November is recognized as Transgender Awareness Month, and each year on Nov. 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance serves as a memorial for the transgender and gender nonconforming people around the world who were slain for simply living their authentic lives.
The list of names of people to remember published each year grows and is still understated from the reality of the often-unsolved violence targeting our community. As we approach Nov. 20, I find myself reflecting on my own journey navigating not only my identity as a transgender man, but its intersection with my identity as a Korean-American adoptee.
There have been three points in my life where seeing my reflection in the mirror marked a distinct moment of understanding my identity and the path ahead.
In third grade, I proudly stepped up onto the stool in the bathroom of my childhood home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and gazed at myself in the mirror.
I had certainly seen my reflection before, but in that moment I realized that the image that peered back at me was distinctly different than what I had always thought. She had darker skin and oddly shaped eyes – certainly stranger looking than my parents or my friends. In that moment, I realized that I was different, much different.
Sure, I had always known that I was adopted from Korea in the way that we know we have a spleen, but don’t really understand what it is, what it looks like, or what it means. I had always understood that my Caucasian parents — of Dutch and Norwegian decent — had chosen my sister and me from a place called Seoul (that’s where babies came from), but I never understood that the child others saw was not the one I saw in my dreams of becoming president of the United States.
When I think back, my heart breaks for my eight-year-old self who, in that moment, understood the reality of the words from my classmates, teachers, and strangers over the years — ”g—k,” “ch—k,” “flat face,” “you’re kind can’t see as well as others” — and other cruelties that my parents unsuccessfully encouraged me to ignore. That moment shaped the years to come of what I understood as my destiny to “stand out” and never truly belong.
For the remainder of my childhood and well into my adult life, I grappled with my identity as a Korean adoptee and struggled to find my place. It wasn’t just my Asian features that I battled to accept: Even before that day in third grade, I knew for certain that I was a boy and spent years trying to accept the female body that I developed.
More than 25 years later, I returned to work following my first major transition-related surgery.
As I walked up to the door to enter my office building, I paused to look at the man smiling back at me. He was a confident Korean man who felt a sense of connection with his body and possessed a youthful excitement at the journey he had taken to get to this moment.
Moving to California in the late 1990s had been a critical step in embracing my Asian-ness, and I had started to shape my identity as a Korean-American adoptee. As I remember that moment, my heart still fills with pride as I stared at the transgender man who struggled to navigate the intersection of adoption, gender identity, and race, but had remained committed each day to live it as boldly as possible. And yet, my heart breaks for the millions of proud moments in the mirror unlived by other trans people whose lives were taken away as they felt the pride of connecting to their whole, authentic selves.
A little more than a week ago, on the night after the elections, I was finishing my three-year-old son’s nightly bath. I wrapped him in his unicorn towel and lifted him up. Like every other night, we took a moment to look in the mirror and name who we saw looking back at us.
As I stared at the beautiful Latino boy and his Korean father, my heart ached with fear at what the challenges of the years ahead could mean for my adopted son and me and the communities we live in.
The smiling boy looking back at me with his unicorn horn flopped to one side was protected from the realization of the times we live in, the messages around us that would play a role in how he feels about himself, his race, his role in our society. I looked at his father who had a tear in his eye as he felt the heaviness of the years of uncertainty that lie ahead, while trying to hold on to the excitement of the complexities of his son’s journey that he would get to share.
My heart reaffirmed its commitment to those two faces staring back. I will do everything I can to keep us rising up, to keep us moving forward — to keep us living authentically.
As a transgender, adopted, Korean-American father of an adopted Latino-American son, I promise myself every day that I will teach my child to stand strong and be fierce, whether that is a life lived quietly, or as loudly as possible. We will be true to ourselves so that in each moment in the mirror we can be proud of the people staring back at us. We will honor and remember those whose journeys ended too soon, and we remain committed to rise up.
Min Matson is a transgender, adopted, Korean-American father of an adopted Latino-American son. He appears in "aka SEOUL," a documentary presented by NBC Asian America and produced by ISAtv.