Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Monday, August 2, 1999

Competitive transsexual
rocks canoe of prejudice

MOST of us meander through life guided by gut instinct. This is not necessarily bad. We know what is right or wrong for each of us as individuals and as a collective group.

But knee-jerk, emotion-based reaction is not always wise when it comes to the complex issue of civil rights.

I came to this realization last week, when the story of LiAnne Taft came to light.

The paddler for the Koa Kai Canoe Club women's team describes herself as a transsexual woman, which means she is a male going through the process of becoming a female.

This very private situation became public when she filed a lawsuit with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission against the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association.

The racing authority has instituted a new rule: Birth certificates instead of driver's licenses are required of paddlers to determine whether they can compete on men's or women's teams.

If birth certificates are unavailable, the association is considering DNA or chromosome testing to officially verify gender.

Either way, LiAnne is out of luck. Her birth certificate shows that she was born a male named Bill Taft, so she would be barred from entering races with her Koa Kai sisters.

At first, this made sense to me because:

1) Men have more upper-body strength than women.
2) LiAnne is still a man until an actual sex-change operation.
3) She seems selfish to make so much trouble and attempt to be where she's not wanted.

As far as I was concerned, this was an open-and-shut case based on common sense.

But that was before I talked to University of Hawaii Professor Milton Diamond, who specializes in anatomical and reproductive biology.

He managed to counter my three rationalizations and make me feel foolish in the process:

1) Yes, LiAnne may have the body of a man but, because she is taking female hormones, her musculature is changing. She no longer has the same upper-body strength as before.
2) So when does LiAnne "officially" become female? When she no longer has the male organ? When her hormonal therapy is complete? When she acts, thinks, feels like and believes that she is woman?
3) Being called a troublemaker and trying to break into a closed group in power sounds familiar, doesn't it? Think discrimination against blacks, Asians, women, gays, the handicapped, etc.

IN my defense, I've always fancied myself a bona fide liberal with nary an ounce of prejudice. But LiAnne Taft and Milton Diamond showed me that you're never too old to learn, especially about how to get along together on this tiny rock.

Would it kill us to consider more inclusiveness over exclusivity in these combative times?

By the way, this particular controversy has been quelled, at least temporarily. LiAnne told KITV-4 News that she won't participate in the state championships, because she doesn't want to cause problems for her teammates.

Cause problems? How ironic. LiAnne is not the problem.

More likely, it's people like me -- who are too quick to label, to begrudge a simple request that would mean so much and wouldn't physically hurt anyone else, and when it's not that big a deal in the whole scheme of things -- who have the real problem around here.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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