In recognition of International Day of Transgender Visibility, March 31st, we bring you this piece by Mary Collins. Thanks Mary, for sharing your story.
The gatekeeping at every stage of the process surprised even me.”
If you count the eight visits to three different department of motor vehicles in two different states over about a three-year period just to get the driver’s license, it took my transgender son, Donald, about four years to get the paperwork in order so he could apply for a passport as a man. Of course, if you go back even further to when he was a young teenage girl coming out as a trans man, then the journey to that key ticket to overseas travel really took about eight years.
And even then, after all of that, when he stepped to the window to hand in his passport materials, he needed a recent doctor’s letter indicating that he had indeed had surgeries and hormone treatment and should be recognized on his passport as a man. The gatekeeping at every stage of the process surprised even me, the questioning parent who felt uncomfortable with the medical options available to my teen and, later, college-age son.
At one point, when a clerk at a department of motor vehicles asked what proof he had that he was really a man, he replied, “Just my entire life.” She sent him away anyway because he did not have some particular piece of paper.
So imagine the joy and sense of incredible freedom when he finally received that passport and arranged to study in South Korea for a month. I arranged my own trip to Denmark, part business, part pleasure, so we’d both be on the road at the same time. Of course, I am a white middle-aged woman moving without fear to what I assumed would be one of the most progressive countries in the world. He was traveling through security zones with a bag of hormones and syringes that could expose him as a transgender man at every airport. As for the Korean culture, all I knew was that in the larger scope of Asia, being transgender is often illegal or, if legal, only if the individual undergoes forced sterilization. I had read that only two people had gone public about their gender reassignment surgery in South Korea, and one of them was a public entertainer.
Donald arrived safely to the university where he planned to study Korean for a month and began to text me pictures of food he loved both in the cafeteria and in the general town. With each passing day, my anxiety about his safety dropped; it was clear no one knew he was transgender and, even though he had a male roommate, in general there was no reason for anyone to know. Of course, in similar situations in the U.S. he had tended to be out front about it with the people he roomed with or socialized with, but, understandably, he chose discretion while overseas. He considers the fact he can make that choice a privilege that many transgender individuals do not have.
About a week after his departure, I flew out of Boston to Copenhagen and began interviewing parents of trans children in Denmark. Gorgeous people in very gender-neutral dress sailed passed me on their bicycles as I made my way around the city on my own two wheels. Even most of the bicycles were gender neutral with a low bar to make it easier to get on and off constantly as riders did chores, went to work or navigated complex intersections.
Ah, progressive Danes.
He considers the fact he can make that choice a privilege that many transgender individuals do not have.
When his son came out as Eva, he admitted that he had to “rebuild my understanding of gender.
But then I met with Helge Nyland, father of a trans daughter, who told me about all of the gatekeeping in the medical system for trans individuals, who can only go to one hospital for surgeries and hormone treatments. Mental health for the trans population in Denmark falls under the same category as rapists and pedophiles.
We both sat silently at a café near Tivoli, an historic amusement park, after he told me this. I looked at his clean lined face, his crisp clothes, admired his amazing command of English, and, struggled to register what he’d just told me. Here, in Denmark, the land that performed the first gender reassignment surgery in 1930 and legalized same-sex marriage in 1989?
When his son came out as Eva, he admitted that he had to “rebuild my understanding of gender; everything I knew seemed to be wrong.”
Everything I thought about this country starts to collapse in on itself as I continued to listen to the struggles he and his wife faced, right down to their trans daughter’s government identification number, which is gendered. Women are even numbers, men odd. For life. So Eva will always have a male designator on her government IDs.
He could move under cover through the landscape, the way he may very well have to move most of his life.
I thought about Donald’s passport and suddenly felt a bit less judgmental of the American system.
All through my week, I interviewed people about life for transgender children and their families in Denmark, even as I continued to receive photographs of an elated Donald moving about Korea. First, in a market, then at a Pride parade in Seoul where people dressed all in white banged drums loudly to drown out the protesters along the parade route. More than 200,000 people had signed a petition to cancel the queer festival. Later, back at his dorm, Donald said the summer program students from all over the world had animated conversations about GBLTQ rights.
Understanding that acceptance of GBLTQ people is embraced by less than half of the Korean population, Donald was surprised when his fellow Americans made the most disparaging remarks about gays and transgender people. Not Koreans or Australians or Malaysians. He kept his own comments emotionally detached but pointed and told them he’d studied the issues a lot and did not feel comfortable around their phobic exchanges.
He and I had a tense phone call as I tried to assess his safety level half a world away. Before he left, we both agreed he had to wear a medical bracelet that at least indicated the medications he took; once there, he told one student, who had talked about her transgender sibling, so in the case of a medical emergency someone on location knew.
As we both navigated foreign lands, I realized that my transgender son was only as safe as the people in his immediate surroundings chose to keep him safe. In Denmark, parents of trans children made it clear that like in the U.S. there’s a surging far right movement and a rural/city divide when it comes to issues like transgender rights; right now the pendulum is swinging in little Eva’s favor but Helge knows that could change.
After a week in Copenhagen, I decided to hop a train across the countryside to visit a friend in Vejle. While munching on a roast beef, horseradish, and cucumber smorrebrod in the train station, I saw a large crowd of crossdressers in pilot and stewardess uniforms parading past on the way to Track 25. People neither cheered nor jeered, as though this was nothing out of the norm. But after my week with parents and professionals, I knew that this embrace was no more the norm for Denmark than San Francisco reflects GBLTQ acceptance in the U.S.
As for Donald, he felt safe enough in South Korea to take a train on his own two hours south to a small town to see a former college friend. I know he did not parade his transgender identity in the Seoul train station and his passport gave nothing away. He could move under cover through the landscape, the way he may very well have to move most of his life not just overseas but here in America. Even in Denmark, considered one of the most progressive countries in the world on GBLTQ issues, I’d recommend he keep his transgender identity to himself among strangers.
Which makes me question precisely what sort of passport he really has to anywhere.