A life full of transformationsLee Mun-ki was born a female but lives his life as a man now. But don’t call him a transgender person ― nothing will make him angrier.
“People who are close to me have always treated me as a person. Those who don’t know me think of the word ‘transgender’ first, which isn’t really about me,” says Mr. Lee.
Mr. Lee, who is in his late 40s and refuses to reveal his exact age, became widely known in 1997 after he published his first book “A Woman Called ‘Brother,’” which described his transformation into a man.
Born as the second daughter into a family of five boys and two girls, Mr. Lee never had any doubt that he was a male. He was extremely aggressive, getting into fights with boys and watching testosterone-charged movies such as “Fists of Fury,” featuring martial artist Bruce Lee.
His propensity for violence led him to pursue a life on the outskirts of society. He entered an organized crime ring and started to rob drunken people. Hanging out at night clubs had taught him that there was easy money to make. He recounts some of his life in the underworld and in jail in his latest book, “A Man of a Different Color.”
Mr. Lee says he had a financial motive for writing the book, but the more he wrote, the more he realized that he didn’t need his transgender status to attract readers. He writes a column for the Internet portal Daum that’s ranked in the top 50 among Daum’s users, with the most recent column on the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun.
“I get a lot of responses, and nobody mentions ‘transgender,’” says Mr. Lee.
The word has become more widely used in Korean society in the past few years with the rise of Ha Ri-su, a transgender singer and actor who started to make it big in the entertainment industry. It’s a label Mr. Lee rejects because he does not want to be viewed as different. He underwent a sex-change operation in 1990.
He says that coming out as a transgender person has only hurt him, although it was some relief to finally reveal his true nature.
“I know that for people like me, it’s usually hard to deal with that fact, and that the whole thing just takes up most aspects of their lives,” he says. “But I never had that problem. I had too many other things to worry about.”
After the publication of his first book, people who claimed to be transgenders approached him and invited him to meetings and urged him to join their online and offline communities. Some of them were genuine, but others weren’t, which gravely concerned Mr. Lee.
“These people approached me because they wanted to add legitimacy to their group. When I found out that some of them were fake, it freaked me out because who knows what these people might do to others who met with them out of sympathy,” says Mr. Lee.
A lawsuit that he filed to stop these people’s activities dragged on for a year to no avail, and the stress caused his marriage to a male-to-female transsexual to collapse abruptly in 2002, after only six months.
He says that his marriage was perfect until the lawsuit.
“My wife understood what I did, knowing my background, but we couldn’t maintain our marriage. There were just too many things going on. But she still supports me,” says Mr. Lee.
As a youth, Mr. Lee had some encouraging prospects. In his last year at Yeongdeungpo Middle School, he auditioned for talent scouts from Dong Yang Broadcasting, the former body of the Korea Broadcasting System, as a girl in her school uniform. The acting tests went well, but Mr. Lee thinks it was his answer to the final-round question that helped him make the cut.
When asked what kind of actress he wanted to become, “I told them I wanted to become an action hero like Bruce Lee,” says Mr. Lee, chuckling.
Although he passed the audition, his family didn’t want him to work in the entertainment industry and instead wanted him to go to college. But upon graduating from middle school, Lee Mun-ki didn’t go to high school to prepare for college. He opted to hang out with the local troublemakers, which brought him into contact with the sketchier characters of Korea. With his athleticism and a boast that he had a fist that could break anything, Lee Mun-ki soon found himself in a leadership role.
Pointing at his calluses and then striking the marble floor beneath him, he says, “I am old now, but then everyone knew my fist had some serious punch.”
His actions eventually caught up to him. In 1981, he was convicted of robbery and taking part in organized crime and was sentenced to 30 months in prison, where he encountered even more difficulties.
At the time, he hadn’t undergone a sex-change operation, and under the identification system, he was listed as a female (in Korea, the 13-digit identification number for females starts with the number 2). Despite his muscular body and a masculine face, he was put into the female section of the prison.
After being released from jail in 1983, Lee Mun-ki started all over and headed in a new direction. In 1985, he established Abraham’s House, a social organization to help people recently released from prison to adjust more easily to society. In 1989, he received a Seoul Citizen Award for his work.
Mr. Lee sums up his life as “a show.”
“I didn’t become an actor, but I certainly played a lot of interesting roles,” he says. After a brief pause he adds, “Everything but a female.”
by Brian Lee
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