More on the Immigrant metaphor…

A neighbor recently gave me a copy of Suki Kim’s novel “The Interpreter” and my curiosity bumped it to the head of my reading pile.  It’s a poignant story of two sisters, daughters of Korean immigrants to the U.S.  It is well worth picking up.

One of the themes that struck me was their desperate dream of being “American girls, full-fledged American darlings, more golden than the girl next door, even cheerier than the prom queen, definitely sweeter than all-American sweethearts.  Far, far away from their parents’ Korea, which stuck to them like an ugly tattoo.  How misguided such a dream….”  The main character, Suzy, finds a high school newsletter entitled “Generation 1.5” which represents those who were born and lived in Korea in their early years, who, although fluent in English, will forever have a Korean accent, will forever be a “point five.”

This idea of being “in between” resonated with me as a Sexual Immigrant.  I, too, had wanted to be a full-fledged American girl, far, far away from being the boy that clings to me like an ugly tattoo.  I, too, realize how misguided a dream it was.  I am part of neither the world of men nor the world of women.  I am the “point five” that lives between the integers.  While I’m thankful that our society is becoming aware of us “point fives” and taking amazingly fast steps to accept us as real people, we still live in a very uncomfortable border zone where even our need for a safe place to pee labels us as predators and perverts, outsiders.

I am delighted that young “point fives” are finding the support, direction, and encouragement they need and deserve, that they can be out and proud.  My own journey required too many years of hiding, of guilt and doubt, of uncertainty.  I cannot yet be proud of – whatever I am.  I have a long way to go.


Why “Sexual Immigrant”?


When I first began my docupoetic project decades ago, the term “transsexual” was more in favor than the current overall term, “transgender,” and, naively, my dream and prayer had been to be “reborn” as a female, with all the associated biological gifts and curses.  As I began my journey in earnest in the 80’s, I wanted to find a phrase that summarized my experience.  Being, at the time, a foreigner living in Canada, I merely granted myself yet another “outsider” status and thus came the Sexual Immigrant image that is at the heart of the poetry.  While I suppose I could change the phrase to “Gender Immigrant,” I prefer the sound and rhythm of my original choice, and feel that it is closer to my heart’s truest wish.

Depending on whom you ask, sex and gender are taken to mean the same thing, or, more prevalently and more clearly, sex refers to biology and gender to social attributes.  As we do not yet have William Gibson’s nanites that can completely remodel one’s physical self over-night, we are, for the time being, forced to concede that one cannot truly change one’s sex, only one’s gender.

In the immigrant imagery, I feel this means that the Sexual Immigrant does not receive citizenship, not even eventually, nor does she receive a “green card.”  At best, she receives a student visa, and that only reluctantly.  All the same, she does what she can to find her true homeland, and accepts whatever political status she can acquire.

When I began my journey, many years ago, the expected goal was to “pass.”  This meant doing everything one could do to be viewed and accepted as a female.  There was even a requirement that one had to successfully live “full-time” as a woman for at least a year before one was considered a candidate for surgery.  One could not even contact the gender INS before this work was completed, and documented by a psychiatrist/psychologist.

For me, ultimately, the idea of “passing” was a destructive one.  I was required not only to hide, but to adopt the outward appearance of a stereotype.  This necessity came at odds with the feminist theology I was studying in the eighties:  I could not reconcile adopting stereotypical appearance and behavior, while at the same time supporting the struggle of liberation-based theology to break down the stereotypes and restrictive roles expected of women.


The combination was emotionally crushing and intellectually frustrating.  The best solution was to adopt the role of perpetual tomboy and androgyny:  pink shirts, earrings, a hint of eye make-up, grow my hair longer.  I avoided other trans folk, feeling that it was much easier to pass as an individual in a crowd than as a member of a group of like folk.  I became overly critical of my trans sisters, and eventually isolated from them.  I told myself that I was passing – in spite of the frequent evidence to the contrary.  I didn’t know what the hell I was, only that I was neither fish nor fowl.  I became the Sexual Immigrant – doing my best to fit in, to not offend, to be invisible in a country where I did not belong.  There was no need for an external wall to keep me out:  I had built one around myself.