Kaleo Tevaitea Ramos is a Native Hawaiian and LGBTQ activist. Although he is a man, he identifies himself as an activist according to the role that best helps those in need: mahukane (female-to-male trans identity within a Native Hawaiian context), transman, and father to his son, Justice-John.
Born biologically female in 1977 in Kane‘ohe, O’ahu, Kaleo tried his best to be a good daughter, but every step towards maturity was agonizing for him:
When I think about my earliest memory of being different, I think of being in kindergarten on many instances when I naturally walked into the boy’s restroom instead of the girls until I realized just as I entered, I was in the wrong restroom. My mother would always comment no matter where we go: “Make sure you go into the right restroom,” and I hated that. I would enjoy rough play with my classmates and took pride in my ability to run faster and jump higher than any boy in my class. I remember only wanting to wear a certain underwear that resembled boy’s briefs. They were gender neutral and felt comfortable to wear until the company stopped making them and I was forced to wear “true” girl underwear.
When his body began changing with puberty, life became a nightmare from which he could not awaken:
One night, starting at about 9 years old, I would lay in bed and prayed to God as I did every night to change me into a boy while I slept so that in the morning when I woke I would be in the correct body and no one would know the difference. I would never utter my prayers or wishes to be a boy out loud fearing someone would hear me and I would have to face humiliation, so these prayers and wishes were silent. Looking back, I think I never mentioned those words mainly because I was fearful of admitting it to myself. As each day came to an end and night approached, I wished on every first star, picked up every penny as I walked across the surface of the earth, looked under bridges and caves for genie lamps hoping for 3 wishes, chased rainbows to find the pot of gold, and every other thing that might give me hope for what I really wanted.
Unfortunately, the only other solution was simply to endure the suffering until death came:
One evening as lay in my bed, I started to count the years until it would be about the right time to die… 10 years, 20 years, 30 years… Then I thought about reincarnation and how if I die tonight I would ask God to allow me to come back as a boy. I didn’t even care if I came back as an ugly boy or a poor one – I just wanted to live my life as a boy. So I took my pillow and covered my face until I couldn’t breathe anymore. I couldn’t take it and I pulled the pillow away from my face as I gasped for air. I quickly became scared. I didn’t want to hurt my family and was scared to die. I’m not too sure what was going to be worse, what I was about to endure for the next 20 years or death.
Marriage, Giving Birth, and Transitioning
Ramos’ sense of kuleana (responsibility) to his family led him to choose life and embrace femininity, get a boyfriend, and eventually a husband. Form their union came their son Justice-John, “I hated the fact that in order to have a child I had to go through such a feminine event,” he said.
One day I finally confided in a friend who advised me of what I should do. The choice I made was devastating to my marriage and our young family, but as we shared, we both agreed there was more I needed to explore in my life. Till this day I love my ex for trying his best to understand and for keeping our friendship as it is today. We make things work for our son. We both agreed that while I go through my transition he would have custody of our son because we both felt a consistent life is best for him especially throughout his early years. Custody will later change when the Little Prince reaches 7th grade he will come to live with me… No matter what, we always try to work in the best interest of our son.
Kuleana and the Hawaiian LGBTQ Community
In 2006, Kaleo began transitioning from female to male (FTM). Kaleo’s shift from his female body brought with it acceptance of new responsibilities:
Over the next few years, I researched endlessly about transition and the “how to’s” of transitioning correctly and during those years, I’ve changed into the person I wanted to be. I committed myself to self-injection of hormones, got some surgeries, and carried myself as a proper man with good etiquette and great hygiene. I take pride in this new vehicle I now drive in this new life. I always tell myself “why put my body through so much mental and physical pain, only to live my life as trashy?” I like to look at myself as a pioneer for FTM in Hawai’i… At the time of my transition, there was no one who knew enough about FTMs in the state to help me make it happen, so I had to take it upon myself to make sure I did enough research so I would most definitely be the resource for others like myself.
The transition brought with it another identity, that of a Gay man:
I dated boys thorough out high school, however, right before my senior year I found an interest in girls as well. I knew I was different, but wasn’t sure how I was different. Deep inside I knew I wanted to be a boy, but I liked some of the joys about being a girl at the same time. I loved my relationships with boys, but was also attracted to girls. I was most definitely confused! I never thought that one day it would all make sense to me; I liked boys, but as myself being a boy, what we would consider gay.
Kaleo did nonprofit work for the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian people) as a Straight woman for years, and he also helped the LGBT community as a Gay man. He raises money for AIDS organizations, including the Gregory House in Honolulu for people with AIDS (www.gregoryhouse.org). He was also Emperor in the Imperial Court of Hawai‘i. But Ramos resists assigning any one overarching identity to himself other than being a man:
Trans identity or to change my identity is like saying I was born an “American Citizen” if you righteously feel that Hawai‘i now belongs to America. However, once learning the truth about how America acquired Hawai‘i [overthrow of the Monarchy by force], I am now a “Subject to the Hawaiian Kingdom.” It is all a whole bunch of bureaucratic nonsense that in some way requires us to submit to a certain category of people just so we can all be accounted.
I understand that I was not born a biological male because my sex organs and development of my body were different from what my brain feels, but organs never really defined the person I really am. Organs just described the F that was replaced with an M on my birth record. Transman, mahukane, all of the above if a person must categorize, but all in its own I am just “me.” I identify as male.
I just never understood why I would have to be an “in between,” a transperson. I live my life as a man. The only time I come out as a transman or mahukane is when I step into my outreach shoes to educate the public about transgenders or educate transgenders so they better understand themselves.
Kaleo Ramos situates his identity in the generations of his ‘ohana (Hawaiian: family):
Pulling from the mana of my ancestors I speak. I am Brayden Alexander Kaleokuikeolahou Tevaitea Ramos, born from the moku of Ko‘olau Poko, the ‘ahupua‘a of Kane’ohe. I come from the piko of my akua, my kupuna, my makua, and the piko, which continues through the most precious part of my life, my keiki. I stand firm in my traditions of the past as my kupuna stand behind me, those generations whom have set the stones for all my accomplishments to shine like the kukuna o ka la. I am the child of my paternal grandparents; John and Mary Ramos and my maternal grandparents; Alexander and Bernice Spencer, my parents John and Cynthia Ramos, and the kaikunane of Shawna. I am the parent of Justice-John Manuli‘i‘iulaikikahakuahiwi, the fruit of my existence.
mana: spiritual power
moku: island or portion of land
‘ahupua‘a: classical Hawaiian land division that runs from sea to mountain
piko: umbilical cord
akua: deity, God(s)
kukuna o ka la: ray(s) of the sun
kaikunane: brother or male cousin of a female