One family’s take on ‘the civil rights issue of our time’

TWO SPIRITS, ONE HEART: A MOTHER, HER TRANSGENDER SON, AND THEIR JOURNEY TO LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE

TWO SPIRITS, ONE HEART: A MOTHER, HER TRANSGENDER SON, AND THEIR JOURNEY TO LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE

TWO SPIRITS, ONE HEART: A MOTHER, HER TRANSGENDER SON, AND THEIR JOURNEY TO LOVE AND ACCEPTANCE

By Marsha Aizumi (Arcadia, Calif.: Peony Press: 290 pp., $16.95 hard cover)

Marsha Aizumi’s book, “Two Spirits, One Heart,” is a memoir about her experience as the mother of a child who comes out as a lesbian, then transitioned to male. It is a timely book, coming at a moment when no less an authority than Vice President Joe Biden has asserted that discrimination against transgender people is “The civil rights issue of our time.”

The book’s cover note describes it as chronicling “Marsha’s personal journey from fear, uncertainty and sadness to eventual unconditional love, acceptance, and support of her child…” I confess that when I saw that blurb, I thought irresistibly of Laura Z. Hobson’s semiautobiographical 1975 novel “Consenting Adult,” which recounted a mother’s 20-year struggle to come to terms with her son’s homosexuality. I first read “Consenting Adult” as a teenager a decade after it was published, and it already seemed to me, not only dated, but cheap — it seemed to ask readers to identify and sympathize with a mother going through such trauma, rather than with the son trying to come out in a difficult environment.

Fortunately, Aizumi’s book turned out to be well worth reading. First, she is clearer than her book’s own cover about the unconditional love and concern she never stopped feeling for the troubled daughter Ashley who emerged finally as a happy son Aidan.

While Aizumi is upfront and unvarnished about describing her feelings, including negative ones, and her developing understanding, she never plays for sympathy. Rather, she balances her portrait of the worry she went through over her child with insight into what the experience taught her about the larger problems of LGBT youth, and how it turned her into an activist [Aizumi was selected for the national board of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and took a leading role in founding a group of schools in Los Angeles to admit LGBT kids who have dropped out of conventional schools]. To her credit, she also includes her son as a coauthor and makes some attempt to bring in his voice and viewpoint.

What is more, her book has a great deal to teach us about the experience of transgender people and their families. First, it reminds us that coming out is a process, which can be far from linear. Aiden Aizumi and his parents go through several different stages on their journey to self-realization. It also gives us insight into the rapidly shifting state of public opinion on sexual minorities. As a butch lesbian, Aizumi’s daughter is harassed in school, and even attacked physically by a group of (Asian) guys. In contrast, Aizumi’s younger child Stefen apparently accepts the emergence of his older brother without trouble, and has none of the concerns or doubts about LGBT questions that his parents’ generation does.

Without detracting from the overall value of the book, one curious aspect is the relationship of the author’s ethnic identity to her story. On the one hand, Aizumi obviously feels a strong bond with her background. She and her (Japanese American) husband consciously adopted two children from Japan so they will share their ethnicity, and she encourages her son to take a Japanese name, Takeo, as well as Aidan. This background informs her work. She opened up a special Asian and Pacific Islander section of PFLAG in 2012, and attended a White House roundtable on LGBT and API issues.

However, she repeatedly speaks of her Asian background in fairly stereotyped or negative ways. She claims that she was raised in an Asian household, which meant that feelings were not always acknowledged (p.64); that because of her background she feels pressured to act in ways that her family or ancestors would approve, not those that reflect her own dreams (p. 142); and that in writing, she wrestled with the honor of her family name and the dignity of her  ancestors (p.3). Nor does Aizumi integrate the wartime or other aspects of Japanese Americans’ historical legacy. She makes a single tantalizing reference to being the only Asian in her class in a conservative town and being taunted for being different, which left her yearning to fit in (p.36). She is silent on the question of whether anti-Asian racism makes for special difficulties for current-day LGBT Asians and their families.

While Aizumi is clearly (and laudably) interested in reaching out to other API families, some of whom may be conservative, she does not seem to realize that Asian Americans are not simply conformists: they also have a proud history of protest and of struggles for equality. Indeed, we may hope that as LGBT Japanese Americans, in particular, achieve greater visibility, more Nikkei will become aware of the evident fact that such people have always been a part of their communities.

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