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Transgender Woman Finds Acceptance In South Korea


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we go behind closed doors. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep private.

And today, we want to talk about something that is coming into the open more and more these days, but is still a source of pain and shame and trauma for many people. Actually, we're going to talk about two things like that. One is the experience of being adopted, especially from another country. For some people, contemplating the circumstances that caused the birth parent to give him or her up is painful. The other is the experience of being transgender. That refers to a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that's different from the one that corresponds to the person's sex at birth.

In a powerful essay that we found in The Huffington Post, Andy Marra talks about searching for and finding her birth mother in Korea and her decision to come out to her family as transgender. The essay is titled "The Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me the Courage to Transition." And Andy Marra is with us now.

Thank you so much for joining us.

ANDY MARRA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When you were growing up, was the experience of being adopted foremost in your mind, or was it your sense that you were transgender? Can you even separate it out like that?

MARRA: I don't think so, actually. You know, for a person like myself who, as I like to say, carries many bags or many handbags, an identity is - you really can't separate it. My identity as a trans-woman, as a Korean-American, as a person who grew up in a trans-racial family - they all intersect with one another.

My parents that raised me in the States, they did an extraordinarily amazing job with affirming my identity as - particularly being a Korean-American. They raised me in a home where I was very aware of my heritage and was very proud of my ethnicity and where I came from, even enrolling me in weekend Korean-language classes, which I did not do very well in, Michel, but I tried. And it was just one of many things that my parents did to instill a sense of pride in my identity.

MARTIN: How did you come to understanding about your transgender identity?

MARRA: I knew at a very young age that I was not a boy, and I didn't exude many of the traits that my peers had growing up. And as I became more aware of issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, I first stumbled on the word gay.

Now, we know that sexual orientation and gender identity are two very different things and, for me, at the time, I thought, OK. Well, I am attracted to boys, so that must be who I am. And it was only until later in my life and learning more about trans-issues and trans-people that I finally found out that I was a trans-woman, and this is who I was from the very beginning.

MARTIN: You came out to your parents as transgender in 2003. Right?

MARRA: That is correct.

MARTIN: You were 18 years old. Do you mind if I ask how you told them?

MARRA: I wrote a letter to my parents explaining my gender identity, and also explaining to them that I wasn't gay. I had first come out to my parents as gay, and they knew that I was attracted to boys. But in writing about my gender identity and explaining what that meant to them, it took some time to kind of pick apart at the identity of being gay and to embrace and to understand what it means to have a daughter instead of a son.

I grew up in a Christian - or a Lutheran - home, and it took some time for my family to understand. But ultimately, my parents were very accepting and supportive. They still are. Last Christmas Eve, before we went to a Christmas Eve service at our church, my father pulled me aside and said, look, I know this is your first time going back to church with us, but I want you to know that you're loved. We're there for you. If anyone says anything to you that's offensive or could be construed as difficult, I'm right by your side, and I will defend you. And to know that my parents have my back like that is incredibly powerful and important.

MARTIN: That is powerful. One of the things that you say in your essay is that you could never find the will to move forward with your transition - taking hormones or surgery - despite the opportunity to do so, and my hesitation was largely due to my unknown family living far away in Korea. Could you talk about that? I mean, you say further in the piece that you had always dreamed of and planned to seek out your birth mother in Korea, your birth family in Korea, but you had not had the opportunity to do so. But you said that those - so those two are linked. Why do you think that is?

MARRA: For myself, growing up, I always knew that I wanted to look for my Korean family. I wanted to get to know them. I wanted to know if I had any siblings, what they were doing with their lives. And I realized, as I was coming out as trans, that part of that experience would be colored by eventually coming out to them. And it's a very known fact that Korean society and culture is largely conservative, and mixing both Confucianism - hundreds and hundreds of years of Confucianism - and also a large Christian presence in South Korea, as well. And mixing those two can be a hindrance to coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But I knew deep down as I became more resolved to look for my family that I did want to find them and I wanted them to see me for who I am before I decided to physically transition. And so I think that is ultimately what held me off from taking hormones or pursuing surgery.

MARTIN: We're focusing here and we're talking a lot about the experience of being transgender and how you would talk about that with people who hadn't seen you grow up and hadn't, kind of, been with you through this journey. But the other point you make in your piece is that the experience of being an international adoptee has its own freight. One of the points you make in your piece is that more than 200,000 Korean babies and children have been sent overseas, but less than three percent of them - of you all - are able to find your birth families. And you have to assume that, you know, that's kind of fraught, right, on both sides.

So you go to Korea and you finally have the opportunity and it's your last day there, and you describe this powerful scene where you go to the police station and you ask for help. And originally the answer is no, the answer is kind of bureaucratic blah, blah. And for some reason the police decide to help you. Tell us why you think they decided to help you?

MARRA: I think that many Koreans in Korea know about the adoptee experience and know that so many Korean babies and children were sent overseas. And I think there is a large feeling of shame and disappointment. And I think the police officer ultimately decided to help me because she knew that she could be a part of something big.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Andy Marra about her essay "The Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me the Courage to Transition." So they do find your mother and amazingly, she gets there within an hour. And I just, I can't - I feel like I'm intruding on a private moment, but I just have to ask you, what was that like for you when you first saw her, when you first saw each other?

MARRA: Well, the police officers, they were very kind after they started to look for my family. They offered us coffee and access to a computer, and they even fed us while we were waiting for my mom to arrive. And my friend got a phone call on my mother that they where there and we went downstairs in the front entrance. We saw two women pop out of a car. I couldn't really make out their faces or bodies. I just saw two people coming closer to the police station and for a moment, one of the women stopped. It turned out to be my mother. I saw her put her hand to her chest. And my mom later explained to me that she stopped because she thought that my father had come back to life.

My Korean father actually passed away. And so when she saw me from a distance she actually thought that she saw my father. And so she continued her approach to the front entrance of the police station. And I had practiced for many years what I wanted to say as my introduction and I said it in Korean, in my very broken Korean, and I just broke apart because seeing a women - seeing two women, in fact - with the same face and same bodies that mirrored mine. And I broke down also because I felt so ashamed in some ways that my first moment with my mother was so practiced. It was so orchestrated. And I broke down, but she immediately rushed into my arms and grabbed me. And she said that my baby is finally home.

MARTIN: And from there you describe in your piece that she had this just remarkable intuition about you, that she quickly realized that there was something weighing on you. In fact, you say in your piece that one day she sat you down and said, what's worrying you? You seem worried about something. And you can tell me. And you did. What do you make of that?

MARRA: Motherly intuition, I'm not entirely sure. Psychic powers. I think my mom could honestly open up a fortune-telling stand, but she has an amazing sense of intuition. And I mean she did seat me down and ask me about what was weighing on my heart. I at first didn't know what she was talking about or referring to. We had spent a few days together already. We had met some of our family members. She had taken me out shopping. We had to eaten out a lot, so I wasn't exactly sure what she was referring to. But she was very, very insistent and persistent on bringing this up. And she finally gave me a clue. She said I think it has to do with how pretty you are. At the time I made the decision to appear fairly androgynous. I pulled my hair back. I wore jeans and a T-shirt. I didn't want to come out to my family, I wanted to first get to know them.

When my mother decided to give me that hint of how pretty I was, I immediately froze. And I eventually said to my mom look, I'm not sure if I'm ready to tell you the rest of my life or all about me yet. I'm afraid of losing you. I don't want to ruin a relationship that has just begun. But she held on to my hand and she said it's all right. I'm here. I love you. Tell me. Tell me what's going on. And I told her. And my friend actually had offered to translate for me that moment and I said no, I want to say this in my own words. I want to be able to say this in Korean in my own terms and I did. I said mom, I'm not a boy. I'm a girl. I'm transgender. And I again broke down, I'm crier. And she held onto my hands and she said it's OK. I knew. You're precious to me. You're beautiful. I thought I gave birth to a boy but I have a daughter instead and that's OK.

MARTIN: I'm sure that people are hearing this and they think how is this possible? I mean how is it possible that having been separated all those years, having heard no word of you, I mean 'cause how could she have, that somehow she knew? How is that possible?

MARRA: For many Korean mothers, when they're pregnant with their children, they have these dreams that indicate the gender. And my mother said actually that she didn't have a birth dream for me so she never knew my gender. And I found that to be really profound. My mother had birth dreams for all of my siblings and yet she didn't have one for me. And I consider myself to be a believer in a higher calling or a higher power, but I'm still blown away by the fact that my mother's intuition and had this sense that my gender would be a little bit different than my other siblings.

MARTIN: And the thing that also you point out in your piece is that her acceptance of you was not just limited to words and her own words. For example, she asked you at one point well, you know, I understand that you're a girl, so why do you dress like a boy? Like mothers everywhere criticizing your entire, of course. And...

MARRA: Of course.

MARTIN: ...of course, telling you to spiff it up. And there was another - she explained to the rest of the family, your grandfather made a point of giving you a Korean name as a gesture of, kind of, his acceptance. But also she did one more thing. When you were having dinner on your last night in Korea, that was very meaningful to you at dinner. Can you just tell us what that was?

MARRA: My mother and my siblings and I and a friend that was translating for us, we were all at dinner and my mother was talking to one of the waitresses while we were all chowing down on noodles. My friend yanked my shirt and said hey, your mom's talking about you. And I said OK, great, as I was eating. And then she stopped eating and said she'd just introduced you as her daughter. And I stopped eating immediately, because again, I said, said earlier that I was presenting very androgynously and here she is, a devout Christian, and yet she's introducing me to one of her friends or people in her life, as my daughter. Not only as a daughter that just came back to look for her, but also a daughter that doesn't look like the traditional daughter. And I was completely in awe of her and I think ever since that moment has really hit home about how amazing and unconditionally accepting my mom is of me.

MARTIN: What do think people should draw from your story or what would you hope they would draw from your experience?

MARRA: For me family is not the norm that society tells us it is. I have family that I was born into. I have family that I was raised by and I have family that I have chosen to be a part of my life. And it's incredible to know that I have so many people that are a part of my family, family that lives in the states and family that lives in Korea. So that's the first take away for me. And the second take away is that you can find unconditional love and acceptance in unexpected places. And I think for others that are listening or have read my piece, to consider that in their own journeys, whether they're looking for their families or whether they're considering coming out as not just transgender but gay, lesbian or bisexual, you will be surprised at where you'll find acceptance, love and support.

MARTIN: How are you now in your journey?

MARRA: I feel good.


MARRA: It's funny. I wrote the piece during Hurricane Sandy. I began to actually research doctors, health care professionals that would be willing to work with me on my physical transition. I have been out since 2003, so it's no big secret. And the work that I do, particularly in the LGBT community, I've been out and this is just the next step in my own personal journey and it's been amazingly positive and supportive, especially with this piece.

MARTIN: So how's your Korean now?

MARRA: With a little charades, a Korean dictionary and the vocabulary and verbs that I'm aware of, my mom and I more or less can have a conversation together. And funny enough, she's picked up some English as well too. So Skype video calls have turned into very amusing times to look forward to.


MARTIN: Well, wish her Happy Holidays from us, will you?

MARRA: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Andy Marra is the author of the essay "The Beautiful Daughter: How My Korean Mother Gave Me the Courage to Transition." She's also the public relations manager for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York.

Andy, thank you so much for joining us.

MARRA: Thank you.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.