How Finding My Korean Mother Gave Me the Courage to Transition

Growing up, I remember making a pact with myself. As an adopted child I promised to find my family in Korea, but how exactly that would occur remained a mystery to me. I luckily had the unconditional support of my American family, even if they were stumped by my vague plan.

I later came out as a trans woman in 2003. I was also fortunate enough to receive an outpouring of love, acceptance and support from family and friends.

But there was always one barrier to my life of intersecting identities that I struggled to overcome. I could never find the will to move forward with my transition — taking hormones or surgery — despite the opportunity to do so. And my hesitation was largely due to my unknown family living far away in Korea.

Like me, more than 200,000 Korean babies and children have been sent overseas. But less than 3 percent of us are able to find our families. The odds were clearly not in my favor. But what if I did find my family after all these years? And how would they handle meeting a young woman instead of a baby boy who should have grown into manhood? I was left with few ideas to reconcile my concerns.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to return to Korea for the first time. I was thrilled, nervous and reminded of my childhood pact. My time spent in Korea was life-changing, but the prospects of finding my family were less than promising. I visited my adoption agency seeking information. I was instead greeted with prickly resistance.

I had been warned of this institutional reluctance in advance. But I was still angry at their lack of understanding and support. So I took a defiant but calculated risk: I secretly copied down information from my file when the agency representative left the room to retrieve a business card.

It was my last day in Korea, and I was still reeling over the newly acquired information. After finishing breakfast with two friends, I abruptly asked them to go on an adventure with me.

“I want to look for my family today,” I told my friends sitting at the table. “Will you come with me?”

My friends quickly agreed. Before we left, I made the decision not to wear anything that would out me, just in case my search proved to be of some success. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t know anything about my family. I wanted to have the chance to get to know them first before I felt safe and comfortable enough to come out as trans. But I needed time to navigate the labyrinth of cultural and language barriers.

So I wore jeans and a T-shirt instead of a dress. I put away my jewelry. I pulled back my long hair into a ponytail and didn’t wear any makeup. I looked at myself in the mirror and found someone else staring back.

We took a short subway ride to Seoul’s suburbs and looked for a local police station. I politely asked for help, but the officer behind the desk refused, offering a lengthy bureaucratic response. “A search process takes at least 10 days or longer,” the officer dryly explained. “Fill out this form and we will contact you if we find anything.”

The respectful banter went on for about 30 minutes. Then I lost it.

“Help me!” I shouted at the officer, who jumped back in surprise. My voice cracked, and I began to cry. “I am an adoptee,” I explained through my tears. “I need to find my parents. I have waited all my life for this moment. I’m supposed to leave tomorrow, but I can’t go without knowing my family is fine. Please help me!”

Something in the police station changed after my emotional breakdown. The officer consulted a national database. She called other police stations in the country. Officers were dispatched to knock on doors. And to our surprise, my mother had been located less than an hour away from the station.

“She wants to meet you,” the officer reported. “She is already on the way with your older sister. They should be here in an hour.”

My friends and I waited in front of the station. Soon two women emerged from a car and began to walk in our direction. I stood in front of two women with faces that mirrored my own. With an awkward bow, I introduced myself to my Korean mother for the very first time.

“Hello, Mother,” I said in broken Korean. “It is nice to meet you. My Korean is not very good. I am very sorry.”

I could feel years of emotions rushing to the surface. I also felt ashamed that my first words sounded more memorized than heartfelt. I bowed my head and began to uncontrollably sob.

But my mother looked past my language skills. She released a guttural wail that I had never heard before and rushed to hold me in her arms. “You’ve come home! My baby is home!”

All I could do was weep in my mother’s warm embrace.

That night I extended my stay in Korea for two more weeks. My family and friends back home were ecstatic with the news. Stay in Korea, they encouraged. Enjoy the time with this part of your family that you finally found.

In the flurry of activity, my friends and I stored my luggage containing all my dresses, skirts, jewelry, makeup and heels at the hotel. I wasn’t ready to come out to my Korean family. I couldn’t mentally or emotionally process anything beyond the fact that I was sitting next to my mother, who wouldn’t let go of my hand. I first needed time to soak all of it in.

My mother cooked a big meal on my first day staying with my newly found family. She timidly placed a bowl of seaweed soup in front of me. Eaten on birthdays, the soup is consumed by pregnant women and represents the first food passed on from mother to infant.

“I know it’s not your birthday,” she gently explained, “but this is your first meal that I have made for you, and it felt right.” Tears slid down my cheeks over the symbolism held in the bowl of soup.

I was quickly introduced to several of my family members, including my grandfather, who decided to present me with a Korean name. After a few days at his favorite fishing spot, my grandfather named me Hyun-gi, roughly translating to “bright ground.” He selected the name in honor of finding my way back home and finding my place in the world.

The time spent with my Korean mother allowed me to experience her uncanny intuition. She quickly figured out what I liked to eat. She knew when I would wake up or when I needed to stretch my legs and go for a walk. She could even somehow anticipate the emotions spinning around my head. She was just like my perceptive mom back in upstate New York.

But one day my mother’s instinct took me by surprise. She sat me down on the couch. “Hyun-gi,” she said calmly through my friend, who volunteered to translate for my family. “I have a question: What is worrying you? You seem worried about something. You can tell Mommy.”

I wasn’t exactly sure of what my mother meant, and I shrugged it off. But she gently persisted. “There is something deep in your heart that you haven’t told me.”

My mind briefly flashed to my gender identity, which remained a secret. But how could she know? Most of my belongings were still stored at the hotel, and I had nothing on me that would out me as a trans person. I pushed away my initial alarm.

“There are plenty of things you don’t know about me yet,” I replied smoothly. “But we will learn more about each other as time progresses on.”

“May I offer a hint at what I am talking about?” my mother carefully suggested. “Please don’t be offended by my hint. But I don’t think you will be.”

I nodded with tense curiosity and waited.

“I think it has to do with how pretty you look.”

A shiver went down my back as the words left my mother’s mouth. I asked my friend if she had translated correctly. She quickly nodded. We were both stunned.

“What should I do?” I asked my friend as dread began to course through my veins. “She seems to know something. How is that even possible?”

I turned back to my mother, who was waiting for someone to speak in Korean. “Mother,” I began but immediately trailed off. I could feel my insides churning and looked away.

My mother held on to my hands. “It is OK,” she said. “What is on your heart?”

Silence filled the room. “I can’t tell you,” I finally replied. “I’m afraid of what will happen. I don’t want to lose you when we have just met.”

“I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” my friend nervously asked. “What do you want me to translate for you?”

Time seemed to stop. I sucked in a deep breath and shook my head. “No. I need to do this on my own terms. I need to say this in my own words if I’m going to tell her who I am.”

I turned to face my mother, who was still waiting patiently. I looked down at her lap, where she held on to my clammy hands.

“Mother,” I slowly repeated in Korean. “I am not a boy. I am a girl. I am transgender.” My face reddened, and tears blurred my vision. I braced myself for her rejection and the end to a relationship that had only begun.

Silence again filled the room. I searched my mother’s eyes for any signs of shock, disgust or sadness. But a serene expression lined her face as she sat with ease on the couch. I started to worry that my words had been lost in translation. Then my mother began to speak.

“Mommy knew,” she said calmly through my friend, who looked just as dumbfounded as I was by her response. “I was waiting for you to tell me.”

“What? How?”

“Birth dream,” my mother replied. In Korea some pregnant women still believe that dreams offer a hint about the gender of their unborn child. “I had dreams for each of your siblings, but I had no dream for you. Your gender was always a mystery to me.”

I wanted to reply but didn’t know where to begin. My mother instead continued to speak for both of us. “Hyun-gi,” she said, stroking my head. “You are beautiful and precious. I thought I gave birth to a son, but it is OK. I have a daughter instead.”

She then asked if I wanted my grandfather to rename me something more feminine. She insisted that I feel comfortable and at ease. No, I said to her in Korean. I wanted to keep my name for its meaning. I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of shock, disbelief and a spark of hope.

To this day I am astounded by my mother’s supernatural intuition despite the language and cultural barriers that still exist between us. I felt a great sense of relief when she helped me come out.

My mother started to show her acceptance through simple acts. She would brush my long hair after I took a shower. She gave me a facial to soften my skin. She asked me if I had any boys chasing after me. We finally went to retrieve my luggage containing the rest of my belongings.

I showed her pictures of my life back in the States. At one picture she exclaimed, “Look at your legs! You have legs like Sharon Stone!” She turned to my stepfather and beamed. “Hyun-gi inherited those legs from Mommy.”

Soon after, my mother asked about my appearance. “I have a question,” she announced while setting down a plate of freshly sliced pears and a fork. “You are a girl. Why do you still dress like a boy?”

“I was originally afraid of what you might think,” I replied while jabbing a pear slice. “But I also wanted you to see me before I made any plans to change my body. You never saw me grow up. I felt this was the least that I could do.”

There was a brief pause before my mother spoke. “Thank you,” she finally replied with misty eyes. She cleared her throat and smiled. “Now eat up. I don’t want your family in New York to think that I didn’t feed you well.”

I maintained an androgynous appearance during the time spent with my family, despite their surprising acceptance. Even my stepfather was supportive. “It’s better to have more daughters anyway,” he shared when my mother told him the news.

But I wanted to treat the coming-out process slowly and with respect. I didn’t want to rush anything with a family that was still largely unfamiliar to me. Decades of life experiences were crammed into a couple of weeks. I wanted to give everyone ample time to adjust.

On my last night in Korea, my mother took the family out to one of her favorite restaurants. I sat down at the low table wearing jeans and a T-shirt with my hair pulled back. She spoke warmly to the wait staff as the rest of us ate.

My friend leaned over to translate in between mouthfuls of noodles. “Your mom is talking about you,” she reported. Then suddenly the expression on her face changed. “She just introduced you to the waitress as her daughter.”

I almost choked on my noodles. I slowly looked up at the waitress, who offered a smile and a friendly wave. I responded with a slight bow. That night I began to understand my mother better. She truly saw me as her daughter regardless of what I wore or looked like.

Almost two years have past since I last saw my family. My Korean mother and I regularly keep in touch through weekly Skype video calls. And both my Korean and American parents have spoken to each other. They have exchanged gifts and are eager to meet each other in the near future.

My relationship with my Korean mother has gradually become more relaxed. She now cheekily refers to me as her “sassy girl.” My younger siblings call me “big sister.”

Over time I have explained more of my life to my mother, including my work in the LGBT community. In turn she has responded with a strong sense of curiosity. I once described my work at GLSEN. She followed along slowly, repeating the words aloud in Korean: Gay. Student. Safety. School.

I nodded encouragingly. She nodded back at me and proclaimed, “OK! Good!”

I have also found my mother to be quite modest when she talks about her own life. I discovered that she is active in her church as a worship leader and volunteers in the soup kitchen. But I also learned that my mother boldly told her pastor and church friends about having a trans daughter living in New York City.

“It’s not an issue,” she said, unfazed. “You need to come to church with me on your next visit.”

I don’t take any of these touching moments for granted. But it was only a few weeks ago that my mother told me that she had been watching a Korean talk show solely about trans people. The television network canceled the program due to mounting pressure by some anti-trans viewers.

My mother pivoted the conversation to ask about my own transition. “Do you want to?” she asked.

I was surprised by her question but offered a general idea of what I might want to do as she listened intently. First, hormones. Then I’d consider my options for surgery.

“This is a good plan,” my mother stated.

I was about to change the subject, but my mother interrupted me. She leaned in closer to the computer screen. “My daughter, you are beautiful.”

My cheeks flushed at the unexpected compliment. But I was suddenly reminded of my naïve childhood pact and that somehow everything I had hoped for had come true. I had found my family in Korea and had come out as trans. I no longer felt the insecurity or fear once associated with my reluctance to begin taking hormones or consider the idea of surgery.

And in that moment I realized that it was because of my mother in Korea. Her love had given me the final affirmation to move forward and become the person I was always meant to be.

I could feel tears begin to well up in my eyes. The time was right after years of waiting. I could begin the next part of my transition. And I could now do it with the support of my entire family living in both the States and Korea.

“Thank you, Mom,” I said, quickly wiping away my tears.

“For what?” She looked surprised by my reaction. “Why are you crying?”

“Just for everything. I love you. OK?”

I wasn’t sure if she picked up on my personal epiphany, but I’d like to believe that my mother’s intuition filled in some of the blanks. A smile replaced the look of concern on her face. “Mommy loves you. Jesus loves you, too. Please pray to Jesus, OK?”

I laughed. “OK, Mom. I’ll thank Jesus for my nice legs.”

“Oh, you sassy girl!


This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

About the author: Andy Marra is the Public Relations Manager for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Previously Andy served as Co-Director Nodutdol for Korean Community Development and Senior Media Strategist for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). She has also served on boards and advisory councils for the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Funding Exchange, Chinese for Affirmative Action, the National Campaign to End the Korean War and the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy.

Andy has been honored by the White House for her contributions to the LGBT community and was profiled in The Advocate’s “Forty Under 40.” She is the past recipient of the GLSEN Pathfinder Award, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force Creating Change Award and the Colin Higgins Foundation Courage Award and was honored by the City of New York for her work in the community. You can follow Andy on Twitter at @Andy_Marra.

 

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86 Comments

  1. Thumb up 5

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    Welp, I just cried all the way through this. I think this level of acceptance is what all of us want from our parents, no matter our gender. I am so happy for you, and I wish everyone could have that!

  2. Thumb up 15

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    Thank you for this. It was a beautiful story.
    My family was not very supportive when I came out as trans* 8 years ago, and because of the fear, anxiety, and longing to keep that family I love, I stopped transitioning and have just lived in the grey area of gender since. Your story gives me hope that the level of acceptance we all wish for and deserve may still be attainable.

  3. Thumb up 3

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    Andy, thank you so much for sharing your story. Your mother seems like such an amazing person with so much love for you! As far as loving, doting mothers go, Korean ajummas are one of the most caring people I’ve known. My own umma must have seen that show on Korean TV…she told me about it when I came out to her last year. I’m so glad for the visibility in Korean media.

    Thanks again. It warms my heart to read your story :)

  4. Thumb up 1

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    As an adoptee this story spoke to me in so many levels. I was adopted from Colombia and have always wanted to seek out my birth family. I currently am in the searching process and working towards that ultimate goal to find my birth family. Thank you for sharing your story. It gave me a lot of strength and hope for my own journey.

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    Everybody has already called this beautiful, but I feel like it cannot be said enough times, in fact, we should start inserting home land security flag words just so the government archives this and some agent is legally required to read it as evidence…

  6. Thumb up 3

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    A fellow adoptee pointed me to this story – great read! Congrats on finding your family! I found my birthfamily on a whim while I was in-country too. I’m happy for you that your family was so welcoming and accepting of you. Isn’t it amazing to come from such a wonderful line of women? That’s what’s struck me most about my situation too – my Mamita, my Mom, my grandmothers, all of them are amazing, strong women who love me very much. Who knew?

  7. Thumb up 2

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    Oh. My. God. You know that feeling when you feel a tight knot in your throat? Then finally you give in and cry warm, happy tears? I may have just experienced that. This is beautiful! You are blessed, my dear. Thank you for sharing your story. *hugs from the PI!*

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    Am I the only one who sees the potential for an AWESOME K-drama based off of Andy’s story?? Screw the anti-trans* viewers, KBS would be stupid to turn it down!!

    Your eomeoni sounds amazing and I”m sure you’re a great noona too!

  9. Thumb up 0

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    In the library crying as I read this. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story.

    Also I lived in Korea last year and I know that level of GLBT understanding and acceptance is unusual – you already know, but you have a really awesome and special mom :)

  10. Thumb up 1

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    Andy, what a life! I think just as impactful as your story is your comment “I hope that one day the coming out process for everyone will be an occasion for celebration instead of fear and anxiety.” Amen.

  11. Thumb up 1

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    oh my god
    first, this made me cry because i have two adopted siblings. they are bio sibs from haiti. they joined us when they were 1 1/2 and 3 1/2. they spoke no english but immediately were a part of our family and i cannot imagine any of us being the same without them.

    they will never have the opportunity to meet their mother. their father died when they were very young, at which point they were sent to an orphanage to either be adopted, or grow up and move out, where my sister would have been forced into prostitution and more than likely both she and my brother would have been killed. i am crying because i am so happy you had an opportunity that they didn’t- we don’t know if their mother is even still living. the last we heard of her, she had given birth to a brother they will never meet.

    secondly, the fact that your mother accepted and embraced the brave direction your life took is amazing. what an absolute joy that you both found her and she knew you as her daughter. what a beautiful story. thank you so much. really.

  12. Thumb up 0

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    I’m crying tears of happiness for you too. Such a beautiful story! You are very fortunate to have not one, but two families who accept and love you just as you are.

  13. Thumb up 0

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    THis is very well written, so heartwarming! I’m happy for you that you found your family in Korea, and that they are all so supportive. Makes me want to cry happy tears. Thank you so much for sharing your story with all of us ♥

  14. Thumb up 0

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    What a wonderful story! I met my birth family after having transitioned, and I had to come out via a search agent. Fortunately, both my real and birth families have been supportive.

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    A lot of koreans in my life, including my own boyfriend, are very conservative and would be frowning on this story.

    But I think its beautiful. Your Korean mother shows an acceptance and wisdom ahead of her time, and you’re very lucky.

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    This is a beautiful, touching story, and I will admit that I cried through out. I only had to come out to one family as being gender dysphoric, and it was the most terrifying thing I ever had to do. I cannot imagine the strength you must possess to have been able to do so with two families. Thank you for sharing your story, and inspiring others to be true to who they are.

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    I remember reading this on Huffington Post and found it amazing. I’m so happy for you! I’m also a Korean adoptee and have been afraid to look for my birth family partly because I am afraid that if I were able to find them that they will reject me. My adoptive family was very disappointed when their Asian princess turned into a tomboy and have pretty much disowned me since I came out. I’m almost 30 now and have created a very happy life without them, but I’m still scared that I just couldn’t handle a second rejection. Anyways, I’m really happy to see your article here and to hear things are going well!

  18. Thumb up 0

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    Thank you.
    Reading stories like these always make me feel happy and proud to be who I’am. My brother struggles with being gay and isn’t as open as I’am and when I read things like these I always share them with him. It brings tears to my eyes to see him gain a little more confidence about who he is and not to be ashamed of being gay. So Thank you.

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    This story was completely beautiful, and so moving. The loving and understanding qualities of your biological mother moved me. I’m so happy for you and the amazing relationship you found with your biological mother. But I’m interested to know how your adoptive mother, who I am just going to refer to as your mother, felt about this article and your experience? And how it effected your relationship? You don’t really discuss your relationship with your adoptive parents and your coming out to them as trans. Or why your Korean mother gave you up for adoption, if you ever found out.

    I really hope that you will not find this comment confrontational or offensive, but more as an inquiry. I am very happy for you, and this question come from a place of personal concern. I am a gay, cis-women, who was adopted and has adopted children. You have had such a positive, almost blessed, experience not only meeting your biological mother, but also coming out to her as trans.

    Coming out as gay or trans is obviously incredibly difficult, but I would argue that coming to terms with a child who is meeting their biological parent/s for the first time is equally difficult. You risk everything, as you do with coming out as gay or trans. The only difference is that as an adoptive parent you have no right to hide the information that may forever change your relationship with the person you love the most, whereas if you’re trans you have all the right in the world to tell or not tell the people you love.

    I am just curious as to whether you really discussed your feelings about this with your parents before publishing this article. While your relationship with your biological mother is admirable and so beautiful, I can also see how this article could really hurt you parent/s who raised you and chose to have you and love you, if you hadn’t really discussed your feelings with them.

    I assume that you probably did have a conversation with them, and because this article is about your acceptance of beginning your transition, a discussion of that conversation was not very relevant. But coming from my position, I could not help but feel sad for your real parent/s throughout reading this article. So I just wanted to ask.

    Congratulations and love.

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      I’m not Andy, so I can’t speak for her, but I find your perspective interesting as an adoptee and adoptive parent. I’m an adoptee without children but one day I hope to have them and adoption will likely be something I consider.

      As someone who has only seen the one side of the coin, I have a lot of feelings about your reaction. Namely, I don’t see why we should feel worried or sad about Andy’s adoptive family just because she decided to share her really moving experience with her birth family. It sounds like she has a good relationship with her family and they’re super supportive. Which is awesome. But we shouldn’t have to preface every conversation about our birth families/heritage with a story about our adoptive family’s place in our lives. Obviously my family moulded me into who I am today and I wouldn’t be here without them. But I think there’s room in our hearts for a relationship with our birth family just like there’s room for our in-laws and extended family and friends.

      Like I said, I don’t have kids of my own, and I can totally see mommy feelings taking over and getting super defensive about the idea that my kids could call anyone else mom (other than my partner). I’m hoping my experience as an adoptee can help to remind me that ultimately, it’s about helping my kids become happy, well-adjusted people. And part of that process is figuring out where we come from and why we are who we are.

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      Hi Peggy, I’m not an adoptee, but I am an adoptive parent and am also trans. I do understand your emotions around reading Andy’s piece and thinking “the birth mom gets all the props while the adoptive mom deals with all the day to day mess.” But the reality is, reunion isn’t about us (adoptive parents). Reunion is a journey by the adults we raised trying to put the pieces together to feel more whole and authentic. There are still people who tell adoptees how reunion is somehow “selfish” because because it’s taking for granted the homes you were adopted into, and that attitude totally misses the point. As Aly wrote, the point is raising a person who feels good about themselves and their lives no matter the complications which brought about the adoption situation. It’s not about rating birth parents vs. adoptive parents… both have their crucial importance and place.

      In many ways there’s a curious analogy between trans people and adoptees. Both (and I’m speaking very generally) spend portions of their lives often feeling hollow inside and somehow inauthentic in their skin. Both deal with a pathologization of their issues. Both deal with issues of documentation and a gatekeeping bureaucracy which results in a feelings of infantilization and even hopelessness. Both are not infrequently told their search for authenticity is somehow selfish because it’s hurting those around them. And both (but not all of them) go on an often painful search which takes a lot of guts to find out who they really are. It’s not about their moms and dads or caretakers or even lovers (although they deal with their own tough issues surrounding it). It’s a search for self which can only be done by that person for themselves. Andy shared her Korean story… (just as she also shared being trans with you). It’s just one piece among many of who she is.

      The one bit I did want to add was that we need positive reunion and transition stories… if for no other reasons than they do happen and they also give hope and a light at the end of the tunnel to those searching. But it’s always important to remember that life is complex and acceptance, for trans people or adoptees, isn’t linear and has its highs and lows. Most reunions have a lot of messiness and even pain connected to them and so do most transitions. People can accept you in some contexts and not in others and I hope people treat either situation as the beginning of a process… not the happy ending to a fairy tale.

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