Coming Out as Trans-Racial


By Jojo Ruba

(With special thanks to Jonathan Swift, the father of modern-day social satire.)

I never thought I would be writing this. Not even my closest friends or family know about the pain I face every day or how lonely it feels not to be able to tell anyone.

But recent events give me hope that I will be accepted for who I really am: a white person trapped in a brown person's body.

Interest in trans-racial people like myself of course has piqued because of the controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the past president of a local NAACP group in Washington State. The NAACP is a US civil-rights group that primarily helps African-Americans.

The problem is that Rachel was born white, not black, and many people think this disqualifies her from leading a black group. Even her parents, who are both Caucasian, are accusing Rachel of lying about her race.

But Rachel insists that she has identified as a black person even as a five-year-old. "I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black curly hair," she told Today Show host, Matt Lauer.[1] However, she didn't feel free to fully express who she was when she was younger. She said social pressure forced her to live as a white person, even though she identified as black. "I was socially conditioned to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me. And so I kind of felt pretty awkward with that at times."[2]

Many have mocked Rachel because they don't understand her struggle. I can. I too was five when we moved from the Philippines to Canada and it was a difficult struggle for me to fit in. In fact, there were hardly any Asian kids in my elementary school—they were mostly white. As I began going to school, I noticed things about my culture that I didn't want to identify with. For example, as I learned proper English, I began to correct my parents' funny accent (ironically, Filipinos have a problem with the letter "F"). I would also make sure we never brought rice to school for lunch because white people only ate sandwiches. Even when we played video games, I would choose to be the white characters not the brown ones.

As I moved into high school, I had non-white friends but I began to identify with the white kids at school and act like them. In fact, many of my white friends told me that they often "forgot" that I wasn't white! I even heard a term to describe how I was feeling: I was a "coconut," white inside but brown outside.

Some might think that I am just a victim of a culture that values "whiteness." I don't identify as brown because I was never given a chance to see that there was nothing wrong with my ethnic identity. Anyone who feels trapped in the wrong race faces this ignorance.

When an ad for skin-whitening lotion was put inside buses in Toronto, there was public outcry! Many accused the ad of being racist because it encouraged people to try to change something, their skin colour, when there was nothing wrong with their skin.[3]

But what cis-racial[4] people don't realize is, just like gender, race is a social construct. We create it in the cultures we come from. Because it is a social construct, it is fluid and can change.

Ironically, some transgendered people don't support trans-racial people despite the fact we use the exact same arguments. They even argue there may be genetic causes for transgenderism (even though it's inconclusive so far),[5] but no such genetic variation has been discovered for trans-racial people.

Whitening soapHowever, if our gender identities cannot be limited by our bodies, why should our race be limited by our bodies? I remember hearing about the beginning of a local training event for LGBT and pro-choice activists. That's when participants were asked to introduce themselves by saying their name and what pronoun they wanted to be called at the meeting—he, she, it or they. They could decide for themselves if they were male, female, an inanimate object or a plural entity for the day. No one was going to make that decision about their identity for them!

In the same way, all trans-racial people are asking for that same right! When our view of who we are clashes with our physical bodies, we can't be happy. And isn't that the most important thing in this debate, helping people live at peace with themselves by getting them to change their bodies?

In fact, there are likely more transracial people because so many are interested in adjusting if not outright changing their racial features. For example, the global market for skin-whitening lotion, soap and other cosmetic products is expected to have $19.8 billion in sales by 2018 especially in places like Asia, the Middle East and even Africa.[6] You can even find many of these products in Canada at local Asian markets.

In Vancouver, Asians are spending up to $10 000 on plastic surgery to get their noses less flat and more Caucasian.[7] Meanwhile, around the world, over 700 000 people yearly get blepharoplasties and epicanthoplasties—eyelid surgeries that make their eyes look more Western and less Asian. The operations can total up to $25 000.[8]

One journalist researching plastic surgery in South Korea discovered that it is so common and so radical that some Korean hospitals "offer certificates of identity to foreign patients, who might need help convincing immigration officers that they're not in the Witness Protection Program."[9]

In China, these racial changes are even more important. They have height requirements to get into law school or to get a job as a stewardess. To get into the foreign ministry, for example, male applicants need to be at least 5ft 7in, while women must be at least 5ft 3in. This is because Chinese diplomats must match the height of their foreign counterparts.[10] To fix this, many go through painful surgery where their legs are literally broken in two so they can extend their height. One reporter described the procedure this way:

[A] doctor sawed through the flesh and bone below her knee to insert what looks an awful lot like knitting needles through the length of her tibiae. . . . These giant steel pins are connected by eight screws punched horizontally through her ankle and calf to a steel cage surrounding each leg. Once the bone starts to heal, these cages will act like a medieval torture device—each day over the next few months [she] will turn the screws a fraction and stretch her limbs more and more until she has grown by 8 cm.[11]

As I've now come out as trans-racial, I am considering all of those options so that my outside self will reflect what I've always been inside. Unfortunately, my province does not pay for any of these procedures yet under our free healthcare, though they do pay for sex reassignment surgery. But as more people recognize the voices of trans-racial people, our government must be convinced to cover this surgery so trans-racial people can be more like ourselves.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of work to do to educate Canadians. One of my friends, "Eugene," is a Christian who actually went through gender reassignment surgery from male to female and lived as a female for 10 years.[12] He said the urge to change was so overwhelming, that he left his wife and children to live a different life. But after hearing a sermon from Billy Graham on the radio, he realized that he had destroyed his life and now lives as a man again.

When he learned that I wanted to get operations to change my race, he told me what he tells others who want to change their identity: if your mind doesn't feel compatible with your healthy body, work on changing your mind, not your body. He said I needed to accept myself for who God made me because there was nothing wrong with my body. "We have all been made by God as a unique creation and made as He designed us. He made us according to His plan and purpose," he said.

I told him God made me trans-racial so I had the right to change my body because God designed us to act on our feelings. He must have wanted me to change my race; otherwise, He wouldn't have given me these feelings and the technology to make it happen!

Some progressive voices are at least starting to listen. CBC personality Neil Macdonald states, "The notion of deciding your race is becoming more relevant every day in America. Don't forget, this is a country practically founded on the concept of self-invention and reinvention…In addition, race is becoming a relative notion."[13]

That's progress. He understands that ethnicity is a social construct and the reality of our physical bodies can no longer dictate who we are. Rather, it's what we feel and how we think that shape our identity, not our bodies.

I realize that it's hard to change conventions like this, but in order to be accommodating of all Canadians, we must be willing to change our thinking—and even I am still learning.When I excitedly told a friend about my article and that Neil Macdonald supports trans-racial rights, he said that was impossible. Why? Because he was Neil Macdonald. At first, I didn't understand and was about to argue with him.

But then he explained. Even though he was born a black girl, he always identified with the CBC reporter he watched on TV. "I even dressed up like him as a kid," he said. "If our identities shouldn't be limited by our physical bodies, then can't I live the way I always felt? Can't I be Neil Macdonald?" Neil was right, of course. If my physical features don't shape my identity, then neither could the fact that he was born a poor, black girl from Calgary, stop him from identifying as a rich, white CBC reporter from Toronto. I even encouraged him to contact the CBC to get paid the other Neil's salary.

If our physical bodies no longer limit how we identify ourselves, then we can be anyone or anything we feel. We no longer have to conform to any social construct: gender, race, geography, species etc. We would all be free to live as we truly want—and have the government cover all our plastic surgeries!

Next, I am exploring the idea that I am not just white but actually a 69-year-old British woman from the North Pole, trapped in a 30-something male Filipino body in Southern Alberta. I have always felt like a cold, old soul, so doesn't it make sense that I deserve to get my government pension and northern living allowance?

[1] Eun Hyung Kim, "Rachel Dolezal Breaks Her Silence on TODAY: 'I Identify as Black,'" June 16, 2015, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.today.com/news/rachel-dolezal-speaks-today-show-matt-lauer-after-naacp-resignation-t26371.

[2] Neil Macdonald, "Why Can't Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be?" CBC News, June 17, 2015, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/why-can-t-rachel-dolezal-be-as-black-as-she-wants-to-be-1.3116030.

[3] "TTC Removing Controversial Skin-Lighening Ads After Outcry," CBC News, December 5, 2014, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ttc-removing-controversial-skin-lightening-ads-after-outcry-1.2862061.

[4] Cis-race is when your race matches your physical ethnicity. Transgender people use the terms cis-male and cis-female for those whose gender identity matches their physical bodies.

[5] Julia Wallace, "Discovery of a 'Transsexual Gene' Raises More Questions Than Answers," Popular Science, November 18, 2008, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-11/discovery-transsexual-gene-raises-more-questions-answers.

[6] Andrew McDougall, "Skin Lightening Trend in Asia Booses Global Market," CosmeticsDesign-Asia.com, June 4, 2013, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.cosmeticsdesign-asia.com/Market-Trends/Skin-lightening-trend-in-Asia-boosts-global-market.

[7] "Asian Plastic Surgery Is a Vancouver Growth Industry," Vancouver Sun, June 22, 2012, accessed June 18, 2015, http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2012/06/22/asian-plastic-surgery-is-a-vancouver-growth-industry/.

[8] Chris Stokel-Walker, "When Does Plastic Surgery Become Racial Transformation?," BuzzFeed, May 16, 2013, accessed June 18, 2014, http://www.buzzfeed.com/chrisstokelwalker/when-does-plastic-surgery-become-racial-transformation#.mt2nM4R0dY.

[9] Patricia Marx, "About Face," The New Yorker, March 23, 2015, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/about-face.

[10] Jonathan Watts, "A Tall Order," The Guardian, December 15, 2003, accessed June 18, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/dec/15/gender.uk.

[11] Ibid.

[12] This story is real even if the name is not.

[13] Neil Macdonald, "Why Can't Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be?"