Parents of transgender people open up about difficulties of discrimination

Posted on : 2020-02-23 18:35 KST Modified on : 2020-02-23 18:53 KST
Raising children who constantly face prejudice is a whole new challenge as a parent
Jeong and her transgender child Lee Han-gyeol
Jeong and her transgender child Lee Han-gyeol

“My identity is as the parent of a transgender person. I am proud of my child.”

Jeong Eun-ae, 51, is outspoken when she talks to others. Ever since the time that her child Han-gyeol, 26, “came out” as female-to-male (FTM) and all through the eventual revision of his registered legal gender to male last year, Jeong supported her son’s decisions. She has always looked out for her child, who has routinely experienced discrimination and discomfort in everyday situations ranging from public bathrooms to swimming pools. Even so, she said her son’s difficulties recently are “something I’d never seen before.” Lately, he has had to sit and watch the social exclusion of transgender persons in the high-profile cases of Byeon Hee-su, a staff sergeant forcibly discharged from the military after undergoing gender reassignment, and a student (identified by the initial “K”) who was admitted to the Sookmyung Women’s University law department but ended up forgoing enrollment due to vehement objections from some students.

“No matter how tough things got, he never said that he wanted to die. He used to take medication once every few months when things were really hard; these days he takes it four times a week.” The challenges and frustrations faced by Byeon and K have been a source of despair for other transgender people like Han-gyeol. It has also been devastating for the family members who have watched and supported them from up close.

“I’ve never felt so frustrated in my life,” Jeong said. On Feb. 10, the Hankyoreh interviewed her and three other parents of transgender children.

Jeong is disappointed with the military for forcibly discharging Byeon, but said she “could understand, since they’re such a conservative group.” But watching the controversy surrounding K among Sookmyung students, she felt “attacked.”

“It’s one thing when you’re dealing with people who don’t really know, but I can’t fathom this kind of exclusion of transgender people by people who are studying feminism,” she said. “I’ve always thought that it’s darkest before the dawn, that you just need to hang in there when things are difficult. But this situation is just devastating.”

Hong Gyeong-ok, 49, is the mother of a 23-year-old male-to-female (MTF) transgender daughter identified by the surname Cho. She too had to suffer through the fear that the daggers directed at K might wound her own child.

“It’s all been hurtful -- all the things they’ve said disparaging transgender identity. It felt like I was being torn apart. I prayed that my daughter would not see it. My daughter doesn’t place a lot of value on life these days. She’s been philosophical. If you focus too much, you go crazy, so you have to be philosophical just to be able to breathe. As a parent, I wanted to ask, ‘Have any of you actually ever met a transgender person?’ But they’re just speaking out of ignorance, so I’ve been cautious about saying anything.”

Hong also said she felt gratitude toward K after her admission to Sookmyung. Hong knows about the tremendous determination it takes simply to come out and tell the world.

“They usually talk about coming out as emerging from a ‘closet,’ and you do it so that you can breathe. Even though [K] decided to forgo admission, I’m still grateful to her. Even that experience brought transgender individuals to people’s attention.”

Byeon Hong-cheol, 51, with his transgender son Byeon Woo-bin, 22, in a family photograph. (provided by Byeon)
Byeon Hong-cheol, 51, with his transgender son Byeon Woo-bin, 22, in a family photograph. (provided by Byeon)
Not all parents were always fully understanding

Not all of the parents were always fully understanding of their children’s transgender identity. Byeon Hong-cheol, 51, admitted that he was “really thrown at first” when he greeted his new “son” Woo-bin, 22, in late 2016.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t know about LGBTQ people. I was just taken aback that our own child was like that,” he recalled.

“But our son had struggled before that in school and interpersonal relationships, and we didn’t know the reason. After I heard that it was because of sexual identity, it felt like a puzzle had been solved -- like there might be a solution. It’s also been helpful going to parent meetings and learning and discussing things there.”

The path taken by Woo-bin has also led his parents to a major realization.

“Over time, I’ve come to realize thanks to my child that we shouldn’t be dividing men and women along binary lines. I’ve learned that we human beings have multifaceted identities beyond our sexual identity, and we need humility toward the identities of others -- and that the version of the world and people that I understand isn’t all there is.”

A 51-year-old mother surnamed Hwang, whose 24-year-old child is an FTM transgender person, admitted that she felt like her “world had come crashing down” when her “daughter” told her he was transgender. She could not understand how a person could be different from the gender identity they were born with. It was only after over a year of conflict that she was finally able to accept him as her son.

“He went through about 10 months of counseling, and nothing changed. He told me, ‘I don’t want to live this way,’ and as I saw his eyes, I just felt devastated. So I also ended up changing.” The two have been pillars of support for one another, but Hwang has recently been dealing with a heavy heart as she watches her son in his difficult path through life.

“The most heartbreaking thing is when someone had to give something up simply because they’re transgender. That’s been the most painful thing. We shouldn’t be stopping people from doing what they want just because they’re transgender.”

Hwang continues to live in hope. “Things will change as people learn,” she believed.

“Looking at my son’s friends, I’ve seen a lot of cases where most people are surprisingly accepting. Now that it’s become an issue, I think things will change as people gain a better understanding.”

Hong Gyeong-ok shared a similar message, expressing her heartfelt wish that “more people will meet and talk to even one transgender person.”

“I think all of us need to reflect and ourselves and ask whether we aren’t ‘upstanding bigots,’” she said.

“LGBTQ people are said to represent 3% of the population. We shouldn’t forget that the person next to us might also be LGBTQ.”

By Jeon Gwang-joon and Kang Jae-gu, staff reporters

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