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Today is Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Transgender Activist Pauline Park

In Her Own Image

The Gully spoke with transgender activist, Pauline Park, about racism, transgender issues, and what's on the drawing board for the transgender movement. Park, 41, a Korean adoptee, is co-founder of the New York Association of Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA). She also co-founded Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago (GAPIC) in 1994, and founded Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997.

THE GULLY (TG): When did you first realize you were transgendered? Was it a gradual process?

PAULINE PARK (PP): I think I knew when I was four or so, before I even knew the word. It's a funny story. When I went to kindergarten, the first day all the girls were wearing stretch pants with stirrups, remember those? I thought they were so cute and I wanted some. I remember when I came home and asked for some my mother was shocked.

That was when I began to understand that certain things were for girls and certain things were for boys. And I began to recognize that as a child I couldn't be who I was until I was an adult. But still, I would occasionally sneak into my mom's closet and try on her clothes.

TG: How do your parents handle it now?

PP: Both my parents are dead now. My father died when I was 12, my mother more recently. I never really came out as transgender to them, though I came out as gay to my mother when I was 17. Then, as now, it was easier to come out as gay than transgender. I also came from a Christian fundamentalist background. My twin brother accepts it, now.

I was lucky as a teenager because the public library in Milwaukee was quite good. There were books on homosexuality and transsexuality. I remember picking up "Transvestite and Transsexuals." It would be hopelessly old-fashioned today, but it meant I never felt alone. They also had "The Gay Mystique."

I read surreptitiously. I never took them home. And I was petrified I'd be found, but I knew there were other lgbt people in the world. I just didn't know how to connect with them until adulthood. My first year in college I came out as gay. It was just as gay liberation was blooming, but before the AIDS crisis, so it was an interesting time. Before you even heard the phrase "safe-sex."

TG: When did you start living as woman?

PP: Five years ago, in 1997. It was a big decision. I had known for many years that I wanted to, but personally and professionally it didn't seem possible. It happened in connection with other life-changing experiences.

TG: What did you do professionally, before you became a pretty much full-time activist?

PP: I was an academic, in political science.

TG: From theory to practice.

PP: You could say that. It seems like political science is getting further and further away from what actually happens in politics. Though some things have been useful. And the ability to theorize is important in activism.

TG: Has being Asian had any impact on your transgender experience, and vice versa?

PP: In physical terms, white trans women say to me "I'm so jealous, you Asians are so small and petite." As an Asian woman I'm taller than average, but compared to white women I'd just be average. Most transgendered people have an ambivalent relationship with their height and size.

In general I've had a particular experience being a Korean adoptee. I didn't grow up in an ethnically Korean household. I grew up in Milwaukee in a very white environment. My brother and I were the only non-whites in grade school. But I do identify with my country of origin in an abstract way. I have a strong sense of being a transgender woman of color, and think that it's important that trans people of color come to the forefront. Up until now the visible people in the movement have been almost all white, and mostly male to female. Right now I think I'm the only transgender Asian woman out in activism; there are some out, but not so out. I think that imposes a certain responsibility because people scrutinize you more.

One thing I'm very conscious of is pointing out the historical roots of transgenderism in different cultures. There was a pre-modern trans identity in virtually every Asian society, and I think it's important for transgendered Asians to envision themselves in light of their precursors - which were obviously very different - but it's important both to expand notions of transgender identity beyond white and middle-class, but also to educate API's [Asian Pacific Islanders] about the history of transgenders in their cultures.

TG: Do you identify as transgendered or transsexual?

PP: I don't identify as transsexual because I don't feel the need to alter my body to claim the identity of a woman.

I identify as a male-bodied woman, a radical concept in the transgender community, but I see no contradiction between male sex and female gender.

I fully support those who do have biological transitioning. I just reject that you have to, even if GID - Gender Identity Disorder - is still listed in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. Homosexuality was once seen as a disorder and it was removed in '74.

When it comes to GID I'm at the outer edge of the movement. I think it should be abolished. And I think it's disabling for the trans community and that it only serves to pathologize transgendered people. I like to say I don't have a gender identity disorder. Society has a gender disorder.

TG: When I see a male to female transgender person go totally femme fatale, or a female to male go totally butch, I wonder about the potential of reinforcing gender stereotypes. Are activists grappling with this?

PP: I identify as a radical feminist and situate my activism in gender radical feminism. I think there is a segment, a minority, which is really quite gender conservative, and especially in some transsexuals that are going through transitioning, who try to appropriate heteronormative privilege.

In the old way of transitioning, you would take on a whole new identity, cut all ties with friends and family, change cities, which was totally ridiculous, trying to erase the past, in what's called the Harry Benjamin standards of care, named for the man who was the first to medically define transsexuality.

I reject that model because it is based on the sex-gender binary [males must be manly, females womanly]. The whole GID regime is intended to eliminate gender variance, not celebrate it. It is supposed to turn out heterosexual men and women who are gender conventional, and I think that's the opposite of liberation. Recently, when I was filling out a form that asked if I was bi, gay, or straight, I checked other. As a trans woman attracted to men, I didn't want the heterosexual privilege.

Trans-homosexuality, when a transsexual woman is attracted to other women, or a transsexual male is attracted to other men, is seen a failure of the GID regime, which is trying to eliminate homosexuality. The problem at the heart of the GID, is that it is trying to impose heteronormativity.

The only redeeming value of the standard of care for sex reassignment surgery is that it regulates a complex irreversible process. If you are going to take hormones, it's better that you should do it under the care of an endocrinologist. Street hormones can do a lot of damage, or even kill you.

It's important to deconstruct the medicalization of transsexuality and depathologize gender variance. Most psychologists still see gender variant people as mentally ill. Still, there are some transgendered people who get the GID diagnosis and feel a tremendous relief. "I know what's wrong with me."

I think my job is not to help transgender people fit better into existing boxes, but to explode the boxes so that "passing" [as biological females or males] is not an issue. Why should we have to pass? Though being able to pass to some degree is a safety issue out on the street when we are still targeted for violence.

TG: The group which you co-founded, New York Association of Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), recently led a successful campaign to get transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people included in New York City's human rights ordinance. What do you think is in the future of the trans community?

PP: Some activists are trying to get rights through the disability movement. Trans people are explicitly excluded from the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). But I think that's a dead-end politically. Though as long as we're listed in the medical books as disordered, I say take what you can get.

Lesbians and gay people didn't begin to achieve real political power until they got homosexuality removed from the DSM by challenging the prevailing notion that gay people were sick. Now, there are very few openly gay people who would exchange that listing for access to health care.

I think we have to view transgender rights in terms of the civil rights struggles of the past, not try to get rights under the category of disability. We have to create a progressive vision of sexual justice that is part of the larger project of social change, including rejecting heterosexual privilege.

As a short-hand we describe NYAGRA as a transgender organization, but our larger project is challenging the sex/gender binary. What we are really doing is advocating for the free expression of gender for all.

TG: I understand NYAGRA has split. Can you explain?

PP: The short version is it comes down to money and power. The dispute is in the courts now, and I think the whole thing will be resolved before too long.

Related links:

June 27, 2002 - The Making Of a Movement: The Story of the Successful Campaign for a Transgender Rights Law in New York City

June 1, 2002 - Division Follows Victory - State transgender advocacy group splinters in the Gay City News

Alpha Omega Society Monthly Meeting - Cleveland, OH

Tennessee T-Men Monthly Meeting - Nashville, TN

Tennessee Vals Monthly Meeting - Nashville, TN

Transformations - Des Moines, IA

Indy Boyz Monthly Meeting - Indianapolis, IN

Indy Girlz Monthly Meeting - Indianapolis, IN

REEL GENDER Film Series - Indianapolis, IN

Indy Boyz Monthly Meeting - Indianapolis, IN

Indy Girlz Monthly Meeting - Indianapolis, IN

REEL GENDER Film Series - Indianapolis, IN

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