Issue 11.3 | Summer 2013 / Guest edited by Rachel C. Lee

“Transsexual Empire,” Trans Postcoloniality: The Biomedicalization of the Trans Body and the Cultural Politics of Trans Kinship in Northeast Asia and Asian America

In 2010, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health, released a 150-page report called the “Legal environments, human rights, and HIV responses among men who have sex with men and transgender people in Asia and the Pacific: An agenda for action.”[1] While the data assembled pertain to 48 Asian Pacific countries and territories, subsequent reports and policy briefs have cast a sheen of sexual modernity on the dominant states of Northeast Asia—in this case, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Not only has male-to-male sex been legalized in all of these places, but trans citizens can also obtain legal documentation of their current gender and, in most of these countries, even marry an individual of a different legal gender. However, all of these Northeast Asian governments currently require trans citizens seeking legal recognition to successfully undergo gender “confirming” or “affirming” processes that entail a series of “convertive” or “corrective” genital surgeries, culminating in the total removal of male or female reproductive organs. Although access to the medical technologies of gender confirmation is a key component of the liberal discourse of trans equality, the biomedicalization of the trans body in the Northeast Asian region shows that sex reassignment surgery (SRS), as this process is most commonly called in the texts I draw on here, has increasingly become the neoliberal state’s primary technique for turning trans bodies into citizen bodies.[2]

In 1979, Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male characterized SRS as a patriarchal tool developed to help men become women and thereby to infiltrate the second-wave feminist movement. Raymond’s most incendiary remark—that all trans people are guilty of raping women’s bodies—extended her transphobic outlook to include trans men who would deny and thus violate their own female bodily attributes through chest binding, the use of hormones, or other forms of body modification. The gender essentialism that Raymond promotes in The Transsexual Empire provides the ground for one of the primary critiques of second-wave feminism: its tendency to exclude people deemed marginal to the project of white women’s liberation. However objectionable and offensive her rhetoric, Raymond’s alignment of SRS on the side of empire in the years before the inception of the US transgender rights movement was also prescient in its description of biopower’s contemporary techniques—i.e., the infiltration of the biological and the social body—and in its perhaps unintentional association of body modification technologies with colonial medicine and the structure of biopolitical racism.

This multimedia essay presents a particularly gnarled instance of (the “transsexual”) empire’s afterlife: the forced sterilization of the trans body in Northeast Asia as a technique of biomedical neoliberalism and as an ambivalent outcome of postcolonial (sexual) modernity. Offering a preliminary map of the cultural politics of this biomedicalization, my trajectory takes us from the topic of trans activism in Taiwan to that of media celebrity in South Korea, and from the production of gender and sexuality theory in China and Hong Kong to an emerging site, I argue, of Asian Pacific Islander American identity formation in the figure of Thomas Beatie, the “pregnant man,” who is currently waging a legal battle in Arizona for custody of his three biological children. I begin, however, with a consideration of what it might mean to ground the emerging concept of “trans postcoloniality”—which regards people of color and the global South as central rather than peripheral to the development of trans critical frameworks—in a critique of the very mode of self-becoming that has become consonant with trans identity and trans visibility.[3]

Trans Postcoloniality

In 1991, Sandy Stone issued a strident rejoinder to Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire in “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” an essay that has been recognized as a founding document of Tran Studies. In the course of her attack on the medico-juridical regimes that regulate access to trans embodiment, Stone remarks on “aspects of colonial discourse with which we may be familiar: The initial fascination with the exotic, extending to professional investigators; denial of subjectivity and lack of access to the dominant discourse; followed by a species of rehabilitiation.”[4] Her reflections on pioneering trans women like Jan Morris and Christine Jorgensen, however, reveal a further ambivalence about how medical histories of SRS seem to retain the anthropological interest and the orientalist imaginaries associated with the mutually-imbricated projects of medical tourism and sexual tourism to Asia. Stone quotes a passage from Morris’s 1974 autobiography, Conundrum, that describes a SRS clinic in Casablanca, Morocco as a perfumed, velvet-curtained harem in which Morris is attended by nurses wearing tassled robes as she is serenaded by a flute player from the street outside. Stone then observes, “Exit James Morris, enter Jan Morris, through the intervention of late twentieth-century medical practices in this wonderfully ‘oriental,’ almost religious narrative of transformation.”[5] Though not without irony, Stone’s orientalist comment surfaces alongside her commentary on colonialist medical practices in a manner which suggests that—whether as a context for her narrative or as a referent for her politics—racialized bodies are crucial to the intelligibility of the (white) trans (feminine) body.

The relationship between Stone’s posttranssexual politics (centering on the political act of “coming out” as trans) and the notion of postcoloniality is further complicated by an understanding of how globalization has largely decimated the local economies and social structures that likely supported indigenous forms of sexual and gender variance which we now recognize as trans. For instance, a more recent UNDP report, from 2012, entitled, “Lost in Translation: Transgender People, Rights, and HIV Vulnerability in the Asia-Pacific Region,” observes that people belonging to gendered minorities and “third sex” categories are routinely driven into sex work and other criminalized labor practices by employment discrimination in ways that generate ongoing epidemiological concerns for the global health community. In an interesting shift of methodological perspective, however, the report newly draws the concept of “gender affirming healthcare” into the scope of vulnerability to disease:

With the focus of research on HIV vulnerability firmly on sexual behavior, there has been much less research on the HIV risks linked to gender affirming healthcare. Several possibilities exist. First, many trans women employ injections of hormones and/or silicone as a means to modify their bodies. When contaminated syringes are shared, there is quite clearly a risk of HIV transmission […] Feminising hormones (including both oral and injectable) usually interfere with the ability to have a penile erection, while gonado-genital surgery removes the possibilities altogether. We can speculate that, as a consequence, an individual once capable of taking a penetrative role may now more likely take the (more risky) receptive role.[6]

Certainly, the risk of syringe-sharing would decrease with legitimated access to hormone replacement therapy or to cosmetic procedures like silicone or collagen injections. But in the case of gonado-genital surgery or feminizing SRS, the researcher “speculates” that the very act of achieving gender confirmation—i.e., performing the “receptive” gender “role” in heterogenital sex, which seems a foregone conclusion when penile erection is no longer possible—might present the more obvious risk. Or the more speculative risk—as in the logic of speculative capital accumulation—since the report is correlating the prevalence of SRS procedures in the Asia-Pacific region with increased HIV vulnerability and the potential for great research gains. The fact that the report does not explicitly mention the regional governance technique of forcible SRS in this section lends an ominous, double valence to the researcher’s “speculation” about gender affirming healthcare in Asia and the Pacific.

The UNDP’s rhetoric (or lack thereof) surrounding forcible SRS in the Northeast Asian region appears even more problematic when we consider that access to the medical aspects of gender confirmation is quite unevenly regulated in North America and Europe. For instance, SRS is not required to change the gender designation on most government-issued forms of identification in most of the 50 American states.[7] Instead, the legal patchwork of protections that exists across the country introduces a radical contingency to trans lives—as Thomas Beatie’s situation illustrates—but the absence of a consistent or codified trans recognition law in the United States has also enabled a range of trans identities that can openly resist and reject elements of a medically aided transition (including psychiatric diagnosis, hormones, and surgery). This “no-ho” (hormones) or “non-op” (operation) counterculture is also present in the Northeast Asian region, where local activists have achieved a measure of success in protesting the terms of South Korea’s trans recognition law, which stipulates that in addition to undergoing total SRS, trans citizens must not have biological children of their own. In March 2013, numerous US-based LGBT news outlets began reporting that a group of five trans South Koreans had successfully challenged the forcible SRS provision of what is known as the “Supreme Court Administrative Guideline No. 716” in a Seoul court. This represented a major development in a campaign that has drawn international attention since 2007, but no mention has been made of this trans recognition law’s other major provision: the prohibition against biological parenthood.

It is clear that the grassroots critique emerging from Northeast Asia has directly informed the Yogyakarta Principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity. The text of “Principle 3: The Right to Recognition Before the Law” reads:

No one shall be forced to undergo medical procedures, including sex reassignment surgery, sterilization or hormonal therapy, as a requirement for legal recognition of their gender identity. No status, such as marriage or parenthood, may be invoked as such to prevent the legal recognition of a person’s gender identity. No one shall be subjected to pressure to conceal, suppress or deny their sexual orientation or gender identity.[8]

Developed at an international advocates’ gathering in Indonesia in 2007, the Yogyakarta Principles have faced opposition from numerous UN member states, and there has been no sustained discussion of their content. Instead, the UNDP’s framing of its data from the Asian-Pacific region persists in linking a triumphant narrative of economic development, LGBT civil rights, and sexual progress to ongoing epidemiological concerns and, most importantly, to a submerged discourse of the forced sterilization of trans people. As the primary means of transforming the trans body into the citizen body, SRS in Northeast Asia functions as a technique of governmentality that connects dominant voices in the international civil sphere to ruling ideologies at the nation-state level; stabilizes the gender binary in ways which facilitate the social if not the sexual reproduction of modern Asian culture; and participates in maximizing the efficiency of the state as well as the market in its production of the trans body as a resource that can be cultivated for the social good.

Trans postcoloniality takes its place in this moment alongside two other modes of critique that shape the horizon of trans studies in the Global North. First, the critique of “transnormativity,” which references the earlier radicalism of Stone’s posttranssexual politics and also coordinates with existing critiques of homonormativity that address the assimiliationist tendencies (e.g., gay marriage, gays in the military) of a LGBT culture structured around the concept of neoliberal personhood. Second, an ongoing critique of the medicalization of trans identity can be folded into an emerging focus on “transbiology,” which Jeanne Vaccaro describes as an analytic that underscores the relevance of “reiterative biological processes” to “the labor of embodiment” and to notions of gender performativity in order to “counter ontologies of wrong embodiment, in which difference is flattened by psychiatric dictates and legalized binaries.”[9] Whereas a feminist transbiology forges ahead to consider the ethics and the politics of bodies (or body parts) that are “made and born,” in Sarah Franklin’s words, through biotechnologies such as cloning, stem cell derivation, and assisted reproductive therapies, a critique of forcible SRS in the Global South connects us to the history of bodies selected to die by colonial practices of population control and eugenic sterilization.[10] Attuned to the workings of biopolitical racism as well as to the materiality of the sites in which such structural violence takes place, trans postcoloniality therefore responds to Leslie Bow’s call for “a serious inquiry into the ways in which race makes a difference in transgender criticism beyond invocations of the American Indian berdache or the hiras [sic] in India as examples of race’s entry into transgender analysis.”[11]

Departing from a US-centric, queer-studies-based framework that centers on the “border wars” between trans, lesbian/gay/bisexual, and feminist identities, I trace here a set of transnational feminist connectivities that, in Inderpal Grewal’s words, represent the global flows of political subjects and political possibilities that can only be contingently “linked to historical genealogies of feminist critique.”[12] The sections below reflect on the apparent cultural impact of the biomedicalization of the Asian trans body on: the academic and activist production of knowledge about trans gender performance; body aesthetics and the commodification of beauty, health, and the reproductive capacities associated with the concept of fertility; the relationship between biological parenthood, racialized parenthood, and notions of surrogacy; and the affective labor and the coercive practices of kinship that help to define the Asian trans body as at once a biopolitical and a necropolitical project. A transnational feminist critique of these representations of trans postcoloniality reveals the flexible techniques of governmentality as well as the flexible performances of complicity and subversion that take place at the sites of social and sexual reproduction that constitute the body and the family. I read these examples from my own position—as US-based, queer Asian academic working at the limits of trans studies in the Global North—in order to show how the discourse of trans rights and trans identity politics in fact arrives belatedly to chart biomedical neoliberalism’s restructuring of a host of relationships from citizenship to kinship in the Northeast Asian region, and in the conceptions of Asian America that depend on these very global flows.

“Plain Looks and Chubby Body”: Trans Studies in Taiwan

In 2003, Dr. Josephine Ho (何春蕤), director of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at National Central University in Taiwan, embarked on a series of lectures to call for increased trans rights activism and, specifically, for the creation of trans studies programs in universities across the Asia Pacific region. As the director of her own Center for the Study of Sexualities, she gives the “developing governance of mainstream feminist gender politics in Taiwan” as the reason for this transgender turn.[13] In one lecture, Ho explains that “heightened gender consciousness rigidified into an institutionalized gender framework”—that is, legislative gender equality—has actually made social existence more difficult for the “differently gendered.”[14] She goes on to say that “essentializing tendencies in the identity politics of feminism as well as […] that of the newly formed gay and lesbian movements” are also reflected in the “limited narratives that make up […] transgender cultural representation” within activist circles and in the popular media.[15] Ho therefore attempts to mobilize trans studies both as a response to the extreme gender conformity generated by the dominance of nationalist feminism in Taiwan and as the true sign of Taiwanese modernity and progressivism in matters of sexual and gender politics.

Ho’s lectures were also catalyzed by the suicide of a well-known male-to-female (MTF) transsexual activist in Taiwan named Lin Guo-Hua (林國華) in 2003, five years after Lin’s own transition. Ho uses this anecdote regularly in her writings to illustrate the unlivableness of trans life in Taiwan despite access to medical transition. Upon closer inspection, however, there seems to something slightly off—as well as off-putting—about the way in which Ho interprets Lin’s life and death. Quoting Lin’s psychiatrist, Ho writes that “she had been told by many that her plain looks and chubby body figure ‘would not make a successful woman,’ but she “insisted on going through with the surgery.”[16] Ho then concludes that Lin killed herself in a hotel room out of desperation because she was unable to support herself by finding and keeping a job. Ho explains, “trans subjects whose physical endowment (in facial features, body figure, height, etc.) makes it difficult for them to exhibit normative gender image and gender performance in their adopted gender role will consistently encounter immense obstacles in the most mundane details of daily life, whether before or after transition.”[17] By referring to some preexisting state of “physical endowment,” however, Ho implies and indeed concurs with the psychiatrist on the point that Lin had trouble obtaining employment not simply because of her gender identity, but rather as result of her physical attractiveness—that is, her lack of attractiveness as a woman held to normative standards of beauty.

The problem here, in Ho’s recounting, is surprisingly not societal; it is not the lack of trans workplace protections and safeguards against employment discrimination in Taiwan that makes trans lives unlivable. Instead, her implicit characterization of Lin as an unattractive transwoman underscores the structural violence that is perpetuated by forcible SRS and reveals how gendered and sexist oppression can be reproduced through the very process of removing procreative abilities from trans bodies. In a footnote added to the text of her lecture at Ochanomizu University in Japan in 2003, Ho states:

Although sex reassignment surgery can be performed upon confirmation with two different psychological evaluations, Taiwanese surgeons often make it a rule that the patient’s parents must sign an agreement before surgery is performed for fear that the uninformed parents may bring mutilation charges against the surgeon afterwards. This requirement, established more for the protection of surgeons than for any other reason, has become the biggest obstacle for male-to-female transsexuals seeking sex reassignment, whose parents are bound by traditional Chinese values that tend to see such acts as either castration or more importantly the breaking-off of family lineage. Such obstacles have forced many male-to-female transsexuals to go for surgery in Thailand where no such requirement stands. This may be one reason why Taiwan’s sex reassignment surgery is unusually more advanced in female-to-male cases where the surgeons had more chance for practice.[18]

Ho’s description of the medical technologies of SRS that are accessible in the region reveals that a familiar, orientalist notion of female abjection continues to ground the discourse of Asian modernity, whose exemplary subject for Ho may, in fact, be the trans citizen. The relative value of male over female reproductive sex organs goes unquestioned in her treatment of the all-important family lineage, while female-to-male or transmasculine individuals are cast as expendable daughters and, therefore, suitable candidates for surgery. What Ho does not mention here is that the transmasculine SRS procedures honed by willing Taiwanese surgeons are also likely sharpening the surgeons’s skills at male enhancement surgery, e.g., metoidioplasty (which entails the release of the supensory ligament of the clitoris/penis), as these operations have been popularized throughout the region in recent decades precisely in response to social anxiety over male fertility and family lineage.

Between her implicit praise of Taiwan’s SRS industry and her comments about Lin Guo-Hua’s less-than-successful gender presentation and her subsequent suicide, Ho’s performance of trans activism reveals that the forms of female abjection which are constituted in and through orientalism can and do have an impact on trans discourse. In spite of Ho’s comments elsewhere about the similarities between the practice of identity politics in Taiwan and in the “West,” what needs to be acknowledged is how trans studies in the Asia Pacific region might manifest its own internal divisions. Indeed, in yet another footnote to this lecture, Ho explains that Taiwanese queers turned to the usage of Western abbreviations like TG (or CD for cross-dresser and TS for transsexual) in place of the previous umbrella identity marker, “third sex,” precisely at a time when the growth of Taiwanese tourism to Thailand raised mainstream awareness about “third sex” drag shows.[19] This was done, she implies, to distance an emergent Taiwanese trans rights movement from the stigma attached to the sex work industry. (A legalized form of sex work that disproportionately involved indigenous women was a central piece of Taiwan’s own history of political repression).

Ho’s short aside thus illuminates more aspects of the biopolitics and the necropolitics of trans embodiment in the Asia Pacific region, with Thailand portrayed as a place where sex workers are medically constructed, and Taiwan represented as a testing ground for masculinizing surgeries and, indeed, where reportedly two-thirds of all gender-confirming procedures are performed on transmasculine subjects. Her feminist framing of Taiwan’s advances in gender-confirming technologies becomes even more important as new scholarship emerges on Xie Jianshun, the first known recipient of SRS in Taiwan. A contemporary of Christine Jorgensen (who became the first widely known American trans woman when she returned from medical treatment in Denmark in 1952), Xie has been hailed as the “Chinese Christine” by Howard Chiang, whose project to reconstruct Xie’s history seeks to portray her as “a transsexual cultural icon whose fate would indisputably contribute to the global staging of Taiwan on par with the United States” in the postwar period during which the island state was known as “Free China.”[20] Whereas Xie’s iconicity is tied to the triumphant founding of the Republic, however, Lin’s tragedy is taken as a sign of how Taiwanese modernity has failed its most vulnerable—or perhaps its plainest—subjects.

Harisu and (Trans) Supermodels in South Korea

As Patty Jeehyun Ahn has observed, trans discourse in the Northeast Asian region tends to feature a “dangerously limited conception of male-to-female transsexuality … [according to which] beauty is the telos of transition.”[21] Ahn’s own focus is on Harisu (하리수), a wildly popular South Korean trans model, actress, and pop star, who was signed as the spokesperson for the South Korean DoDo Cosmetics company in 2001. In 2002, she became the second person to have her gender legally recognized by the state, and in 2004, she appeared in a South Korean television commercial for UFT feminine hygiene products, a Taiwanese import. Whether promoting cosmetics or sanitary pads, Harisu’s transfemininity is marketed to full effect in support of the notion that “[t]he work that Korean women do now is organized around the consumption of a limited range of femininities in a late capitalist culture rather than around the production of goods in an export economy,” as Ahn argues.[22]

Video 1: Harisu stars in a commercial for Taiwan’s UFT Holdings Corporation, first shown on broadcast television in South Korea in 2004.

In this UFT commercial, Harisu is portrayed as an expert consumer—a connoisseur, even—of products designed for women, since the first rule of conspicuous consumption is to buy things that you do not need. Still, one of her few lines in this 30-second spot reveals that production—and reproduction—remain creative sites of anxiety. As she serenely demonstrates her mastery of feminine gender performance, Harisu can be heard whispering that “she still wishes she could do one thing.” The function of her trans body in the mainstream marketplace is to perform this lack and to confirm, in turn, that menstruation, or fertility, is the authentic—and bestselling—marker of Asian femininity. As Rachel Lee has observed elsewhere in this journal issue, the commodification of health and beauty products points to the ways in which the optimization of life has become a norm of late capitalist culture. In the context of South Korean deindustrialization, this mode of consumption would seem additionally to fulfill a biopolitical imperative to foster and to valorize certain forms of feminine life over others.

Harisu, however, maintains an ambivalent stance on her own trans celebrity, suggesting that the marketing of her transfemininity and the state’s recognition of her gender are in fact working at cross-purposes. Quoting from a Korean newspaper interview that Harisu gave in 2002, Ahn reports: “Harisu has explicitly stated that she does not like the label of ‘trans,’ but also recognizes that without it, she probably would never have come to the public’s attention.”[23] Where the visibility of its trans citizens would put forward a narrative of South Korean sexual progress, Ahn argues instead that “[Harisu’s] comments about the complicated nature of her position […] shatters wholly celebratory arguments about her liberal sexual symbology.”[24]

A similar form of skepticism toward South Korean claims to sexual modernity was expressed in the Asian American blogosphere on the short-lived, which billed itself as “your online source and voice for what is queer and Asian.” In an article about a South Korean beauty pageant posted in July 2009, the blogger known as Haruki compares Harisu to Choi Han Bit, the competition’s first-ever trans contestant.

Choi Han Bit

Figure 1: Photo of Choi Han Bit that accompanies this blog post on, with the caption: “I know, she’s gorgeous.”

Explaining that pageant officials responded to scattered public protests over Choi’s participation by referring to the “2” on her resident registration number (male citizens’ registration numbers begin with the digit “1”), Haruki reasons:

The reason why Choi Han Bit passed the first round is because she is defined as beautiful by straight Korean men, and inherently, by straight White men … Choi Han Bit is a “qualified” woman because the government recognizes her so. Am I too Westernized here, to think of those who refuse to or do not identify as any rigid categories of gender and sex? […] Do they exist in Korea too, or do they think completely differently? After all, what the government tells you who you are may be one of the sources of their/our struggles, but it might not be so central to their/our real struggles.[25]

This queer Asian American blogger’s curiosity about the cultural status or political value of gender nonconformity—Do they exist in Korea too, or do they think completely differently?—was recently echoed in online commentary about a viral image that invited viewers to compare Korean contestants in an upcoming beauty pageant. First compiled by a Redditor who found the headshots published on a Japanese blog, this photo collage visually performed or instantiated an apparent similarity between the facial features and upper-body build of these 20 women—none of whom had publicly identified as trans this year. While this image was accompanied by mention of Korea’s high rates of cosmetic surgery on sites like the Huffington Post and Jezebel—“Highest per capita in the world!,” as one proclaims—it is important to observe how the formal, reiterative pattern of its visual composition might in fact help to produce the all-too-predictable audience response: “Asians all look alike.”

Miss Korea contestants

Figure 2: Selections from a photo collage of 2013 South Korean pageant contestants compiled and posted on

Interestingly, Haruki’s interrogation of Korean beauty standards implicates the white heterosexual male gaze in the creation of an emerging standard for transfemininity—one which, as Harisu and Choi demonstrate, nonetheless fails to be viewed as consonant with Korean womanhood. While Haruki points to the government’s role in upholding such “rigid categories of gender and sex,” the Huffington Post and Jezebel suggest that unreasonable consumer demand for body modification is to blame for such outsized spectacles of Korean femininity. The fact that neither of these discussions considers the cultural impact of forcible SRS or the presence of transwomen on pageant culture or the beauty industry—and neither draws the connection between forcible SRS and common access to cosmetic surgery—casts the Asian trans body as exceptional and as an exception to South Korean performances of sexual modernity.

The Coffee Prince and His Fans

While the previous examples have tended to associate transfemininity with the plight of extreme individuality—with Lin Guo Hua depicted as an isolated wallflower and Harisu or Choi Han Bit as a standout beauty—a different set of class and collective politics seem to accompany popular representations of transmasculinity in the region. As the celebrated Korean television melodrama, The First Shop of Coffee Prince, demonstrates, the Asian family unit can perhaps tolerate forms of gender variance that simultaneously serve to express filial piety or devotion to family hierarchy. Produced by the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation and originally airing in 17 episodes during the summer of 2007, Coffee Prince is about the oldest daughter of a working-class, single-parent family whose tomboyish ways are meant to make an instinctive kind of sense in a household where the father has died, the mother is a silly shopaholic, and the little sister is talentless but boy-crazy. The series trailer shows the main character, Eun Chan, routinely chest-binding in order to keep a job at the Coffee Prince café, and the show itself veers daringly between the homosocial and the homoerotic as the cross-dressed Eun Chan explores a range of possible relationships with male coworkers.

Video 2: Series trailer for The First Shop of Coffee Prince, first shown on broadcast television by the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation in South Korea in 2007.

While actor Yoon Eun-hye (윤은혜) has been widely praised for what we might call her performance of gender realness, her character’s “stealth” role—as the nondisclosure of trans identity is called in the US context—has proven crucial to mainstream reception of the series (as part of the pop culture phenomenon of the “Hallyu” or the “Korean Wave”) throughout the region. Eun Chan’s physical labor at a variety of food service and light manufacturing occupations is what keeps the family together and, in a tautological fashion, this labor both masculinizes her in the public sphere and marks her masculinity as acceptable on the domestic front. Whereas a rights-based discourse of trans identity (as reflected in the Yogyakarta Principles, for instance) would characterize this disjuncture between public and private performances of identity as impairing or infringing on personal freedom, in Coffee Prince it is this very disjuncture that ensures the family’s economic survival.

In fact, the concept of stealthness—to which a posttranssexual politics is distinctly opposed—resonates strongly with existing scholarship in Chinese gender and sexuality studies on the nonexistence of the “closet” in neo-Confucian societies. Hong Kong scholar Chou Wah-Shan (周華山), for instance, uses an essentially Foucauldian logic to claim that the notion of a “homosexual person” did not exist in Chinese language or culture until the advent of LGBT identity politics in the 1980s.[26] Best known for popularizing the term, tongzhi (同志), as an appellation for queer communities in Chinese-speaking territories, Chou has claimed that the “family kinship system rather than erotic object choice is the basis of a person’s identity” in contemporary Northeast Asian settings. He continues:

Since everyone, irrespective of sexual orientation, is expected to get married […] nobody can be primarily a lesbian, bisexual, or gay man. Everyone is, first, a daughter or son of her or his parents, which is a role in the social-familial system, before she or he can be anything else.[27]

Although Chou fails to mention the “T” in LGBT here, it is clear how the stakes of intersubjective or collective personhood might be raised—and how this social-familial system might be threatened—when it is precisely the daughter who becomes a son, or the son, a daughter. Forcible SRS in this sense serves to stabilize and to fix a gender variance that threatens to undermine the family hierarchy; the possibilities for alternative kinship relations are kept contained within a single generation, as the trans individual is forced to exchange any reproductive agency for a legal relationship with the state. Indeed, Chou might be answering Judith Butler’s pointed question—“Is kinship always already heterosexual?”—with a resounding “yes,” since his project to identify local forms of accepting and tolerating homosexuality, which, he argues, are indigenous to Confucian cultures, offers virtually no resistance to what Butler cites as the “transmission of culture through heterosexual procreation.”[28]

In her stealth or cross-dressing role, Eun Chan is not quite implicated in the discourse of forcible SRS, but she nonetheless remains subject to those coercive practices of kinship which alone can confer personhood, as Chou argues. While Eun Chan’s gender identity is shaped by her physical labor, it is the affective labor of trans kinship—of being both son and daughter—that has “K-drama” fans in the Global North riveted. For instance, consider how the wiki called “Fanlore” describes Coffee Prince for prospective viewers:

The series touches on issues of trans and gay characters without ever truly depicting either. There are scenes of Eun Chan binding to appear more masculine and she makes an effort to speak and move like a man, but she is never represented as a transman. Similarly, even though Han Kyul believes Eun Chan is a man while clearly falling in love with her, the relationship is always understood by the audience and Eun Chan to be heterosexual. These themes of sexuality and gender identity make Coffee Prince a perfect fit for a lot of Western media fans and the series has had a lot of crossover interest. The series is often the first suggestion by kdrama fans when a newbie asks where to start watching.[29]

In stating that Coffee Prince references trans culture and homosexuality without “truly depicting either,” the Fanlore wiki is pointing as much to the absence of a viable LGBT identity discourse in the narrative as it is foreshadowing the ultimately heterosexual resolution of the K-drama’s central romance (after 15 of the 17 episodes). However, it appears that this implicit criticism—this sentiment that the characters are almost but not quite trans or gay—is intrinsic to the “crossover interest” that Fanlore assigns to Coffee Prince.

If forcible SRS undergirds a model of kinship that is always already heterosexual, the blog of the Washington, D.C.-based film reviewer, Trevor Link, suggests that Eun Chan’s performance of trans kinship is still not quite heteronormative, either. Accustomed to reviewing independent and foreign film, Link names Coffee Prince as only the second K-drama he has ever watched, and he identifies his perspective here with that of Han Kyul, the male lead.

For the typical heterosexual male, this show has a potentially queering effect that is impossible to displace. There’s really nowhere to hide from the consideration of whether or not he could be attracted to another man. It helps that the actress who plays Eun-chan, Yoon Eun-hye, is not only stunningly beautiful but, more importantly, androgynously so […] Thus, in its shy reticence, in its seemingly conservative prioritization of love over sex, “Coffee Prince” goes a lot farther than the majority of narrative works in probing the questions about our gender and sexuality that we’re too afraid to ask of ourselves.[30]

To the implicit question—Why should viewers in the United States watch Coffee Prince?—Link answers: because the series is queerer than we are. Like the previous fan commentary, Link’s review seems to take advantage of the absence of identitarian discourses on gender or sexuality in Coffee Prince in order to produce a thoroughly queer reading of the semiotics of sexual attraction between Han Kyul and the chest-binding Eun Chan, who moves and talks like a man. However, the collective subject that Link invokes, the “we” who are afraid to ask ourselves questions, corresponds to a mainstream US audience imagined as the self in the solipsistic self-other relation that orientalism entails. Although Link’s high praise for Coffee Prince results from this self-reflexive form of reception, his impulse to emulate Asian sexual mores indicates a mode of globalized consumption that tends to discard a foreign cultural object once it has asked how Americans can do it better.

It is a fortuitous coincidence, however, that Link should characterize Coffee Prince’s stance on sexuality as one of “shy reticence.” Taiwanese scholars Liu Jen-peng (劉人鵬)and Ding Naifei (丁乃非) have mobilized the term, “reticent politics,” precisely to counter Chou’s valorization of the neo-Confucian social-familial system that, in its coercive practices of kinship, might “actually enable or facilitate the workings of an unfamiliar ‘gentle’ homophobia or constitute homophobia as effect.”[31] They continue:

We suggest that just as person-hood is—in Taiwan if not in other Chinese-language worlds—inextricably tangled, intensely cathected to parental/familial relations in impure “modern” forms, so too have the rhetoric and politics of tolerance and reticence retained powers while articulating new disciplinary and rhetorical forces, always deformed and deforming, especially in the field of sexuality in/around the family.[32]

It is certainly possible to consider forcible SRS as the ultimate expression of reticent homophobia—as the homophobic act that need not speak its own name—because of its straightening and leveling effects on the family hierarchy and family lineage. To do so, however, would be to exclude from our view trans people who do undergo SRS and, in so doing, are helping to shape and define the emerging and vital category of trans citizenship. Indeed, when Butler reframes her question about heterosexual kinship in the form of another—“Who may desire the state’s desire?”—she is shifting our attention from sexual acts to those techniques of governmentality that may directly exploit the “impure ‘modern’ forms” (of being a parent, being a child, being in love, and so on) in which persist our psychic desires for the cultural recognition that confers personhood.[33] It is therefore necessary to consider what increased access to body modification technologies in the Asia-Pacific region might mean for the formation of various kinds of political subjects in the context of trans postcoloniality, where a hybrid or impure conception of modern identity leaves us little recourse to notions of somatic integrity or coherent subjectivity.

It is also in this context that US-based fans of Coffee Prince are deploying conceptions of queerness. The US-based fans who wish alternately to relate to Eun Chan as a transman and as an androgynous woman are themselves performing a queer consumption of K-drama fandom that reinstates a neoliberal notion of sexual autonomy at the very site of coercive practices of trans kinship. (Indeed, the title of another popular K-drama called “개인의 취향” has been translated, “Personal Preference.”) Where the dominant narratives of gender variance in Korean Wave media correspond either to stealthness or to biomedicalization, however, the demand for queerness that persists in fan culture may function as an important staging of alternative desires: the desire, for instance, to take a perverse pleasure in the extended and overlapping shots of Eun Chan’s chest-binding ritual in the series trailer, which puncture and suture the montage of her working-class life in modern-day Seoul, and which offer even—or perhaps especially—the uninformed viewer a kind of jouissance in escaping and exceeding the regime of forcible SRS. In an illustration of the transnational feminist connectivities that reveal both complicity and subversion at sites of gendered, sexual, and racial formation, it is clear that LGBT identity struggles in any locality may have little to do with what fans anywhere recognize as queer. However, this seemingly failed political engagement is precisely what global fandom’s mediation and, ultimately, its critique of sexual modernity discourse may depend on.

Beatie’s Affective Labors

In light of these complex connectivities, it is also important to take from Chou’s work on tongzhi politics a sense of how flexible the so-called neo-Confucian social-familial system might actually be in its mediation of the state’s desire for certain kinds of citizen-subjects or modes of sexual alliance. In the US context, for instance, the concept of queer or trans kinship cannot be invoked now without mention of Thomas Beatie, whose identity as the “pregnant man” has been shaped according to municipal laws in three states: Hawaii, where he transitioned and obtained government-issued documents reflecting his current gender; Oregon, where his admission records to the hospital where he gave birth to his three children consistently read “male;” and most recently Arizona, where a judge in March refused to grant Beatie a divorce from Nancy, his wife of nine years, because he retained his female reproductive organs at the time of their marriage.

Indeed, the disciplinary forces that contribute to an apparent asymmetry between transmasculine and transfeminine experience in the realm of trans citizenship seem themselves related to long-standing practices of state control over bodies with gestational capacity and to ongoing popular movements for reproductive rights. As Renee Tajima-Peña discusses elsewhere in this issue, a (recent) history of eugenic sterilization has had a distinct impact on racialized practices of kinship in the United States, but it is striking how rarely the topic of forcible SRS enters into public discourse about trans identity or trans kinship in the Global North. As shown by mainstream films like Transamerica (2005) or documentaries like Transparent (2006) that explore family relationships after a parent has transitioned, the opposite is more frequently true.

In his memoir, Labor of Love (2008), however, Beatie broaches the topic when discussing his own gender transition:

I also chose to keep my reproductive organs. Some transgender men opt to have them removed, believing they need to sterilize themselves to be considered a different gender. But I didn’t feel this way at all. In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder about the logic: How could having no reproductive organs make someone any more or less a man or a woman? It just makes you sterile. Thankfully, there are no state-sponsored sterilization requirements for transgender people, and I had no desire to opt out of the possibility of procreating.[34]

Beatie invokes a very specific notion of the state as a Hawaiian-born US.citizen, but he offers an expansive redefinition of the human when he reorganizes gendered forms of reproductive agency around a new binary: sterile or fertile. His ability to think of his gender identity as separate from either his gestational capacity or his hormonal gender is what enables him to identify as his own “surrogate—to use my own body to go through this process, and not someone else’s,” he writes.[35] It also takes the irony out of his self-appellation as the pregnant man, since he would claim first to be a fertile subject in possession of his reproductive organs and, secondly, a self-fashioned man who, in some of the most fascinating sections in Labor of Love, actively disassociates himself from his Asian father.

Beatie has been criticized, along with Nancy, for allowing the media to sensationalize their story—exclusive interview rights went to Oprah Winfrey and People magazine rather than to the LGBT press who ended up being their “biggest disappointment”—and for failing to acknowledge the existence of countless transmasculine-identified individuals who have also given birth to biological children in mainstream medical settings.[36] The signal difference, for Beatie, came from working closely with Oregon hospital officials who pledged to honor his gender identity at admissions: “Never before in history has someone delivering a child had the letter M typed on their wristband.”[37] While Beatie stopped taking testosterone in order to become pregnant, Nancy (who had undergone a hysterectomy years before) elected to put herself on a hormone therapy regimen in order to boost her maternal capacity to breastfeed each of their three children.

Beatie’s confident navigation of the media and implicit faith in the law were both tested, however, when a video capturing one of Nancy’s “violent rampages” was leaked to the celebrity tabloid outlet TMZ in May 2012. In broad strokes associating her with a domineering white masculinity, Nancy is described as having a substance abuse problem (in the opening moments, Nancy is shown passed out on the floor) and as “manhandling” the children in the video, “beating” her husband, and destroying the family computer. Beatie’s voice bickers, rages, and sobs as he remains steadfastly in control of the surveillance technology of the camera, seemingly gathering the evidence he needed to launch divorce proceedings against Nancy, as he did less than a year after the filming.

Video 3: Video exclusive posted to in May 2012.

In March 2013, Beatie lost his divorce case in a family court in Arizona, where the family reportedly had moved in order to be closer to relatives, due to this finding by the judge:

The decision here is not based on the conclusion that this case involves a same-sex marriage merely because one of the parties is a transsexual male, but instead, the decision is compelled by the fact that the parties failed to prove that (Thomas Beatie) was a transsexual male when they were issued their marriage license.[38]

While Arizona does uphold a ban on same-sex marriage, the court’s opinion reveals that the actual legal problem here is posed by the uncertain definition of female-to-male transsexualism. The specter of forcible SRS emerges in the judge’s invocation of Beatie’s failure to prove that he had renounced his gestational capacity when he married Nancy. Although he completed gender confirming surgeries in 2012, Beatie’s ongoing fight in this conservative state for custody of his three biological children—who are multiracial individuals, as he is—he must continue to articulate a standard of parental fitness that elevates his unique kinship capabilities over those of his white partner. The issue of Beatie’s former fertility, which did not conflict with his gender identity either in Hawaii or Oregon, therefore seems spectacularly caught up in Arizona’s deployment of overt racism in two of its own high-profile pieces of state legislation: HB 2281, which bans the teaching of ethnic studies in schools, and SB 1070, which supports systematic racial profiling in the name of US border control.

Although Beatie’s racial identity was initially overshadowed in the media by his identity as both father and surrogate to his children, I want to suggest that it is precisely his racialized practice of kinship that has made him so famous. In fact, his multiracial heritage is central to his articulation of transmasculinity in Labor of Love, and his memories of his parents reflect a racial as much as a gendered dichotomy.

My father, with his broad shoulders and his round biceps and his jet black hair and the green jade ring he always wore, large as a Spanish olive, and the thick fold of hundred-dollar bills he always kept in his wallet, and the strong clean smell of aftershave that went with him everywhere, and the dark, glazed, glaring eyes that never smiled even when he did. My father was a larger-than-life figure to me, at first an all-powerful king, a builder of castles, and then a sort of monster, menacing and impossible to defeat—sort of like the troll beneath the bridge.

Conversely, my mother was the hero of my story, fair and good and beautiful. She was born in Minnesota, and her blond hair and pale skin contrasted with the features of Hawaiian women, and with those of my half-Filipino, half-Korean father. It was easy to see her as a force of light, and my father as an agent of darkness.[39]

Beatie, who took his mother’s maiden name as his own surname when he transitioned, remembers only one clear instance of being angry at her—when she joked with a friend that her daughter’s nose was flat, like her father’s. After she committed suicide when Beatie was 12 years old, he maintained a tense relationship with his distant and sometimes abusive father, the child of a Filipino laborer and a Korean mail-order bride, who “made it out of the slums of Kalihi” to become a successful architect.[40] Beatie’s near-worship of his mother seems to feed off her all-American image and pedigree: “Benjamin Harrison, twenty-third President of the United States, was my mother’s mother’s father’s mother’s father’s brother,” he states in a tongue-in-cheek moment.[41] However, his meticulous attention to the accoutrements of his father’s own multiethnic masculinity in this passage—which immediately brings to the surface the feelings of abjection that he associates with this particular gender identity—suggests that it is the loss of his father which Beatie attempts to confront through his own melancholic gender formation.

Thomas Beatie and his mother

Figure 4: From Labor of Love, where the caption reads, “me and mom, Thanksgiving, 1978.”

This desire both to preserve and to destroy his father’s image, the desire to manage the Oedipal resolution well, is powerfully evident in the moment that Beatie chooses to come out to him as trans. Surprised by an unexpected visit from his father shortly after undergoing top surgery, Beatie recalls:

I was gagging on the words, trying to gather a few that might make sense, anything besides “surgery” and “transition” and “gender reassignment,” hard, clinical words that would bruise my father like blunt objects.

But there were none. And so I reached down and grabbed the hem of my T-shirt and pulled it over my head in one quick movement. I could already see my father’s expression as I pulled the shirt over my head. Even without glasses he could see the twin red crescents on my chest, my surgical scars, longer and brighter than I had hoped, inescapable testaments to what had happened. He could surely see that my breasts were gone, and that my chest, thanks to testosterone injections, had gained musculature and definition. He could see that his little girl was now a man.

“What are you doing?” my father stammered as I pulled up my shirt. And then a small, guttural gasp.

“My god, Tracy, what have you done?”

I stood there and let him take it in […] But what he said next surprised me.

“You look,” my father said, “like me.”[42]

Beatie senses the violence that a language of biomedicalization would inflict on his father’s racial, gendered, and class subjectivity, but he cannot predict this willing and intimate recognition of his transmasculinity. Without any words at all, in fact, Beatie displays his new state of embodiment in a disrobing gesture that proves “his little girl was now a man,” and not just because men have muscled chests—as both Beatie and Nancy had trained as female bodybuilders. Rather, Beatie describes in this passage how the bared breasts that would have drawn the father’s incestuous gaze—“I stood there and let him take it in”—have been transformed in a way that restages the primal fantasy of (racial) castration.[43] Beatie’s long and bright surgical scars initiate him into the very relation to lack that defines masculinity as that which has something to lose, and his father in turn confers upon Beatie the identity—borne of similarity—which signals the latter’s initiation into Asian masculinity and, more importantly, Asian fatherhood.

Thomas Beatie speaking at Northwestern

Figure 4: Beatie speaking on the campus of Northwestern University in February 2013 at an event co-sponsored by the Filipino Students Association (Kaibigan), the Asian/Asian American Student Affairs office, and the LGBT Resource Center.

In the year since his marital problems were made public, Beatie has been increasingly hailed as a queer and multiracial Asian Pacific Islander American spokesperson. The Asian American identity-in-formation that I, too, claim for him here depends not on a single or evident axis of identification, i.e., race, but rather on Beatie’s own performance of trans postcoloniality. Currently, this performance entails exercising his legal right to a social-familial system in which a daughter can become a father—and to a system of fatherhood also different from what his own multiracial parent showed him—and, ultimately, as this picture of Beatie’s affective labor proves, to entirely new ways of sharing trans kinship.

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  1. J. Godwin, Legal environments, human rights and HIV responses among men who have sex with men and transgender people in Asia and the Pacific: An agenda for action, (Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2010). The report can be found here: [Return to text]
  2. Forcible SRS has also been instituted in Iran, which the BBC reports ranks second only to Thailand in reported cases of SRS annually. In contrast to the nation-states I discuss here, however, Iran has been denounced in LGBT human rights discourse and by mainstream news sources for forcible SRS in expressions of anti-Arab sentiment and condemnations of religious fundamentalism. See [Return to text]
  3. In “Sinophone Production and Trans Postcoloniality: Sex Change from Major to Minor Transnational China,” English Language Notes 49.1 (2011): 113, Howard Chiang has described trans postcoloniality in the Chinese context as “the formation of a politics of postcoloniality defined around the historical terms” of a “coinciding” between “the temporalities and spatialities of postwar trans-nationalism” and “the condition of possibility for the emergence of modern trans-sexual subjects across the Pacific Rim.” I am describing trans postcoloniality as a set of cultural politics that, rather than investing in a rhetoric of triumphal self-invention or in a liberal discourse of self-possession, is instead aware of the modes of constitutive violence that found its own form of hybridity and is thus capable of responding to multiple and overlapping forms of structural oppression. [Return to text]
  4. Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Postranssexual Manifesto,” Body Guards, eds. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, (New York: Routledge, 1991). Rpt. in The Transgender Studies Reader, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, (New York: Routledge, 2006). [Return to text]
  5. Stone 2006[1991]: 222. [Return to text]
  6. S. Winter, “Lost in Transition: Transgender People, Rights, and HIV Vulnerability in the Asia-Pacific Region,” (Bangkok: United Nations Development Programme, 2012): 32. [Return to text]
  7. Birth certificates, which are known as “root documents,” pose the biggest challenge in the US context. In 2006, for instance, when New York City-based activists protested the New York State Department of Health’s policy regarding the requirement of total SRS before a gender assigned at birth could be changed, they cited data reporting that only three percent of all transgender men opt to undergo “convertive genital surgery.” See [Return to text]
  8. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Yogyakarta Principles – Principles on the application of international human rights law in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, (2007), available at: Accessed 27 Apr. 2013. The International Bill of Gender Rights, adopted in Texas in 1996, has similar provisions supporting biological parenthood and the right to be free from involuntary psychiatric treatment, but does not specify medical procedures. [Return to text]
  9. Jean Vaccarro, “Transbiological Bodies: Mine, yours, ours,” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, 20.3 (2010): 222. [Return to text]
  10. Sarah Franklin, “The Cyborg Embryo: Our Path to Transbiology.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006): 171. [Return to text]
  11. Leslie Bow, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Southern South, (New York: NYU Press, 2010): 211. [Return to text]
  12. Inderpal Grewal, Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms, (Durham: Duke UP, 2005): 3. [Return to text]
  13. Josephine Ho, “The Em[bodi]ment of Identity: Constructing the Transgender.” 4 July 2003. [Return to text]
  14. Ho 2003. [Return to text]
  15. Ho 2003: par. 3. [Return to text]
  16. Cited in “Embodying Gender: Transgender Body/Subject Formations in Taiwan,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 7.2 (2006): 347. [Return to text]
  17. “Embodying Gender” 2006: 348-89. [Return to text]
  18. “The Em[bodi]ment of Identity”: n5. [Return to text]
  19. “The Em[bodi]ment of Identity”: n4. [Return to text]
  20. Howard Chiang, “Sinophone Production and Trans Postcoloniality: Sex Change from Major to Minor Transnational China,” English Language Notes, 49.1 (2011): 112. [Return to text]
  21. Patty Jeeyhyun Ahn, “Harisu: South Korean Cosmetic Media and the Paradox of Transgendered Neoliberal Embodiment,” Discourse, 31.3 (2009): 261. [Return to text]
  22. Ahn 2009: 256. [Return to text]
  23. Ahn 2009: 269. [Return to text]
  24. Ahn 2009. [Return to text]
  25. “Transgender Phenomenon, or Re-Gendering of South Korean Culture,” available at Accessed 12 Apr. 2013: par. 7, 9. [Return to text]
  26. Chou Wah-Shan, Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies, (New York: Routledge, 2000): 1. [Return to text]
  27. Wah-Shan 2000: 20. [Return to text]
  28. Judith Butler, “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” differences 13.1 (2002). Rpt. in Undoing Gender, (New York: Routledge, 2004): 144. [Return to text]
  29. See [Return to text]
  30. Trevor Link, “A Radical Narrative Disguised as a K-Drama: Coffee Prince, Gender, and Sexuality,” 2 Apr. 2012. Accessed 1 May 2013. [Return to text]
  31. Liu Jen-peng and Ding Naifei, “Reticent Poetics, Queer Politics,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Reader, eds. Kuan-Hsing Chen and Beng Huat Chua, (New York: Routledge, 2007): 397. [Return to text]
  32. Liu and Ding 2007: 398. [Return to text]
  33. Butler 2004[2002]: 111. [Return to text]
  34. Thomas Beatie, Labor of Love: The Story of One Man’s Extraordinary Pregnancy, (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2008): 162. [Return to text]
  35. Beatie 2008: 305. [Return to text]
  36. Beatie 2008: 254. [Return to text]
  37. Beatie 2008: 4. [Return to text]
  38. See [Return to text]
  39. Beatie 2008: 15-16. [Return to text]
  40. Beatie 2008: 17. [Return to text]
  41. Beatie 2008: 18. [Return to text]
  42. Beatie 2008: 166. [Return to text]
  43. See David L. Eng, Racial Castration (Durham: Duke UP, 2001): chapter 3. In this scene from Labor of Love, Beatie’s scars are interpreted by his father as a sign of invulnerability, which reproduces the condition of Asian masculinity as an identification with a phallic power that is nonetheless not there to seen. [Return to text]