Welcome to Atlanta.

A black man beamed at us with open arms from a banner that read “Welcome to Atlanta!”.

Interview with Joon Park

Introduce yourself!

My name is Joon Park. “Joon” like the month, also born in June—I am a Gemini, and I use they/them pronouns. When I do introductions, I do like to include that I am a child of immigrants and heavily resonate with the immigrant experience. And I don’t believe that the fact that I’m trans or the fact that I’m an immigrant exists in vacuums. A lot of my development up until this point has been informed by activism on campus. Of course, now that I’m working in a professional setting, that looks very different. But genuinely, if there was a “North Star” for me to keep running towards, it is that I lead a life with young people in mind. Specifically young people who come from more underrepresented and underserved communities. So that is me in a nutshell!

 

You’ve said that you prefer the term QBIPOC because it feels more inclusive of your identity as a Korean person. How do you feel connected to that label personally?

That was kind of at the peak of when my identity as a trans person was starting to crystallize. So before then, it was much easier for me to describe myself as gay. This was around 2016-2017 when I made that video the kind of nuances behind queer identity was not as explored back then. That was also when the word “gay” was starting to become a lot more conflated with whiteness. Specifically, I remember there was a lot of energy around what “Hell’s Kitchen gays” look like. Increasingly, I think I was starting to realize that although we do share experiences under a common “queer umbrella,” it would betray my identity as an immigrant, as a queer person of color, to use a word that has been so conflated with whiteness. Because of that, I do prefer calling myself a trans person of color now that my identity’s a lot more fixed. But obviously, “queer person of color” also works. 

 

With that said too, I know that specifically being Korean and a queer person. I personally have never come out to my parents as nonbinary or trans just because there are certain words within our language “oppa” [오빠, ‘older brother’ from a younger sister], “addeul” [아들, son] that hold a lot of relative meaning. I don’t necessarily want to renegotiate my relationships with my mom and my sister because it would betray the entire relationship I’ve built with them. I think that even within transness, there are a lot of factors informed by my immigrant identity where I’d rather be my mom’s son through the lens of an immigrant experience than try to force a lot of language that I’ve learned from elite academic institutions. Who am I to try to explain that gender is a performance to my immigrant mom, who works a blue-collar job?

 

What has self-acceptance meant and looked like for you?

If I’m being honest, I, gratefully so, never had as much as a tumultuous relationship with coming to terms with my queerness. Mainly because I was also in the liberal bastion of Bergen County, New Jersey, where because of its proximity to Manhattan, queerness was kind of a cool thing. Talking about whiteness again, I just remember this was a time when Glee was really a big thing. The trope of a gay best friend was really starting to crystallize itself in American media and the cultural currency of being a gay friend. And back then, I associated a lot of that with proximity to whiteness. So for me, I actively performed “gayness” because I thought it meant closer proximity to whiteness. 

 

For me, I think a lot more of the shame was rooted in my racial and immigrant identity than it was my queerness. With that said, it was kind of a positive feedback loop where becoming more comfortable in my racial identity would then inform how I felt about my queerness, which would then inform how I felt about my race once again. I think the bigger moment for me to unpack was the implications that being a person of color had within queerness and the other way around. Being Asian, there’s very limited real estate we have to explore identities in the way white people can. Having to do that as an extracurricular on top of the filial obligations expected of me was a very tumultuous process. 

 

 

What’s something you wish more people knew about you and/or your identity?

I think this is a very context-driven question, but in my current stage of life, I want people to know that I am more than just the” token trans person.” I think a lot of that is informed by the relationship I have with my industry, where there really haven’t been too many trans folks. And because of that, there’s a lot of excitement from the larger industry to kind of use me as a representative for the larger community. And that gets really uncomfortable, also because now I’m realizing that I’m not going to achieve liberation through this industry. I really want to divorce my personal politics from how the industry wants to spotlight me as this harbinger of trans rights. 

 

What advice do you have for young LGBTQ+ BIPOC about navigating identity and life today?

This is going to be really trite, but it’s also something that was passed on to me when I was younger too, which is that we are in an era where young people hold a lot of capital—more so than earlier periods. I think that young people should really navigate life with a newfound level of self-efficacy and self-determination than we’re used to seeing specifically because there are so many institutions that historically have held power that are now grasping on to it because everything is being shattered by the young voice. 

 

As uncomfortable as it is to step into power when we’re not used to it, I would encourage young people to own their voices in ways that we haven’t been taught in traditional settings. And that’s such a trite answer, but it’s the best that I can give. I see how young people are also disrupting professional industries and how HR departments and leadership and people who would have never given a shit in the past are now cowering at this changing tide. I personally think that young people are the shit. They’re the way to go. Just keep going on that path.

 

One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot: At least with my generation, there was a certain desire and aspiration to weld a lot of our personal interests with career aspirations. There was a lot of energy around how we could use careers to be the vehicle for change. Like, “Let me enter the world of marketing and try to use that as a vehicle of change.” From my vantage point today, I honestly don’t think that career and social good are reconcilable. Under capitalism, a job is a job, and a career is a job. I think there needs to be a lot of disillusionment around the concept of career. 

 

My kind of aspiration for young people is to rethink strategies of how we could still secure the basic requirements for living respectable lives while understanding that, perhaps for radical transformation, a career isn’t necessarily the way to get there. And that’s coming from someone who’s recently like, “Fuck. I don’t think ‘media representation’ is the way to liberation.” 

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing LGBTQ+, and specifically trans and/or nonbinary Asians today?

Hot take: once again, I don’t think we’ve had as much real estate or the license to explore our identities. Perhaps because of the way we’re socialized with filial expectations or the constant and slow-burning worry of, “How can I reconcile my personal liberties with my family life?” I think family life is a very unique aspect of Asian identity that is hard to navigate sometimes. And because of these constraints, I just haven’t seen as many Asian folks allowing themselves the liberty to explore, and play with, and debunk gender. That’s my hot take: that we can be more expansive in our understanding of gender, and I’m not quite seeing that.

There are just so many other forces tethering us away from exploring identity that identity becomes a less salient part of who we are. These are very sweeping generalizations, so I’m very careful in saying this, but I do think there’s an element of self-sacrifice that is a little bit more pronounced in our communities and perhaps is one of the bigger barriers to us understanding ourselves. I think it also manifests in our understanding of racial identity. A lot of Asians are also very quiet about it or don’t have as resolute perspectives on that as well.

Thoughts on allyship within the Asian community?

J: Are you talking about us as allies?

Z: No, more like cishet Asians.

 

J: Perhaps this is internalized racism, but I just don’t give a fuck about what cishet Asians think about me. That said, I think we are just now entering a precipice where even cishet Asians have to reckon with Asian identity. You might have seen on TikTok, there are a lot of blunders from Asian influencers being like, “Y’all supported BLM, where’s the energy now?!” It’s just, they’re getting there, but they’re not quite there. It’s a certain type of nascency that is just now starting to blossom. I don’t want to fault folks—at least they’re in the process of learning and unlearning. But when it comes to where I have expectations for who’s gonna be my ally, number one on my list is not the larger Asian community, if I’m being honest.

 

 

What do you see for the LGBTQ+ Asian community in the coming years?

To be honest, I think we’re doing a fucking great job. And I don’t know, I might be a little biased because I live in New York, where there is a huge blossoming of queer Asian life that is so new and very palpable. I think we’re doing a really great job of codifying what it means to be queer and Asian and also understanding that it’s very complex and large. 

 

Three years ago, in 2018, I was essentially in the court team of the first-ever Korean-Trans conference. It hosted about 300 people from the entire Korean diaspora, so it wasn’t U.S.-specific. Even at that conference, we had pillars that were very specific to Korean identities, like family values, faith, and fellowship, or something like that. But even just the manifestations of how those tenets are actually very critical to larger Korean communities and how we can maneuver queerness through those lenses– I think it speaks to how we’re doing a great job reconciling our queer identities with other things we cannot ignore that are very central to Korean identity. 

 

The next move for you is to divorce your career from active liberation. What’s the plan?

In my day job, I work as a cultural consultant, which pretty much means that I help brands like PepsiCo develop new products that respond to culture. So if there’s a cultural zeitgeist around mood effects and what it means to elevate people’s moods during quarantine, I’d recommend that Pepsi starts creating new products around CBD ingredients.

 

My thought process right now is that a job is a job. Let me get my check, and then once I get the money, figure out how I’m going to redistribute that or spend that or reallocate that. I think the larger homework is also considering that because of my immigrant experience and Korean identity, for so long, there’s also been expectations for me to use that money for my family back home and buy my mom really great gifts as a tribute to all the sacrifices she made for me. So figuring out how to budget my personal money so I can still commit to those filial obligations but also extend that kind of filial obligation to communities that aren’t blood-related. That’s one thing that I’m working on at a very micro level.

 

 


Joon (they/them) is a cultural strategist at sparks & honey, where they consult tech, beauty, and F&B clients on how to future-proof their business. They are one of the founding members of GLAAD’s Campus Ambassador program and is a recipient of GLAAD’s first Rising Stars Grant, which annually honors LGBTQ+ changemakers across the nation. Since then, they’ve been featured in publications like Seventeen, Teen Vogue, and Vogue, where they continue to bring visibility to the next generation of leaders. Joon is an alum of the ADCOLOR FUTURES program and is the first transgender, non-binary Mx. ADCOLOR. They have spoken on stages like Cannes and ADCOLOR about topics like precision data, ethical design, and workplace diversity

Photo credit: Mark Clennon


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Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

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