Lex Shu Chan. Photo courtesy of Terry Vietheer.

In 2021, what does visibility mean to the Asian and Trans+ communities?

On Transgender Day of Visibility, Lex Shu Chan pens an honest account of what true visibility means for the Asian and Trans+ communities in light of surges in racism and transphobia across the world.

by Lex Shu Chan
31 March 2021, 11:47am

Lex Shu Chan. Photo courtesy of Terry Vietheer.

Lex Shu Chan is a trans Hongkonger, lawyer and diversity and inclusion leader currently based in London.

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility, and the notion of “visibility” happens to be something I have recently been contemplating in terms of what it means for me and my communities. Often, visibility is associated with being noticed, or acknowledged — and indeed being noticed can sometimes be an awakening and empowering feeling, especially for those who have ever felt silenced or invisible. For others, being noticed can be endangering, often coming at a cost of abuse, discrimination and violence. So, ‘being noticed’, whatever that means, is no longer enough. True visibility means being seen, which means having your individual story be understood in all its richness and complexity, and not having your existence be equated as identical to those around you. And to have your story understood, you need to tell it, something which does not come naturally to me and many members of the Asian community. 

The Chinese word that comes to mind is ma fan (麻煩), which loosely translates to inconveniencing, causing trouble to, or bothering someone. My default desire to be invisible is further heightened by the fact that I am trans, as the relentless abuse faced by many members of that community simply for existing has conditioned me to prioritise ‘passing as a cis person’ over being visible and, on many occasions, speaking out when faced with injustice. This conditioning has led me to believe that if someone is not OK with a part of who I am — for no reason other than their bigotry — then I should sublimate this aspect of me for their comfort, in order to not be seen as being kicking up a fuss or ma fan

Just as there are as many ways to be trans as there are trans people, the same applies to the Asian community. In the wake of the escalating violence towards AAPI individuals in the US and following repeated calls for mainstream media to support the amplification efforts of the community and denounce the repeated senseless attacks on Asian elders in the US, #StopAsianHate is now trending. This, however, only came after the devastating Atlanta spa shootings, in which eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed. Now, thanks to the work of many activists and advocates — such as Michelle Kim, AAPI Women Lead, Jocelyn Chung and Bing Chen, to name a few — the nuances of anti-Asian discrimination are finally being discussed rather than oversimplified as a monolithic experience. The intersectional analysis of the Atlanta mass shooting reflected this, in coverage discussing the distinct experiences of Asian women, how class plays a factor, and the inapplicability of the “model minority” myth to many members of the Asian community.

But are these nuances fully understood? And are there members of the community holding further marginalised identities whose stories have not been sufficiently amplified, perhaps because of the fear of being ma fan, which is further exacerbated by both physical and psychological safety concerns? In short, can we truly say we are visible?  

As an Asian teenager growing up in Hong Kong, I had the privilege of not having to worry about racism for the most part, and have never experienced being mocked by classmates for my “smelly” Chinese lunch boxes (which seems to be a form of discrimination experienced by many AAPI youths). I did, however, begin to identify as a gay male. Even though I was not “out”, I experienced relentless homophobic microaggressions which, at the time, I wrote off as something which every queer teenager experiences, such as my high school gym teacher consistently referring to me as a “big girl’s blouse” and my classmates sniggering when my politics teacher assigned me the role of ‘Queenie’ for a history writing assignment.

When I moved to the UK for university, I thought it would liberate me, but it was also my first time hearing the phrases  “go back to your country”, “you don’t belong here” and “do you have a visa?”. Save for a few close friends, I never discussed this until recently, and when I did, I came to realise that these were words many of my Asian friends had heard before. I sensed that the reticence to draw attention to these incidents often stemmed from being met with responses such as “you must have misheard” on occasions when these stories were told. I’ve also had chicken bones hurled at me by a group of drunk men as they aggressively recited items off a Chinese takeaway menu. While anti-Asian discrimination is nothing new, the spike in abuse and violence towards Asians since the start of the pandemic is now increasingly captured in often extremely disturbing videos. I keep wondering to myself whether I would’ve recorded the incident had iPhones existed in 2003, or whether I would’ve kept my head down and scurried off, which is what I did.

I was fortunate to have met my chosen family when I moved to London — and they remain the biggest loves of my life, people who made me feel a strong sense of belonging — but it was also when I first experienced the compounding effects of holding multiple marginalised identities as I began exploring the city’s gay dating scene. The racism towards Asian men (often masquerading as “sexual preference” or “tribes”) in a scene which venerates a hypermasculine white ideal is well-documented, but perhaps not always fully understood or acknowledged. Seeing profile after profile on Grindr unapologetically brandishing the words “No Asians” and repeatedly having men push past me at clubs to speak to my more hirsute and muscular white counterparts made me feel sexually irrelevant, and at times completely invisible. When I tried to relay my experiences to others at the time, I was often met with comments such as “Maybe you are going after the wrong guys” and “Everyone has a type”. And so, I engaged in mental gymnastics to affirm to myself that racism could not have been at play, once again self-censoring and shrinking myself in the process.

Around six years ago, a momentous event happened in my gender evolution, and I went from androgynous to transfeminine in my presentation and began to acknowledge that things were perhaps not as binary as I had been conditioned to believe. I attributed a new name to the feminine expression of my identity, but compartmentalised my life in a way which felt neat at the time, accentuating or sublimating different parts of myself depending on what felt socially acceptable. I feared that being trans was irreconcilable with progressing in my legal career, and kept this part of myself out of the City law firms. Despite this, I delved into the queer scene as a transfeminine person, and while the duality was confusing to some, it made sense to me at the time. 

It was in my dating life that I most strongly felt the impact of being both Asian and trans. Over the last few weeks, there have been an increasing number of (primarily cis) Asian women sharing their stories on the fetishisation and objectification they face, vacillating between being seen as hypersexual and exotic to docile and subservient, tropes which have undoubtedly resulted in misogyny and violence. Often, when these women dare to confront past traumas and share their stories, they receive even more abuse on social media. I cannot speak to what it is like to be socialised as an Asian woman from a young age. What I do know from the many unsolicited Tinder messages I’ve received containing words such as “spicy”, “mistress”, “love you long time”, “curious”, “discreet”, “geisha” and “china doll” is that a transfeminine Asian person is also seen by some as checking multiple boxes on their menu of fetishes. 

The fetishisation of trans women and femmes by cis men is a tale as old as time, but the rush of being noticed and receiving so much attention stood in such stark contrast to my experiences as a gay Asian man. I repeatedly dated cis men who subjected me to intense objectification, but with little desire to pursue fulfilling relationships. When men would strike up conversations with me, they would often conclude that I was lying about being a lawyer, instead asking what I charged for “other services”, as if the only way trans and Asian identities could possibly intersect had to be in fulfilment of their sexual fantasies. In retrospect, these conversations should’ve ended when they approached me with the words ‘sawadeeka’, ‘konnichiwa’ or ‘ni hao’, but instead of storming off or launching into what would’ve been a very satisfying tirade, I chatted politely before quietly excusing myself. 

I convinced myself that I did this solely out of fear for my safety, which is very legitimate given the experiences of many trans individuals. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that in the UK more than one in four trans people (28%) experienced crime in the year ending March 2020, compared with 14% of cis people. According to Hieu Nguyen, founder of the Viet Rainbow of Orange County, being LGBTQI and Asian particularly during the pandemic can also be a “double whammy.”, as further evidenced by a recent study which highlights the harassment and violence faced by trans and gender-nonconforming Asian Pacific Islanders in US. 

However, safety concerns aside, I know that I have often stayed silent on matters relating to my gender identity because I did not want to be seen as kicking up a fuss. Despite the constancy of my Asian identity, the evolution of my gender identity has completely altered how I am perceived and my experience — even within the Asian community. Several years ago, I was invited to a wedding by an Asian friend who insisted that I attend presenting as male. Some of the reasons invoked were that she wanted ‘everything to be perfect’ as her conservative Asian relatives would be in attendance, and that she found my transfeminine presentation ‘very racy’ (even though I had sent her a photo of a floor length floral dress as an outfit reference). After a difficult conversation, I suppressed the hurt I felt and complied with her request in part, opting for a more gender-neutral outfit. In retrospect, I can empathise with the fact that we were both keen to avoid inconvenience or trouble in our respective Asian ways, and that we were both trying to mitigate the discomfort of others. However, by choosing to avoid ma fan for others, it came at the expense of my congruence, authenticity and happiness.

I am just one out of a multitude of voices, which demonstrates that, just as there is no universal ‘trans experience’, the Asian experience is not monolithic either, and that an intersectional approach is crucial to understanding the nuanced discrimination faced by different members of the community. My story alone — or perhaps I should say stories — highlight the layered and dynamic nature of the distinct types of discrimination I have faced at different points in my life when I have held different marginalised identities, despite the fact that I have always been Asian. Of course, one can concurrently be both marginalised and privileged, and my socioeconomic privilege has shielded me from forms of discrimination faced by many members of the Asian community, many of whom remain unseen and unheard.

The invisibility experienced by many Asians is not an accident, and having silenced myself time and time again, it has taken me many years to get here. But on this day, I have decided to be visible as a proud member of two sparkling, resilient and brilliant communities. Asian cultures are often regarded as centring collectivism over the individual, but it is important that each unique experience is amplified in a movement that already aims to bring together a group of very disparate individuals. While there are human values that unite us all, I would like to invite marginalised members of the Asian community who feel ready, such as the economically disadvantaged, sex workers, Asians with disabilities, and of course my queer Asian siblings, to join me and share their unique stories, and for those who are in a relative position of privilege to provide the platform to do so. This is not about comparing pains, but being truly seen in a world when simply ‘being noticed’ is so often conflated with true visibility.

If you're based in the US, all instances of anti-Asian assault should be reported to Stop AAPI Hate. There are a number of ways to to support Asian American communities at this time; this article provides a list of ways to help communities and elders, and which organisations to send donations to.