Autobiography: Paradise Glossed, Part 2


This is the second part of the excerpt from my memoir-in-progress that I posted last week. You can read that part here.

It’s fair to ask why I began to explore my gender issues after joining the U.S. Navy. This was the time of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, after all, and even prior to that the U.S. military had never been an especially welcoming environment for LGBT individuals. Not even the Navy, despite any jokes that may be forming in your head right now. “Rum, sodomy, and the lash”? More like “powdered fruit punch, misspelled tattoos, and ‘the Department of Defense neither endorses nor condones the lyrics to any Village People song.'” Why was this the environment that fostered my first transition? The answer is “Oahu.”

Source: AllBum.Art - Alternative Art-Work for Album and Single Covers

Don’t call us, we’ll call … oh, let’s not kid each other, shall we?

As I recall, in those days the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) technically outlawed “homosexual acts,” not being gay as such; but if you self-identified as gay, that was good enough for the brass. Maybe they counted the declaration itself as a homosexual act. And like most straights, then and now, they made no distinction between the “LGB” and the “T.”

I landed at Pearl Harbor after I’d been in the Navy for over a year, and it wasn’t Plan A. As far as I knew at the time, Hawaii was just another U.S. state, and the main reason I’d joined the Navy was to have strange adventures in exotic foreign lands. At Officer Candidate School in Newport, when I’d filled out the form for my preference of duty station, the U.S. base in Yokosuka, Japan was my first choice. I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs and went to college at the University of Georgia. I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before, and my travels abroad to date had been to Europe. Asia and the Pacific region were as exotic and foreign as lands could get.

So I was excited when my orders came back and I learned I was headed for a ship homeported in Yokosuka. After completing my training in San Diego, I got my shots, flew over the ocean, reported aboard … and immediately learned my ship would be changing its homeport to Pearl. To say I was disappointed would be a big understatement. Not only would I not be living outside the country after all, but I was attached to a vessel that would be decommissioned and up on blocks, like a hillbilly’s Econoline van, for over a year and a half.

We’d be busy, mind you; during an overhaul, a ship’s crew oversees the shipyard workers who do all the welding and plumbing and degaussing and caulking, and also goes to more training to learn about all the upgraded systems. But working ashore in an industrial hard-hat workplace isn’t what I’d signed up for.

My life as a bohemian expat in the Far East was stillborn.* I wouldn’t learn Japanese through immersion; live off-base in an apartment with rice paper walls and a tatami mat for a bed; flirt with kawaii local girls; learn the bushido code of honor; become proficient with a katana, join six other stalwarts to save a village from bandits, earn the respect of the shogun through my wise counsel, or capture super-powered monsters in tiny red and white balls. Akira Kurosawa films, James Clavell novels, and imported anime had convinced me all these things were likely to happen.

But now the homeport change nixed those sure bets. I was heading back “home.” Hawaii was the 50th U.S. state, but to my mind it was “just another state,” with driving on the right, McDonald’s, the Roman alphabet, infomercials, and morning radio personalities with nicknames like “Bobcat and the Perv.”


Come to Japan and don’t climb it, you’re a fool. Climb it twice and you’re a bigger fool. Three times? You’re a Marine.

It wasn’t happening right away. I had several months left in the Land of the Sidewalk Vending Machine, and although I lived on the ship to avoid the hassle of renting an apartment for such a brief span, I made the most of it and had a few (mis)adventures. Someday I’ll tell the story of getting locked in an outhouse at the summit of Mt. Fuji.

In due course, after a brief WestPac deployment, we arrived in our new home. I settled into life as a kama’aina, in a cozy Kalihi apartment makai of Nimitz Highway. It was five miles east of Pearl Harbor and five miles west of Waikiki, and my downstairs neighbors were a jolly Samoan motorcycle gang.

I soon realized that beyond the superficial similarities and beyond the tourism culture, Hawaii was different from every other state I knew—dramatically different. The state was once a Polynesian monarchy, and its culture was still more similar to other Pacific island nations than to the rest of the United States.

This was true in big ways—an entire island was reserved for people of the indigenous Hawaiian ethnic group—and in small ways: the local McDonald’s offered poi as a side item.

Also, the place names have too damn many vowels.


I mean, come on. Apostrophes do not equal consonants.

Most importantly, indigenous Polynesian culture, which was still very alive and present on Oahu, is more accepting of gender nonconformity than many other societies. The Hawaiian language even has a word for males who live their lives as women: mahu.

In the pre-Captain Cook era, this word referred to a person in a specific and well-described role in Hawaiian society, but by the time I lived there it had become more generic in most contexts; a catchall term for transsexuals, cross dressers, drag queens and anyone else who was gender-nonconforming. It was the umbrella term there and then that “transgender” is today in most of the country. I even heard a few people employ mahu to simply mean “gay,” but that was uncommon and never done by people who knew better.

In Waikiki there was a drag bar called Garbo’s, but if you really wanted to know the world of the mahu, you went to Elsie’s Club Polynesian on Hotel Street in Chinatown. Here, gender nonconformity was celebrated. Most of the employees were transwomen or were males who presented as female much of the time.** So were most of the clientele, and also, it seemed, everyone else who lived or worked in the few blocks of Chinatown surrounding the place. It was a transgender town within a neighborhood within a city surrounded by the world’s biggest ocean, and Elsie’s was its city hall.

And they were all “locals,” or were otherwise Asian or Pacific Islander in heritage. All the transgender women I’d (knowingly) seen up until that time were tall, broad-shouldered, and had beard shadows—the opposite of conventionally understood femininity, and embodiments of the stereotype.

I think it’s fair to say the two biggest obstacles for most transwomen hoping to “pass”—to be seen and accepted as belonging to one’s preferred gender—are height and facial hair. I hope it isn’t controversial to further state that the Asian ethnic types populating Hawaii tend to have less of either, compared to Caucasians and African-Americans.

“Passing” was an obsession for me. Nowadays, transgender people who admit they’re concerned about “passing” are gently scolded, or harshly derided, within the community. As a civil rights matter, I agree this shouldn’t be a priority; we have a right to be treated as who we are, regardless of whether we meet some arbitrary standard of what men or women should look like.

I didn’t know that back then, of course, and anyway it’s not that simple, even today. Transgender women who get “clocked” as men can be in real physical danger from violent transphobes or homophobes, so passing isn’t simply a question of vanity. It’s a survival strategy. I’d never tried to relieve my dysphoria by cross-dressing, because it never entered my head that I’d be able to pass, and I had no stomach for the thought of living my life under the stigma of being seen as a man in women’s clothes. I wanted to know I was a girl, and for everyone else to know it, too. If I couldn’t pass, I wasn’t willing to transition at all. Of course that reads as shallow. At the time I wasn’t even old enough to rent a car; of course I was shallow.


Like everything else in the world, I’m sure Hawaii’s Chinatown is very different today.

But the mahu I met in those days seemed really good at being girls. They didn’t merely pass; they were objectively pretty, like Frieda, and they radiated the confidence that came with knowing it. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to show me possibilities I’d never dreamed of.

So that’s why it all came together for me then, on that hot island, at that stage of my life. I was about as far geographically as it was possible to be from any friends or family I’d have to explain my behavior to. I’d found a micro-culture of individuals who were supportive and understanding of the need I’d been trying (unsuccessfully) to purge from my mind for most of my life. And they were modeling a level of authenticity (I don’t like that word here, but I can’t think of a better one) I began to think I could reach for.

My time had arrived.
*Yes, I recognize that as a U.S. military officer, I was about as “pat” as an expat can be, and no more bohemian than…uh, something that’s really not bohemian. That’s a hard word for metaphors.

**But not Elsie herself. Come to think of it, I’m not sure there was an “Elsie.” I should have written this stuff down at the time, but I was always afraid of being discovered.