of [says names of parents]. I am from the village of Pago Pago, which is the capital of American Samoa, and I live on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people, the Coast Salish people here in Kent, Washington. And I work as the Community Capacity Director for UTOPIA Washington. 

I have a close connection with my fa'afafine siblings. Fa'afafine is a cultural identity, native to Samoa, and if the regular shmegular person would describe fa'afafine, they would probably say that it was along the lines of trans, non binary, or definitely not cis. It could be gender expression, but it's a lot more nuanced than that, right? It definitely has a tie to community, and to family. 

[00:06:17] Ha’aheo: In the Pacific, every person has a specific cultural role to their society. 

[00:06:24] Agaiotupu: And in the same way, every person in Samoan society has a role in contributing to the unit, the family unit, or to the collective. Fa'afafines play a role, right?

[we hear more from the Ho’olaule’a event]

Performer 1: Remember, we play such an important part in any community. 

Performer 2: Mmhmm!

Performer 1: So, be strong girls, chin up, and remain grounded. 

Performer 2: Yes, and if you're ever in doubt, just remember who you are…

Performer 1: A faʻafafine! 

Performer 2: Hopefully this one will help.

Performer 1: Ladies, let’s sing a song! 

Performer 2: Come in, come in closer, children! 

Performer 1: Closer! 

[we hear a ukulele start to play a cheery tune and the performers all begin to sing a song together, and the audience lets out a cheer]

[00:07:30] Ha’aheo: Over the summer, I had the honor of being a guest at UTOPIA Washington's Ho’olaule’a, a community event dedicated to celebrating the Pacific Islander community and fundraising for the organization. In ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, “ho’olaule’a” means, “to celebrate”, and that felt like the perfect way to describe my experience at this event. There was such an intentional way that they created this space to celebrate one another, and who they are, that embodied the Pacific Islander pride I grew up on.

[the sounds of collective singing and ukulele continue]

This was my first time at UTOPIA's Ho’olaule’a, but for my younger sibling, it was not. Two years ago, they opened the event with a Hawaiian chant they spent weeks learning—a chant that I'm still learning. I remember the way my 16 year old sibling's eyes lit up as they told me all about their first time at the Ho’olaule’a. Their excitement in seeing them have their many identities fall into place because of this night made me realize I have to experience this for myself.

[the crowd cheers along with the children and the performers]

[00:09:05] Ara: This year's Ho’olaule’a is entitled Tausi, and Tausi is a Samoan word that means “to care” or “to render care”. This year's Ho’olaule’a is a love letter to our people—and when I say our people, specifically the fa'afafine community. When you open the door, you see all these beautiful people with their best Pasifika wear on, with their biggest smiles, just happy to be there, all amongst community. You smell different Pasifika smells—plumeria, you smell orchids, people with their flowers in their ears. And then an hour later, you're in for a show.

[sounds of the Ho'olaule’a performance play in the background] 

[00:09:55] Ha’aheo: I came to the Ho'olaule’a with my mom and younger sibling, and it really was pure Pasifika excellence. We came with puas in our hair, our best Kānaka jewelry, and our nicest dresses as we sat with aunties and uncles, and watched the community perform for us. 

[00:10:15] Ara: Nothing but pure Pasifika excellence given to you by our own community members. Straight up queer people, trans, fa'afafine, vakasalewalewa folks on stage giving you an entire show and that's a beautiful thing to see.

[sounds of the musical performance, dancing, singing, shouting, clapping, stomping, drumming, and cheering continue] 

[00:11:02] Ha’aheo: Ara-Lei told me all about the behind-the-scenes hard work that goes into planning an event like this, but I was so excited when I saw her on stage and realized I would get to see her utilize her own gifts and talents. She had a beautiful red hibiscus in her hair that matched her lips as she danced on stage. Her black-and-white dress swayed with her. And growing up, my mom taught me that you can tell a great dancer by the way they smile on stage, and Ara-Lei's smile radiated all across the room. When I saw Agaiotupu also come up on stage in her bright yellow paʻu skirt, dancing hula to some of my favorite hula I grew up learning, I just had the widest smile on my face. 

[we hear the rhythm of the drumming and the performance of the Ho’olaule’a continue in the background]

[00:11:52] Agaiotupu: This is the first time I'm dancing for the Ho’olaule’a. Dancing in front of our own community and being embraced, it feels I’m being transported back to the islands and dancing. This reminds me of home.  

[00:12:07] Ha’aheo: To be gathered together at the Ho’olaule’a felt like home to me, too. These connections being seen at the Ho’olaule’a was a reflection of the real life connections, held dearly. It is essential to our existence to be seen, and just be in our community as Indigenous Peoples. 

[00:12:28] Agaiotupu: I think in order for people to understand where these Indigenous cultural identities come from, people have to have a connection to community and a connection to each other, right? Whether it's your family, whether it's the community, whether it's the land; and also whether it's that connection you have to yourself, and the connection you have to your ancestors, right? We live in a capitalist society that focuses on the individual, and when you focus on the individual, you have to sever every connection you have to the next person, right? I feel like that's the goal of supremacy—to sever every connection you have. 

[00:13:15] Ha’aheo: What Agaiotupu says makes so much sense to me—that the values of care she learned from her culture is what will resist white supremacy. 

[00:13:25] Agaiotupu: And for me, I always go back to what Ara has said in the past around our culture's practice of self-abasement, is that I am no more sacred than my brother or sister. I don't hold more value than the next person, and if I'm sacred, then my sibling's sacred. And so that's the connection I have with not just any community, but with every human—that I'm sacred, the next person is sacred, and all life is sacred; and that connection we have to each other, and to all forms of life, is sacred and must be cherished, right? In the same way, the relationship we have with land and the relationship the land has with us should be honored. 

[00:14:10] Ara: I feel that there's a special bond and a special beauty that rests within this community; that even in death, you see this community showing up. We care for each other, even in death. And it's beautiful. We assist each other on a day-to-day basis. We keep each other accountable. Are we perfect? No. Just like any other family, right? You have ups and downs, but at the end of the day, I think I can really sit down and say that when push comes to shove, I know my siblings will be there for me in any way that I need them. That's the beauty that I find in fa'afafine communities, is that there’s so much care and love that rests here. People are so nurturing. People are so genuine about making sure that your needs are met. 

[we hear the performers singing together and the singing continues in the background]

And I get emotional about talking about this community because there's a time in my life where I really didn't know who I was. It was a really dark time in my life and I questioned myself, but it was this same community that reminded me who I was, reminded me who they were in my life, and who we were together as a unit.

[the singing continues]

[00:16:03] Ha’aheo: As a Kanaka Maoli person, I found myself reflecting on Ara-Lei and Agaiotupu's words. In Hawai’i, our cultural identity is known as māhū. Māhu describes a third gender that reflects the embodiment of both the feminine and masculine found in each of us. I think deep down, I always knew I was māhū, but I wasn't sure how to speak that part of myself into existence. I would find myself resting in the middle, unsure of where to place myself. I felt like I wanted to be like my older brothers and my younger sisters, simultaneously seeking out boyhood and girlhood at once. My family and the people in my life didn't know how to care for this part of me, and I spent a time unknowingly with this feeling of drifting at sea. [sighs] The clarity I needed would come at 15 years old, where a major accident put me on bed rest, and a concussion rendering me unable to watch or listen to anything without great pain. Alone with my thoughts, I had never experienced such solitude with myself. And it was in my dreams, and visits from my ancestors, that I had spoken this piece of myself into the world.


It was in one of my darkest moments of life that I found my guiding star. 

As someone living in diaspora, I wasn't sure how to answer this question of living in Indigenous queerhood. I found myself in the predominantly white queer community in Seattle, but never quite fitting in. It wasn't until I came back to Hawai’i that I understood.

To be held with such care and strength felt like I was always meant to be there. And that's how I felt at the Ho'olaule'a, being able to witness that same care and strength with this community. And being with Agaiotupu and Ara-Lei felt like I was close to that feeling of home. I found that feeling strengthened by their fa'afafine wisdom and being reminded of my connection to my māhu siblings.

I think of all my connections in my life. The long lineage of queer elders that have carved this path for me to walk on. My many relations, holding me securely and safely in this journey. And I think of home. I think of my ʻāina, and the many times my body felt like it fit into the lands of Hawai’i nei. 

[we hear the singers of the Ho’olaule’a performing in the background]

[00:18:59] Ara: The land is part of my identity as fa'afafine, and I am also a part of the identity of the land. I can't go out in the world and say that, you know, I'm fa'afafine, native to Washington, because that's not where my identity lies. My identity is embedded in the lands of Samoa, and you can't be anything else but Samoan in order to be fa'afafine.

[singing continues]

In order for us to really visit what it truly means to be that, you'd have to visit the land, and our relationship to land is just that, right? It informs our identity. As it does māhū, right? I can't be māhū because I'm from Samoa. My identity is rooted in the land, and therefore that's what informs who I am, and what I'm about.

[the collective singing of all the performers singing together continues with the occasional cheer from an audience member joining them, and the song ends and the audience cheers and applauds]

[00:21:19] Agaiotupu: I think for people who are not Indigenous to a specific part of the world, and who don't have the relationship of caring for the land—and if your relationship has always been to take from the land and not provide care in a symbiotic way with the land—that relationship looks very different, right? And your tie and what draws you to that land isn't there. I believe for Indigenous People, that connection of caring for the land, and caring for each other while being cared for by that land, it's something that draws us back to those lands, right, that we've been caretakers of. Because that deep connection has been rooted in care since the beginning of that relationship to land.

[00:22:17] Ara: When I think of land, I think of cultivating. I think of hard work. I think of something sacred. I think of how much land really informs culture, and how much land informs the identity of our people.

[the sound of the performers singing and cheering continues in the background]

I thought about growing up, my dad would have us, when I was about seven or eight years old, be out in the farming, doing what they call “konga ufi”, and I think ufi is “yams” in English. And while doing this, my dad would like, you know, give us lessons, so he'd be like, “Oh, love on the land,” right? Treat the land as if it was a person. Feed it, nurture it, because it does the same thing to you.

In terms of fa'afafine, our existence has been acknowledged through centuries because of our contribution to land. The way we've cultivated land, and the roles that we play—not only in family, but towards the land, right? How we've cared for the environment, all across all life forms. It's solidified our place in Samoan society and our existence is solidified in our culture, is a testament to the work that we've put into cultivating land, and the connections that we've had with land. Our existence as fa'afafine has been through millenniums. We're the living testament to that, that we've existed for so long and colonization has tried to eradicate and also erase our existence, but the fact that we're still here proves otherwise.

[00:24:12] Ha’aheo: Even though fa'afafine are not fully accepted within the larger straight Samoan life, or understood within the white queer community, they continue the work of caring for the entire community. 

[00:24:26] Ara: Specifically for Samoan people, I think folks really need to take a step back and really see us through the cultural identities that our ancestors [have] given us, right? And remove the colonized thinking and really see fa'afafine for who they are. Whether you are for us or not, we're still there, right? It's such a sad relationship to always try to prove yourself to people, and what you're capable of. And they'll take from you, right, but they'll never acknowledge your existence. And that's the love and hate relationship that I have as a fa'afafine with specifically Samoan cis community. 

[soft melodic music plays in the background]

[00:25:11] Ha’aheo: This complicated relationship also extends out to the larger queer community, where education is necessary for people to understand the nuances of these Pasifika identities. 

[00:25:23] Ara: And I feel that there needs to be a deeper conversation as Pacific Islanders with the LGBTQI community, in really educating people about identities that have existed for years, and giving them just a few lessons. And so we've taken it upon ourselves to not only provide education for folks, but to also, like, speak out on our lived experience. And as Agaiotupu has mentioned, it's really not until people build relationships that people will be able to get a full-on experience and scope of who you really are, and what you're all about. And that's to be said about the fa'afafine experience. 

[00:26:06] Ha’aheo: UTOPIA Washington was created 14 years ago in order to provide care to the fa'afafine diaspora that wasn't being cared for by the Samoan community, and larger non-Indigenous queer community. 

[00:26:20] Agaiotupu: To feel culturally safe and celebrated, I feel it in, I would say, the relationships that we hold. And celebrating those relationships, investing in those relationships. I feel like that same sentiment is at the core of the fa'afafine community where we are celebrated, right? I would say UTOPIA is home. UTOPIA is hilarious—those bellyache sort of laughs. UTOPIA is, for me, providing the map for diaspora to return home to.

[we hear people laughing and talking in the background]

[00:27:00] Ara: When I think about UTOPIA, I think about the concept of “paolo”, right? And the word “paolo” is a Samoan word that means, “to protect, to give shade”. In Samoa, the sun is at its peak on a sunny day. The one thing that people seek is shade. And so, shade is translated to paolo. And in the concept of culture, and culturally, paolo is normally given by—if you're in a marriage, let's say my husband and I, my husband's family and him, become my paolo. They become my shade and my protection in any time of need. So if something was to happen to, let's say, my father or anyone in my family, my husband's family will come on my behalf as my paolo—to give cultural gifts, to give money, to assist my family with caring for whatever needs we have in regards to my father, or whoever.

Now, for queer and trans Pacific Islanders, specifically for fa'afafine in this community, many a times we don't have the privilege of having a paolo, right? Because many of us aren't married, we don't have significant others in that way. So, we're automatically, in Samoan cis conversations, dismissed from the conversation of paolo; having paolo.

For the fa'afafine community—and this ties to what I said earlier that we love each other even in death, right? We—although we have not had the experience of having paolo from, you know, in laws—we've become each other's paolo, right? We've shed shade for each other in our time of need. 

[a soloist begins singing a melodic song with a musical accompaniment, and we hear people cheering them on]

And that's to be said in Samoan is, [speaks in Samoan]—we've become our own shelter, we've become our own refuge for each other. So we don't need the care of in-laws or a spouse. We've become that care for each other. And that's what UTOPIA is for everyone. 

[the singer continues]

The care and the love that's based here in the community of UTOPIA. It's for everyone. We've become protection, refuge, shelter, shade for an entire community. And I don't think there is anything else out there similar to this.

[the melodic song continues, with the audience breaking out into cheers]

I love the relationships that we've built with each other, the relationships that we've built with community. It's just beautiful to be a part of, and also beautiful to watch and see.

[the singer crescendos and finishes the song and the crowd breaks out into applause and cheers]

[00:32:03] Ha’aheo: I felt that love, and the relationships that they built with one another in the time I spent with this community and their Ho’olaule’a. The care that permeated throughout the room came from all walks of life, from old to young. I watched as elders and their walkers came up to the stage to cheer this community on, [laughs] as toddlers stumbled their way to throw money up to them, [sighs] and the proud applause of their fa'afafine siblings.

Most of all, I will remember when I could hear different people cheering the names of those on stage; and the flowers, the hugs, the kisses, and the big family pictures that I could be a part of at the end of the night from people I didn't even know. But we said in our own way, “I love you,” at the end of the night.

My time with this community taught me something really important: what I found was that to celebrate, is to care deeply.

[Seedcast theme music begins and plays in the background]

[00:33:11] Jessica: Thank you for listening. And thank you to the fa'afafine community of UTOPIA for always sharing your wisdom. For more information on UTOPIA, Washington, go to and find ways to support the trans people in your life.  

This episode was produced and edited by Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. The story editor was Jenny Asarnow. Thank you to our colleagues, Nichlas Emmons and Michael Painter at Nia Tero for their support on this episode. 

Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We're both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous Peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making Earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. And you can learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero at And Seedcast is on Instagram, so go find us, @niatero_seedcast. And if you don't already, please subscribe to Seedcast on your favorite podcast platform to keep up with new episodes. 

Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Seedcast producers are Julie Keck, Stina Hamlin, Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker, and me, Jessica Ramirez. Fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Social media is by Nancy Kelsey. Transcripts are by Sharon Arnold. Graphic design by Cindy Chischilly. The Seedcast theme song is “Rooted” by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon. 

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…