A Single Spark
A Korean American adoptee, transgender woman and LGBT activist, Andy Marra has found that sharing her story carries the power to move and inspire.
by EUGENE YI
photographs by VICTOR CHU
The Arcus Foundation in New York has two goals that don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other: social justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people; and the protection of the great apes. The two goals reflect the passions of the founder, John Stryker, an architect and one of the heirs to his grandfather’s medical technology fortune. It makes a certain sort of sense, I guess. Stryker is gay, and he owned a pet monkey when he was growing up that he eventually gave to the local zoo.
A recent Arcus hiree could perhaps be forgiven for lacking a fluency in both missions. But as its new communications director, Andy Marra has to possess just that.
“I’ve got a lot of reading, a pile of books on my desk,” she said, sighing theatrically. She was prepping for a trip down to Florida to visit an ape sanctuary when I met her at the Arcus Foundation’s offices in midtown Manhattan, on a blustery day when winter almost seemed resentful that spring was nigh. Like any New Yorker, she had dressed hopefully, in a black-and-white striped miniskirt and a thin blousy top. We’d planned on walking, but decided to stay inside.
So Marra will have some reading for the plane. As for the other mission, her qualifications could hardly be more suited for Arcus, the largest donor to LGBT causes in the country. The 28- year-old transgender woman’s resume includes public relations work for the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, as well as with GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. The Advocate magazine chose her as one of its “Forty Under 40” LGBT movers and shakers, the White House and the City of New York have both honored her for her work, and a slew of organizations have given her a mantle’s worth of awards, including one recently from the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.
She’s also a Korean American adoptee, and has worked as the co-director of Nodutdol, a fiercely progressive Korean American activist organization focusing on reunification and demilitarization in the peninsula.
She’s a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, among other outlets, and is an outspoken advocate for LGBT and Korean unification issues. Her new job allows her to utilize her skillset, albeit from a slightly different vantage point.
“At Arcus, a lot of our grantees are organizations I’ve worked with or had connections with over the years,” said Marra. “I’m able now to help elevate their stories and connect it to our support, making a really big difference on the ground that probably everyday people on the street aren’t aware of. Their stories matter.”
She recently became prominent for her own story, though, writing on HuffPo about coming out as a transgender woman to her South Korean birth mother. The story ended up going viral.
“I kept telling her [my biological mother], ‘You have fans! Everyone loves you! I had to ask, ‘Do you have anything you want to say to your fans?’ And she said in her broken English, ‘Thank you. I love you. Goodbye.’ I said, ‘OK, mom.’”
Marra’s tone was teasing, adolescent, playfully insolent, and it struck me that over the course of a few minutes of talking to her, she had channeled a preacher’s cadence, a PR professional’s informational authority, an insolent teenager, and, well, herself, a transgender Korean American adoptee woman with an easy laugh and a sharp wit. Her warmth exemplified the inclusiveness her very existence demanded. In other words, if I ran an organization, I’d probably want her to be speaking for it.
Marra’s story starts in South Korea, at an adoption agency. She was part of the wave of South Korean babies adopted by families abroad, which started after the Korean War and peaked in the ’80s. An American family adopted Marra, and they brought her to upstate New York.
“I grew up in a Caucasian family. My parents were white. Are white. They’re still white,” she said, laughing, then adding, “I stuck out like a middle finger.” Her adoptive mother, a dietician, proved to be an early influence. Marra’s family volunteered actively in their community, and despite being Lutherans, the emphasis on the importance of service displaced any doctrinal issues regarding the LGBT community that may have been present.
“Because of [my mother’s] work, because of her experience, and because of her good heart, she ended up volunteering with LGBT support groups, lobbying for health care groups to support transition,” Marra said. “I think that’s where the spark started. That was the first spark.”
Growing up, Marra always knew she liked boys, and never saw anything wrong with it. “There was never an ‘aha’ moment or awareness,” she said. “It was how I always felt growing up as a child. I never felt anything wrong with being attracted to boys.”
She first came out to her parents, as gay, in the sixth grade. The experience was not an easy one.
“I don’t think any family or any parent expects their child to be gay. I think that is a safe assumption for many parents and families. When I came out, it wasn’t easy … But—,” she paused. “I was who I was. And my parents were OK with that.”
Being a gay male is, of course, different from being a trans woman; gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same. “As an American child, I didn’t have the word trans or transgender in my vocabulary,” she said. “I didn’t know there was an identity that existed that defined who I was.” So Marra continued to identify as gay, and even came out a second time during high school, an affirmation of sorts.
“At the time, I think my parents were struggling with the question of: Is this a phase? Is this not a phase?” she said. “I wanted to let them know that my attraction to guys was not going to change.”
Inspired by the example of her adoptive mother, Marra started looking for ways to serve the community she identified with, and joined the GLSEN chapter in upstate New York. The experience expanded her exposure to the range of sexual orientations and gender identities, and helped show her where she fit.
“I remember in summer of 2003, I took a job with them, went into the offices, and I came out as trans,” she said. Marra recalled thinking, “I know who I am. This is who I am. And I don’t know where to begin in figuring out the next steps.”
One of the first steps she did take was to tell her parents. But for this third coming-out, instead of announcing it, as she had the first two times, she decided to write a letter.
“I think writing is very therapeutic, a very individual act. It’s also liberating,” she said. “In a conversation, sometimes it can get heated. There can be misunderstandings. Sometimes the point you’re trying to make is shadowed by something you didn’t want it to be shadowed by. Writing allowed me to freely accept my feelings. I didn’t want to have an argument with my family. And I wanted to allow them time to respond.”
There is an old saw within the LGBT community that one never stops coming out, but Marra’s journey still stands out. She recently spoke about her relationship with her adoptive parents, recounting the Christmas mass she’d just attended back in upstate New York. It was the first time she’d gone to church with them since she’d come out as trans. “They wanted me to be comfortable. So here I was, flanked by my parents, and the response from friends and colleagues and my godparents was very positive. And it was really therapeutic to be able to go into a space where people knew me as male, and to be my authentic self, to not be embarrassed about who I am.”
After high school, Marra got out of upstate and headed to New York City, where she immediately felt at home. “There is obviously a huge representation of people of color in the city,” she said. “Also a vibrant Korean American community, and it felt like I was with my people, and I could just be myself.” The diversity within the LGBT community made itself apparent as well. Marra, as a trans activist, found herself in the midst of a long-simmering source of tension within the community.
“There is that feeling of ‘we have been thrown under the bus.’ The needs we have are being undersupported or underrecognized,” she said. Laws at both the state and federal level prohibit discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation. There is no such protection for transgender people, at the federal level or in many states, including New York. Even the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders continued to list Gender Identity Disorder as a condition, long after homosexuality had been removed (GID has since been replaced with the less immediately damning but still hacky feeling “Gender Dysphoria,” which refers not to the state of feeling like one is the opposite of one’s biological gender, but the negative feelings that arise from that state).
“Employment nondiscrimination is a huge issue … If you can’t get a job, how are you going to support yourself? And it raises the question: What about access to credit, or housing?” While transgender rights movement has not progressed as quickly as the fight for gay and lesbian rights, the shared history of the groups make them allies in the end.
“The community is very diverse, and with that diversity comes a rich complexity of ideas and identities and experiences.” the activist said. “There will always be tension in any kind of diverse community. I think what matters though is that, when sh-t hits the fan, so to speak, everyone comes together and everyone supports one another.” And the tectonic progress made by the gay rights movement gives Marra a sense of how quickly things can change.
“The landscape in the country is that the majority of Americans support marriage equality. I think it’s from a lot of work of sharing stories and being visible,” she said. And the kind of storytelling that Marra engages in fits into that activist tradition.
The idea for sharing her story came from a friend, who had seen Marra put “silly pictures of her birth mother online,” Marra said. “She’s very active in her church, and she was traditional Korean fan dancing to worship music.” Marra had met her birth mother while taking part in KEEP, the Korea Education and Exposure Program, a trip to South Korea organized by Nodutdol that connects activist-minded Korean Americans with their comrades in the peninsula.
Marra remembers writing her account of the trip while Hurricane Sandy roared outside her window. When she was done, she showed it to her adoptive mother, who called it a “home run,” Marra said. And after receiving permission from her biological mother to run it, the piece took on a life of its own.
“I’ve had crazy offers. People want to make movies, people want to make theatrical performances. I even ended up in a church sermon,” she said. But more important than the media’s response, or the likes and retweets, were the actual emails and letters she received.
“I heard from other adoptees who were LGBT who were grappling with similar questions. I heard from parents of adoptees whose children had come out as trans. I heard from Koreans and Korean Americans who were apparently so inspired by reading my piece that they ended up coming out to their families.
“You just can’t help but realize how powerful the word is. So I was very blessed and very fortunate,” she added. She’s now planning on writing a sequel about what’s happened since the piece went up, a few more details about what she’s learned regarding the circumstances surrounding her being given up for adoption, and her new fiancé, a chef in New York who is also a Korean American adoptee.
“Yeah, I’m in love,” she said, rolling her eyes a little bit at herself for being such a cliché, then smiling happily. They’ve been dating for about a year, and Marra now plans to take him to South Korea for his first trip back as an adult, and to introduce him to her biological mother. Once there, Marra plans on helping guide him through the country, just as others had done for her a few years ago, as she searched for her biological parents. She’s looking forward to the trip, but there is one thing she won’t be looking forward to.
“Not skirt friendly,” she said. “Those low tables, let me tell you, man. Give me a blanket.”
This article was published in the May 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).