On October 25th, I had the honor to interview Leon Tsai, a Taiwanese transgender woman based in Toronto, Canada. During the 15-minute call, I learned about her past and her struggles with identity; through her, I was able to gain an initial understanding of the transgender community based on the perspective of an Asian immigrant.
When did you first start thinking about who you are and your identity?
I guess it all started the moment when I arrived in Canada with my mom 7 years ago. Before coming to Canada, I lived in Singapore and Malaysia. During my childhood years, I didn’t understand who I really am and how I fit into society. In South East Asian countries, they don’t have the education or awareness about gender and sexuality. I didn’t have the language to address my identity or think about who I am or who I want to become. When I was in Canada – I was 12 years old in Grade 7, I started learning terms like gay, queer, and transgender. I think breaking the language barrier and learning language about identity was what really prompted me to shape myself and my identity.
What was it like coming out to your friends and family?
I actually came out twice. In grade 8, shortly after I came to Canada, it became clear that I’m attracted to men. I identified as a man and I came out as a gay man. Sexuality was a known thing and people were ready to accept it. When I came out as gay…yes, I did get bullied a little bit but my family and close friends were all really supportive.
In high school, when I came out as transgender at the age of 17, I feel like the notions of trans people and gender fluidity are still not a common topic that people understand. I had to lose a lot of connections… in school as well, people would ask really rude questions about trans identity. There was a huge backlash within my family too. Coming out as a transgender woman was much more difficult just because of the lack of awareness we have.
As an Asian-immigrant transgender woman, what struggles have you encountered? Have you ever felt like your cultural background makes your identity more complicated? How did you deal with them?
Definitely. I feel like as a trans woman in general – if you’re looking at statistics, trans women of color, especially black women, are the highest target for violence. People would yell at me and be violent towards me. I’m actually a survivor of sexual assault myself. I feel like the intersection of identities – being a woman of color, Asian and a transgender woman, makes it even more dangerous to navigate the world. In terms of my heritage, there were times when I feel rejected by my Asian community just because of their lack of knowledge and education about transgender women… they don’t have the language themselves because in the Asian community, the topic has been silenced. It was difficult.
I scrolled through your website and noticed that you also engage in many feminist activities. What are some most memorable experiences you’ve had as a feminist?
As a feminist, I really had the chance to shape my own womanhood as a trans woman. I feel like I became more powerful as a feminist being transgender because I really got to experience gender discrimination, especially these expectations for women in general. When I first came out as a transgender woman, people were saying how I would need to shave my legs and grow my hair… you need to be certain things to be a woman. That’s why feminist work is so important in bringing sisterhood together and getting gender alliances. Feminism needs to be more forward and be more trans-inclusive in order to unite all women together to talk about feminine issues. I actually love working with other women. Back in high school, I held an event called Women’s History Month, where we would get together to talk about the history of women’s rights and movements. It is a passion of mine to talk about womanhood and sisterhood, and what that means for the world and how we move forward.
On your website, there is a “Little Mermaid” section about how you explore your past and journey as a Transgender woman through this classic fairytale. Could you explain more?
I’m so happy that you asked that question! The little mermaid symbol is actually a big metaphor for the trans community in general. You can find a lot of trans women in the media who relate their experiences to this fairytale. A mermaid has no genital – they don’t have a penis or vagina to determine who they are. A mermaid, with a tale, is free to determine who they are. Without biological limitations, a mermaid can express gender freely. As a child, I related most to the fairytale because I see an image of a woman that is not limited by what’s between her legs – actually, she doesn’t even have legs! And you know how in the story, the little mermaid has to give up her voice? Having to give up one’s voice – in a sense, sacrifice something to find love and identity, is what I find most relatable.
I noticed that you are majoring in Women & Gender studies and minoring in poetry. Would you say creative writing is one of the ways you use to express your identity? If so, how?
Yes. I think as people, especially marginalized people, who are not really recognized in the media and who don’t see leaders or examples that express and feel like them, forms of expressions whether it be music, art, performances, poetry – are the way for us to take up space and create a space for ourselves. When I write about my womanhood and my experiences, it is not only to spread awareness, it is also to write myself into existence.
Do you have any words of encouragement for people who feel the same way as you?
You’re not alone. You feel so lonely because you don’t have as many opportunities to see people who you can relate to in the media. Questioning your gender and having to break societal boundaries are both really difficult. There are people out there who are just like us – and they are beautiful and happy! Transgender representation in the media, especially in movies and TV shows are all about struggles and sad stories about being transgender. We don’t have a lot of positive representation. I guess it is important to remind us that, even as marginalized people, we are not alone. We are going to be okay. We will move forward and empower each other and lift each other up.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I don’t know if you know… but recently Donald Trump is planning on redefining gender and excluding transgender people within the health and human services department. The political climate in North America and trans people being erased is heartbreaking… My heart goes to all the LGBT folks in America. It’s a scary time and it feels like we’re in the darkness and it’s hard to have hope. But we will not be erased. Trans rights are human rights. We should be respected, loved and celebrated just like everyone else.