*It was the Day of Transgender Visibility when I wrote this
Today is the Day of Transgender Visibility, and in Korea, I’m paradoxically extremely visible, and invisible. I am visible when I go out in Seoul as Mina; I’m clearly a sore thumb. I mean, at six-foot-two-plus, I’m not small. On the other hand, I’m invisible at work to many of my colleagues and all but one student. In an environment that is appearance-driven, such as my school where embassy kids matriculate, I am forced to be invisible. But there is another kind of invisibility that is more interesting and linked directly to my aforementioned visibility.
I read Destined to Witness in my modern German history class during my undergrad. It is the autobiography of the only black person to be raised under the Third Reich and also survive it: not including the “Rhineland bastards.” Now, my experiences are not tantamount to the horrific hardships described in Destined to Witness. But, there are, I believe, similarities between why the author and I are respectively able to negotiate our societies. The author, Hans Massaquoi, survived because he was an anomaly. There were no other black children in a hyper-racially focused society comprised mostly of white Germans. Massaquoi drifted by on his status as an oddity, sure he wasn’t allowed into the Hitler Youth, but he managed to exist mostly unharmed in German society during the 30s, a place that should have been hostile to him. Similarly, there are not many (any?) foreign transgender women transitioning in Korea, a society still at odds with homosexuality and focused on conformity to the status quo and all forms of normative behaviour. Therefore, like Massaquoi, I am invisible by virtue of my visibility and rarity.
Unlike Massaquoi, this has given me benefits beyond mere survival. Because transgender people have no real status in Korea* and doubly for me as I have no status in Korean society as a caucasian Canadian, I am relatively left to my own devices when presenting as Mina. Similarly, though Korea is not a medical destination for trans healthcare, what they do have I can get easy access to. Far quicker than the West. I was psychologically assessed and began HRT in only two months. That time included the detective work necessary to find the clinics that could help me–they’re not advertised, especially in English. Once “papered,” in Korea transgenderism is seen as a disease that should be solved and not acknowledged, hence the quick and silent treatment. This is in contrast to other LGBTQIA non-friendly countries that lack any services. And this is in contrast to Canada which leads the world in trans rights, in many regards, but can leave trans people on lengthy public healthcare waitlists in order to receive treatment for months or years.
So, where does this leave me as I ponder my future as a trans woman headed westbound? My transition started just shy of the average transition age and in a foreign country, has been greeted largely with support. For this, I am infinitely grateful. The subreddits I read every day are strewn with the sad recountings of familial rejection and lost careers sometimes in more “tolerant” environments. Essentially as I move forward I’ll be entering the radar instead of flying below it. Today, The Daily Beast posted “What Ever Happened to The Transgender Tipping Point?” The Beast’s piece is an exploration of how the optimism for a new transgender civil rights movement, expounded upon in the now famous Time issue with Lavern Cox adorning its cover, has failed to materialise less than three years later. In fact, in the United States, there has been a regression in trans rights under the new Dictator in Chief Donald J Trump. Exposure alone doesn’t equal progress.
One thesis from the Daily Beast is that cis people just don’t meet enough trans people. They just hear about our bathroom habits. This leaves me with an opportunity I fear I won’t take. I, Mina Hunt, aka Mr Burnside, could come out to my students at the end of the year. I am leaving. But then I’ll have no control over that legacy, and furthermore, it’s probably professionally a “dumb ass move.” Besides, if I stay in education, I’ll get to elucidate plenty of children.
Many of the bad things happening to trans people in the States seems to be in spite of their new-found visibility. I’m not saying that invisibility is a cure, surely not! But I’ve benefitted from it in at least some ways. So, will I miss the advantages bestowed to me by my Korean visibility/invisibility? Surely not ajumma death glares.
*Trans people do have rights in Korea. Once they receive GRS they may amend legal documents (at least MTFs). What I mean by a lack of “real status” is that though LGBT people are quickly gaining recognition, they are still largely seen as pariahs or deviants by many in society. And though the younger generation seems to be changing this, trans and gender queer individuals who visibly do not conform risk social ostracism. There are also very few resources for LGBT people.