Transgender Identity: Interview with Sable Magazine (May 2000)


Interview with Dr. Pauline Park
by Angela J. Moffitt, Esq.

On May 12, 2000, I attended the weekly Friday night meeting of Sistahs in Search of Truth Harmony Alliance (SiSTAH), which is an organization for lesbian and bisexual identified women of color in New York City.  The guest facilitator for that meeting was Transgendered Activist, Dr. Pauline Park, who gave an outstanding presentation, perhaps drawing upon the skills she honed during the course of earning her Ph.D. in Political Science.  In the process of rendering her lecture, Pauline distributed handouts, answered questions and even used an easel, upon which she drew diagrams and defined important terms.  In short, we were ably schooled on the fine nuances of gender identity and gender expression.  As was our custom, several of us went out to dinner, immediately following the meeting.  I still remember the vigorous discussion had at dinner about all the information we had just digested.  In fact, we were still talking about Pauline’s exceptional lecture two weeks later.  SABLE Magazine thought it appropriate to continue Pauline’s instruction on the issues of gender identity and gender expression.  Prepare yourselves readers; school is about to begin.  But first, here’s more about the background of our putative Professor.

Pauline concurrently, I repeat concurrently, holds the following positions:  Co-Chair and Co-Founder of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA); Secretary and Co-Founder of the Queens Pride House (the LGBT Community Center in Queens, New York); and Vice-President of Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens (GVIDCQ).  Additionally, Pauline is an active and co-founding member of Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC) and an active member of the political committee of Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY).  Further, Pauline is roundly credited with leading the successful campaign for passage of the 2002 New York City ordinance, which affords full protection to gender variant persons under the law.  She also struggled tirelessly to include protection for gender variant expression under the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), the New York State law, also enacted in 2002, that affords protection to the lesbian/gay/bisexual segments of the LGBT community, but regrettably, excludes protection to the transgender community.  The struggle continues for statewide protection of gender variant expression in New York; and Pauline continues to be at the forefront of that struggle.  Pauline recently made time to receive me at her home in Queens, New York to grant this interview.  Class is now in session.

Q: What does the term “gender variant” mean?

A: “Gender variant” is an umbrella terms that includes transgendered and transsexual individuals.  By “gender variant” or “gender non-conforming”, I mean those individuals who do not always conform to the social expectation that those born male will consistently present themselves as “masculine men” and those born female will consistently present themselves as “feminine women”.

Q: What is the difference between a person who is transgendered and a person who is transsexual?

A: The term “transgendered” is inclusive of transsexuals.  A transgendered person is typically someone who chooses to spend a significant portion of his or her life in the gender opposite his or her birth sex.  A transsexual is typically someone who seeks or has obtained sex reassignment surgery.

Q: What is the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation?

A: Gender identity refers to how you self-identify your gender, whether as a man, a woman, or something else.  Sexual orientation is defined by whether you are attracted to the same or opposite sex, or both.

Q: What is your gender identity and sexual orientation?

A: I identify as a transgendered woman who is attracted to men.  As a transgendered woman, I don’t describe myself as heterosexual, even though I identify as a woman, partly because I am still anatomically (or physically) male.  More importantly, for me, to do so would represent an appropriation of heteronormative privilege.  My whole philosophy is to challenge heteronormative privilege in the sex/gender binary.  I do that partly through the way in which I identify myself.

Q: Someone once told me that a Female-to-Male (FTM) who is only attracted to women is considered to be heterosexual, and that the converse is true of a Male-to-Female (MTF) who is only attracted to men.  Is this true?  And if so, does this strike you as counterintuitive?

A: For transgendered people, the identification of one’s sexual orientation becomes very complicated.  Most people would consider a pre-op MTF transsexual woman who is attracted to women as heterosexual because she is anatomically male and is attracted to women.  A post-op MTF transsexual woman who is attracted to women would probably be considered by most to be lesbian because she is anatomically female and is attracted to women.  However, there are some lesbians who would reject a post-op transsexual woman as being a woman or as being a lesbian.  Indeed, such a lesbian would consider it to be a misappropriation of the terms ‘woman’ and ‘lesbian.’ Additionally, the borderline for what determines pre-op and post-op differs for MTFs and FTMs.

Q: What is the difference between a pre-op transsexual and a post-op transsexual?

A: A pre-op transsexual is someone who has not undergone any surgical procedure to alter his or her gender presentation. For MTFs, post-op is usually designated for someone who has undergone sex reassignment surgery, that is to say, someone who has had her anatomical sex reconstructed from that of a penis to that of a vagina.  For FTMs, post-op designation is more ambiguous.  Most FTMs do not undergo surgical procedures, such as falloplasty or other means of constructing a penis.  However, most FTMs do at some point in time undergo breast reduction surgery.  So generally, for FTMs, “top surgery” ends up being the borderline between pre-op and post-op, whereas for MTFs, “bottom surgery” ends up being the borderline between pre-op and post-op.

Q: At what point is the sex change of a transsexual legally recognized in the U.S. (i.e., when is one allowed to officially change one’s name, birth certificate, driver’s license, etc.)?

A: Once again, the answer to this question is more complex than you might think.  First of all, the process can be very arbitrary and usually entails obtaining a letter from a physician stating that you have either had sex reassignment surgery or that you are preparing to.  Additionally, in the U.S., there are federal, state, and local forms of identification.  For example, passports are issued at the federal level.  There is no federal law that I know of that really governs sex designation on identity papers.  A driver’s license is issued at the state level.  In New York State, technically, there is no such thing as a legal change of sex.  However, the Department of Motor Vehicles does permit you to change the designation of sex on your driver’s license.  Birth certificates are issued at the local level.  In New York City, several years ago, a court ruled that you cannot change the sex designation on your birth certificate from MTF or FTM; but rather, you can only blot it out.  Elsewhere in New York State and in the country (with the exception of two or three states), you are allowed to change the sex designation on your birth certificate.  With regard to name change, this is a somewhat related issue.  Many choose to change their name incrementally.  That is to say, rather than change from a clearly masculine to clearly feminine name (i.e., from “John” to “Jane”), one might initially change to an androgynous name, (i.e., “Dale” or “Chris”) followed by a second name change.

Q: Of those who transition from one sex to the opposite sex, what percentage is FTM? Is there any data on this question?

A: There is some data, but not much.  Most people are under the illusion that most transsexuals are MTF; but in fact, there are probably just as many FTM transsexuals.  However, since many FTMs don’t have sex reassignment surgery, they are probably less likely to be reflected in most of the statistical surveys.  Anecdotically, I believe that the balance between MTFs and FTMs is fairly close.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most pressing health risks for one who transitions from FTM?

A: There are many.  Let me cite one that is specific to FTMs.  If you transition from FTM, you still have female internal organs (assuming you’re not intersexed).  Thus, you are still susceptible to uterine cancer, cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, female infections, etc., all of which require the routine preventive services of an OB/GYN.  However, if a FTM presents very masculine (i.e., bearded, very muscled, etc.) to an OB/GYN, most OB/GYNs would probably freak out and refuse to treat that FTM.  So there is a real problem with FTMs receiving adequate healthcare from OB/GYNs, either because OB/GYNs discriminate against FTMs who present very masculine or FTMs are apprehensive about visiting OB/GYNs because of prior negative experiences.

Q: Allow us to get somewhat personal Pauline.  How long have you identified as a transgendered woman?  During that period, have you publicly presented as female at all times?

A: I have identified as a transgendered woman for the last six years.  During that period, I have publicly presented as female most of the times, but not always.

Q: Do you lament the loss of male privilege endemic to our patriarchal society?

A: Not at all.  The whole point is to challenge male privilege.  I think that what we have to do is create a society in which one group of people is not more privileged than the other based on sex, gender, gender identity and gender expression, etc.

Q: If you could return to your date of birth and choose your birth sex, would you choose, on that date, to be born female?  Or do you believe that your transition from male to female has been constructive, especially in light of your important contributions to the transgender community?

A: I don’t think I’d choose to be anything other than what I am.  I think each of us is given a certain mission in life, and mine may well be to work for the empowerment of transgendered people, the transgender community, and LGBT people of color, specifically LGBT queer Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs).  I think as the second part of your question suggests, it has been a difficult journey, but an extremely rewarding one for me, both personally and politically; because my own struggles with my gender identity have provided me with insights that have informed my political work that go well beyond simply identity politics.

Q: This question is being posed to you somewhat facetiously:  Do you believe that females are the better sex?

A: Well, I think we women have to be.  We have a longer way to go; and we have further to climb.

Q: What final words would you have for a woman who is considering transitioning from female to male?

A: I would tell any person who has issues of gender identity and who is considering any sort of transition to ask himself or herself this question:  “What do you want?”.  Regardless of what people tell you, consider what’s best for you.  There’s a very classic transsexual transition narrative that may be right for some people, but it’s not right for everyone.  For example, sex reassignment surgery may or may not be right for everyone.  Breast reduction surgery may or may not be right for everyone.  If you wish to recreate your gender identity, I would suggest that you do it acting from your inner most sense of self.

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