His voice breaking, he told me that he loved me, and, though he avoided my gaze, I knew it was true.
His hands fidgeted, clasping and wringing, movements that were fighting with the control and composure that was my father. They mirrored the thoughts he wished to tell me, thoughts that he was not so sure he ought to tell me — that he does not like my transition, that it makes him uncomfortable, that it’s strange and unusual to him — but he did not dare say this.
Before Thanksgiving dinner with the family, he asked me privately if wearing men’s clothes made me uncomfortable, to which I wholeheartedly replied “yes,” only to be dismayed about his statement that he and my mom really prefer how I was born, how I was “naturally” created. I was unsure whether to forgive him in this instance, but I did.
To be honest, I’m not sure what I expected out of my dad. I have always known of his progressive and liberal attitudes — my dad majored in labor economics in his undergraduate years, a moniker for Marxist economics, and followed Bernie Sanders since before 2008. If this most recent election demonstrates anything, however, it is that people who call themselves liberal and progressives often do not understand or prioritize queer identities, and it only makes sense that my father, from the strictly conservative culture of Korea, with deeply ingrained patriarchal norms and gender standards, would have a difficult time grappling with my gender transition.
Sitting next to me on the couch, my dad put his hand on my shoulder, a substitute gesture as he looked forward and kept me in his periphery, and tells me of his experiences with his father and the similar struggles he faced as a youth. And though I would usually scoff at such a remark, dismissing it as false equivalency and trivializing my struggles, this time I listen.
A political atmosphere rife with corruption and violence, South Korea after the Korean War was marred by oppression and authoritarianism. At this point, my family was involved in political opposition against the regime with my grandfather, a journalist, jailed for dissidence. In this hostile atmosphere, my father was in college witnessing the silencing of free speech and news media, watching his friends carted off to prison where they would be tortured or executed and being present when 606 students were shot and killed during the Gwangju Massacre.
It was through this experience — where protest and activism meant death or worse and where other students stood in the face of injustice only to be broken by the system — that my dad framed his understanding of my queer experience. Though I was young and angered by queer-trans acceptance, he told me that it would not be enough to protect me from the real dangers that I could face. Protest was a demonstration of the power of the people, he remarked, but there were real consequences to these actions, something that I had only glimpsed in the coddled protests of the Berkeley campus, shielded by the Constitution and democracy.
“Bend like wood, do not snap like iron” was what his father told him when my dad wished to go out to protest and organize. To bend was to be resilient, to continue growing, even around or in the face of adversity; to avoid snapping in two, to avoid prison, torture and firing squads. And Sunday night, before I left again for Berkeley and before he flew back to Korea, “bend like wood, do not snap like iron” was the advice he transferred unto me, the deed to a home whose walls would keep me safe.
My dad told me that regardless of how he personally felt, eyes brimming with tears, I was his child no matter what, and he would always support me. He begged me not to flame out, insisting that as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t always protect me in the face of cruelty and injustice. Instead of giving up opportunities in the name of making a political statement, I should instead incorporate my identity into my work, continuously working for change through legislation and policy, he said.
Though I questioned whether his desires for my reduced visibility stemmed from his personal discontentment with my gender identity or for his concerns for my safety, the conversation stuck in my head.
After our conversation Sunday night, I stayed up late, in typical college student fashion, pondering my future as a transwoman, as a voice that has spoken up and will only get louder, negotiating ways to shape and channel the voice for good without endangering myself or others.
After our conversation Sunday night, my dad stayed up late, in typical Korean fashion, pondering the future of his child, his son now daughter.
아빠, 사랑 해요.
J Jung writes the Wednesday blog on genderqueerness and transitioning. Contact her at [email protected]