Sunday 30 August 2015

Interview with Pauline Park

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Pauline Park, a human rights activist, transgender advocate, the chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), president of the board of directors as well as former executive director of Queens Pride House, co-founder of Iban/Queer Koreans of New York, named to a list of 'The 2012 Most Influential LGBT Asian Icons' and '50 Transgender Icons' for Transgender Day of Remembrance 2012. Hello Pauline!
Pauline: Hello, Monika!
Monika: Your life is very extraordinary. You are a Korean-American adoptee…
Pauline: Yes, I was born in Korea and adopted by European American parents, and raised in Milwaukee (Wisconsin). You might be surprised by some things we have in common; you're Polish, and I grew up on the south side of Milwaukee, which is predominantly German and Polish Catholic (it was even more so when I was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s). I grew up eating kielbasa and punchki as well as sauerkraut -- which is like a bland, non-spicy German version of kimchi~!
Monika: Great to hear! You are the champion of a myriad of causes that touch on transgender rights. Could you name some of the most successful initiatives that you took part in?
Pauline: I'm probably most closely associated with the successful campaign I led for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council in April 2002, and I served in the working group that drafted guidelines for implementation of the law that were adopted by the New York City Commission on Human Rights in December 2004.
I was also on the steering committee of the coalitions that led the successful campaigns for the Dignity in All Schools Act enacted by the New York City Council in 2004 and the Dignity for All Students Act enacted by the New York state legislature in 2011; the formerly prohibited bullying and bias-based harassment in New York City public schools and the latter prohibited discrimination as well as bullying and bias-based harassment in public schools throughout the state of New York.

Courtesy of Pauline Park.

NYS DASA was the first legislation enacted by the state legislature that explicitly included gender identity and expression -- in other words, the first transgender-inclusive legislation enacted at the state level here in New York.
I also served as executive editor of the NYAGRA transgender health care provider directory, the first (and so far only) public director of transgender-supportive health care providers in the New York City metropolitan area, which I worked with a NYAGRA intern (Kelly White) to put together and publish in 2009.
I also conducted the first transgender sensitivity training at a major hospital in New York City.
Monika: A lot has been achieved since the Riot at Compton's Cafeteria in 1966. What is left to be done, so we could say that transgender people are no longer discriminated against?
Pauline: The community and the movement have made an enormous amount of progress over the course of the last half-century, but there is so much more work to be done; transgendered people still face pervasive discrimination, harassment, abuse, and violence in the United States and it is much worse for transgendered people in many other countries, such as Russia, Belarus, Uganda, Nigeria, and Jamaica, just to mention several countries among many where it is extremely difficult and even dangerous to be openly transgendered.
The issues that members of the community face are myriad: from discrimination to street harassment and violence, to access to health care, to bullying and bias-based harassment in schools, to police harassment and brutality, to incarceration in jails and prisons, to immigration and citizenship status issues, to programs and services for youth and elders. The work is endless because the needs are unlimited.
Monika: When did it occur to you that you are regarded as a transgender icon?
Pauline: I guess that's something for others to say, but being named to a list of 'The 2012 Most Influential LGBT Asian Icons' and '50 Transgender Icons' for Transgender Day of Remembrance 2012 was certainly gratifying; being named grand marshal of the New York City LGBT Pride March in 2005 -- the first openly transgendered person so designated -- was an enormous honor and privilege.

Photo by Mia Nakano.

Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Pauline: I think we still face pervasive discrimination, harassment, abuse, and violence in the United States, but it varies tremendously across different states, cities, and even neighborhoods. There are only 17 states that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or expression, plus many cities and counties, but a majority of Americans live in cities, counties, and states where there is no explicit protection for transgendered people from discrimination.
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? 
Pauline: I transitioned at the age of 36; it wasn't easy, but it never is.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Pauline: I don't know that I had any role models, though there were a few people who I looked up to; but my path was very different from theirs in so many ways. 
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Pauline: There are many transgender activists whom I respect and admire, people doing good work in different parts of the country and the world. I'll just mention a few among so many: Danielle Askini in Seattle, Cecilia Chung in San Francisco, Bamby Salcedo in Los Angeles, Ruby Corado in Washington, D.C., Marisa Richmond in Nashville (Tenn.) and Park Hanhee (박한희) in Seoul (South Korea).
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Pauline: The hardest thing was the lack of support from a few people closest to me.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Pauline: I think it is; transgender is certainly the new frontier for human rights in many if not most countries around the world.
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far?
Pauline: I think media representations have been a mixed bag; some have been better than others. The main problem is that there's a dominant narrative -- what I call the 'classic transsexual transition narrative' -- that crowds out all others. The mainstream US media are always re-articulating that same narrative instead of depicting the full diversity of the transgender community as they should.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Pauline: There is a mixed record of success on that score; in some cases, yes; in other cases, less so; it varies tremendously. But I think the fact that 'LGBT' has become standard usage in the US and in many other countries around the world is a sign of our progress toward full bisexual and transgender inclusion within the LGBT community.

Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism? How about you? ☺
Pauline: Well, it's really not for me to compare myself to such historic figures as Harvey Milk, but I also think that circumstances are in many ways quite different from the 1960s and 1970s, even if transgender empowerment still lags considerably behind that of gay men and lesbians in the US and elsewhere.
I think there are some really good activists (including those I mentioned earlier) doing important work, but I would prefer to focus on the community and the movement rather than trying to identify a single heroic figure; I think we put far too much emphasis on that.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Pauline: I've been involved with electoral politics on and off for nearly 20 years now, even if less so than 'movement' politics. I co-founded the Out People of Color Political Action Club in 2001, serving as its co-president before OutPOCPAC became inactive, and I co-founded the Guillermo Vázquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens in 2002, serving as its vice-president during the all-too-brief life of that LGBT political club. OutPOCPAC was the first (and so far only) political club in New York City organized by and for LGBT people of color. Through OutPOCPAC and GVIDCQ, I became involved in a number of campaigns for candidates for office here.
Probably the most controversial but also the most effective campaign I've been involved within the realm of electoral politics was the Anybody But Quinn campaign in 2013; that was a campaign aimed at preventing the openly lesbian New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn from winning the Democratic mayoral primary, and I think ABQ did, in fact, play an important role in helping to deny Chris Quinn the nomination that year.

Photo by by Anh Dao Kolbe.

Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Pauline: Romance is the one area of my life that has not flourished since I transitioned; in fact, I haven't had a single long-term relationship since then. I suspect that most transgendered people could easily understand why that might be.
Monika: In 2010 you recorded "Barricades Mystérieuses," which includes keyboard music by Couperin, Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and Debussy…
Pauline: I'm only an amateur pianist, not at all a professional or even close to it, but I am happy that people who have heard "Barricades Mystérieuses" seem to really like it.
Piano music has played an enormously important role in my life, and the miracle here is not so much that I recorded a CD, but rather that I did so after not having seriously practiced for 25 years before buying an upright piano over a decade ago and recovering my piano technique.
Playing the piano -- as well as accompanying myself while singing -- is my favorite thing in the world to do, and it's sustained me through many ups and downs; not only is it extremely important as an aesthetic discipline and spiritual practice, it's really helped sustain me as an activist by giving me a means of creative expression as well as a way of dealing with the frustrations that I experience as an activist.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Pauline: Yes, and I've had many friends encourage me to do so. I've written autobiographical essays, but I think I'll leave my memoirs until after I write a few other books first.
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Pauline: Yes, both new projects and ongoing projects. I just stepped down as executive director of Queens Pride House after more than three years serving in that capacity -- the first openly transgendered executive director of an LGBT community center in the city or state of New York as well as the first Asian American in such a capacity, and one of only two openly transgendered executive directors of an LGBT community center in the country as well as only one of two Asian American executive directors of an LGBT community center in the country. But I'm continuing to serve as coordinator of the transgender support group at Queens Pride House, which I revived four years ago after it fell apart and have led since then.
My biggest (relatively) new activist project has been my work with New York City Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (NYC QAIA), which I co-founded in 2011 in response to a ban on Palestine solidarity organizing at the New York City LGBT Community Center (in Manhattan).

Partly because of my work with QAIA, I was invited to participate in the first US LGBTQ delegation tour of Palestine in January 2012. My Palestine solidarity work is by far the most controversial activism I've ever been involved in -- far more controversial than any 'mainstream' LGBT activism or advocacy work I've ever done; but challenging Israeli occupation and apartheid necessarily means taking on the Israel lobby, which is very powerful, especially in New York, which is the epicenter of the Zionist machine; very few queer activists in the US are willing to do so. 
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Pauline: I have a very particular perspective on gender dysphoria, which I think is a problematic concept; as I like to say, I don't think I have a gender identity disorder; I think society has a gender identity disorder. I would recommend joining a transgender support group to anyone who is struggling with gender identity issues. 
Monika: Pauline, thank you for the interview!
Pauline: You're most welcome. Thank you for the invitation~!

All the photos: courtesy of Pauline Park.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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