by Joel McDonald
A small group of students and faculty looking to create an LGBTQ support group at Brigham Young University-Hawaii joined forces with Affirmation to reorganize the chapter for the island. Their first event attracted over 45 LGBTQ Latter-day Saints and their allies and their Facebook group has surged to over 100 members and counting.
“In the beginning, there were only two of us looking to create a support group for students. After reaching out to others with the idea, we found many other students and faculty members who wanted to be involved,” recounted Ron Chand, president of the Affirmation Hawaii Chapter. “Sadly, our proposal didn’t receive any response from the university, but a small group of us continued to meet every so often to talk and share our stories.”
That was when Ron was introduced to Sarah Bowers, president of the Affirmation Pacific Region. Sarah was actively working to organize chapters within the region, including in Hawaii.
“After not getting a response from the university, we were disappointed and we started to consider creating an off-campus group,” said Ron. “When I heard about Affirmation, I decided to take charge because I wanted to make sure that working with Affirmation was a real possibility. I didn’t want us to be disappointed again.”
“As I was trying to reorganize the Affirmation chapter in Hawaii, I was having a hard time connecting with any of our contacts,” shared Sarah. “One day I found a student who had written an article in BYU-Hawaii’s newspaper on LGBTQIA perspectives, got a hold of him, and it was like a light clicked on. He connected me to Ron, who stepped right up without any hesitancy. It was as if he and the community around BYU-H were waiting for us.”
Ron and other students started having a conversation with Sarah about the possibility of bringing the Affirmation Hawaii Chapter to life.
Like with most successful Affirmation chapters, Ron needed to identify a core group of people who wanted to be involved and support the Hawaii chapter’s efforts. A first meeting was organized and the chapter’s presidency was established. Affirmation chapters are led by volunteer leadership teams most commonly including a president, senior vice president, and vice president. However, chapters are free to organize their leadership teams to suit their needs. At the Affirmation Hawaii Chapter’s first meeting, it was determined that Ron Chand would serve as chapter president, Zion Kennach as vice president for activities, and Iese Wilson as vice president for public relations.
Ron was born and raised on the island of Fiji. His family has lived there for about six generations now. He is a convert to the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served a full-time mission in the Australia Brisbane Mission. He is currently an employee development coordinator for the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii and in his final semester as a full-time student double majoring in Accounting and Business Management. He also holds several minors and certifications in legal studies. Ron came out to as gay in 2016, and upon finding the peace and joy that comes from self-acceptance and love, he made it his mission to help those around him discover the same.
Zion was born in American Samoa but raised in Washington State. He raised in the Church and served a mission in California Oakland/San Francisco Spanish Speaking Mission from 2009 to 2011. In 2013 he joined the U.S. Army, active duty, and continues to be in the reserves. Currently, he is attending BYU-Hawaii, majoring in social work is planning to go to law school to pursue his current career goal, becoming an immigration attorney. Zion identifies his sexuality as questioning and is still in the journey of finding himself, something he has been open about while during talks and lessons at church. He is a temple worker, active member of the Church, and lover of the Gospel.
Iese lives in Hilo, Hawaii, but was originally raised in Orange, California. He is a senior and music major at BYU-Hawaii and has a passion for choral music, teaching, Polynesian culture, and empathizing with the journies of other gay members. Iese came out as gay to their family and friends in October 2019.
With their leadership team established, they turned to their main goal: creating awareness among their community and BYU-Hawaii.
Honor code concerns
“Students at BYU-Hawaii feared being reported to the honor code office if they joined the chapter,” said Ron. “So, the first thing we needed to do was to let the university know who we are, what we stand for, and how we benefit the community.”
Leaders from the newly organized Affirmation Hawaii Chapter met John Bell, BYU-H vice president for academics, and Debbie Hippolite, BYU-H vice president for student development and services.
“Vice President Wright was very understanding and supportive and we were assured that students will not get into trouble for joining the chapter,” said Ron. “Affirmation’s written mission and vision helped us answer her questions and relieve any anxiety that the school may have had about us.”
With a good relationship with the university established and with confirmation that students were safe to join the chapter, the leadership team focused on letting the community know about the new chapter and its first event.
Getting the word out
After getting organized and establishing a relationship with the university, chapter leaders set their sights on hosting their first activity. However, as an off-campus support group, the students involved faced some challenges.
“We didn’t have access to school publications or advertising platforms to reach BYU-Hawaii students, so we turned to social media and word of mouth to get the word out,” shared Ron. “Straight allies stepped in and helped secure a venue off-campus and started spreading the word among their social groups. We created a poster that got shared digitally.”
In organizing the activity, chapter leaders contributed refreshments for what they thought would be between 12 and 20 people. When they arrived at the home where the activity was being hosted, they were surprised to see how many showed up.
“We walked in and found 45 people of various identities mingling with each other,” said Ron. “Even with more people than we expected, everything went as planned and the spirit that was present confirmed the divinity of our work here in Hawaii.”
The food prepared for 20 fed the 45, the games that were played broke boundaries and awkwardness, and the presentation was filled with love and hope for the community.
“The presidency discussed the purpose of the chapter and shared our backgrounds with everyone. Then all had the opportunity to introduce themselves,” recounted Ron. “There were some there who came out and later told us that they had never said it out loud. People cried, laughed, and most of all they were able to see us as individuals.”
Photos from the Activity
As of today, the Facebook group for the chapter has 118 members, growing from 45 just prior to the event. Chapter leadership is planning their next activity, and many in the Facebook group are enthusiastically contributing ideas. The BYU-Hawaii newspaper has shown interest in writing an article about the chapter.
“These are great victories allowing us to be more visible in the community so that individuals who need us can find us,” said Ron. “As a presidency, we have seen miracles happen as we’ve taken courage in the face of adversity and denial. We hope to keep this fire burning as we grow, and we know we will have the divine support that we need.”