Searching for Eve

The life of a trans woman, but only online.

Illustrations by Miguel Libarnes

Eve Park is a model of Asian success. A second-generation immigrant from Korea, she earned a computer science degree from Harvard and now works for a major software company in the Northwest. She lives in the suburbs, in a four-bedroom house that’s a bit boxy and generic, but is plenty spacious for her wife and two girls, six and eight. Her wife, a schoolteacher, prepares breakfast in the morning, then brings their eldest to elementary school, while Eve drops off their youngest at kindergarten. After work, Eve has dinner with her family, gives the girls a bath, and puts them to bed. Freed from distractions, she spends an hour or two by herself, wandering aimlessly on the Internet. As she does so her thoughts turn inward, and she starts to dwell on the most distressing fact of her life: that the person her family sees and the person she truly is are not the same. She’s sure that she’s a woman, but she only gets to live a woman’s life online.

Though Eve’s time online isn’t confined to late nights. In opportune moments between what she calls “work zone” and “family zone,” Eve logs onto Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, where she interacts with her large group of friends as the woman she feels herself to be. Eve has used her female name on these sites for over a decade, and has identified as a woman online for more than 20 years. Most people who engage with Eve assume she presents as a woman offline, too. But to her wife, she is a husband, and to her daughters she is Daddy. Eve relies on her interactions on social media — with people who treat and perceive her as a woman — to sustain herself in both real and virtual worlds. She calls her online social life the “release valve” that eases her gender dysphoria.

I’ve known Eve since college, before either of us began our transition. To outsiders, Eve’s life can seem baffling. As an openly trans person, I myself have found it hard to understand at times. There’s something profoundly unsettling about the idea of living as one person — the wrong person — for much of the day and only finding solace online. The desire for others to share and affirm one’s sense of reality is fundamental, and it’s hard to imagine living without it, especially for a feature as important as gender. For Eve, investing in online communities under an assumed name allowed her to explore the idea of being female, and then develop a full digital existence as a woman, without jeopardizing the daily order of her physical life. Frozen by the fear of losing her family, she restrains herself from physically transitioning in any way. This balance has worked for 14 years.

Though she claims to be in a “holding pattern” as of late, there are clear signs that this balance may be tipping, as transgender issues have come to the foreground of public consciousness. This growing visibility fuels her desire for both community and the possibility of freedom — freedom from the feeling that she’s a fraud for being a trans woman without any physical manifestation of her womanhood, and freedom from the gender she’s perceived to be, but Eve’s fundamentally alienated from. She’s been pushing her limits online, revealing more clues that could link Eve with her physical self. And with each detail she adds, the careful walls she’s built between her two lives threaten to crumble.

Eve’s first inkling that she was different came unexpectedly, while watching a Disney movie when she was about seven years old. “This may be the only trans narrative that starts out with a viewing of The Shaggy Dog,” she told me. “I was sitting there, and I was like, wow, there’s this magic amulet, and it turns the wearer into whatever spirit was in the amulet. I guess this was the a-ha moment. I was like, well, I want an amulet like that, but I wouldn’t become a dog!” Eve wanted to be a girl.

From that point on, Eve could recount a whole list of movies and books she saw and read throughout her childhood and teenage years, which explore the idea of body and mind swapping — Freaky Friday, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil are just a few examples.

When Eve was 12 years old, she joined her Methodist church group on a trip to a large Midwestern university. The retreat sought to bring young Christians together, but Eve found herself wandering off to the college library. “They had a computerized card-catalogue, which was something I’d never seen, ’cause this was 1986 or something,” Eve told me. She found a book called The Number of the Beast, by Heinlein, in which an astronaut becomes cryogenically preserved in space. The astronaut’s genetic material is so damaged that aliens must replace the astronaut’s Y-chromosomes with X chromosomes. “And he is reborn as a woman,” Eve explained, emphatically. “That was the first time I saw the word transsexual…I was here in a library full of books, and I had a word, and I had a computerized card-catalogue. So I just put the word into the card-catalogue…”

She pulled every book from the shelf that came up under transsexual. “And I thought to myself, finally, I’ve found something that describes what I am.”

Eve began to see herself as a girl in her imagination, wishing she could experience what it would be like to swap bodies with a woman, like in Freaky Friday. As she burrowed deeper into her mind, the person she saw in her thoughts grew more important than her real-life presentation.

In high school, Eve created her first email account. “I chose a feminine-leaning username, Lylla,” she explained, “and it raised eyebrows and I shrugged it off with some jokey explanation.” At Harvard, where the two of us became friends, we both participated in an online newsgroup that some of the alternative kids on campus frequented, mostly theater, sci-fi, and computer folks. In that group Eve first encountered discussions with other people who identified as transgender. “It was super valuable in terms of making me realize that other people I went to school with were having the same kinds of identity dilemmas that I was having,” Eve told me. But at the time, she kept her feelings of dysphoria to herself.

For many trans folks, knowledge of one’s true identity doesn’t always mean that the best course of action is physical transition. In my case, I only realized my trans identity after college, but took the medical and legal steps to feel comfortable living as a woman within two years. But trans people who decide not to disclose their trans identity are not always simply closeted. Many people exist in limbo, having significant transgender feelings, yet remaining unsure that disclosure or physical transition is right for them. Eve existed in this liminal state throughout college and a few years after. She kept her trans identity a secret, in part because she was afraid of coming out — but also because she wasn’t sure how her trans identity would manifest in the real world.

In 2002 Eve started carving out a larger space for herself online. She created a female persona in a massive multiplayer online game called Game Neverending, a now-defunct simulation game in which the sole goal was for players to interact. When people in the game began keeping blogs, she started one, too.

Eve’s blog was a space where she could interact with players outside of the game. It was a place where she could indulge in a “female identity,” where she could bask in pastel colors, animé women, and her obsession with Japanese candy and Korean romcoms. For Eve, it made sense to write in the persona of her character in Game Neverending.

Eve knew a few folks from the game in real life. If they asked about her identity on the blog, she simply explained that since other players assumed her to be a woman, she was just fulfilling their expectations. “Part of me wanted to convince myself that was true, too,” Eve said. “‘Oh, you know, people are forcing me to be this way.’”

Over time, Eve began to discuss her lived life on her blog, including details of the trips she took, her musings about her long-distance relationship with her future wife, and her passions for food and photography. The only thing she didn’t do was specify her gender. “Eventually, it just kind of transitioned. I keep using that word, but that’s what it did, it transitioned into like, basically just being me. With nobody the wiser.”

Eve wrote so much about her lived life on the blog that she found herself, both for her own clarity and those of her readers, needing to separate posts in the voice of her online character and those that were her “real” self when she wrote about her lived life — the “real” self that people assumed to be a woman. So, she came up with another name to identify that woman. The name she chose was Eve.

Around the time that Eve began writing her blog, she also started exploring her female identity on Flickr, which was originally a photo-sharing feature of Game Neverending. Because Eve’s Flickr account evolved from her extensive community in the online game, the site was so much more to her than just an anonymous photo-sharing tool. Members of her network left personal comments on her pictures — her contemplative urban still lifes from home, or her images from trips around the world. They praised Eve’s obsession with small, seemingly inconsequential details, whether it was the vein of a leaf or a lone bird perched on a ledge at the airport. She’s also taken many pictures of women’s mannequins — it’s hard not to think of them as substitutes for herself.

Missing from Eve’s timeline are selfies, so when she shared a photo of a girl friend, who was also Asian, Eve’s Flickr community assumed it was her. Comments such as “Hi, you” and “Right back atcha” popped up underneath the photo. “I never intended the implication that someone else was me,” Eve said, “but it was a nice feeling to be validated as female.” Over the next couple of years, Eve posted three more pictures of other female friends, none of whom were the same woman. She even posted an image of a woman in front of a mirror without revealing her face, which I assumed to be her, and which I only later learned was an image of a friend. Other people also assumed these pictures of different women were Eve.

“Each time it happened, I didn’t do anything to specifically refute it,” she said. “I was scared that saying one way or another would cause more scrutiny about what I actually looked like.”

Only once did Eve present her physical self on Flickr: a photo of her real eye. It was an expression of her desire to express her “real” self as female, but without so much risk that it might expose her male-presenting real-life self. This has become part of a pattern for Eve — exposing herself enough so that people might recognize her, but not so much that she might get fully exposed. She’s established a policy of telling people the truth if they ask her directly about whether she’s trans. This allows her to find people who recognize her identity without the psychological difficulty and awkwardness of her having to directly bring it up.

“That was really scary for me,” Eve said, about posting a picture of her real eye. “I had to ‘fluff’ my lashes a little.” Her Flickr community responded with excitement and confirmation, writing notes such as, “Such large pupils! I’d love to have that eye,” and “I’m so jealous you have no wrinkles, and you don’t even use night cream! Xo” Like the other female portraits, this photo simply merged with people’s aggregate perceptions of Eve’s physical self.

I’ve only seen Eve in person once since college, in 2012, when I came to her city for a conference. She looked pretty much the same to me as she did at Harvard, presenting as male in a polo shirt, using her long bangs to shield herself from the world. I had always interpreted Eve’s downcast eyes as shyness, but I’ve come to realize that it’s about something more: she doesn’t want people to pay attention to a body she doesn’t feel belongs to her. In a cafeteria at the convention hall, while disconsolately spearing beans with a plastic fork, she came out to me as trans.

“Facebook has become my lifeline,” she explained in her naturally high voice. It’s there that she’s built the trans community she lacks in real life, a community that affirms her female identity. Facebook and Twitter allow Eve to maintain relationships with online friends and interact with more members of the trans community, who often friend each other for support even when they’ve never met in real life. “I can basically live a full social life [online],” she explained. Eve uses Facebook the way many people do, as a way to share information about her life, articles of interest, and to message with friends. The only difference is that many of those friends assume they’re interacting with a person who also presents as female in the physical world.

“All of my identity as Eve is based on these services right now,” Eve said. “They’re the only viable way to maintain the relationships that I do. So if I were to lose that, well, it would be like losing the entire Internet. It would be devastating. It would be like actually losing Eve.”

Eve views her female identity as complete and all-encompassing. “I don’t think people can peg Eve as a fabricated identity, at least not on casual inspection,” she told me over Gchat, which lets her present as female without her body getting in the way. In the physical world, Eve’s masculine characteristics fuel her gender dysphoria. Putting a dress on her male body and looking in the mirror just reminds Eve that she would never live up to her own expectations of what a woman should look like. The most Eve’s ever done is wear jeans that were made for women; she’s also bought a bra and a gaffe (a device to hide male genitals when wearing women’s clothes) but has never used them. “I feel good dressing. I don’t feel good looking at myself dressed,” Eve told me. She yearns for transition, yet insists she’s unlikely to go through with it. And one reason is that the body she has doesn’t align with the body she and others imagine Eve having.

Eve was able to hide her feelings of dysphoria from her wife for a long time, but, six years into their marriage, her wife eventually found the bra and gaffe. In a fraught conversation, Eve finally told her wife about her feeling that she was meant to be a woman. Eve assured her wife that she wouldn’t physically transition, and they’ve barely discussed the issue since. They have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which is easier to maintain when there is virtually no physical evidence of Eve’s womanhood. Though Eve’s wife knows she’s seeing a gender therapist for her dysphoria, they don’t discuss the details of her treatment.

Eve cares for her wife deeply. She’s an immigrant like Eve, from China instead of Korea, and they met in college and dated for a long time before getting married. She considers her wife the person she’s meant to be with, except that Eve is with her in the wrong body. A huge part of why Eve doesn’t feel like she can transition is because of the pain it would cause the most important person in her life.

And then there is Eve’s family. Physical transition would be a grave affront to her traditional parents, who belong to a Korean Methodist church and lead predictable lives, with her father working as a pediatrician while her doting mom stays at home. Eve has a younger brother and sister who both also went to Harvard. Eve’s entire family is thus an iconic image of immigrant Asian success, and Eve fears that her parents and siblings cannot absorb the knowledge of her transition.

Eve’s daughters are too young to know what the person they think of as their dad struggles with. It’s particularly hard for Eve to see her daughters grow up. “My daughters are far away from adolescence, but they continue to look eerily similar to me when I was a child,” Eve said. “So it’s hard not to imagine that I’m witnessing the what-if in front of my very eyes.”

At the same time, Eve fears that she would risk losing too much if she transitions. “I’ve known since I was very young that I wanted to have a family, find a soulmate, have children,” she said. “And I’ve basically managed to achieve all of these things. I love my children more than anything in the world, and I love my wife. I’ve never felt more sure of anything, except for the feeling that I should have been born female.”

Eve may not be able to sustain her holding pattern much longer. She has been putting more real-life details on her Facebook, which identifies her place of work but doesn’t associate her with her real-life male identity. The image of Eve’s eye was her only flirtation with the physical world until a few months ago, when she posted a picture of half of her real face, with her chin tucked and eyes gazing shyly at the camera. The image is in black and white and highly posterized, clearly and convincingly designed to present Eve as female. But another thing it does is make it possible for people who don’t know she’s trans to identify her. The people who only know Eve online might begin to discover that she has a male counterpart, and those who know her in the real world and think of Eve as a character or persona might now realize she is a trans woman.

A month ago, Eve drew a fake tattoo on one of her co-workers who was going as a video game character to a gaming convention, and posted it to her Twitter profile. The makers of the game picked up the tweet, and it got retweeted hundreds of times. Eve was sure some of her co-workers saw the tweet and realized that it belonged to a co-worker whom they knew by a different name and gender.

“I’m begging to be asked, actually,” Eve said. “That’s the reason I’m dropping hints…because I’m begging to be asked. I decided that if anyone was going to ask me point-blank, I was going to be truthful and just, you know, say yes, I’m trans, I identify as a woman.”

Eve went on to say that it secretly gave her pleasure, “in a way,” to see the borders of her identities touching. But only “in a way.” She behaves as if she wants to be found out, but she won’t go so far as to declare it. The name Eve Park is not Eve’s real name, neither online nor in the physical world. When we agreed to work on this story, she considered using her affirmed online name, but decided that it was too big a step. Agreeing to be the subject of this article is her latest ambivalent move towards reconciling her fragmented identities.

I often compare myself to Eve, because we’re both trans and have so much in common, from our immigrant Asian backgrounds to our love of Disney movies and musicals. We both rely on other people to affirm our identity, and even picked our names in the same year. But she wrote hers on a blog, while I wrote mine in an e-mail to an entire department at MIT, where I worked. By choosing women’s names both of us were asking people to imagine us the way we wanted to be imagined. Because that is where we exist, ultimately — in the minds of others. I wanted others to see me as I saw myself all the time, so I took control over my body and became the woman I was inside my head. Eve faced different needs, so she sought disembodiment. In order to feel herself, she relies on the minds of people who can’t see her.

I don’t celebrate the anniversary of my womanhood, because I’m often too busy living my life to even remember. To me, it’s just an, oh yeah, it’s around this time that I changed my name or had surgery, recalled a couple of weeks or even months after the anniversary. But Eve is different. She remembers the precise anniversary of her birth from the mind of the person who made her, maybe because Eve’s still not completely the woman she longs to be.

On the tenth anniversary of identifying as a woman online, Eve wrote in her journal: “[Eve] is as close an expression of who I really am as I’ve got, and no matter how scared I am, the thought of losing her is even worse. Happy birthday, [Eve]. May you find yourself someday.”

This story was written by Meredith Talusan. It was edited by Madison Kahn and Sandra Upson, and fact-checked by Emily Loftis. Illustrations by Miguel Libarnes for Matter.