Selected Writings


“In order to feel safe I need to feel known....Is visibility safety? Complex questions. Uncomfortable, uneasy answers,
stirring up old hurts, old angers, old fears....Why is the possibility of ‘passing’ so insistently viewed as a great privilege...,
and not understood as a terrible degradation and denial?” – Evelyn Torton Beck, Nice Jewish Girls


I grew up
not quite fitting in
and not understanding why

I was raised
with menehunes
and leprechauns
sushi and corned beef
flower leis and Ikebana
kimono and aloha shirts
chopsticks and silverware
miso and tuna casserole

Anne Helanikulani
my maternal grandmother
sold her land grant
to set up
my grandfather’s business
in Japan

Minerva Helani
my mother
born in Yokohama
grew up
in Kobe and Waikiki
the traditional hula
her most prideful
gift of grace to the world

the Japanese art
of flower arranging
my great Aunty Madge
one of thirteen Masters
in the world
(at that time)

My father, John
a proud
St. Paddy’s
County Cork
too ra loo ra loo ra
whose mother, Pat
my only living grandparent
spoke a little Yiddish
would whisper
in my ear
“marry a nice Jewish man
they take care of their wives ...”
she was sincere
and steady
in this advice

all this
growing up
in a Catholic family

I was
conceived in Hawai‘i
born in Canada
October 5, 1943
during WWII
named Lani
which means heavenly

Then to Denver
for several months
my great Uncle Harry
a successful
California businessman
had been “sent”
to run a chicken ranch
when the relocation camps
were in full swing
he and my Aunty Madge
were the first
to give vitamins
to hens
to fortify eggs

Recently I learned
it was a cover
for a CIA radio relay station
my great Uncle Harry
proud to be
General MacArthur’s right hand man
during the mid-to-late forties

common stories
while I was growing up
except for the CIA
and relocation camps

1949 St. Bruno’s
first grade
Sister Theophane
told me ...
“Lani is a heathen name”
it was unacceptable
the Christian middle name Marjorie
would have to do
for eight years
in grammar school

I didn’t throw the ball
like a girl
I hit home runs
over the fence
before and after school
the only times
I was allowed
on the better fields
to play with the boys

I didn’t enjoy
playing house
so I was the dad
and went outside
to “work”
to be one of the boys

I was told
I was lucky
to have the golden skin
it meant
I didn’t have to hide
from the sun
for fear of getting too dark

for fear of being called
like my sister

I danced the hula
every year
in the talent show
when we studied Japan and Hawai‘i
I brought nori seaweed
to eat
kimonos to try on
talked about King Kamehameha
my great great great great great uncle
told the Japanese children’s story
of the “peach boy”
dombororo koko sukoko

Coming home from school
shoes all over the porch
I knew family/friends
from far away lands
had arrived
leis, poi, fresh pineapple
ukulele, muumuus, love and laughter

Friends would secretly ask
if my Aunty Madge and Uncle Harry
were really related to me
were really in my family
“Are they Chinese or what?”

I was told
never to ask
why their eyes were slanted
I knew why
and couldn’t figure out
why anyone would
ask such a thing

I took pride
in my multicultural
girl-child self

In high school
I talked with the girls
about the boys
we had crushes on
I talked with the boys
about the girls
we had crushes on

even though
I asked
time and again
I was never allowed
to work
because I was a girl
“would have a husband
to take care of me

It was even
a struggle
getting permission
to earn money
but once convinced
it would prepare me
for my role in life
I was allowed

For me
there was no college prep
I took
typing, shorthand
business machines
so I
“would have a skill
in case
my husband died”
and I would be left
to raise the children

In my junior year
I fell in love
went steady with
the Captain of the football team
two years after high school
we were married
in the church
outside the communion rail
he was not Catholic

My father died of a heart attack at age 46
protecting and supporting
a wife and four daughters
that he lovingly
and conscientiously
placed on pedestals
that were built
on lost potential
his and ours

For me
the certificate would have read
underlying cause of death ... sexism

Five years later
I was 26 years old
my husband taught
at the high school
where we met
we had a son, a daughter
and a home in the suburbs

I was not your everyday
fulltime suburban housewife mother
following my conscience
I left the church
joined Another Mother for Peace
was an anti-VietNam, anti-nuke peace activist
collected food for the Black Panther breakfast program
supported Caesar Chavez’ UFW organizing and the grape boycott
was a Little League mom, never missed the game show Jeopardy
ran the art corner on Friday’s, was recess lady on Wednesday’s
a field trip driver, watched “Days Of Our Lives” faithfully
and was a budding gourmet cook

I began reading
about women’s lib, burning bras, no make-up
my best friend stopped shaving her legs
and wore shorts in the summer
it was very radical!

I smoked marijuana
wore peasant dresses
had granny glasses
drove a VW van
picked up hitchhikers
fell in love
with “Working Class Hero”
John Lennon

read Baba Ram Dass
“Be Here Now”
spent a weekend
at an Enlightenment Intensive
asking “Who am I?”
18 hours a day

dropped acid
saw Mao Tse Tung
in my bathroom mirror
and realized
“A Separate Reality”

I grew by leaps and bounds
my consciousness raced
it was a rush to follow
u n d e r s t a n d i n g
for the first time
in my life
I had never
what I wanted
what I needed
what was real for me

I was crying all the time
my husband and closest friend
figured it out
“you need to leave,” he said
“you’ve never had a chance to explore,
you’ve never been out in the world,
you’ve never had a life of your own.”
as soon as I heard it
I knew he was right
he wanted the children
saying there was no way
for me to do what I needed to do
and he didn’t want to be alone
I trusted him and felt his love and support

We had grown up
fourteen years later
to be very different people
fourteen years later
we let go, and cried
remained friends and struggled
with the pain and confusion
of our two young children

I moved to San Francisco
nine months later, 1975
began to keep a journal
got involved with establishing
the Women Studies Program
at San Francisco State
a hot bed of feminism
a hot bed of lesbianism
I came home to myself
as a woman
a powerful primal connection
that had been denied

I wrote papers for classes
and discovered
I was a woman loving woman
I was a feminist
I was a radical
I was a lesbian
I was a leader
I was a poet
discovered I was a writer
and came out

I spoke out publicly
as a lesbian mother
marched in the
Gay Freedom Day Parade
“2-4-6-8 are you sure
your mother’s straight?”
came out to my children
my ex-husband, my friends
my sister, my mother

But because I slept with men
three times in four years
I discovered I was a lesbian
who had “unfinished business”
who had “some issues” to work out
there were no bisexual
role models
women’s sexuality
lesbian sexuality
or nothing

There was a lesbian feminist movement
with strong lesbian role models
with strong lesbian voices
with strong lesbian visions
who inspired me to be all I could be
and to trust my woman loving woman
feelings and experience

The personal was political
and fundamentally correct
unless you slept with men

I graduated with honors
traveled to Hawai‘i
lived in Maui for nine months
felt my roots
grow deep into the earth
through the soles
of my feet
grounded solid
Lani my heathen name
visible everywhere
street signs, newspapers
on the tips of peoples tongues
I belonged
my heart was home

In 1980
I was a public lesbian
who fell from grace.

I met a kindred spirit
a soulmate
a bisexual man
who met me
eye to eye
heart to heart
politic to politic
psyche to psyche
sex to sex.

We met
as feminists
as organizers
as writers
as thinkers
as theoreticians
as lovers
as best friends.

There seemed to be
no limits or boundaries.

To deny
or keep
such an experience
in a lesbian closet
was impossible
to me.

When I returned to San Francisco
to my lesbian family of friends
saying I was a bisexual
saying I was in love with a man
saying I refused to be kicked out
I believed and trusted
that the personal is indeed political
even if I was with a man
I knew I wasn’t the enemy
I also knew I wasn’t alone
I would find others
like myself who refused
to be in the lesbian/gay closet

I traveled to Japan
with my daughter Dannielle
stepping off the plane
walking in the streets
I immediately sensed a coming home
welcomed by the
familiar ties
familiar eyes
I felt at peace
with myself, with my identity


I pass for white
struggle for visibility
in a sea of white faces
a barometer for prejudice

I pass for white
self doubting my place
in the people of color

I passed for white
even to myself
for a while
got lost in the dominant culture
slipped over the edge
fingers barely grasping

Self hate and sabotage
powerful words of denial and shame
a simmering
constant pattern
in my life

I have always felt
alienated from words
attacked by them
silenced by them
ignored by them
made invisible by them
words have never been fast friends.

I listen to the voices
that come from my heart
and scream from my guts
I am more
than what you see

I say this only to myself
sure no one will listen
and terrified everyone will...

Sitting with
17 lesbians of color
in a dis-assimilation workshop
at a conference on racism
each spoke to the pain
of being invisible
erased in a white world
of trying to fit in, of trying to pass
r e a l i z i n g
they never would
they never could
l i s t e n i n g
to their anger
to their rage
r e c l a i m i n g
racial and cultural pride
I sat
i n v i s i b l e
hardly able to breathe
tears streaming down my cheeks
a lump in my throat
as big as the shame
my white skin affords me
s i l e n c e d i n f e a r
I could not speak
I began to cry, and cry, and cry
from a place so deep, so old, so long denied
e x p o s i n g t h e p a i n
of having given up, of having given in
of having been beaten down
to a white pulp
my guilt, my shame, my sense of exhaustion
my love, my pride, my sense of family connection
laid bare

With their arms around me
my words came slowly

I belong and am disowned
by one and the other

I have silenced myself
many times not speaking out
terrified of exposure
terrified people would see
would realize
I don’t belong
I am not really
who I appear to be

My voice comes
in the form
of the written word
safe on paper, in print
people “hear” but don’t see me.
I struggle
still not trusting
the words
that have betrayed me
that have been used against me
that have limited me
that have denied my existence
that have been an oppressive tool.

The medium
I am comfortble with
is food
the colors, the shapes
the textures, the aromas
the taste combinations
the work and play
and consumption of food
nurtures me
it is familiar

I have a clear sense
because I know
I have been trained
to be a good cook/mother/wife
it was my role in life

But do I know
I am a good writer?

not really

I still
have to reread
the stuff I’ve written
the stuff I’ve published even
to reassure myself
like I can’t believe
like I can’t trust
the words are mine
came from me
were created
strung together
molded to fit
my thinking
my experience.

When I do share
my racial/cultural roots
people scoff
“you can’t be!”
“you’re kidding!”
“no you’re not!”
then proceed to tell me
then proceed to define me
then proceed to invalidate
what is really real for me

What gives anyone
the right
to tell me who and what I am?

I never want to hear
that I don’t look Hawaiian
that I don’t look Japanese
that I’m lucky I don’t look my age
that I can’t be, that I couldn’t be
Why make such a big deal about it?
Why is it so important?

I never want to hear
that I am not a bisexual
that there is no such thing
that if I haven’t been with a man for a while,
I should call myself a lesbian
that I am hurting lesbians
that I am confusing
an already confusing situation for heterosexual society

Why make such a fuss?
Why don’t I just keep it quiet?
Why is it so important?

Don’t tell me who I am
Don’t tell me what my experience is or has been
Don’t tell me my personal is not political
Don’t ask me why it is important or what’s the big deal

I won’t be silenced
I will make a fuss
and I will tell you why it is so important

but only once...

Don’t talk to me
unless you are willing
to listen

Don’t talk to me
unless you are willing
to face yourself

I am brown
I am yellow
I am white
I am a proud, visible and vocal mixed heritage multicultural woman.
I claim it all and have no shame for it is the truth.

I am a middle-aged woman. I appreciate my 47 years of experience.
This is what it looks like. My face and body are a map of my life.
I don’t want to be younger. I enjoy growing older and wiser.

I am a brazen radical bisexual feminist woman.
I love women as fiercely and passionately as any woman can.
I am a woman loving women:
I love and trust the men who are my allies,
struggling side by side doing the necessary work
of dismantling the shame of patriarchy in their lives
and who are taking emotional responsibility for loving themselves
and each other.


Mixed heritage people threaten the core of a racist society.


Bisexuals jeopardize the foundation of a heterosexist culture.


Aging women (no matter how old we are) break the back of ageism.


Lesbians and women loving women cut to the heart of sexism.

It is time to nurture the organic radical integration4 process.
Differences recognized and appreciated give a sense of the whole.

I am sick and tired of lesbians who love lesbians, not women. 5
I will not allow lesbian chauvinism to silence me one more time.
I am angered by unexamined and unacknowledged internalized
misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and heterophobia
wherever it exists, but especially in
my bisexual, lesbian, gay, transgender, and intersex communities.
I am pissed at politically conscious people
who do the work of liberation but don’t recognize
sex, race, and class as the tap root of all oppressions.

Assimilation is a lie.
It is spiritual erasure.

We must proceed with mutual responsibility and respect.
We must give words to the silence behind the lies.
We must listen to ourselves and to each other.
If we take the time to recognize the fact
that we are already in it together
this revolution is truly ours,
all of ours
and it is here, now
in our midst.

We have to be wise enough
and patient enough
to trust ourselves
and each other
and the solutions
we will create.
That is feminism.
That is revolution.

© 1989 Lani Ka‘ahumanu


1 Hapa Haole is Hawaiian for half or mixed Hawaiian and white. Wahine means woman. [back to poem]
2 Beck, Evelyn Torton, Nice Jewish Girls, A Lesbian Anthology, Revised and Updated Edition, pp. xvi - xxvi, Beacon Press, Boston, 1989. [back to poem]
3 Menehune – “Legendary race of small people (in Hawaii) who worked at night building fishponds, roads, temples,” The Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, Pukui, Elbert, and Mookini, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1975. [back to poem]
4 This is a term Robin Morgan coined in “The Anatomy of Freedom, Feminism, Physics and Global Politics,” Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1984. [back to poem]
5 I want to thank Hester Lox for her thinking on this point. [back to poem]
6 I want to thank Jane Litwoman for this concept. [back to poem]

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