He is arguably the highest-profile gay man in Hawaii. The owner of the legendary Hula’s Bar & Lei Stand has been an active member of the community for almost 42 years and is responsible for the Rainbow Film Festival, as well as being one of the most influential advocates for gay culture in Honolulu. With a beautiful Diamond Head sunset as the fabulously scenic, panoramic background to his Kaimuki home way up in the mountains, Law sat down with the Weekly to discuss his role in shaping local gay culture.
How did Hula’s get its start?
Hula’s has been in existence for 35 years. I knew nothing about the bar business, but we took this house that was about to fall down, put a hedge around it, a lattice fence and a courtyard under this big spreading banyan tree, and started a bar.
Did you always intend to start a gay bar?
It was our intention to be a gay bar, but we always wanted to be a bar that was more than gay. We actually coined a term called “Mega-Sexual.” Whatever the hell that means–it was bigger than sex. Everybody used to go to Hula’s. If anyone was a celebrity they were at Hula’s sometime during this stage. It was a place to be seen, to be crazy. It was before AIDS, so anything went. People were more experimental, the sexual revolution was in full force. It was meant to be gay, but never meant to be exclusively gay.
How has gay nightlife changed, for better or worse?
I truly say that the Internet has made a big difference in people going out and hooking up. It used to be that people used to go to Hula’s or the Wave to hook-up and now there’s an alternate way of doing it and it’s the Internet. And I gotta say, the gay community is probably more computer savvy than the average person, and they can play that computer like a piano.
Do you think the Internet has eaten into the gay nightlife business?
I think it certainly has. Waikiki back then was a main gay tourist destination. It was part of the loop: San Francisco, Manhattan, Hollywood…that has changed over the years. We’re not as central as we used to be as part of the gay community market. We’re still important, but not as we were back then.
Mainly because the competition of other cities. Other cities actually have gone out and really marketed to the gay community. Hula’s, we market on the mainland and in gay publications, and get people to think about Hawaii and Waikiki, but these other cities like Palm Springs, Key West, Provincetown, Montreal, Vancouver…Their tourist [authorities] actually market to the gay community.
We’re not competing for the gay dollar. I had approached the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau with other people and said you really should take advantage of this market, and they really have spurned the idea totally. I think they’re warming up to it now that gay tourism has gone down. They actually have to consciously say that this is what they are going to do and so far they haven’t done so. They got to get into the game. There’s an old saying you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.
The Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival that we do is a wonderful vehicle to reach out to the mainland and come to Waikiki and Honolulu, because this is another gay-centric event.
Incidentally, I let everybody know that this year is my last film festival, the last year being President of the Honolulu Gay & Lesbian Cultural Foundation, which is a non-profit that puts on the film festival. Why am I doing that? It’s only because I feel like after 20 years and I just feel like it’s time to bring in new blood. I want to give myself some more free time to see what else I got in me left to do.
Do you think the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau is aware of “the gay dollar”?
The thing about the gay market is most gay people are educated. If you look at the demographics of a typical gay person they usually have two years of college or more. They usually make more money than the average person. They usually don’t have children so they don’t have to be putting money aside for the expenses that children have. They’re unencumbered and they travel more. The market shows that the average gay person takes two trips a year.
When 9/11 happened, everyone was complaining about tourism dropping off, but Hula’s actually went up and the reason why is because the airlines were putting out all these wonderful cut-rate fares to fly to Hawaii. And that’s what’s happening right now, I might add.
There are some hotel chains that are being very pro-active in the gay market. Aqua Hotels and Resorts is being very pro-active in marketing for the gay market. Aston a little, and even, surprise surprise, Outrigger is doing it a little bit.
Some people think that if you market to the gay market, you push out the non-gay clientele, and that’s not the truth at all. If that were the case, there would be no non-gay people going to San Francisco. Gays and straights–we mix very well. After all, most of us grew up with straight parents. We know how to get along.
Where does Hawaii’s urban gay community fit in comparison with West Hollywood, San Francisco, Provincetown?
I’m always amazed when I go to the mainland and I’ll go to Iowa, or someplace not considered as a destination, and you’d be surprised how many gay bars there are. I’m always surprised, a city the size of Honolulu, how few gay bars we have here. We have Hula’s, Angles, Fusion, In-Between and none of them are very large. You go to some of these cities and they have warehouse type of clubs. I don’t understand it really, but it does say a lot about our weather. People tend to do a lot of their recreating outside.
What are you proud of with the local community?
I’m very proud of the people. The Hawaiian culture is always very accepting; it’s always been a part of that culture. The Christians have kinda screwed that up, but if you get into the hula culture…I was at the Hoku awards the other night and there was certainly a big gay presence, but it wasn’t like “gay presence,” it was just part of the fabric of what was going on.
What I’m not proud of though, is this domestic partnership fight that was in the Legislature. House Bill 444. I think it has really brought out some terrible, terrible bigots that have really said some really terrible things. I heard some things said by Legislators on the floor of the Senate and the House, saying just the most hateful things about gay people that just make me ashamed–things that if you just took the word “gay” out and inserted the name of any minority in there, they’d be drummed out of their office. These religious people come and hold up the Bible and they say these terrible, hateful things. That doesn’t make me proud.
I think Hawaii is as liberal as we think it is, and maybe more so. I think we’re ahead of the Legislature. It’s just that these religious organizations are so well funded, by outside money I might add, and so well-organized. They had a bottomless pocket book and people can make speculations on where that money came from, but it’s still…How can you fight that? All the legislators–good majority of them–just wanted to be re-elected. And these people will campaign against those who don’t go their way.
So how can you fight that?
Victor Hugo said there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And this is an idea whose time has come. They can spend all the money they want, and they can organize all they want, and they’ll win a lot of battles, but they won’t win the moral high ground. Right is might and there’ll be a time in the not-too-distant future, we’re gonna look back on this and say how could we have done this? I do feel like there’ll be a time when these red shirt people will be ashamed of what they’ve done. And their kids are going to be ashamed that they made them hold those signs.
When you look back on it, when you didn’t allow races to inter-marry? We have a president who’s a product of inter-marriage. It’s embarrassing for the country to look back on those times.
Hawaii isn’t that way. I’ve lived in Honolulu for almost 42 years and I have gotten nothing but much aloha. And I have been the most prominent gay person in Honolulu because of my connection with Hula’s. I have never gotten any kind of prejudice from anybody, either personally or through my business. From the Liquor Commission, the Fire Department, the Department of Health, the guy that delivers beer…Nothing. That’s the reality. These people that come in on the fringe, that’s not reality.
In 42 years, have you seen any dramatic changes in the community?
When the AIDS hit, that was quite dramatic. There was a time I was going to a funeral a month. People got along really well back then, but when the AIDS thing happened, you could put a cleave between them. People were afraid. They didn’t even know what caused it. You didn’t know if the guy that sweats on you on the dance floor, if you were gonna get it from him.
What about now?
Young people, they grew up in the Will & Grace era. When I was a kid, I never heard of a gay person, much less seen them on TV. So I think that’s the main thing, people just know that it’s okay. It’s no big thing to be gay and it’s no big thing with their friends to be gay. It’s not stigmatized anymore, especially here where everyone’s a minority.
When you go to the outer islands, they’re a little more provincial than we are. We’re very cosmopolitan in Honolulu. We’re a major city, people are pushed together and we have to live together. Depending on the island, it’s not as free and open. I know a lot of people who come over from the outer islands, check into a hotel, just to be themselves and be gay out in public. Come to Honolulu and be gay!
Do you miss The Wave?
I do miss The Wave more as a customer than as a proprietor. The Wave was a handful. Always having to book bands and DJs. And The Wave was a fairly safe place. I told my employees over and over again, our intention was to create a safe place for people to have a good time. But there were things that blew up in those three-in-the-morning calls that I would get that would make my hair stand on end. That I don’t miss.
Let me put it this way, on weekends we would have seven or eight big Samoan doormen at The Wave and I called them my nuclear weapon. I wanted everybody to know that I had them, but I never wanted to use them. With Hula’s, we have Lionnel.
What do you do for fun?
I love swimming in the ocean, I love hiking in the mountains. I love traveling. I love reading, going to the theater.
Do you go to other places besides Hula’s?
Not much. When I’m not working, I don’t feel like I want to go to a nightclub. There’s one gay bar I know in Kona, and I go to Kona quite often. It’s called The Mask and it’s run by some friends. I bet you I’ve been to Kona maybe 50 times, but I’ve never been to The Mask because I just don’t feel like going to a bar.
Are you seeing anybody now?
No. I’ve been single for quite a while, but I have a nice circle of really close friends. Next month, I leave for a gay cruise, an Atlantis cruise, leaving Copenhagen and going to Germany, Estonia, St. Petersburg, Stockholm and back to Copenhagen. An ex-boyfriend of mine will be my cabin mate. We have an agreement. He gets 90 percent of the closet space, I get 10 percent.
Do you watch American Idol?
What do you think of Adam Lambert?
I think he’s extraordinarily talented. I think he should’ve won.
You don’t like Kris Allen?
It’s not that I don’t like Kris Allen, I think they’re both pretty talented.
He [Adam Lambert] doesn’t scream too much for you?
No…He is the gay one, right?
So what’s coming up for Hula’s?
We’re having our 35th Anniversary on July 9th. The theme is called “Hula = Dance = Hula’s.” Hula’s is all about dance and we’re gonna have as many local performers and dance troupes as we can possibly get together in one day and we’re just gonna have dance number after dance number.
How long do you want to keep doing this?
Well, I don’t have anything else to do. As long as I can do it, I guess. With the film festival I want to leave a legacy, even though I’m not doing it anymore. I hope Hula’s continues to be my legacy.
I’ve even toyed with the idea of selling it a couple times but the idea of…I actually own the space that Hula’s is in so I felt that, gee, I don’t want anyone else to be the owner of that space. This is going to sound egotistical, but I don’t think anyone can run Hula’s Bar & Lei Stand as the entity that it is better than I can. So I gave up that idea fairly quickly. It’s set up right now that I have really good management staff and promotion staff that I think will be able to continue to be able to do what it’s doing without me having my fingers in every pot and pie.
There’s one thing about getting older. You don’t realize you’re getting older, especially when you’re hanging out with young people all the time. That’s the way it is. I think of myself as their peer and then they say something like “Who is the Beatles?” and I’m like, what? And just for the good of business, it’s better for you not to be around when you’re getting older cause you don’t want people to think Hula’s is populated by older people. Although I gotta say, everybody is always welcome. Our demographic is 21 to dust.