The life of an activist and advocate from Hotel Street on Oahu, to Hollywood, CA & New York City.
Without a doubt, she is a woman who has persevered through many struggles and is alive today to tell her journey. Sina has always shown tribute to others but rarely ever about herself. So, it was truly an honor for me when I contacted Sina on Facebook and she was finally willing to open up about her life. “I usually don’t agree to share about my life,” says Sina “because I feel others should have the opportunity. But this is for our community, so I am honored to share my story.”
I have always been fascinated by the life and times of “ol skool drag”, especially Pacific Islander trans women and drag performers who have made a mark in show-business. This fascination drew me to discover Miss Sina Sison. Sina and I have been Facebook friends for about 10 years, and soon realized that behind her past as an entertainer lived a tireless advocate who dedicated her energy to reflect and honor her brothers and sisters. All the birthdays, every pride and every trans day of remembrance is a poignant day of tribute for Sina. I have yet to meet anyone like Sina who has consistently shared these tributes each and every year.
Miss Sina was born in a car, under a mango tree in the Lē‘ahi district of Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Her parents were the first generation in her family to move to Hawai‘i, her mother is from Tuvalu, and her father from Ilocos Norte, Philippines. She was raised in the Kamehameha IV Homes, one of the many housing projects on Oahu nestled in Kalihi Valley. “My parents did not raise me using their native language or their culture. It was the mid-sixties, they wanted their children to speak proper English, study hard and we were influenced by an electronic device called the television.” said Sina.
Like any Christian Pacific Islander family, Sunday church and daily prayers were a huge part of Sina’s upbringing. “My mother would have my sister and I sit with her nightly as she prayed in her native tongue for what seemed like hours”, said Sina, “we memorized and would recite scriptures from the bible, I could not relate to what I heard or said, but I did as I was told.” Sina’s mother was the disciplinarian of the family. At age eight, Sina began selling “ice cakes”, a frozen fruit flavored juice in a five-ounce cup, for five cents out of their apartment. She also collected aluminum cans and discarded car batteries around Kalihi Valley for recycle money. As she got a little older, Sina sold newspapers on street corners and line-ups at sport events. “I rarely saw any of my earnings because my mother took it and gave me what she felt I should enjoy. I remember my mother using the money I earned for airline tickets. She would contribute to our extended family who were traveling to and from Samoa. I did not mind because I felt loved by my parents,” recalls Sina. She found comfort in a community center where she was introduced to the diversity of Hawaiian arts and performance practices; hula kahiko (ancient/traditional Hawaiian genre of dance), hula ‘auana (modern Hawaiian genre of dance), playing ukulele and singing traditional Hawaiian music. At age eleven, Sina began her transition as a transgender woman with six other māhū friends. “We stole girls’ clothing off clothes lines, we acquired hormone pills from older māhū and sold our bodies to pedophiles”, said Sina, “my parents were not happy with my transition. They tried to discourage me, reluctantly accepted me, and then I began to see the disappointment on their faces.”
She was soon introduced to the notorious Hotel Street, the red-light district in Honolulu bustling with military men on R & R (rest & recreation) from the Vietnam war and other military layovers. As juveniles they (Sina and other sex workers) were at risk for being arrested for curfew, solicitation, and/or prostitution; a paddy wagon would circle a twelve-block radius to gather any person that was suspected of petty crimes and misdemeanors. Many young trans women and gay men, faced with struggles and discrimination, were forced to become sex workers, strippers or showgirls. The iconic Glade Show Lounge in the Chinatown district of Honolulu was a show club and discotheque where the marque read “Boys Will Be Girls Revue”. It was also a place of refuge for theLGBTQ community in Hawai’i from the police, bullies, and many disgruntled and confused johns. It was here that Sina met her queen mother, and they soon moved in together. “Six of us young māhū in the house, we were taught to pay household expenses, do daily chores, and host elders who came to our home to play card games and gamble. My queen mother introduced us to popular Hawaiian entertainers, we would follow them to their gigs and danced hula when they beckoned us. During the day, you could find us at Queen Surf, a part of Waikiki Beach where local māhū gathered to play volleyball, practice hula, and mingle with tourist,” remembers Sina.
In 1984, Sina headed to Hollywood, California and performed in drag shows in various Latin bars and a night club called ‘Peanut’s’. She also continued doing sex work out of print ads through the L.A. Star and California Sun newspapers; picture ads with elevated dimensions of her body and a catchy one-liner were submitted weekly. ”It felt amazing to experience so much admiration and popularity from the many johns and stars that dated all the newbies to Hollywood, I was able to afford anything I wanted to eat, wear, or ingest. I participated in it all.” In 1989, Sina’s sister and friend from Hawai‘i who was successful through her work in the porn industry persuaded her to move with her to the big apple, New York City. They got an apartment together on the upper east side and frequented ‘Sally’s Hideaway’ for work. Sally’s was a small transgender bar on 8th Ave, infamous for sex work of all genders and desires! At Sally’s Hideaway, Sina reunited with many trans women who previously lived in Hawai‘i and met many of the stars of the cult-classic documentary ‘Paris is Burning.’ Sina and her friends attended balls and all of the events Susanne Bartsch organized; Susanne Bartsch was an event promoter who admired trans women, club kids, beautiful men who dressed fierce and looked extraordinary. “It was a fabulous time in my life that I will always treasure, but at the same time, I lived with an immense fear of contracting HIV/AIDS and dying,”. When one of her Hawai‘i sisters was murdered by their john, Sina moved to San Francisco in 1995 and later on, one of her beloved māhū sisters died of liver disease. “At that point, all my lifelong sisters strongly encouraged me to move back to Hawai‘i, settle down and stop putting my life at risk for death,” said Sina.
In 1996, she moved back home in Hawai‘i and started work as a recreation assistant providing elder care at a daycare facility. Around the same time her sister who had traveled the world as a porn performer, contracted HIV/AIDS, and had requested Sina to prepare her funeral services in Hawai‘i. Her death and funeral was an awakening for Sina and then began her decades of commitment to the health and longevity of the LGBTQ community. She was a volunteer at Life Foundation, a Hawai‘i HIV/AIDS organization. She trained to care for people living with AIDS, transported clients to appointments, went shopping and spent time with them. While participating with U.T.O.P.I.A. Hawai‘i in 2006, she was hired at Life Foundation, where she worked as an outreach worker to high-risk transgender sex workers and the LGBTQ community. “This is where I felt my sex work experience was beneficial in supporting others to reduce their risk around HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. The executive director taught our māhū staff the importance of engaging with our state senators and representatives. He taught us the process of introducing a bill and following its process into law, how to express our needs in an amount of time that it would take to ride in an elevator and how to be gracious in the presence of someone who did not support our cause.”
Throughout the years, they worked on bills for marriage equality, transgender healthcare and funding for our Kua‘ana program. Life Foundation is now known as the Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction Center (HHHRC) and she continues to work there as a pier navigator with the transgender program, ‘Kua‘ana’, and provides services to mākua/kupuna with the Na Pua ‘Ilima group. In 2017, a lifelong sister of Sina’s encouraged her to work at the state agency level. There, she started as an assistant and in 2019, was hired as a social worker. Sina currently works with families to address safety issues in their homes, focused on helping parents recover from substance use while eliminating barriers that prevent them from providing a safe home for their children.
“My parents have since passed away. Looking back, I see that my parents loved me the best way they knew how and with what they had, they instilled a strong work ethic in me and the ability to be resilient. For many years, Polynesians navigated the Pacific Ocean by looking to the sky for guidance and direction.”
Sina recalls asking her mother “what did you do in Tuvalu?” Her mother replied, “We go to visit the other islands on the canoe. It would take a few of days, we played ukulele and read the bible.”
I may not read the bible, but I always turn to Ke Akua for guidance, motivation, and solace. Throughout my life, in times of struggle, uncertainty, or when I felt the happiest, I lean on Hawaiian and Polynesian values because, I never lose. I often look to the sky, take a breath, and give thanks to Ke Akua for all that I have and experience. Mahalo Ke Akua.Sina Sison