My family moved from Japan to the states when I was three years old. My art-school-graduate mom was determined to enroll my brother and me in “creative activities.” In the first grade, she found the one ballet school in our suburban city of Millbrae and enrolled me in my first dance class.
I loved dance classes. It was a safe space where I was surrounded mostly by women and praised for having the perfect third-position plie or impressive flexibility in my arabesque. If there was one thing I loved more than femininity, it was validation. Not everyone appreciated my dancing though. In third grade, David O’Connor decided it would be funny to bully me in front of the class. He was the tallest boy in my grade, played every sport well, and was academically top of our class, right behind a Korean girl. They both had the most cards underneath their names on the “How Many Books Have I Read?” poster hung on the far wall of the classroom.
He called me out for being a girl because I danced. I was gagged for the first time. I could not believe what was happening. I immediately went mute and my body froze. I tried to make myself smaller like my mother did each time my dad yelled at her in spontaneous combustions of repressed anger from all that he couldn’t say. Some of the other kids, mostly boys, friends of David, laughed while my girl friends said nothing.
After I got home, I told my mom what happened, holding back tears and eventually failing to. She reassured me that it was okay and not to mind David O’Connor. “It’s okay if boys do ballet, too,” she said with a smile. But, I wasn’t crying because David told me I was a girl. I was crying because he weaponized femininity against me. His quick judgment based on my physical presentation and hobbies was enough to ostracize me from the pack. My mom had no idea. I spoke two languages and still, I didn’t have the words to translate my feelings.
News of the bullying eventually got around to my teachers at the ballet school. One of my mom’s friends, Mrs. Kondo, had a daughter who was my age and was practicing at the Ayako School of Ballet. Our mothers met at the Buddhist temple where my mom brought my brother and me every month. The Kondos lived in Burlingame on top of a hill with endless sky views looking towards the airport. The dad was obsessed with cars and leased Mercedes and BMWs. He switched models every few years, which made our rides with the Kondo’s feel luxurious.
Mrs. Kondo invited my mom and me to take a look at ASB and talk to Ayako herself. Ayako-sensei as many of us Japanese kids called her, was a fierce Japanese woman with jet black hair and piercing eyes, like the dark side of mussel shells. Her daughter, Mariko, was one of the best dancers there and taught classes to lower-division students ranging from five to thirteen years old. Kids and their moms flocked from all over the Bay Area to dance at ASB and these girls became my first community.
The week after, I was at the studio and finished my classes for the day when my mom came inside to come get me. I walked over with my dance bag slung over my shoulder, heavy with layers of warm-up clothes, a 32-oz Nalgene, bananas and trail mix as Heather, a candid big-sister-type teacher at the studio, stopped my mom and me as we were leaving.
“I heard what your classmate said to you, Kai. It’s not okay for him to say things like that. We’re going to call your teacher and let them know,” Heather said.
“Are you sure?” my mom asked back, nervously.
In that moment, I saw Heather as an angel sent from above with a loudspeaker. She was willing to advocate for me, but then my mind turned right back to the incident. Reviving this from the past would only create more conflict, I thought.
I was completely stunned but mostly embarrassed for having this incident brought up again. I just wanted to forget it and move on. But here was this woman, my dance teacher, advocating for me. That day I learned that in America it’s normal to rock the boat.
“Yes, I don’t mind,” answered Heather. At that moment she looked like a goddess towering over both my mother and me.
After the phone call was made, no one made fun of me dancing anymore. The principal called David into his office and closed the door. We never knew what happened in that principal’s office, just that you didn’t want to get called in there.
Even though I adored dance there was one part that bothered me until the day I quit. All of our classes started out the same for everyone. But it was the latter half that I didn’t like. Inevitably the teacher would establish a divide between the male and female dancers, aka me and everyone else.
In ballet we all warmed-up at the bar, for modern, it started with slow and stretchy floor routines, in jazz class, it was a quick-footed sequence to get our bodies ready for the faster routines that would come later. At the beginning of every class, we all did the same thing. Eventually, as we moved past the warmups and technical fine-tuning, we’d practice bigger sequences. Sashay, pas de bourrée, grand jeté and ending with a final pirouette incorporating a few fouettés.
I made my way across the floor with perfect technicality—toes pointed fiercely to reveal arches on my flat feet and arms waved from right to left like a grand conductor instructing the orchestra that was my body. When I got to the part of the routine that was modified for me, I’d hesitate. All eyes were on me, standing in the corner of the room. I executed the last turn, a men’s version of a fouetté where my outstretched arms and legs took up more space. I landed, Ayako gave me a good job nod, and I scurried back to the opposite side of the room.
One day I asked my mom if she would buy me pointe shoes. All of my girlfriends had a pair, at least if not two or three, and I wanted to look like them: elegant, lithe, and weightless. After a few conversations in the car on the way to and from ballet class, my mom agreed to buy me a pair. We found a shop near the studio that would make custom pointe shoes for my pre-adolescent feet, a few inches bigger than my dance mates.
The first time I put those shoes on it felt like a dream had become reality. I gently scooted each foot, toes covered by a protective foam half cover, into the pink satin shoes and tied up the ribbons up my legs. As I stood up on my toes a rush came over me. It felt like returning home to a place that I had once been to a long time ago. The shoes allowed me to access femininity within myself, outside of everyone else’s judgment, and unrestricted by societal norms of binary gender expectations. I practiced turns and walked around the house on my toes. This was my homecoming.
Later that evening we ate dinner at 6:30 pm like we always did. It was a typical Bay Area spring day, a chilly 65 degrees, and my mom chose hot pot. It was easy, warmed us up from the inside, and gave each of us something to do. Put the meat in, wait for it to cook, eat the vegetables and tofu in the meantime. The conversation winded from the recent pointe shoes purchase to the other ASB girls and their families.
“I’m glad I didn’t have a girl,” my mom said when we were talking about the different family structures of the other dancers. She was the oldest of three daughters in her family and had a contentious relationship with her mom growing up. She would tell us how they always fought, argued, and ignored each other in the house. “Boys are so much easier,” she added.
I didn’t know what to say when my mom brought that up and it wasn’t the first time she did. I stared at my bowl and focused on eating my food.
I continued dancing for five more years until I started high school. I joined the cross-country and track teams in high school and we trained every day after school at the same time as dance lessons. I loved dancing and being with all of my girl friends at ASB, but as I approached puberty, my roles at the studio and on stage became increasingly masculine.
I didn’t go to any school dances, not homecoming, not Sadie Hawkin, nor prom. By that time I had acknowledged that I was attracted to guys and the idea of being at a dance where everyone else was paired off sounded like torture. Instead, I poured myself into academics and running. I made these into my new safe havens, but this time these spaces protected me because of the absence of gender. Identity didn’t matter when it came to how high a GPA you could achieve or how fast you could run a three-mile race. Numbers don’t have a gender.
Fast-forward to this past summer when I took my first vogue class. I saw on Instagram that Leiomy, the Wonder Woman of Vogue as she’s called in the scene, was going to teach an online class. I watched all of Pose and Legendary and had fallen in love with this performance culture. Everything, from the impossible-looking dips (not death drops), to the club kid-meets-high fashion outfits and most of all, the confidence of the dancers, was alluring. I signed up immediately and nervously waited for the weekend. Luckily, this was an online class so I could practice in the comfort of my new apartment in Los Angeles where I'm living by myself for the first time.
“Vogue is all about femme energy!” Leiomy cheered as she took us through warm-up stretches at the beginning of class. After teaching us the basics of hand performance, duckwalk, and dips, she encouraged us to add personality and sass. I watched myself in my iPhone camera that I had set up to record myself. Wearing a sports bra and women’s Nike running shorts, I moved my hips from side to side as my arms danced in front of me, wrists “breaking” to add more of a dramatic effect.
This is it, I thought. For years, I had buried my femininity deep inside my soul, initially because other people would use it against me. I thought that once I came out as gay and found people like me, they’d appreciate, even love, my girlish side. Gay culture, I would eventually learn, revolved around the same axis as a heteronormative culture with masculine men sitting atop the totem pole. The closer you were to cis-masculinity, the more powerful.
But in those two hours of learning how to vogue, and more importantly, learning the power of being femme, I came home to a world where I belonged. Here, the girls were in charge. Sisters before misters. In this house, they flipped the cis-tem.
As I was practicing my dips, I felt the same feeling I had when I first put on my pointe shoes. All my life people have asked me the question, “Where are you from?”, prompted usually by my face, to which I’d say, “I was born in Japan and grew up in California.” It was the easiest way of communicating multiple parts of my identity: mixed race, immigrant, and transnational.
Ocean Vuong says that being queer saved his life because it demanded alternative innovations and solutions. “It made me ask ‘Is this enough for me?’” he writes in his book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I grew up always wondering if I was enough for this, for him, for them, and it’s only recently that I’ve changed how I ask that question.
Inherited ideas of gender were never enough for me. Back when I realized I was attracted to men I conflated sexuality and gender, identifying myself through my desires rather than my gender. And without the proper language and community, I used what was given to me to create myself. But now, I’m learning a new language.
I’ve been taking estrogen for two months now and it’s been the best decision of my life. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the journey. Would I get hyper-emotional and have outbursts? Would I become even sadder because estrogen is a depressant? The answer is neither. Instead, it’s allowed me to tap into the deepest parts of myself, the femme box I kept locked up until now. When I think about where I’m from it’s no longer a place, it’s femininity. This has always been my home through ballet classes and the respect of my woman throughout my life. It only took twenty-nine years to speak the languages of transness and non-binaryness, and finally, I’m home right here inside my body.