When Miki Kupu woke up from her usual after-work power nap to complete darkness in her room, she assumed it was just the usual loss of light to the evening. As she slowly made her way towards the bathroom, she hit the light switch but was only able to see a dimming glow and nothing else. She made a silent prayer and went to bed, hoping her sudden vision loss would go away with sleep. The next day, she managed to drive herself to the hospital and by chance, an eye specialist was on island and available for exams. “You’re going blind” the doctor said, “the retina is detaching from the optic nerve, it is a serious condition and you need to have surgery right away.” The local hospital did an immediate referral off-island and Miki left her life and work in American Samoa that same evening.
When Miki arrived for treatment in Washington state, she discovered she had toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a parasite that comes from the feces of dogs and cats. Almost twenty years prior, Miki was diagnosed HIV-positive; the virus weakened her immune system, making her easily susceptible to bacterial infections. Taxoplasmosis was just the beginning of a harrowing ordeal of health challenges for her. Miki had seven surgeries altogether since that diagnosis, including one for her brain as the infection had spread causing encephalitis. After the surgery she lost her mobility and was in a wheelchair for several months.
In November of 2018, Miki entered an assisted living home. “I’m a healthcare worker by profession” she said, “I know the weight of caring for someone and I did not want to be a burden to my family. I was in the facility for fourteen months until I learned to walk again.” After regaining enough strength to travel, Miki left for California and entered a rehabilitation program there. She signed up for a two-year program at a school for the blind at the same time that she was searching for housing. All of her plans came to a sudden halt once the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in 2020. “Everything became difficult” said Miki, “I was only a couple of weeks in to the school for the blind and the pandemic shut everything down. Perhaps it was a blessing in some ways too, because I ended up choosing to change my plans and live in Washington to be closer to my family.”
Miki’s life has not always been with family as I have learned through the course of our telephone interview. Her story is deeply immersed in pain, struggle and rejection, yet she triumphed entirely by will and survival. Born to a Samoan mother and a Tongan father, Miki grew up in the village of Fagatogo in American Samoa. Her parents were devout Jehovah’s Witness and according to Miki it became the constant cause of their animosity towards her. When her youngest sibling (a girl) was born Miki’s father said that he would not allow his daughter to grow up in a household with a fa’afafine. He kicked Miki out when she was just fourteen years old. “My parents were extremely zealous in the church”, recalls Miki. “The church was very against fa’afafine, I have not known another religion in Samoa that would divide a family that way. There was no way I could have survived there because honestly, I would have ended up killing myself.”
Miki found refuge in the home of her aunt Sinira; both Sinira and husband Lutu Fuimaono were well known figures in the community. Miki then befriended Maki “Marcia” Mageo and Pearl Mata’u and all three moved in together to Aunty Sinira’s home. Fagatogo and Pago Pago in the 1970’s through to the 80’s was a bustling metropolis. Many fa’afafine also gravitated towards the towns’ nightlife because of the sense of freedom that came with it. At sixteen, Miki was already living as a woman. She went to school during the week and on the weekend, she was a waitress at the Pago Bar Nightclub. On Saturdays, before heading to work, Miki, Marcia and Pearl performed with the Polynesian floor shows at Herb & Sia’s Motel.
On Sunday afternoons, Miki and Pearl hung out at the lobby of the Rainmaker Hotel with sulu ‘aoao (sarong), flowers in their hair and flip flops on their feet. Miki’s cousin worked at the hotel and allowed them in all the time. The hotel was usually full of sailors and visiting tagata papa’e (Caucasians) guests and they would pander specifically to those men. “It was never about money” said Miki, “sometimes they do give us money, and I don’t mind taking it. But it was more so for gratification, because it made us feel wanted. Even later in life I have always preferred white men because of how they treated me. I have never received chocolates or flowers from a Samoan man.” Miki, Pearl and Marcia all competed together at the 1980 Miss Island Queen Pageant (now S.O.F.I.A.S). At the end of the evening, Miki, who went under her famous stage name “Mitzie Gaynor Lavender” was second runner-up, Pearl was 1st runner-up and Marcia was declared the 1980 Miss Island Queen.
School was a difficult situation for Miki because she was assertive, flamboyant and unapologetic. She was often the target of bullying and harassment. A bathroom incident where she was sexually assaulted forced the Samoana High School’s principal at the time, Luteru Fiso, to allow fa’afafine to use the women’s bathroom. “I got beaten up a lot because of being more daring than others, it had a lot to do with rebellion against my parents for disowning me.”
Miki found comfort in Anita Schwenke, a seamstress at the local fabric store in Fagatogo. Anita was a well-known seamstress from Apia who sewed garments for many known dignitaries. Anita became Miki’s queen mother. In August of 1983, they traveled together for a long vacation and attended the first Pacific Mini Games held in Apia. Sadly, just three months later, Anita became suddenly ill. She was admitted to the hospital where she stayed for two whole months before being released for home care. “I took care of her until her dying breath” remembers Miki, “I would bathe her and she would give me her blessings, ‘si o’u kama’ (my child) she would say. She died at 11:05 am on a Saturday morning on December 5th, 1983. I know exactly where her grave is located in Māgiagi.
In August of 1984, Miki longed for a change of scenery and decided to move off-island. She lived in Washington state and took up a job as a night janitor at a McDonald’s. “I was hesitant to dress up as a woman at first” says Miki, “I wasn’t comfortable until I decided one day to show up to work in a dress. One of the employees called me the “f word” and I grabbed a spatula and hit his face. He turned really red. The manager told me that I can’t hit people and I said ‘well where I come from, I’ll kick his ass, teaching him a lesson to not call anybody names’. The manager fired me on the spot”, she said with a laugh.
The following year, Miki moved to San Francisco to live with Marcia. When she arrived, she was shocked to see Marcia was no longer living as a woman, but as a gay male; even her mannerisms had changed. Most of Marcia’s circle were gay pacific islanders; to Miki, it seemed that Marcia had conformed to try and fit in. “I remember when I began hanging with Marcia’s circle and they would call me names a lot. ‘you sure is ugly’, that famous line from the color purple that they would use as a punchline. I had already begun hormone treatment, so I was the only transgender woman among our friends and I had to ask myself if I was really ugly and that started to really hit me emotionally.”
Things got even harder when Miki began looking for a job and found it difficult to find one. To survive, she turned to prostitution and was living in a hotel on Polk Street where she would make $200 on a good night for six months. Miki internalized the thought that she might never achieve success while as a woman and began to slowly de-transition. She cut her hair and began living as a man and found a job. “I really am a woman” says Miki, “that’s how I feel on the inside. Perhaps if I was living in today’s era, I would have been more accepting of myself, but it was a different time then. I did what I had to do to survive.” In later years, those same circle of gay pacific islander friends became the pioneers of U.T.O.P.I.A. with the formation of the first U.T.O.P.I.A. organization in San Francisco in 1998.
In 1999, Miki’s parents relocated to the mainland for medical care needs. She hadn’t had a relationship with them for over twenty years but maintained a close bond with her siblings. She did not hesitate when her brother asked for her to visit their parents in Washington state. Miki traveled twice a month between work and was able to move her parents to a two-bedroom apartment and bought them a car to assist with their medical checkups. When her parents decided to move back home to Samoa in 2003, her dad asked Miki if she could escort them. “Dad are you sure you don’t want Abigail (Miki’s sister) to take you? You’re not embarrassed of your fa’afafine kid?” I asked him, “No!” he replied, “you are my child too.” Miki’s dad passed away three months after going back to American Samoa. “I hold no anger towards my father” said Miki, “my life with him came full circle when we had closure. I pray to God to forgive me as well, if I had ever hurt my parents. My dad told me shortly before he died that I was his child and that he loves me. That was enough for me to understand the depth of my father’s love.”
In late 1999, Miki was having breathing problems and was losing weight rapidly. She went in for a medical checkup on December 4th, 1999 and was told she had AIDS. At the time, if a person’s t-cell count was below two hundred, it meant that the AIDS virus had begun to deteriorate the body and death was inevitable. “I came and sat in my car for I don’t know how long, and I cried and cried” recalls Miki. I still went to work that day to care for my patients with tears in my eyes. I managed to protect myself early on after contracting the virus, so it hurt me when I realized I got it from someone that I loved and trusted, who was my lover at the time.” By the end of the 1990’s, advancement in treatment of HIV/AIDS were available to the public. People who were diagnosed years earlier were living full and healthy lives because of the medication. Education, research, and care for those living with the virus has also come a long way in the U.S.; Miki was determined to live and so she endured.
In the late 2000’s, Miki relocated to American Samoa and took up a job with the Department of Health as an at-home health nursing assistant. She traveled from village to village helping to care for over five hundred sick and elderly patients. One of the things she advocated for was the need for medical beds in the homes she worked in. She recalls caring for patients who slept on the cement pavement or just a mattress on the floor. When Miki’s insurance stalled at one point while living in Samoa, it meant she would no longer receive her medication, which usually costs over $2000. She sought the help of the local HIV/AIDS clinic. “I didn’t hide my status while living in Samoa, but I wasn’t going to tell the whole village either because they wouldn’t understand. I made sure I went to the right people for help and those very people mocked and criticized me. I went off on them for not being able to provide me with immediate help and they joked about it. They were very unprofessional. They even had ministers sitting on the HIV/AIDS board who did nothing but judge people and their status. The lack of education has only fueled this stigma around HIV/AIDS that still exists today in Samoa.”
After her life-threatening ordeal in 2017, Miki chose to live in Washington state. She was able receive medical and social security and apply for housing through local HIV/AIDS advocacy programs. She gained ten percent of her vision back and under state guidelines she was able to live independently. Twenty-three years after she was told she was going to die; she is still here with us today. She takes her medication daily at nine in the morning. Just last year, Miki did artwork that was showcased worldwide during World AIDS Day in Washington state. A filmmaker was also there to interview survivors of the AIDS epidemic.
“They asked me how the COVID-19 pandemic is compared to the AIDS epidemic. The one thing that is still prevalent today as it was over forty years ago is the discrimination and ignorance against the BIPOC LGBTQI+ community. That’s the gospel truth. I’m not scared to say that. Nothing hurts me anymore now. Homophobia is no longer my problem. My dad accepted me for who I am and that is all that matters. The world may get ugly, but It will never make me close my heart. I was caught between a rock and a hard place my entire life, but I believe everything in life has its reasons. Perhaps I suffered for the sake of others learning from my life lessons and experiences. They say the truth will set you free, indeed I live in my truth and I am still here to tell my story.”