Above and below: Rep. Mike Honda, his daughter Michelle Honda Phillips, and his granddaughter Malisa addressed the Okaeri conference. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)
Above and below: Rep. Mike Honda, his daughter Michelle Honda Phillips, and his granddaughter Malisa addressed the Okaeri conference. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), who recently made headlines by publicly embracing his transgender granddaughter, served as keynote speaker along with his daughter, Michelle Honda Phillips, and her daughter, Malisa, at Okaeri, a Nikkei LGBTQ gathering, on Oct. 15 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

Okaeri, which means “welcome home,” featured panel discussions and workshops with speakers from across the country. This was the second such gathering; the first was held in 2014, also at JANM, and led to similar events in San Jose, Sacramento, Chicago, and other cities. The San Jose event was called Tadaima, which means “I’m home.”

Following opening remarks by planning committee member Carrie Morita, committee co-chair traci ishigo and JANM Interim President/CEO Ann Burroughs, the keynote speakers were introduced by Marsha Aizumi, event co-chair and co-author of “Two Spirits, One Heart: A Mother, Her Transgender Son, and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance.”

“As a mother, it is all that I hope for this world that my sons, both of my sons, my daughter-in-law, the Nikkei community and the LGBTQ community can all be welcomed,” she said. “ …We have three generations of the Honda family here today. We have models of love and acceptance … I consider them to be my friends, allies and powerful voices for all of us.”

Phillips recalled, “My husband and I had three boys very close in age to each other, and each time we found out we were having a boy, we thought we had scored. We didn’t have to buy anything extra — the clothes, shoes, toys. But partway into my third pregnancy, my middle son began to try to tell us that we had everything wrong, that in fact he was our daughter. So began our incredible journey of learning about gender identity expression.

“Our journey started out as an uncomfortable one, having to get over our ideas and visions of what we thought our children’s lives would be. We made a lot of mistakes … unintentionally hurting feelings. Gender identity has been proven to solidify between the ages of 4 and 6 … It’s harder for adults to kind of wrap their heads around knowing your gender at such a young age.”

To explain in a way that everyone can relate to, she asked how many people in the audience were right-handed, left-handed, or ambidextrous. “Knowing your left hand is your dominant hand, you just know. People didn’t tell you what hand to use; you used what was most comfortable. So you can use one better than the other or both the same. It’s all a spectrum, just like gender.

“Imagine someone forcing you to use the opposite hand, the hand that doesn’t feel comfortable, for the rest of your life and how uncomfortable and awkward that would be. It took us years to understand that Malisa was not a boy who liked girl things or a boy who wanted to dress as a girl. It was a huge learning curve for us … to truly wrap our heads around the fact that she is a girl because her heart and her mind know she is …

“We decided as a family to socially transition and when we did, we became terribly aware of all the challenges that these kids face … There are some people who talk about … being forced to move to a different city or a different state just to feel safe.”

Phillips added that there is a high suicide rate among transgender youth “because they can see no other way to live,” but the rate can be reduced “with family acceptance and love.”

Stressing that transgender kids are not going through “a phase,” she said, “I think about the binary situations before transition that I put my daughter in where she must have felt so different, so alone and misunderstood. She competed on an all-boys gymnastics team, we went to mother-son picnics, all because of what she was assigned at birth. How she must have felt to pretend to be a boy because of how she looked, what people assumed, what we all assumed.

“But we chose not to be offended by ignorance … and by people trying to understand but being unintentionally disrespectful. By educating, by being open, and by having a loving heart, that is how we choose to change the world. Because we intend to make people aware that what’s between our legs is not important, nor is it anyone’s business. It doesn’t define a person. It doesn’t define how someone should be treated. No one should have to hide and everyone should have the freedom to be true to themselves.”

Having transitioned at such a young age, Phillips said, Malisa is “going to have the privilege and opportunity to live authentically for the rest of her life, and her happiness is determined on her terms.”


In Her Own Words

Phillips spoke at Tadaima earlier this year, but Okaeri 2016 marked the first time that Malisa spoke for herself in front of an audience. Mother and daughter followed a question-and-answer format.

“I felt like I was being forced to be someone else,” Malisa said of her pre-transition days. “I didn’t like it and I felt uncomfortable when I was called a boy … I knew something wasn’t right. I was always kind of frustrated.”

When she realized that her parents understood, “I felt like it was a missing puzzle piece that I finally found,” said Malisa, who is 10 years old and in the fifth grade. And when she met other trans kids, “I felt I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t the only one.”

She added, “I was 8 years old when I transitioned. I slowly transitioned over the summer. My official 100 percent day was on my birthday in July. I was excited to go shopping … I was even able to keep competing in gymnastics, but I had to switch to a coed team.”

Although most kids were nice to her after the transition, her best friend was “disappointed with me,” as were the friend’s parents. “It was the worst feeling that I couldn’t see my best friend anymore … but I made new friends and they love me just the way I am. Maybe someday my old best friend and I can become friends again.”

As for her brothers, “They’ve always been there for me and they protect me and I’ve always been able to be myself around them.”

Regarding future plans, Malisa said, “I want to be either a professional dancer, fashion designer, video game developer, graphic designer or a teacher when I grow up … (and) get married and have a family of two kids.”

Her message to the community: “When we tell our stories, we can help other kids that are shy or scared to tell their parents and help the parents accept and understand kids like me.”

Honda remembered hearing that Malisa, at 18 months old, “stood in front of her mirror and said, ‘I’m a girl’ … When she was almost 3, she said, ‘I’m a girl, my name is Malisa, and this is how you spell it’ … She knew exactly how she wanted her name to be spelled.”

When the family decided to go on their journey, “I wanted to be part of it,” Honda said. “The part I wanted to do was give her pierced ears, so we went to the shop and had her ears pierced.”

Asked how he got involved in the issue as an elected official and civil rights advocate, the congressman said, “I’ve been in public policy for over 30 years and even since the ’80s when LGBT, PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and things like that were becoming more and more known … I understood certain kinds of things that we understand as Japanese Americans, having gone through camp, through prejudice, things like that …

“Afterwards, it was a personal journey and I just needed to be part of it … The kind of thing that I do best is take personal lives and translate them to public policy …That became the very important part because it speaks to young people’s safety, their sense of self … and how that connects to some person that’s involved, someone that you love, a family member, and making that happen for everybody else, not only for Malisa.”

Honda, a Sansei who was incarcerated with his family during World War II, said that his daughter, being a teacher, addressed the situation thoughtfully, but acknowledged that grandparents in his age group may have a harder time. “I’ve just been trying to be an observant student, but having said that I think there’s a lot of things that must be shared in a very honest and authentic way … that will not be judgmental to those who are going through these changes. For some it’s going to be very difficult. For others it’s going to be … frightening or just being taken by surprise.”

He said of Malisa, “I just want her to be happy and to be herself in a community that’s going to be free of judgment, rhetoric, hysteria … a place where gender identity and expression is something that’s normal and accepted. We can get there. Look how far we’ve come already in terms of our community.”

Phillips and Aizumi spoke later in the day at a workshop titled “Our Journeys to Acceptance and Love” along with Karen and Glenn Murakami, Sansei parents of two gay sons.

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