Come on Out
When a Straight Girl Turns Gay (and Dates Transgender in Between)
About a year into my stay in South Korea, a coworker invited a group of us to her going away party. It was at Labris, a secret lesbian bar hidden in a nondescript building in the heart of Hongdae. No men are allowed inside.
That night of the party I found myself awkward as usual. I had never been to a gay bar. I had no gay friends and no idea what I was getting myself into. I've always struggled with being social in situations where you're "supposed" to be. Mostly, I prefer to stand back and observe. In any event, a few drinks always help loosen me up.
As I stood at the bar, I began a conversation with a girl. She was a friend of the host, a gyopo (교포). A term sometimes used with a negative connotation to describe a Korean who has lost touch with their Korean heritage, often because they were adopted out of the country as a baby and raised elsewhere. She had returned to Korea in search for her birth mother, hoping to regain that link to her home country.
She was smart, strong, creative, witty and arrogant with a beautiful face. All this paired with a sense of masculinity, short hair and tattoos. The two of us talked for hours that night and in the weeks that followed I continued getting to know her. We stayed up late messaging back and forth, as I scrolled through her photos over and over again. I had no idea what was happening but it felt new and exciting.
One night, I sent her a message admitting my crush. I played it off as a drunken mistake but she answered, "If you're drunk, fuck off. If not, let's go on a date." To which I replied, "Let's go on a date."
At the time it was terrifying but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was in a strange country where no one knew who I was and barely anyone spoke my language. My family and friends were far far away. No one could judge me or even so much as voice their opinion. It was total freedom. I could be anyone I wanted to be and for the first time in my life I could be with a woman, something that had never even crossed my mind.
In the end, we did go on that date and hung out for a short while before she returned to the States. She was my first real kiss, not one of those Girls Gone Wild ones that happen on your twenty-first birthdays and because of her, my world changed.
After she left, my dating life in Korea took a few strange twists. I was introduced to a mutual friend, a Korean woman (and I say woman because she was still living as one in her daily life) who owned a bar in Sincheon. After a short time dating she explained she was transgender but not able to come out because of her business and relationship with her father.
It was a troubled relationship from the start and didn't work out but not for lack of trying. We both drank too much and weren't very honest with each other. It also didn't help that my Korean wasn't great and her English the same.
She struggled with anger issues and coming to grips with being transgender. She would not let me see her naked or even touch her. After eight months of dating we called it quits only after she came home to the states to meet my family.
Before she arrived I thought it was finally time to let my family in on my little secret. I called each of my four brothers, one by one, and told them I was not interested in men anymore, something I look back on and see as unfair. It's a strange thing to be discovering you're attracted to the same sex only to be dating someone who is not that sex.
Each of my brothers accepted the news better than expected. No skin off their backs. I called my mom and explained I was dating a woman and she made a joke about Cher and laughed it off. My father was a different story and I told him in person. He was the most terrifying for sure. After all, I was his oldest and only girl, the one who would marry a man and have tons of little ones running around. I remember his reply as if it were yesterday, "I don't agree with it but I will always support you no matter what."
Troubled from the Start
Once again, I returned to Korea for another year of teaching. I reconnected with a Korean friend only to discover we had feelings for each other. I was young and naive and after a rough start we became a couple. Things were great for some time but not all good things last.
He's also transgender, something I learned after our spark was lit. And although he lived as a female at the office, he was much more open about his decision to live as a man with myself and friends. It was a very confusing time for me. I was testing the waters as a gay woman but had to say I have a boyfriend (who was transgender).
As time passed, we planned a trip home to the States. Utah would be our first stop, visiting mom and grandparents, then on to Michigan for my brothers and dad.
In preparation for the trip I sent a message to my family explaining what it means to be transgender and that we prefer everyone call my partner "he". I wanted to make sure he felt comfortable and everyone was respectful. It would have been unfair to create an unpleasant situation due to my fear.
In that sense, the visit went well but unfortunately the relationship didn't last. After nearly two years of battling his drinking with my lack of patience we called it quits and it's a shock we didn't kill each other in the meantime. It was a dark relationship, especially toward the end. I felt trapped in Korea with nowhere to turn and made the decision to move back home.
Through all of these struggles and failed relationships I've learned so many things. I've learned that I want to be with a woman who wants to be a woman and is happy in her own body and wants me to touch it. I've also learned that I can't let "love" rule my life. I’m definitely a sucker for love but letting an unhealthy relationship control you doesn't work. Independence and self-love are so important.
A few months ago, my grandmother asked if I had a "special friend". That's what she calls it when I have a girlfriend. I told her I didn't but she asked if we could talk more on the subject. We’d never spoken openly about being gay but years earlier one of my brothers had dished my secrets at the dinner table without my presence. She was definitely aware.
My grandmother went on about how she had been watching Caitlyn Jenner on TV. I had a feeling I knew where this conversation was going. She asked me if that was what I liked, if I was only interested in dating transgender people, which makes sense based on my history. She explained that I could tell her anything and that she had an open mind.
I said, those relationships just happened by chance and it wasn't intentional who I fell for but as for now, I'm happy dating women. She understood perfectly.
The conversation really opened my eyes to the idea of acceptance. I think oftentimes we don't give people the chance to accept us. We assume they won't so we suffer in silence. In my case, my 80 year old Mormon grandmother told me she could accept me for whomever I wanted to be.