Pauline Park with members of Queens’ Guillermo Vásquez Independent Democratic club of Queens.
By KEVIN ALLISON
Friday, July 18, 2003
Late one night, years ago, Pauline Park squeezed onto an E train to Queens in
a burgundy gown. A man shoved past, selling batteries. When he saw Park, he was
disgusted. “If you’re a man, dress like a man!” he yelled.
He went on insulting her.
“People were laughing at me. Middle-aged white people, laughing right
at me,” Park recalls. “But it bothered me for about 10 seconds
and I just moved on.” She pauses in reflection and says, “It’s
about maintaining my dignity.”
Since the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws, dignity for the gay community
is here. But it’s still easier for some than for others.
This month, Park celebrates the anniversary of her two greatest achievements
as an activist: the founding of the New York Association for Gender Rights
Advocacy (NYAGRA); and the passage of the city’s transgender rights bill.
But there are still too many incidents like the one on the subway for Park
Even with a PhD in political science, training as a classical pianist and
being a self-taught expert on J.R.R. Tolkien, she feels happy just to walk
down the street in peace. Park is transgendered.
In her case, that means no surgery and no hormones. But it means more to her
than cross-dressing. Park sees no incongruity between the male body she inhabits
and the female identity she embraces.
Relaxing in her Jackson Heights apartment, surrounded by books from all over
the world, Park sips on spring water, reminiscing on how she got to this anniversary.
She’s a petite Korean American, utterly comfortable with herself barefoot
in a floral summer one-piece. Park has shoulder-length black hair and stunning
Her big, expressive face may not always “pass” as a woman’s;
but the most striking thing about Park is her voice. Soft and soothing, it’s
a voice made for lullabies.
“When I was a young child, I use to have constant dreams, always with
the same premise,” she says laughing. “I was alone at night in
a big department store in the women’s section. And I got to try on all
the clothing that I wanted to.”
Park is particularly proud of her work in helping to pass New York City’s
transgender rights bill. “That really took countless hours of work to
pass. I started on it in January of ’99,” she says. On April 24,
2002, the City Council did approve a landmark bill to protect the rights of
the transgendered. The Mayor signed it on April 30, when it became Local Law
3 of 2002.
This month also marks the fifth anniversary of her founding NYAGRA. “When
I first started dressing, I remember this one taxi driver I met and he felt
he had to remain a closeted cross-dresser.” The memory brings sorrow
to Park’s voice. “He was older, late ‘50s, very masculine
features and he was very, very sad about it. It really brought home to me that
the mass of transgendered people live lives of quiet desperation. So I started
having ideas about what eventually became NYAGRA, a group to be a voice for
Park herself was voiceless for years. An adopted son of Christian fundamentalists
in Milwaukee, she hid from the world behind stacks of books in libraries.
Things got less lonely in college with gay groups and coming out. Cross-dressing
was the long-dreamt-of leap taken when Park was living in London in the early ‘80s
at the age of 22. She lost friends over it and found the switch just as nerve-racking
Expressing her ‘masculine’ side“I think that ironically
there are more of what you might call ‘masculine’ traits that I’ve
finally been able to express having come out as a transgendered woman,” she
says. “There’s room now for this side of me who is the firebrand,
the fiery activist who goes out to get things done.”
That’s not to say the little dreamer she once was, the contemplative
kid playing Bach on the piano, is lost. “There’s still a side of
me that’s philosophical. I sometimes find myself having two reactions
at the same time, and I don’t feel they’re in conflict. It’s
more of a conversation.”
It’s clear that conversation is Park’s forte. She speaks lovingly
and often of “intellectual companionship,” and finds inspiration
in “The Lord of the Rings.”
“There are two kinds of power,” she explains. “One is the
power of dominion over others, symbolized by the ring. But there’s also
spiritual power, which is enhanced when it’s shared. That’s the
true spirit of community. People think, ‘Well my voice doesn’t
count.’ But I think we showed with the transgender rights bill that a
small number of people acting on a just cause can accomplish great things.”
A statewide transgender rights bill is her next conquest, as well as the Dignity
for All Students bill to protect kids from harassment at school.
Is it getting easier being herself in public these days? Park is optimistic
“Just a week ago I was walking down the street past a construction site
and one of the men just standing around goes, ‘That’s a man! That’s
a Chinese man!’ And I just smiled to myself. I thought, ‘Well mister,
you’re wrong on both counts!’”