ChangeMakers: Jeong Eun Park’s cabaret troupe is by and for transgender people

A person poses among house plants
Jeong Eun Park, producer of Transcendence Cabaret, founder of SlutWalk Twin Cities and a licensed marriage therapist, poses for a photo in their Minneapolis office on June 16.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

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Jeong Eun Park, 52, has made a career of an unlikely collection of skills: drag and therapy. 

The Minneapolis-based therapist not only provides relationship and family counseling, but also organizes the performing troupe Transcendence Cabaret under the name “Eun Bee Yes.” The shows he pulls together highlight trans, nonbinary and two-spirit performers, with a special emphasis on featuring performers from Black and Indigenous backgrounds and other communities of color. 

The nonbinary, genderqueer performer and activist is also the founder of the Minneapolis chapter of SlutWalk, an international movement to support victims of sexual assault and to fight against slut shaming and rape culture. Park said his personal background and work as a therapist inform his approach to activism. 

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“What I'm involved in is with our most marginalized, most vulnerable people who have lost a lot. Things that I think can be unspeakable at times or unfathomable to outsiders,” Park told MPR News.  

“Because of what I've been through in my life, it's given me that understanding and that empathy and that solidarity,” Park said. “I really get what you've lost, because I've lost some of the same things.”

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You are the founder and show director of Transcendence Cabaret. Can you tell me more about how you created this troupe?  

Back in 2016, I was part of the Imperial Court of Minnesota. And one of the things we have an opportunity to do is fundraisers, and I had a fundraiser to raise money for [Minnesota Trans Health Coalition] and Trans Lifeline which, at the time, at the beginning, I was on the advisory board. 

We had all trans artists, not one cisgender artist at that fundraiser. We raised like $1,200. It was amazing, and I got to thinking, ‘Why is this only a once-in-a-lifetime thing?’ and, ‘We need more BIPOC representation as always.’

So, the next year, I said, I think it's time that we have a trans, nonbinary, two-spirit troupe in the cities, that's primarily BIPOC. So 2017 is when Transcendence Cabaret began. 

Drag itself as an act of resistance, is an act against gender conformity and normativity. Unfortunately, I think that's been lost a wee bit. And so for me, it's a two-part thing. It's honoring that history, but also honoring the activism part that I think it's my heart work, I call it. It’s combining the two. 

There's ‘pay what you can’ scaling for your shows as well. What part does accessibility play in the activism you do? 

I'm embarrassed to say that disability activism, for me, is something I've learned later in life because I've been very lucky for most of my life not to have to worry about physical disability. And there's a number of people who don't have that same luxury, that same privilege. 

However, with that being said, I'm very happy that when I organized the [SlutWalk] in 2011, I was made aware of that. So, the walk itself [was] totally accessible. 

Now I [have] partially invisible disabilities, so there's things that I deal with. Walking can be difficult from time to time. I'm really glad that I have had that education from disability advocates and activists and friends with disabilities. There's a quote that says, if it's not accessible, it's not activism.  

In the trans community, we have some of the lowest annual incomes because of discrimination when it comes to employment. The last thing I'm going to do is say, ‘this show costs 20 bucks. I'm so glad you can't come see it, even though you see yourself in these, because you got a job that pays minimum wage …’  It would break my heart.

The one thing that we don't have right now is American Sign Language interpreters. And that's the next thing I’d really like to do. We do have them for SlutWalk, but we don't have them for Transcendence because frankly, they deserve to be paid their worth, and it's a little spendy. So, I need to find sponsors. People don't think about that: It costs money in this capitalistic society to be accessible. 

It’s striking you’re so open about the areas where you in the past had blind spots. 

I'm adopted, and I was raised in a white family. And I was raised in a very racist white family. 

I never embraced any of that. I was always so ashamed and embarrassed of hearing what would come out of my relatives’ mouths around Black and brown people, Indigenous people, you know, anyone who wasn't white. I mean, the worst slurs you can think of. I heard that growing up. I heard some of the worst jokes growing up. And I'm sitting there thinking, ‘and you have a person here who is an Asian and you're OK saying this stuff around another person of color!’ I've never understood that. 

So for me to grow up and work on anti-Blackness, that's an ongoing thing. Working on decolonizing, that's an ongoing thing. Yes, I'm educated more now, but I think the older we get, if we're lucky, the wiser we get, we’re never fully educated. It's not my culture, I'm never going to know because I'm not Black. I'm not Indigenous, and as an Asian person, there's been friction, right, between Black communities and Asian communities and Asian communities and sometimes Indigenous communities.  

As an adoptee, it's a weird, liminal space, because I'm not seen as Asian either, because I don't speak Korean. I don't read or write Korean. I don't celebrate my Korean heritage, because I don't know my Korean heritage. I was raised to be assimilated and to be as white as possible. And that is a toll that is bottomless. It slaps me in the face all the time.

And also, suffice it to say that me being aware of my blind spots means that I'm also aware of my privileges. As a light skinned Asian, who speaks very good English, again … at a cost. If you heard me speak and didn't see my face, people would make assumptions, right? But there's a heavy cost to that. 

You work as a family, marriage and sex therapist. How does that inform your activism? 

When I figured out as a child that things weren’t great in my family system, I sought therapists, and then in my young adulthood, I sought therapists, and it became apparent that I was actually repeating some really horrifying patterns with my sons. I got my butt right back into therapy.

I credit some amazing therapists who helped me work through that and called me out and said, ‘No, we're not going to be doing that anymore. You are a better person than that. And if you really want to break these patterns, you need to work and you need to hold yourself accountable, and you need to own your own crap.’ 

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I give back as much as I can what was given to me. If I can give to them what I got, you know, to me and what my boys also received by me becoming a better parent and aware person, right, and changing these patterns. Then I think I'm paying it forward, right? 

How that informs my activism work is it's all systemic. Marriage and family therapists, we look at things from a systemic point of view. So when you look at activism, and you look at the systems at play, I could see the bigger pictures of oppression, of anti-Blackness, of what Indigenous people had stolen, taken and lied to from them. 

Who are your trans and nonbinary heroes?

We all know about the Stonewall uprisings, right? What a lot of people don't know is that wasn't the first one. The first one was the Compton cafeteria uprising in California. I don't know the specific names of the people there, including the trans woman who was fed up with police hassling and harassing the people who'd come there for a cup of coffee ... whoever she was, that’s one of my first heroes.  

As far as Stonewall, not just Marsha [P. Johnson], not just Stormé [DeLarverie], but oh my gosh, all of them. All of the Black and brown trans people, nonbinary people, a lot of them were sex workers. You know, they are the shoulders I stand on.  

I think more of the people who did the work who are not named, who weren’t recognized, who might have died unknown. I think about the people prior to 1930s in Germany prior to Hitler's rise who were part of the gender care clinic in Germany. We hear so much about, ‘oh, you know, this trans stuff. It's brand new.’ It really isn't.

What happened is we were erased deliberately, things were taken from us deliberately. So, I think of the people who have not been mentioned, who've done that groundwork, who fought for these rights, who have lost their lives.

Who are some rising trans and nonbinary leaders in the Twin Cities? 

There’s so many amazing people. I think about — I mean, obviously, Rox Anderson is not rising. They've been a consistent force here.

When I think of rising, I think of the people we serve, like, Rox has done with their work within our community. We of course have the Minnesota Trans Health Coalition, who has provided so much to our people. 

I don't know about naming particulars. I like to name the organizations; TIGERRS, Transforming Families, the Minnesota Trans Health Coalition. I like to think about some of the mental health practices like Cedar Hill [Therapy] and Edges Wellness Center. Dandelion is one, they work specifically with the youth. Minnesota Two-Spirit Society hosts a two-spirit powwow. Grrrl Scout is another great event where people of all genders and gender expressions can go and dance the night away. Dragged Out, an amazing troupe of artists, mostly drag kings. Queerdo is another great troupe in Minneapolis. 

When you say rising stars, I like to think of the organizations and the events that make that space for people to discover who they are, express who they are, become who they are. 

What's something that you want people to know about trans and nonbinary folks? 

That we're like everybody else. With the anti-trans and the anti-LGBTQ and the banning of drag story hours that are specifically targeted towards us, our people are the most marginalized and the easiest to target. We're the canaries in the coal mine, and we're screaming right now.

We're from all walks of life, all socio-economic statuses, all races, all ethnicities, all nationalities, the only commonality we have is that we don't necessarily fit into a binary. It's just that it's so much easier to marginalize us. We're just so much more vulnerable to that. But there's no difference. We have hopes, we have fears, we have dreams, just like anybody else. 

What do you hope for in the future? 

I hope that our country comes to its senses and that we can repeal these [anti-transgender] laws that have been passed in various states. I'm glad that Minnesota is a refugee state; I'm also not glad, right? That's a double-edged sword. I hope that my communities find joy and peace, because we deserve that.  

I hope that two-spirit people are recognized more. We say trans and nonbinary, but you notice we don't add two-spirit? That needs to be changed.  

On a personal level, it's always around my boys. I always tell them, ‘when you grow up, and if you choose to have families, and you raise your children the way you were raised with that unconditional love and acceptance, that care, that awareness, then I know I broke that pattern.’ I see them now as young men and I’m so proud of them. They are my greatest joy and my greatest achievement.