HONOLULU (KHON2) — The brainchild of Hawaiʻi State Representative Adrian Tam, the Equality Caucus has its sights set on ensuring that all Hawaiʻi residents maintain access to civil liberties and that residents do not have to worry about having their rights stripped.

KHON2.com was able to catch up with Rep. Tam and Hawaiʻi State Senator Chris Lee to talk about what the Equality Caucus has been up to and what they are planning for the future.

Get Hawaii’s latest morning news delivered to your inbox, sign up for News 2 You

Sen. Lee said he thinks part of the whole reason for creating an Equality Caucus was to sort of consolidate and formalize some of the discussions that have been taking place, you know, all these years, every time there have been different issues that have popped up.

“Over the last couple of years, I think it’s fair to say there have been half a dozen or more bills on specific things were to create a forum for different folks from the LGBT community to come in and have a voice and role in government providing context to a lot of these issues, which are often very tricky and difficult and complicated,” explained Sen. Lee.

For Sen. Lee, he believes the Equality Caucus has been instrumental in allowing for open dialogue amongst members of Hawaiʻi’s Legislature to understand the issues that are very important to our community.

Rep. Lee believes the caucus is providing a forum not only for people to speak but also for people to hear from those in our community. In essence, the caucus contextualizes issues within Hawaiʻi for Hawaiʻi.

“So, in 2023, we continue to meet with members amongst our caucus and stakeholders out in the community to get a sense of what is needed,” explained Rep. Tam. “And we continue to also monitor what’s happening across this country, when it comes to protections for our LGBTQ+ community. And we’re slowly working together with everyone to try to come up with a good legislative package for 2023.”

As Hawaii watches the continental United States, our Legislature must embark on protecting Hawaii’s citizens to ensure that civil liberties are not eroded for the sake of political theatrics.

“I think the biggest thing, looking across the country as Adrian had mentioned, is seeing sort of the myriad discussions happening in other states that are targeting LGBTQ+ community as scapegoats for political scoring points or eroding away rights that are granted to pretty much everybody else,” explained Sen. Lee. We thought, I think in here in Hawaii at least, with the passage of married marriage equality in 2013, that we’ve created sort of an equal playing field that treated everybody fairly and with aloha and respect; but we found that while it’s definitely a step forward, there’s still a lot of gaps in the system.”

Sen. Lee went on to explain further.

“For example, you know, until recently, you could actually get off on a lighter sentence after murdering someone if you said, ‘Well, you know, I found out that they were gay; and that surprised me.’ revealed Sen. Lee. “I mean, that is just ridiculous. So, there’s all these kinds of little loose ends to tie up; but in the broader context around the country, where families are literally under attack and having the rights taken away.”

So, in tackling issues to protect Hawaiʻi’s families, lawmakers in Hawaiʻi are realizing that the State truly is a place of political innovation and civil liberties protections.

“This is something that we have to take positive steps forward on to prevent against happening here in Hawaiʻi and make sure that everybody here in Hawaiʻi knows that we’re all going to be treated fairly, all treated equally no matter what race or gender or sexual orientation or whatever you might be,” explained Sen. Lee. “And that’s something that is an ongoing discussion that will go on forever. It’s eternal vigilance to make sure that the rights in the Constitution are afforded fairly and equally to everyone.”

According to Rep. Tam and Sen. Lee, protecting Hawaii’s residents is of paramount importance for the Equality Caucus and its members and any good piece of legislation is going to spark controversy. But what are they doing and with whom are they working?

“Well, certainly to a lesser extent than other states where things are much more divisive right now in our public schools, for example, kids are growing up, who are LGBTQ+. They are coming into the LGBTQ+ community and going through their own experiences coming out and coming to terms with what that means for them,” said Rep. Tam. “Yet, they are still experiencing bullying and differential treatment in public schools in other places. We’ve working very hard to try and prevent that from happening, to give everybody an opportunity not only to be themselves, but to do it in a safe and positive way.”

He went on to explain further.

“And that’s something that we work with a Department of Defense on. We also work with nonprofit organizations, folks in the community. We’re providing support, but it’s an ongoing thing that requires more help, especially now, where you have the issues like Maui where entire communities are being displaced,” continued Rep. Tam.

This led to the many questions that our legislators have to consider when dealing with legislation.

“Where do you go if you’re a child growing up in a community in which you don’t have support that you would normally have?” asked Rep. Tam “You don’t have a school institution to understand some of the issues that are specific to you, at your age? And how does that play out? Where do we provide those resources? How do we make sure that there’s connectivity with between parents and kids and the folks who are overseeing them on a day-to-day basis at schools, shelters or other places?”

So, what is the biggest lessons they’ve learned while working in Hawaiʻi’s legislature?

“I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned over the years is that public attitudes change and what people realize and how they relate to others,” explained Rep. Tam. “When there’s someone in our lives, we understand that we’re all in that situation. You know, back when it was sort of taboo to even talk about being gay or out in some way, like, when I was growing up in high school, we were told explicitly ‘do not talk about these kinds of things, even if it’s some of your friends or whatever’,”

Rep. Tam had this to say about Hawaiʻi’s penchant for tolerance, equity and aloha.

“Then, those attitudes completely shifted even with polarized debates,” added Rep. Tam. “We went from a minority in Hawaiʻi supporting same sex marriage in Hawaiʻi in the 1990s to 70 to 80% across the state in the last ten years supporting it because people realize that we’re all just people. We live together; we all have our differences, where we come from our races, or ethnicities; yet we all coexist. We treat each other equally because the bottom line in Hawaiʻi is, we treat each other with aloha and respect. We all get along; we’re all on the same rock together. And that’s the bottom line.”

Get news on the go with KHON 2GO, KHON’s morning podcast, every morning at 8

So, as you go about your week, look at the people around you, the people you encounter on a daily basis. No two are the same, and that is what makes us so strong.