utside of Mickey’s West Hollywood, I haphazardly fastened the top two buttons of my aloha shirt. Cradling a cigarette with my lips, I adjusted my shoulders as a tag that reads Hawaiian Force — the brand of the shirt — brushed against my neck. Across my shirt, ʻiwa (frigate birds) cascaded against the dark blue fabric recalling Kaiona, a benevolent Native Hawaiian goddess of the Waiʻanae Mountains of Hawaiʻi. When travelers were lost in her dominion, Kaiona would send her ‘iwa to gently guide them to safety. In her and the ʻāina’s (land’s) tender embrace, those who were lost were never without hope.
I put out my cigarette and made my way back inside. Shuffling past go-go dancers and sweat-soaked club-goers, I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulder. “Eh! You from Hawaiʻi, yeah?” asked the patron in what I immediately recognized was a Hawaiian Pidgin accent not unlike my own. Drunkenly striking up conversation, he explained that he was also from the island of Oahu and not “out” at home. As he waved the shirtless bartender down and bought us both shots, I asked,
“How you wen know?”
“It’s da shirt––can tell da kine is Hawaiian Force!” he matter-of-factly replied as the thumping bass drowned out the rest of our conversation.
This meeting between two queer Hawaiians was made possible by my aloha shirt. While aloha shirts can, in this way, facilitate positive and even healing interactions with other queer diasporic Hawaiians, not every encounter brings forth positive attachments. Indeed, that same ‘iwa-patterned shirt has solicited the attention of non-Hawaiian men who readily tell me of their time with the US military in Hawaiʻi; the same military that has illegally occupied and held destructive war games in our islands since 1898, bringing to mind violent histories of our own colonization.1
Now, I ask as a queer Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) how the politics of the aloha shirt in the queer Hawaiian diaspora might bring us together in important, albeit not uncomplicated, ways. While cultural markers of the aloha shirt can signal community to other Native Hawaiians in “unexpected places,”2 the colonial histories tied to the aloha shirt complicate the ways that the queer Hawaiian diaspora engages in Indigenous fashion. Still, however, there remains the possibility to reclaim and queer the aloha shirt itself, giving queer diasporic Hawaiians a way to celebrate ourselves at the intersections of indigeneity and queerness.
Contrary to popular narrative, the aloha shirt does not find its origins in Indigenous craftsmanship and is deeply tied to violent multiculturalism and militarization in the Hawaiian Islands. Initially, the aloha shirts were created to quell the racist anxieties of American citizens who feared that Hawaiʻi would incorporate a largely non-white population into the American empire.3 The aloha shirt created a narrative that Kānaka Maoli were long gone. In other words, the American’s capacity to literally wear paradise reified a narrative that Hawaiʻi was theirs for the taking.
As an occupied and colonized nation stolen by military force, the Hawaiian Islands has a long history with the US military. Indeed, it was through militarized violence that Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, was violently forced to cede her power to a group of businessmen who managed to land the US Navy at the front of the palace.4 However, even prior to that, the threat of military occupation pushed other sovereigns of the Hawaiian Islands to enact laws such as the 1850 penal code of the Hawaiian Islands, which outlawed “sodomy” and “adultery,” thereby standing in stark contrast to the fluid practices of non-monogamy and sexuality practiced by Hawaiians before colonization.5 A fear of losing control of our own islands led our ancestors to adhere to a politics of respectability that included the colonization of gender and sexuality. Indeed, as Kanaka Maoli historian Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa notes, Hawaiians before colonization embraced the philosophy of “moe aku, moe mai” (sleep here, sleep there), wherein relations to others were seen as important but not restricted to western understandings of sexuality, gender, and monogamy.6
As Native Hawaiian fashion designers like Manaola Yap, who uses the traditional art of ‘ohe kapala and culturally-informed themes in his designs, intervene in this long narrative of “Hawaiian” fashion and its ties to the colonization of Hawaii. The impact that their work has on the perceptions of aloha attire are key.
While Manaola is a luxury brand that has debuted at New York Fashion Week, the impulse to imbue Hawaiian cultural values has spread throughout the islands. Importantly, the Hawaiian Force, the brand of the shirt I bonded over earlier, has been conscious and involved with the struggle against the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, a project that would be built on the sacred summit of Mauna Kea. Based out of Hilo, their shirts that read “Sacred Mauna Kea” and “Kū Kiaʻi Mauna.” These slogans of the movement to protect Mauna Kea from desecration position the brand not as apolitical but directly involved with spreading the message of the movement. As kiai (land protectors) at home and across the globe fight against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, such interventions have weight in their visuality and the capacity to disrupt. Indeed, even the ‘iwa print of my own shirt conjures moʻolelo (storied and interconnected histories) of our places and of our gods. This turn towards a culturally-conscious aloha attire might be important in connecting the queer Hawaiian diaspora as each print holds a story and calls us into its telling.
What possibilities exist in thinking of the aloha shirt as queer fashion? For queer Hawaiians who are disconnected, aloha is a complex negotiation. As queer Hawaiian performance scholar Stephanie Nohelani Teves reminds us, queer diasporic Hawaiians "must grapple with the feeling that you may never have a place in your place, but you know that it is still your place because of your genealogy and your ʻohana [(family)] there."7 Because our genealogy is tied to land, the practice of hana noʻeau (traditional art) is, too, a representative of our ancestral lands. Fashion is not always a home, but in this same train of thought, fashion might allow us to imagine ourselves as both Hawaiian and queer, even in the diaspora. While many of us will never get to live full lives as queer and Indigenous at home, the possibilities of the aloha shirt in unexpected queer spaces gives us even a symbolic hope that one day we might reconcile our culture, our communities, and our defiant, but real and lived identities at the intersection of Hawaiian and queer.
Still militarization and colonization are ties that bind queer Hawaiians away from home together. As the struggle against the TMT in Hawaii and in the Hawaiian diaspora continues, being in queer Hawaiian community is necessary. While pro-Mauna Kea organizing spaces in the diaspora — like Hawaiian Civic Clubs — bring together those who share a Hawaiian identity, our queerness is often muted, relegated to an elsewhere because it does not “belong” in the movement. To wear Hawaiian-made aloha shirts in unexpected places is not decolonization nor is it necessarily anticolonial. Still, the visuality of being both queer and Hawaiian is powerful and necessary in this movement because we simply need to be in community with other queer Hawaiians fighting for our homeland. We must fight for our land with our whole selves.
As we navigate the politics of fashion in the gay nightclub, new possibilities for existing at the intersection of being queer and Indigenous emerge from wearing our own cultural designs. And while encountering another Hawaiian in unexpected places alone might not build community, the fabric that weaves together a queer Indigenous way of thriving might begin in a gay nightclub far and away from our ancestral home. Still, wearing the aloha shirt means being prepared to entertain problematic assumptions about Hawaiian sovereignty and militarism. Yet, it also could mean bringing Hawaiians together in unexpected encounters. In its multilayered meanings, it could complicate the narrative of Hawaiʻi as just a tourist destination.
Perhaps the declaration to the world that we still exist as queer and as Hawaiian is enough, at least for now. And, like Kaiona’s ‘iwa, a flourish of aloha attire juxtaposed against the smoke and strobe lights can begin to nudge us towards each other when we are lost in queer diaspora.