By RYOKO NAKAMURA, Rafu Japanese Staff Writer
TORRANCE — “My son was born in a female body, but all his life, he’s felt like a boy. He didn’t understand that. I didn’t and people around us didn’t understand what it meant. Our story is about a family that had to deal with changing how we think about our child.”
Marsha Aizumi and her transgender son, Aiden, addressed a Japanese American audience to educate the public and to raise awareness of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) members of the Asian community on Sept. 14 at Faith United Methodist Church in Torrance.
The presentation, “A Mother, Her Transgender Son, and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance,” was hosted by the Greater L.A. Singles Chapter of the JACL.
All Aizumi wanted was a little girl when she and her husband, Tad, decided to adopt a child from Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. They named the little girl Ashley.
“I found very quickly that she didn’t want to wear pink, didn’t like dolls, didn’t want to do any of the girl things that I remember doing when I was young,” Aizumi recalled.
On Halloween, Ashley always chose to be a superhero such as Batman, a Power Ranger, or Zorro. She never wanted to be a princess or ballerina. Aizumi thought she was a tomboy.
“I thought my child loved Halloween because of the candy. But I learned recently that it was because that was one day out of the year he could be himself and nobody would make fun of him,” said Aizumi.
Soon after middle school started, a time when gender begins to matter in new ways, things became bumpy and rough. Aiden, who was still Ashley, felt uncomfortable talking about boys, fashion, and makeup with other girls. This seventh-grader felt more comfortable being with boys, but they didn’t. There seemed to be nowhere at school to fit in and make close friends.
“I was having a hard time at school socially, and I couldn’t figure out why,” Aiden recalled. He started having bad anxiety and panic attacks regularly, and Aizumi saw her child’s self-esteem plummet around this same time.
The situation worsened in high school. “Just imagine you aren’t fitting in anywhere, and you are feeling that something is wrong with you or that you were born as a mistake. That was what my child was feeling from middle school to high school,” Aizumi said, her voice filled with emotion.
By the time Aiden was in high school, he realized that he was attracted to other girls. But he didn’t want to say anything because he was part of a very conservative church community. “I had it in my head that these feelings were going to get me in trouble, so I put that feeling away from me,” said Aiden.
The teen faced other problems during the hours after school let out. Teasing became physical violence. He was called names every day. He was hit for no reason. He constantly thought about ending his own life.
Aiden didn’t tell his family what was happening because he didn’t want them to worry. Aizumi reflected, “On some level, I knew my child was in trouble, but on another level, I didn’t know it was that serious. I didn’t know he had lost so much hope.”
When Aiden was 16 years old, he thought that the solution to these problems would be to come out to his family and friends as a lesbian. “I wasn’t sure how my family would react, but deep down inside, I knew they would support me,” he said.
Growing up in a typical Japanese American Christian family, Aizumi couldn’t even say the word “lesbian” when Aiden first came out. “I have to admit I was uncomfortable. It was hard for me, but then I realized that the most important thing is my family,” she said.
After coming out, Aiden actively participated in LGBT events, searching for the common ground and social connections that were unavailable at school. He soon met a group of transgender people. Listening to their personal stories, he realized these narratives sounded very familiar to him.
Aiden had an epiphany: “Why am I so attached to their stories? Maybe this is the extra step that I need to take to find self acceptance in my life.”
Four years ago, when Aiden was 20 years old, he came out to his family again, this time as a transgender. “After he came out as a lesbian, things didn’t get better. So we knew we had to do something different this time,” said Aizumi.
Aiden asked for a transition, and the family agreed. He started taking testosterone, a steroid hormone, and decided to have a mastectomy, a surgical removal of both breasts.
His voice is now much lower, his appearance is more masculine, and his facial hair is growing. Although he is not planning to have genital reconstruction surgery, he finally feels his body matches his gender role. He legally changed his gender and name.
Aizumi was scared because the surgery is irreversible. “But as I saw my child slowly becoming happier, I thought this was probably what he needed to do all along,” she said. Aiden started going out into the world more and slowly finding his passion in speaking out.
Since then, Aiden has been volunteering at the Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide hotline, helping others and educating the public by talking about his own story. The project takes its name from a film about a gay teen who tries to take his own life. Aiden was selected to be on the youth advisory council, marched in Washington D.C. representing the transgender community, and even met President Barack Obama.
In recent years, Aizumi has been also participating in the LGBT support group PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to educate herself and to understand her child better.
“The more I become part of the community and the more I talk to individuals and hear their stories, the more I realize that they are human beings like I am. They just happen to love somebody who is the same gender. They simply love each other,” said Aizumi.
At the PFLAG meetings, she didn’t see any Asian faces. “A lot of Asian people don’t want to come out because they don’t know who to talk to and they are afraid of being judged,” noted Aizumi, who decided to establish the San Gabriel Valley Asian Pacific Islander PFLAG.
Being born Japanese American, her parents often told her, “Don’t be that visible.” She said that her parents would have been surprised to see her stepping up in the LGBT community and participating in gay pride. However, they also taught her to be honest.
“It must have been so hard for Aiden not to be able to be honest with himself for such a long time. So I’m here to support my son. We vowed that no matter what, we are going to bring our family along. It became a very connecting moment for us,” said Aizumi.
Stefen, Aiden’s younger brother, never once balked at the fact that Aiden was going to be a man. He said that he always knew, and it didn’t matter to him whether Aiden represented himself as a man or a woman.
Tad, Aiden’s father, had the hardest time in the beginning. He was understanding, but it was painful to lose a daughter he loved so much. He recently said publicly, “I loved my daughter so much, but I love my son even more.”
Aiden is now engaged to a beautiful young woman, Mary. When she was six months old, she was diagnosed with alopecia, which made her lose all her hair. Aiden and Mary have found a deep connection because both had to go through life feeling like they didn’t quite fit in.
Looking back her journey, Aizumi said, “When you see your child so depressed and feeling like there’s no hope, and then when you see your child this happy, there’s no question. Aiden used to wake up every morning and have to figure out how many lies he would have to tell, but he doesn’t do that anymore.”
Aizumi’s book about her journey, “Two Spirits, One Heart,” is available on Amazon.com. For more information, visit www.marshaaizumi.com. For more information about San Gabriel Valley Asian Pacific Islander PFLAG, go to http://sgvapipflag.tumblr.com.