Haylin Dennison and Mariko Jackson
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Editor’s note: The following write ups are letters from “Proud” parents within our LGBTQ+ community who’d like whoever is reading to know that they are seen, heard and loved just as they are.

Dear beautiful kiddo,

Have you ever had a favorite human? You know, someone whose very existence adds color and depth to your world? I have one too – my kiddo, a radiant soul of courage and authenticity. They’re trans and their beautiful, neurodivergent brain sees the world in unique, vibrant colors.

Now, the world doesn’t always get it. They ask questions, pretend to understand, but then, they judge. Trust me, I’ve seen it. The sideways glances, the whispers. It’s hard being different, trying to fit in when you feel like a square peg in a round hole. That’s the daily journey for my favorite human.

And maybe, you’re walking that same path right now. Maybe you’re feeling lost, or lonely or just unheard. I’ve been there, programmed to see things in black and white. It wasn’t easy to understand, to wrap my head around an experience that was different from my own. But here’s what I learned: understanding begins with belief. You gotta start by believing in your own experience, knowing that it’s real, and it’s valid. No matter what anyone tells you, your feelings are valid.

Proud parent Haylin Dennison (right) with her son Mat. Mat was awarded the 2023 Youth Mental Health Advocate and Haylin the 2023 Outstanding Community Mental Health Leader award in May at the Mental Health Mahalo Awards. (Photo courtesy of Haylin Dennison)
Proud parent Haylin Dennison (right) with her son Mat. Mat was awarded the 2023 Youth Mental Health Advocate and Haylin the 2023 Outstanding Community Mental Health Leader award in May at the Mental Health Mahalo Awards. (Photo courtesy of Haylin Dennison)

So here’s the thing. Pride? It’s not just about the rainbows and the parades (though those are pretty fun!). It’s about recognizing, celebrating and standing by every incredible soul in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s about being on the right side of history and saying, “I see you, I believe in you, and you are loved.”

So, if you’re out there right now, feeling like you’re on your own or misunderstood, I want to tell you this: You are seen. You are heard. And you are so, so loved. If I could, I’d scream it from the rooftops, because you are just as precious, just as valuable as my favorite human.

Always remember, we’re all in this whirlwind of life together. Through the ups, the downs and everything in between, you’re part of a family that loves and accepts you for who you are. You’re part of my family at Spill The Tea Cafe, part of this big, beautiful world, and we’re so lucky to have you.

So stay strong, stay true, and remember, you are not alone. Keep shining your unique light in this world. Someone needs to hear your story.

With all the love and support,

Aunty Haylin

Haylin Dennison is a licensed therapist and community leader with a passion for improving mental health services and advocating for underserved populations. Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, she earned her master’s degree from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she began her career working for the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health.

After returning to Hawai‘i, Dennison held several key positions, including Mental Health Coordinator for the Hawai‘i State Judiciary and Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System. She currently works with medical students and physicians at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. In 2019, she founded Mindwerks Clinic, a mental health center focused on Maternal Mental Health. In 2022, she and her eldest transgender son, Mat, founded a teen wellness center called, Spill The Tea Cafe, in response to our youth mental health crisis. Dennison is also the proud mother of four children.

Dennison is an expert in physician wellness, adolescent mental health and LGBTQIA+ advocacy. She is passionate about educating parents on how to best support their LGBTQIA+ children, helping them develop a loving and supportive relationship with their child while ensuring their future success.


As a person who came late in life to being queer and finding the community and words for it, I can’t say that I always said and did the right thing for my oldest child in their coming out process. I had my own fears and hangups that come with age and living in a society and my own family. None of this makes being myself the easiest choice. I want, more than anything, to give you the easiest choice to be yourself.

The advice I have is: trust someone. Trust someone with this feeling that you have. Talk it through together, work it out, turn it over until you have a hold of whatever words define you and then someone else will know you, too. There are many people who are excited to meet who you are embodying. Look to share with the kinds of people that see how important this is to you, who hold space for you and who support your becoming. Everyone needs to do this — it’s not only a queer thing, but it’s especially important to find space to do this as a queer person because it’s not offered so easily. Otherwise you will continue to feel squashed and uncomfortable, knowing you don’t quite fit with the words that most people use like a default.

Proud parent Mariko Jackson (right) and their oldest child, Amaya Jackson, who both identify as genderqueer. (Photo by Jonathan Canlas) 
Proud parent Mariko Jackson (right) and their oldest child, Amaya Jackson, who both identify as genderqueer. (Photo by Jonathan Canlas)

Try to outweigh those who question you with those who support you. I hope whatever process you go through will feel like you are directing it. Amaya, my oldest child, who is so much wiser than me, has taught me about the process. They’ve looked into themselves, educated themselves and discussed with their community to try to come up with the representation they want to be to the world. They’ve shown me that it’s okay to try out what fits best, even if it means changing your mind. Many words are not very accurate or adequate in their descriptions for the vastness of our life experience. I especially appreciate that we are developing and refining descriptors of the queer experience because we are not a monolith. You may have to fumble around for it. Especially when people are hostile to those words you will have to lean into it.

It’s very possible that the adults in your life said and did the wrong things when you told them you were queer. I’ve had many young people tell me their fears that this would happen to them. I think the majority of them did eventually find a way through it. The people who love you will come around once they’re asked to sit with this idea. It’s not really fair to you, I know. You deserve love and support in your most vulnerable moment. They may ask you questions that sound like doubt, and they wonder why what you feel contradicts what they’ve known or experienced. As a parent I can say, it’s pretty normal to think that you have to direct your child and to suddenly have your child pulling you along is a little disorienting. We might have a hard time letting you take the lead.

For whatever part of this that might be difficult for you, whether it’s finding the right definitions, pronouns, physical presentation of yourself or words to tell others who you are, do understand that you are the right you. I wish you the best community and care that you deserve in this process of becoming.

-Mariko Jackson

Mariko Jackson (she/they) is a half-Japanese educator and writer with three children. She has lived on O‘ahu for 26 years and resides in the Kahalu‘u area. In their spare time they like to go out with friends, cook and eat tasty food. She also enjoys ‘āina work in her ahupua‘a whenever possible. Mariko and their 17-year-old, Amaya (they/them), were recently featured in the Legacy Foundation’s Makuahine Project. Amaya, a junior at Kahuku High and Intermediate School, is an artist and animator. Amaya and Mariko share a love of cooking and good food, especially Japanese food. They enjoy trying out different spicy Korean noodles they find at H Mart, but Amaya can handle the heat much better.


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