Founder of The Gamut Project
For the longest time I refrained from calling myself an activist. I still do. To me, the label weighs more than I could carry on my shoulders. There are people doing more than I am. I was simply someone who gathered my queer friends in the apartment that I share with my parents (while my parents were out of town, of course). I am simply someone talking to strangers on the internet and writing on social media in a pandemic.
In a society where conformity is rewarded, “weirdness” is policed, if not punished. Hong Kong is the kind of international city that is vibrant in its conformist ways. It’s also the kind of place where trans, gender diverse and unpalatable queers are isolated. At least that was what it felt like to me, a non-binary trans person, when I returned to my home city after spending 5 years in a liberal Midwestern city.
There’s no liberation without queer and trans liberation
The Gamut Project, the trans and non-binary collective I now run, was driven by a need for community, and born out of casual gatherings in a cramped living room in a Hong Kong “suburb.” It has since moved to social media and a Discord server.
This isn’t to paint Hong Kong as “less than” other metropolitans that have had annual pride month window displays for decades. But even in the wake of small steps made towards legal rights for same-sex couples (and once in a blue moon for trans people) and Hong Kong being the first city in Asia to host Gay Games, there’s still much left to be done and desired.
I used to think the biggest barrier to equity is a society that isn’t ready for us. Numerous local studies have been done that show the general population’s support for things like marriage equality have increased significantly over the past decade. Like most other places, we also have conservative and/ or Christian lawmakers and organizations who spew hate with every second of airtime they get. These people will probably continue to exist in my lifetime and I guess we just have to live with that.
What I see now as the biggest barrier though, is members of the larger SOGIESC (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristics) community who are easily swayed by images of capitalistic, colonialist and assimilationist ideals. That’s why I don’t use “Queer” as a blanket term. Queer to me isn’t an identity defined by one’s sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, nor sexual characteristics. Queer is a political identity and to be Queer is a commitment to liberation for all.
The danger with settling for “love is love” corporate rainbow-washing is leading us to believe that a Queer movement has a place and an end destination in individualistic capitalism and in state governance. It does not. Marriage equality isn’t the end game. It may be for some, but it isn’t for all.
Queer liberation is so much more. It’s trans youth being able to access trans affirmative healthcare. It’s intersex children no longer having to go through nonconsensual surgeries. It’s perpetrators of school bullying (by peers and staff alike) and workplace discrimination being held accountable. It’s Queer people being able to access Queer-competent mental health services. It’s addressing the racism, cissexism, ableism, transphobia, and (trans)misogyny in our communities. It’s working class Queers being able to apply for public housing with their partner as spouse. It’s our elders being able to live a dignified end of life in Queer-friendly care homes. It’s sex workers making a living without being criminalized. But is the larger “rainbow” community ready to have these conversations?
Let me make this allegory as an homage to my port city hometown, and my maternal grandparents whose livelihood was so closely tied to the sea.
Queer liberation isn’t a smooth sailing trip on a junk boat with a rainbow corporate logo. There’s no assurance of the comfort of walking on land. Queer liberation is riding into the public sea on a sampan with people you can rely on, and hoping you make it back to the typhoon shelter before making another trip.
As an artist with a somewhat public persona, I constantly ask myself what my responsibilities are and where my values align. This is a comment I came across online that resonates so deeply with me. “I’m always telling people activism ain’t cool. It’s work, and it’s hard work. And most of it happens off-camera, and most of it is not glamorous. There’s a huge difference between an activist who makes art, and an artist trying to make a name for themselves for being woke.”
Visibility is important but representation can only do so much for the community. I’m not interested in being a figurehead. I want to get my hands dirty. I hope in the communities I am a part of and that I maintain, I can make small but meaningful changes in people’s lives by connecting them with each other, so they don’t feel as lonely as I once did. I hope one day they feel empowered and safe enough to share their stories. If I’ve deterred one less gender diverse individual from taking their own life, I think I’m doing an okay job.
Public education is another part of my work that is important to me. I respect other Queer people’s decision for not doing this, because frankly, being asked the same basic (sometimes ignorant) questions is draining. In my own experiences, most of the questions I do get are out of genuine curiosity and not malintent. Sometimes they are from students with Queer peers, other times from middle-aged office aunties who’ve probably never met an out trans person in real life. If I’ve managed to change one person’s mind, I think I’m doing an okay job.
Even in the ever-changing, if not downright depressing, socio-political landscape in Hong Kong, I am grateful and hopeful because of the people I’ve met. Queer liberation is a communal, not individual, effort. If you’re reading this hoping I’ll drop some tips about how you could contribute, here they are:
If you’re financially capable of doing so, put your money where your mouth is, and support Queer grassroots organizations. If you aren’t, consider donating your time and skills. Educate yourself and learn from different Queer voices. Stand up for us, even when we’re not around.
There will be no liberation without Queer liberation. The work we’re putting in today should put all of us, not just some of us, at a better place in future. What I’ve said above might be irrelevant or even dated in 5 years (or less) and it’s okay.
In fact if that’s the case, it’s great.