On Saturday I had dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant where I received the above fortune. I had spent the evening chatting with my friend's friend who works at Keshet (Hebrew for rainbow), a Jewish LGBT advocacy group that works to ensure that Jewish LGBT people are included in all aspects of Jewish life. He reminded me that Sunday was Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day to memorialize transgender people who have been murdered because of prejudice.
I'm a little late to the party as Transgender Awareness Week was last week, but after thinking about this for several days, I decided to post. On Saturday I'd come across this extremely moving story from Korean American adoptee Andy Marra talking about her experience meeting her birth mother, coming out as transgender, and gaining the courage to complete her transition. (Get your tissues before you read it.) Reading her story made me realize that I'd never read a story written by an Asian transgender person before and it got me wondering if there were any famous Japanese American transgender people. A quick search for "Japanese American transgender" turns up very little. I tried a few other variations without any luck.
My search results reminded me about Kim Coco Iwamoto, a member of Hawaii's Board of Education. Kim was recently featured in The Huffington Post's list of The Most Influential LGBT Asian Icons at #2, along with 1 lesbian and 5 gay Japanese Americans. I'd first been introduced to Kim via Equality Hawaii's excellent forum No Shame! Talking About the Gay/Lesbian/Transgender Japanese American Experience In Hawaii (Part 1 & Part 2 of the panel are available, but sadly the keynote from George Takei isn't!).
The only other Japanese American of note I found was Marsha Aizumi, mother of a transgender son, Aiden. Marsha authored the book Two Spirits, One Heart, about her journey accepting that her daughter was actually her son and becoming an advocate for LGBT youth. She's an inductee to the API Family Pride Wall of Pride, a project honoring supportive Asian families of LGBT people and exhibiting their profiles. Part of the Wall of Pride was recently exhibited in Boston at The Meeting Point in Jamaica Plain, thanks to QAPA, the nation's oldest queer Asian organization. API Family Pride is the only support organization for Asian families of LGBT people in the US.
As far as I can tell, Kim, Marsha, and Aiden are the only three somewhat well-known transgender-related Japanese Americans.
Something else that turned up in my search was The Visibility Project, spearheaded by two Japanese Americans, Mia Nakano and Shawn Tamaribuchi. They travel the US taking portraits & shooting video of "Queer Asian American Women, Gender non-conforming, and Trans[gender] people," to bring "more presence and representation to our community through powerful imagery." It seems that this year they also started including parents. Marsha Aizumi is currently the only parent of an LGBTQ API. Their tags and labeling aren't consistent, so it's not easy to find the Japanese Americans, but they do have a few portraits of genderqueer Japanese Americans. You can find them by looking through the gallery of participants.
Growing up during the 80s, at some point I learned to be afraid of men who wear women's clothing (I should note that people who cross-dress and perform in drag are not necessarily transgender). I have no idea when this notion was introduced to me, but it took root and festered. I'm still unlearning many years of prejudice, so I don't feel qualified to write a treatise on what it means to be transgender, but I wanted to highlight a topic that's rarely discussed in the Japanese American community.
Something that's been incredibly helpful in changing my understanding of what it means to be transgender and genderqueer is the increasing number of articles profiling families with young children struggling with gender identity. Boston's Children's Hospital has a Gender Management Service Clinic (GeMS), "one of the few of its kind in the world." I never knew that this was something that most transgender people know and try to express from a very young age. Most of the articles feature only white families, so I was surprised to find that this New York Times Magazine piece, "What's So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress?" features an interview with Moriko, the mother of a boy struggling with his gender identity, who I assume is Japanese.
For further reading, I recommend the following resources.
- MTPC (Massachuesetts Transgender Political Coalition): Transgender 101
- ISNA (Intersex Society of North America): What's the difference between being transgender or transsexual and having an intersex condition?
- APA (American Psychological Association): Answers to your Questions About Transgender People, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression
- Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center: Issues of Transgendered Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
- National Center for Transgender Equality: Injustice at Every Turn: A Look at Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander Respondents in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey [pdf]