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The 14th International Transgender Day of Remembrance ended five days ago, but this holiday season in particular, it remains fresh in my mind. Over Thanksgiving break, I met up with my friend Cris for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. In years past, we would meet at a place called Orient Gourmet, the restaurant where we worked together for five years. But a lot has changed since then. The restaurant where I spent the majority of my high school years has undergone a complete transformation. In some ways I could say the same thing about my friend Cris. He is no longer one of my “girlfriends” from back home. This year, the person who stared back at me from across the table was a man.
Two years on testosterone has done a lot for Cris. It has given him a mustache, broader shoulders and a lower voice. Most of all, it has made him a happier person. Despite all the obstacles Cris has had to overcome, he smiles and laughs more than he used to. There is a lightness in his movements that was never there when he went by the name of Jenny.
When Jenny and I first met, it was my first week at my first job. I was excited because Jenny was also a Korean adoptee. On top of that, we both had siblings that were adopted as well. In Bloomington, Ill., finding others with that same experience was slim to none. Yet, upon our introduction, I was met with a calm, almost cold demeanor. Despite the fact that we were both adoptees, it did not appear we had anything else in common. At the peak of my awkward, hormone-raging adolescence, my interests were boys, shopping and underage drinking. Jenny, however, liked to run marathons, play sports and otherwise be left alone. Though we were on polite terms, we were far from close friends. It wasn’t until a couple years later, when Jenny became Cris, that he started to let me in.
When Cris first came out as transgender, I didn’t know what that meant. When he told me that he was supposed to be a man not a woman I still couldn’t fully wrap my head around it. Regardless, it didn’t make much of a difference to me. I was just glad to be getting to know Cris since I never really knew Jenny. As he opened up to more friends and coworkers about his decision to transition, I learned about his past, his family and his hopes for the future. I learned that despite his desire for gender reassignment surgery, gender was not at the crux of his predicament. All Cris wanted was to be happy — to be able to feel comfortable in his own skin and look in the mirror without being alienated by his own reflection.
Unfortunately, his parents didn’t see it from the same perspective. When Cris started taking testosterone I was shocked when his parents kicked him out of the house. As adoptees that have already been abandoned by our families once, I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to go through it again. I watched in amazement as Cris picked up the pieces and continued to go through his transition despite setback after setback. Seemingly insignificant things like bathrooms, ID cards and background checks proved nearly insurmountable. Insurance policies did not cover gender reassignment surgery. In order to “qualify” for the operation, Cris had to get a written letter of permission from a therapist and a physician, both confirming that he had “gender identity disorder.” Though Cris did not actually have any “disorder,” it was required that he be labeled as such to get the surgery. On the news Cris heard about other transgender people being harassed, physically attacked and brutally murdered. Yet, he continued on. He fought tirelessly for his surgery, his testosterone and his ID changes until he got them all. He never once questioned what he was doing, even when others told him he was sick and wrong. Knowing that he was going through so much that I didn’t understand was hard. Yet it was during those difficult times that we became friends.
When I saw Cris this Thanksgiving break, I was in awe at the person looking back at me. Only a couple years ago, Cris began the fight for his happiness. Though for a while all the odds seemed stacked against him, he got through it with his unwavering courage and resilience. And the fight is not over. For Cris, the holidays have always been awkward since he began transitioning, but things are getting better. He graduated from college with honors and is holding down two jobs. Next year he will be the best man in his brother’s wedding.
Not all people are as lucky as Cris. Transgender Day of Remembrance exists to commemorate the many lives lost to transgender hatred. The Human Rights Campaign estimates that one in 12 transgender Americans face the chance of being murdered, and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Program’s recent report showed that the largest increase in violence against any demographic targeted transgender men. According to a survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, 41 percent of more than 6,400 transgender respondents said they had attempted suicide, compared to a rate of 1.6 percent of the general population.
These statistics are unacceptable, but they also make me even more thankful to know Cris. For me, Transgender Remembrance Day is also about celebrating those who are alive and thriving despite all the odds. There are many of them, and their bravery is an inspiration not just to the transgender community, but to everyone.