How 'Mulan' helped me accept my sexuality and gender

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Paul Tran is a proud queer Vietnamese American writer who penned a personal essay for espnW in honor of the 20th anniversary of Disney's "Mulan" exploring how Mulan rebelled against gender roles while also honoring her family and country. "Good Morning America" is proud to share this poem from espnW with our digital audience.

I thought it was her dress: fire-engine red, high collar, sleeveless, side slits, roughly 2,200 rhinestones. Mirai Nagasu moved like a lit match over ice. She blazed into a forward jump, arms crossed, spinning three-and-a-half times, and made history seconds later as the first American woman to complete a triple axel at the Olympics.

But what bewitched me was her music. Eclipsed by live television commentators and a roaring arena, selections from the musical “Miss Saigon” by Claude-Michel Schonberg did more than mark the moment Nagasu achieved the dream Tonya Harding and many held. It took me back to a cloudless morning in April 1975, when my mother watched the last American helicopter abandon Saigon as Viet Cong tanks crushed the city gates, and it scored for women like us -- like Kim, the central character in “Miss Saigon,” who dies so her child can become an American, or Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the 9-year-old who, in June 1972, wore her own burning gown as jets unloaded napalm upon her village -- the will to survive leaping toward destiny while the world watched.

I first saw a woman wearing a face like mine charge at her fate in June 1998. It was nine summers after my mother came to the United States from a re-education camp in the Philippines and one summer before my father left me at a park with a box of KFC leftovers and a $10 bill folded in my palm. Mulan, the hero from Disney’s “Mulan,” bolted across snow at the Tung Shao Pass with a cannon aimed not at invading Huns but at a frosty mountaintop. Frost fell on her enemies and friends, driving her like a blown-out flame off a cliff, and just when all seemed lost, Mulan rose triumphant on her midnight steed. She did not die, unlike Asian women in Cold War inventions such as “Miss Saigon.” Mulan was a hero. She briefly saved her country and brought honor to her family.

After she was exposed for impersonating a male soldier and deserted by her fellow troops and the Huns erupted from their winter sepulchers, Mulan had to marshal unmatched ingenuity to reclaim the Imperial City. It was proof that a woman of color could be powerful in the face of danger, failure and humiliation. Mulan’s ability to “bring honor to us all” animated within me a knowledge about myself. I wanted to be that woman. I was that woman.

Mulan helped me understand my identity as a transgender woman. Though I lacked such language at 6 years old, happily going to the theater with cousins who lived in the affluent part of San Diego, full of sugar from Skittles and Coca-Cola, the movie delineated for me gender as strict performance. To have a gender meant obeying tropes, scripts and privileges typically assigned to that gender. To not conform, to seize agency by extricating my body and mind from the cult of state-approved and state-policed femininity and masculinity, meant great penalties. It meant, for example, dishonoring my family because “if I were truly to be myself,” as Mulan observed, “I would break my family’s heart.”

Though for years I tried concealing this knowledge, afraid of the violence and abjection that nevertheless constituted my life, Mulan emboldened me to honor my family by honoring myself. I came out to my mother at 7. At 17. At 18. At 20. At 21. At 25. Every time, we screamed at each other on the phone or sat in obliterated silence across from each other in a room without an exit. My mother guarded the door behind her. I guarded the window behind me. Iron bars and a curtain we kept shut deterred our business from escaping.

I’m queer.

What?

I’m transgender.

What?

She would not look at me. She would not look at anything, except what was, I imagine, beyond me: the window, the crack through which the sky and its exit wounds are seen. Perhaps she wanted everything closed. Perhaps she wanted to stand up, walk the length of the room from where she sat on the sofa – her hands clasped in her lap, her hair whirled in hot rollers and away from her face, her eyes like two wells I could fall into and drown forever and ever or at least until I was rinsed clean -- and touch, for the briefest moment, the cool air blowing down from the mountains, the song of crickets rubbing their legs raw. Perhaps she wanted to slam the window shut not to lock the world out but to lock us in, to punish me for the truth and courage that Mulan galvanized in me.

My mother wanted me to believe honor meant unbridled compliance. My mother staying in her place -- refusing to move until “I took it back,” until I confessed my sexuality and gender were phases, some habit I picked up or some karmic debt I owed having sinned in my past or current life. I was her child. I was her subordinate. I was a shard of her. I was the self she could not be and as a result expected me to become. Her American Dream. Her Vietnamese Dream. Her Dream. Neither autonomy nor agency was available to me unless she approved or would do the same, and I understood these laws. I saw in every crease of her face the red sand beach where pirates fed her to sharks. I saw the mountainside where communist soldiers stoned her sisters, their blood spilling out from between rocks.

I saw her strapped to a bed at Sharp Memorial Hospital, motionless and silent, her eyes wide and staring into the overhead light, its fluorescent bulb mocking the sun, as a doctor slid a scalpel across her stomach, cutting open her uterus like the window we kept open at home to lift me out as though I was one of the lucky ones, the pretty-faced girls my mother watched lifted into the wind by American helicopters on that cloudless morning lifetimes ago.

Everything my mother gave up, every hope and dream and man waiting for her on the opposite side of a bridge bombed with no boats in sight, she buried in me. She gathered the bits and pieces of her hopes and dreams, unrecognizable, husked of history and future, and hid them as far down as she could in the plot of me she made -- the child who ripped her apart the way our homeland was ripped apart by foreign politicians interested more in neoliberal capitalism than in human lives at the 17th parallel -- and therefore owned and owed no explanation to. Being a good child meant doing what I am asked to do and nothing else. It meant having no separate thought, no separate feeling or ambition or fear or pain, and certainly it meant having no separate self.

Maybe this was the only way my mother knew how to love me. Maybe this was the only way her mother knew how to love her when she announced her decision to flee Vietnam for the United States, for a supposedly democratic life where women like us could decide the course of our lives. Maybe no child in our family stayed a child their mother could love, and maybe this was what love was for families like ours: a dance over thin ice, a forward-facing jump without confidence that we might land safely on our feet. Similarly, maybe this was the love Mulan and her family navigated in the midst of war.

Though critics have said that structures of power resumed their hierarchical operations when Mulan came home from battle, I still felt in my heart that her story, the story of women, particularly women of color, who manifested immeasurable genius and risked in the spirit of justice everything for their loved ones, for their country, opened the possibility for further critical imagination. Such women existed. Such women exist.

And for my 6-year-old self, swallowed by the theater’s magnificent darkness, the silver screen bigger than I could have foreseen, that ability to imagine made possible my ability to choose, to determine, to fight against all odds the expectations stormed upon me by everlasting history and encroaching modernity, tradition and ritual, and pick for myself a body and identity and way of being that soared, too, in the spirit of justice.

Mulan expanded my view of the self. The movie and its evolving legacy instilled in me the command to be myself no matter what. Likewise, women such as Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan offered unparalleled models for discipline, strength and grace. I imagined that was also why cheering on Nagasu meant so much to me. Her desire to accomplish what few have accomplished inspired my own will to be excellent, to dare completely, and to give all I have toward the fulfillment of my goals. Her triple axel at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang went down in history not only because of its athletic feat. It announced that reaching the impossible is just an exercise of the mind, and that women can achieve whatever we put our minds to.

From “Madame Butterfly” to “Miss Saigon,” most representations of Asian women for me growing up culminated in death. Seeing Nagasu launch toward her destiny, meeting it face to face, and marvelously survive, throwing up her fists with elation, knowing the glorious importance of that instant, reversed the stereotypes of those Cold War inventions designed to rationalize the project for U.S. global ascendancy. She lived. She won. She stood with her colleagues and proudly wore that bronze medal. And we stood alongside her. We, too, were crowned.

And let me not forget the dress. Red like all the blood spilt for that victory. Red like a slow, smoldering wick. Red like the cities we left in search of new heavens. Red like sunset over the Pacific. Red like the Commies and brutal names we were once told we were. Red like the tape we ripped through to seize better futures for our families. Red like the flashbacks when we close our eyes. Red like the dreams flowering in our skulls. Red like the heart, beating and beating, in its bone cage to remind us that every cage has a door.

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This story was originally published on June 20, 2018.