Pauline Park is fighting for transgender rights
By Kevin Allison
New York Blade
Friday, July 18, 2003
Late one night, years ago, Pauline Park squeezed onto an E train to Queens in a burgundy gown. A man shoved past, selling batteries. When he saw Park, he was disgusted. “If you’re a man, dress like a man!” he yelled. He went on insulting her.
“People were laughing at me. Middle-aged white people, laughing right at me,” Park recalls. “But it bothered me for about 10 seconds and I just moved on.” She pauses in reflection and says, “It’s about maintaining my dignity.”
Since the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws, dignity for the gay community is here. But it’s still easier for some than for others.
This month, Park celebrates the anniversary of her two greatest achievements as an activist: the founding of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA); and the passage of the city’s transgender rights bill. But there are still too many incidents like the one on the subway for Park to remember.
Even with a PhD in political science, training as a classical pianist and being a self-taught expert on J.R.R. Tolkien, she feels happy just to walk down the street in peace. Park is transgendered.
In her case, that means no surgery and no hormones. But it means more to her than cross-dressing. Park sees no incongruity between the male body she inhabits and the female identity she embraces.
Relaxing in her Jackson Heights apartment, surrounded by books from all over the world, Park sips on spring water, reminiscing on how she got to this anniversary. She’s a petite Korean American, utterly comfortable with herself barefoot in a floral summer one-piece. Park has shoulder-length black hair and stunning eyes.
Her big, expressive face may not always “pass” as a woman’s; but the most striking thing about Park is her voice. Soft and soothing, it’s a voice made for lullabies.
“When I was a young child, I use to have constant dreams, always with the same premise,” she says laughing. “I was alone at night in a big department store in the women’s section. And I got to try on all the clothing that I wanted to.”
Park is particularly proud of her work in helping to pass New York City’s transgender rights bill. “That really took countless hours of work to pass. I started on it in January of ’99,” she says. On April 24, 2002, the City Council did approve a landmark bill to protect the rights of the transgendered. The Mayor signed it on April 30, when it became Local Law 3 of 2002.
This month also marks the fifth anniversary of her founding NYAGRA. “When I first started dressing, I remember this one taxi driver I met and he felt he had to remain a closeted cross-dresser.” The memory brings sorrow to Park’s voice. “He was older, late ‘50s, very masculine features and he was very, very sad about it. It really brought home to me that the mass of transgendered people live lives of quiet desperation. So I started having ideas about what eventually became NYAGRA, a group to be a voice for the voiceless.”
Park herself was voiceless for years. An adopted son of Christian fundamentalists in Milwaukee, she hid from the world behind stacks of books in libraries.
Things got less lonely in college with gay groups and coming out. Cross-dressing was the long-dreamt-of leap taken when Park was living in London in the early ‘80s at the age of 22. She lost friends over it and found the switch just as nerve-racking as exhilarating.
Expressing her ‘masculine’ side“I think that ironically there are more of what you might call ‘masculine’ traits that I’ve finally been able to express having come out as a transgendered woman,” she says. “There’s room now for this side of me who is the firebrand, the fiery activist who goes out to get things done.”
That’s not to say the little dreamer she once was, the contemplative kid playing Bach on the piano, is lost. “There’s still a side of me that’s philosophical. I sometimes find myself having two reactions at the same time, and I don’t feel they’re in conflict. It’s more of a conversation.”
It’s clear that conversation is Park’s forte. She speaks lovingly and often of “intellectual companionship,” and finds inspiration in “The Lord of the Rings.”
“There are two kinds of power,” she explains. “One is the power of dominion over others, symbolized by the ring. But there’s also spiritual power, which is enhanced when it’s shared. That’s the true spirit of community. People think, ‘Well my voice doesn’t count.’ But I think we showed with the transgender rights bill that a small number of people acting on a just cause can accomplish great things.”
A statewide transgender rights bill is her next conquest, as well as the Dignity for All Students bill to protect kids from harassment at school. Is it getting easier being herself in public these days? Park is optimistic as ever.
“Just a week ago I was walking down the street past a construction site and one of the men just standing around goes, ‘That’s a man! That’s a Chinese man!’ And I just smiled to myself. I thought, ‘Well mister, you’re wrong on both counts!’”
This article originally appeared in the New York Blade on 18 July 2003.