Content warning: racial slurs, transphobia
Discovery and then into the closet: “am I not a girl?”
By Shinwoo Kim
I read a lot while at an all girls’ high school. There are some stories that you read and forget, but there are others that resonate with you so strongly you remember every detail, and for me that was the queer webtoon (Korean comic) Welcome to Room 305. For the first time, I was reading queer representation that felt real and made me sob strongly for the characters, because I saw myself in them. It was also the first time I came across a trans male character, because when people talk about trans people in Korea, it’s almost always about trans women. I related strongly to how he felt – like he didn’t fit into women’s spaces.
I remember feeling uncomfortable changing in PE. One might think it was the teenage insecurity about appearances, but for me, the focus of discomfort wasn’t internal but external. I felt like a voyeur for being in the wrong changing room, because a gendered school attributes gender to every space, making changing rooms girls’ spaces. If the discomfort was derived from being in girls’ spaces, am I not a girl?
In retrospect, I never questioned that I might be other than cis and straight, because I was socialised as a girl and attracted to guys. Surely that made me a straight girl? It wasn’t until I dated a guy who perceived and treated me like a girl that it solidified that I was a gay trans guy. I liked guys, but the straight nature of my relationship with my ex felt wrong.
While I decided to remain closeted outside of queer spaces, I held reservations – particularly in telling my parents. I admit this was because I distrusted Korean adults, believing them to be especially conservative. However, now I realise this was because I had internalised an anti-East Asian rhetoric fed to me by the West, that East Asians are less open-minded than Westerners. This was why the more Western someone was, the more comfortable I was telling them I was trans, but distrusted people with a more East Asian upbringing. For example, I came out to my sister who had grown up in the West. The realities of internalising anti-East Asian racism was distancing myself from my Korean community. I realise now that I was misled to think that by the West, because I am the very proof that transness can exist within an East Asian body, that being queer and East Asian has never been incompatible.
Representation: jealousy and hope
By Caven Lim
Both Shinwoo and I can testify that the journey towards finding yourself isn’t easy. It’s the irony of trying to see yourself clearly in pitch black, only because somebody was too afraid of what the light might reveal. This is what it’s like realising that you’re transgender without ever even hearing the word.
I had always envied boys. Yet that kind of thing was wrong, it was disgusting, I knew that. Like Shinwoo, I eventually discovered comics that promised recognition for these disjointed feelings – representation. However, the fruit I found was rotten, fetishised, starved and confused. I tore through it ravenously and begged for more of this ambrosia which so expertly eluded me in all other aspects of life. However, for every ounce of satisfaction was a stab of jealousy that sliced deeper with every passing day. Until, for the first time, I saw a very different kind of comic, one actually written by a gay man. His partner was transgender, and he loved him. No despites, no buts, no conditions. Suddenly, the darkness lifted. The jealousy was replaced with hope.
After starting university, I vowed to live the truth. Yet even in queer spaces, rather than understanding, I found myself met with incredulity. Anxiously, I explained, “oh, my family is very traditional. The long hair is a cultural thing. The last time I cut it short was because a family member passed away, it’s symbolic…”
But it didn’t seem to convince anyone. To them, I was a silly little straight girl in search of a gay best friend; an ‘ally’ who just wanted to belong somewhere I didn’t. They questioned why I didn’t simply break away from my mother’s family rather than continue to help her ‘save face’ – something entirely inconceivable to me as a South East Asian person who was taught to value family above all.
The intersection between racism and transphobia
By Shinwoo Kim and Caven Lim
Still, it’s unfair to cast LGBTQ+ discrimination as a purely Asian problem when its birthplace was the West – a long line of queer emperors in China and Korea and gender-fluid deities such as Guan Yin (Chinese) or Kwanseium (Korean), the Goddess of Mercy, are just two examples attesting to this. These days, resources are inexhaustive and more accessible than ever; however, these resources are largely in English and contain a lot of subject-specific terminology that remains inaccessible to those whose native language isn’t English.
Many transphobic East Asians claim being transgender is a Western concept but maybe their rejection stems from a fundamentally different understanding of gender. For example, yin and yang are considered the ‘female’ and ‘male’ essences respectively: but it is commonly recognised amongst Chinese and Korean people that people often possess a mixture of both. This can be used to understand everything from intersex and transgender individuals to same-gender attraction.
Furthermore, white people, or Angmoh, as we call them, don’t understand the double whammy of racism and transphobia. As East Asians, we are viewed as a monolith and assigned ethnicities at random. Caven, who is Chinese, was called oppa (Korean word for ‘older brother’ or ‘man’) and Shinwoo, who is Korean, has received many ‘ni haos’ on the streets.
Both of us were called ch*nks and we disagree that our usage of angmoh to refer to the dominant group who oppresses us is as charged as racial slurs like ch*nk.
East Asians and gay trans men are fetishised, but if you are a gay East Asian trans man, you fill a certain niche for straight white women with Yellow Fever to hypersexualise and objectify you. We are queer men who grew up having words like ch*nk and f*ggot thrown at us. Even in trans masculine spaces, there was gatekeeping of our feminine presentation – but if cis men are allowed to wear makeup and skirts within queer spaces without their masculinity being taken away from them, why can’t trans men? In fact, cis gay men who dominate queer spaces can be extremely disconnected to trans experiences. It then becomes difficult to speak safely within queer spaces unless it’s a trans space, and a BME place. Thankfully, the PrideSoc BME community has filled that niche for us, where we met and established bonds through similar experiences.
Finally, for fellow East Asian trans men reading this: you aren’t invalid if you present as feminine. Even if you don’t come out in all aspects of life, just do what you need to survive but also find spaces where you can be yourself. Breaking from tradition doesn’t diminish your Asian identity, and defying Western standards doesn’t diminish your transness.
Image of Guan Yin: Daderot via Wikimedia Commons