HONOLULU – Growing up Kim Coco Iwamoto's parents made it clear to her that education was the key to achieving more of her goals.
Now she has a post on Hawaii's state Board of Education and is the subject of a surprise blitz of national media attention as the highest-elected transgender official in the country.
"I didn't run to get this attention as an individual. I ran to be an advocate for the students," the 38-year-old civil rights lawyer said Wednesday.
Iwamoto credits higher value Hawaii culture places on responsibility to family and community over personal identity for giving her the confidence to seek out success.
Despite a number of states, municipalities and big corporations passing laws and rules banning discrimination against those who defy traditional gender definitions, just getting a job — let alone being elected into public office — can still be a struggle for members of the transgender community around the country.
"For me it's about resilience and having a strong core of self-esteem, which I was very fortunate to have the support and love my parents, my family," she said. "Really, in the face of adversity you have to tap into that place where you feel valued as a member of family and a larger community."
Following her win, Iwamoto's father, Robert Iwamoto, Jr., who heads the well-known Roberts Hawaii tour bus company, issued a statement congratulating his daughter on her successful campaign.
Iwamoto also noted that Hawaii voters have ushered in a host of firsts including the ratification of the federal equal rights amendment in 1972 and the election of the first Asian-American in the U.S. Senate, Hiram Fong, shortly after statehood in 1959.
"This election speaks less of me and much more, I think, of the place and the people of Hawaii — the fact that Hawaii's always been a place of fair-minded, critical thinking voters who vote on the issues and who see people for the substance of their character," Iwamoto said.
Iwamoto didn't make her gender status a part of her campaign, but has long been a vocal champion of causes in the transgender community. She also listed her attendance of an all-boy's school, St. Louis High School, and her board membership of Kulia Na Mamo, a local transgender organization, in her campaign materials.
When asked when she knew she was different, Iwamoto replied, "I've only been me."
She received her college degrees on the mainland, including an undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University and a law degree at University of New Mexico of Law.
But Hawaii is part of Iwamoto's very name, which is her birth name. "Coco" memorializes her mother going into labor while attending a reception at Kauai's Coco Palms resort, best known as the backdrop for Elvis Presley's movie "Blue Hawaii."
Iwamoto said she got involved in local education after becoming a foster parent three years ago. By advocating for her children, two of which are now in college, and other youth, Iwamoto said she began testifying before the board on a variety of issues such as finding ways to help families become more involved in the educational system.
Board Chairman Randall Yee said he was "very impressed" by Iwamoto's testimony and called her background "excellent."
"She has a legal background. She has a business background — business family. And I just felt that in terms of bringing different individuals with different perspectives on the board, I felt that she would bring a good perspective," he said.
Iwamoto said her personal experience also bears a message for education.
"Whatever the situation, I think if kids grow up with a core sense of self-esteem and feeling like they're a valuable part of their family, of their classroom, of their school, their community and if we teach to their potentials," she said. "I think that's the key to having them be in a position where they can give back to their families and communities."