Pono is an important concept in Hawaiʻi. The most common English translation of the word is "righteousness," but there are deeper cultural and spiritual connotations of living in a spirit of balance, harmony and unity.
So it was only logical that when the Hawai'i Department of Education and the University of Hawai'i developed a teen pregnancy and STI prevention program based on giving youth medically accurate information to help them make informed choices about their sexual health, they named the curriculum "Pono Choices." The core concept is that it is not who you are that puts you at risk; it is what you do.
Unfortunately, a small but vocal group of right-wing political and religious extremists have made a choice not to be pono when it comes to protecting the health of Hawaiian youth.
They have repeatedly claimed that Pono Choices is being "forced" on students and their families, even though parents actually have the option to request that their child not receive the instruction, as is Department of Education policy for every curriculum or lesson that addresses reproductive health. During the recent contentious legislative hearings on marriage equality in Hawai'i, there were also numerous warnings that Pono Choices "encourages the homosexual lifestyle," even though it is in full compliance with the Board of Educationʻs abstinence-based sex education policy.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers Sam Slom and Bob McDermott held a press conference at which they slammed the program because it "robs children of their innocence." But as revealed by an article in the Honolulu Civil Beat, they had only seen bits and pieces of the curriculum because they refused to participate in an in-person orientation session.
All this brouhaha led to a suspension and review of the program by the Department of Education. Their conclusion was straightforward:
Our review not only affirmed that the curriculum meets department standards, but it also showed that Pono Choices is a culturally responsive curriculum that has resulted in positive outcomes for students ... [such as] more youth abstaining from sex and less teen pregnancy and STI transmission.
Having lost their fight with the legitimate educators, the extremists turned to even dirtier tricks. They started in on personal attacks.
One of their first targets was Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a well-known and highly respected Native Hawaiian teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader, who also happens to be māhū, or transgender, with numerous responsibilities including chairing the O'ahu Island Burial Council. Although Mrs. Wong-Kalu (who is affectionately referred to as "Kumu Hina" by her students) does not have anything to do with Pono Choices, she is seen briefly in this video by Hawaiian Student TV that is included in the curriculum and highlighted in a recent attack piece by Tito Montes, president of the Hawaii Republican Assembly:
The description of Mrs. Wong-Kalu by the Republican Assembly publication, which was reprinted in the Hawaiʻi Free Press, is truly vicious. They refer to her as a "him," despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, not to mention her legal status as a married woman. And they refer to this cultural icon -- a woman fluent in the Hawaiian language who has chanted for innumerable important occasions, including the most recent opening of the Hawaii State Legislature -- as a "transvestite drag queen."
Ironically, the take-home message from the video is hardly controversial: You get HIV from not being safe. But the language from the Republican Assembly makes it clear that their real concern has nothing to do with sex education. What they hate is the very existence of LGBT people.
This is anything but pono. It is one thing to attack the idea of evidence-based sex education; it is quite another to dehumanize and denigrate a person based on the very core of their existence. One can only hope that in 2014, all Hawaiians will he ʻike ʻana ia I ka pono -- recognize the right thing and do it.