Fighting the taboo: Advocates support growing API transgender movement

Part 1 of a 2-part series

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Gwen Yeh and members of the Gender Justice League at Seattle Pride 2014. (Photo by Nate Gowdy (www.nategowdy.com))

The second annual Trans*Pride, organized by the Gender Justice League, kicked off the festivities for this year’s Pride weekend. The event drew nearly 2,000 attendees to a rally at Cal Anderson Park on Friday, July 27, where the rallying cry of advocates and community outreach groups reverberated through the crowd. The rally also paid tribute to Sun Kim, a young transgender Korean American activist who ended his own life early last month. Signs held by friends and fellow advocates read, “Rest in Power, Sun Kim.”

This year’s Pride Parade on July 29 marked the 40-year anniversary of Seattle Pride and the pivotal Stonewall Riots that sparked the national movement for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) civil rights. While awareness of sexual orientation has become more widespread in the subsequent years since Stonewall, the transgender experience seemed largely overlooked until recently. Trans*Pride, an event which focuses largely on resources and outreach for the transgender community, made its Seattle debut just last year.

In its May 29 issue, Time magazine heralded the “transgender tipping point” as the next civil rights frontier, which featured transgender actress Laverne Cox on the cover. With the spotlight cast on the transgender community, it may seem like progress is fast approaching, but for the many advocates engaged in the struggle, the silent wait times equate to the cost of human lives.

“One of the things that people forget is that when someone is dealing with stuff around their identity, whether it’s being transgender or other things, it takes up a lot of space. Once you’re able to be who you are, folks want to do some amazing things. Because of discrimination or violence against us, we’ve lost somebody who could cure cancer or come up with some other invention,” said Gunner Scott, director of programs at Pride Foundation, an organization supporting the advancement of equality for the LGBTQ community.

Sun Kim’s family gave permission to API Chaya to share Kim’s last words in an announcement about Kim’s passing with the hope that it would lead to more conversations about suicide prevention and supporting transgender youth.

In his last words, Kim spoke of moving to Seattle, where he explored and learned about the different intersections of his identity, discovered his ability to make things better for himself and others facing similar struggles.

“Once I started hormone replacement therapy, I knew that every single day was worth it because I got to experience all these new changes of my body, and I was finally physically becoming who I was meant to be,” wrote Kim in his final letter dated June 11, 2014. “It’s ironic even now that I’m mostly worried about people who will still misgender me after my death, the usage of ‘she’ and other feminine pronouns to describe me, and the memories held by many who still know me as ‘Jennifer’ or just refused to adapt to my preferred name,” he said.

Gwen Yeh, a Taiwanese-born transgender activist currently working on media and design at Gender Justice League, shares a similar experience. She began her physical transition and hormone replacement therapy after moving to Seattle and starting a job as an artist at a video game company. Before her transition, Yeh had lived 25 years of her life as a male with another name, and a very different life.

“The artificiality of living as someone you are not is feeling like you’re constantly lying. It’s lying to protect yourself, not to purposely hurt people,” said Yeh. “I was stuck being the guy that I kept trying to tell people I was since I was a teenager. I say teenager because that’s when I started hiding [my identity]. …At the age of 25, I was still practically a 13-year-old boy, keeping up the perception I had kept going, laughing at jokes I didn’t find funny, hanging out with guys at places I didn’t want to go to, doing things I didn’t want to do, and living the life I didn’t want to live.”

By the time Yeh turned 8, she was trying on her mother and cousin’s clothes in secret. Late into her teenage years, she suspected her family must have noticed that clothes were moved around, but their suspicions were too taboo to discuss, and were never talked about.

“It wasn’t something I could stop. It’s not about the clothing. That wasn’t enough. It’s about being seen. It was the need to be validated as a female,” said Yeh, who believes that many other transgender youth, notably API transgender individuals like herself, are likely struggling in silence.

“Why couldn’t I just be ‘normal’?” Why did I have such unfortunate luck to be born the way I did. It seems like every day, it was only getting harder and harder to cope with who I am,” Kim wrote in his final letter.

“People of color in coming out face such different obstacles that mainstream advocacy doesn’t address. In English, we have so many ways to describe being trans, but in Mandarin, there are only three, two of which are kind of offensive and one of which is not entirely accurate,” said Yeh.

When it came time for Yeh to come out to her traditional Taiwanese grandparents, she found she lacked the words to do so. She hopes with more time and agency that she’ll be able to make a difference in helping others tackle these problems.

Among the crowd gathered for the larger Pride Parade stood Tanya Rachinee, who appeared poised in a see-through beaded gown, altered from a dress she purchased 13 years ago. Rachinee immigrated to the United States from Thailand with her family when she was 19 years old. By then, she had long thought about the woman she hoped to someday become. She attended Seattle’s Franklin High School, where she began her transition to live openly as a female. By her last semester of school, her teachers and peers had come to know her as Tanya.

“Before I started transitioning, I talked to my dad. He knew how I wanted a family and he brought that subject up to kind of make me feel bad, and [told me] how disappointed he was that I’m not what a man should be. I just told him that it was time for me to be happy with my life,” said Rachinee.

That was the day before the 2000 Pride Parade. The following day, she marched in the parade fully dressed as a woman. About a year later, Rachinee would purchase the white crystal beaded gown that would withstand the test of time and show off her female form, which had evolved with the help of hormones and surgery. By the time the Seattle transgender community would have its first Trans*Pride parade, Rachinee would jokingly refer to her decade-old gown as “vintage.”

In 2011, Rachinee won the title of Miss UTOPIA, at a pageant hosted by UTOPIA, an organization working to combat discrimination against people with different sexual preferences. She continues to be involved with UTOPIA and currently serves on its board of directors. Rachinee recalled the widely known and accepted transgender community in Thailand. She was surprised to find, while transitioning here, how little was known in the United States about the transgender community.

“Even though I knew that the U.S. is a fast moving, progressive society, there are a lot of people who don’t know about transitioning at all. That really surprised me, how invisible the transgender experience is to the public. We’re really not exposed to society and no one really knows about it,” said Rachinee.

Transgender or not, Scott explains, gender expression is at the heart common issues faced by the LGBT community as a whole.

“When we look at hate violence, the violence directed at people assumed to be gay, lesbian, or possibly transgender is based on the way they’re expressing their gender. The negative stereotypes about gay people are usually based on gender and not who they’re holding hands with. At the end of the day, the people who hate us, they don’t see the difference between the L, the G, the B, and the T.

For transgender individuals, Scott adds, the issues are nuanced and layered, especially when ethnicity comes into play. A National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted this year by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality noted that a staggering 56 percent of API transgender and gender non-conforming people have attempted suicide due to discrimination. Many are also reported to be living in extreme poverty as a result of facing unemployment, discrimination, or homelessness. Based on the survey, API transgender and gender non-conforming people who were accepted by their families are less likely to attempt suicide, experience homelessness, or get diagnosed with HIV compared to those who weren’t.

Rachinee and Yeh consider themselves among the lucky ones. Yeh continues to work at the same company where she began her transition, and Rachinee currently owns and manages a restaurant in Seattle. Both have continued to maintain good relationships with their family members, despite initial difficulties in accepting their transitions.

“Surprisingly, my parents still kept me in the house, even though I thought I would get kicked out. After a while, they came around and began to understand. They admitted that I’m still their child. It’s very lucky for me to have such understanding parents because I’ve heard many stories about transgender individuals who are disowned by their families,” said Rachinee.

“It is a very difficult and hard life to be a transgender individual, but for me, my transitioning is a metamorphosis. It’s like you become your own person, it’s a liberating feeling. I’ll never regret that moment, period. I am so happy that I did this, even though it brings a lot of difficulties and judgment from people. I would not change this for anything,” she said.

With the transgender movement being recognized for so many years as only a letter in the greater LGBTQ movement, the rather young movement has developed its own voice, largely thanks to advocates like Kim who led community training, leadership groups, and workshops that shed light on the way assumed gender and sexual norms impact the way sexual assault survivors are treated. Going forward, Yeh has a lot of hope for the trans* community at large.

“I fully expect the trans* community to be where the mainstream LGB community is at today. Maybe five or 10 years from now, the Trans*Pride will be as large as the Pride Parade on Sunday,” said Yeh. “It’s picking up speed, but I would certainly want for these changes to happen sooner, because the longer we take with these changes, the more people die.” (end)

Read part 2 in next week’s issue.

Tiffany Ran can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

*An asterisk is added behind the term “trans” to indicate a use of trans* as an umbrella term to expand the boundaries or limitations of the word to include transgender, transsexual, gender queer, gender fluid, agender, and more possibilities within gender expression.

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