‘I am a boy’: The simple button that was Honolulu’s scarlet letter

Some people wore them inside their dresses — displaying them when stopped by police.
Updated: Oct. 16, 2018 at 9:00 AM HST
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This profile is the second in a series of stories HNN is producing to celebrate Pride Month in Hawaii.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - “I am a boy.”

It’s a simple phrase — but one that a dark history in Honolulu.

In the 1960s, amid widespread discrimination against the mahu community, Oahu forced transgender women and drag performers to wear buttons that read simply, “I am a boy.”

If they were caught without it, they faced arrest and hefty fines.

The Glade was located on Hotel Street in Honolulu's Chinatown.
The Glade was located on Hotel Street in Honolulu's Chinatown.(HAWAII NEWS NOW)

As Hawaii marks Pride Month in October, celebrating the LGBTQ community in the islands, some are also urging residents to remember the missteps of the past — to avoid them in the future.

Christopher Oswald, owner of antique and collectibles store Tin Can Mailman, has a few “I am a boy” buttons in his shop.

The Chinatown businessman said some transgender women would follow the law — by wearing the buttons inside their dresses. “That way if they were stopped they would just flip it over and say, I have the button on, It’s right here,” he said.

Honolulu's "I am a boy" buttons have become hard to find collectibles.
Honolulu's "I am a boy" buttons have become hard to find collectibles.(HAWAII NEWS NOW)

Many of these performers, forced to wear these scarlet letters of sort, worked at Glade Show Lounge on Hotel Street.

“It was known for their dancers and the emcee was one of the funniest boys in a dress, if you will,” Oswald said.

Photos from Glade Show Lounge taken in the 1960s.
Photos from Glade Show Lounge taken in the 1960s.(HAWAII NEWS NOW)

He added that around that time, it became popular to have the tourists come downtown to see these drag performances at the Glade and other establishments. With that exposure came more acceptance.

Soon after, with the help of an organized group of mahu (the Hawaiian term for people who embody both the male and female spirit) the law stopped being enforced.

It wasn’t until 1972 that the “intent to deceive" clause in Hawaii’s disorderly conduct law was deleted, no longer requiring transgender or mahu people to wear the “I am a boy” buttons.

Oswald is quick to point out, though, that LGBTQ discrimination is still taking place.

“Everyone is so obsessed with transgender, and what do you have below your waist? What restroom should you go in? It’s essentially like wearing a button," he said.

To read the first story in this series, click here.

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