*Some names in the article are changed for the sake of privacy*
In 2014 I decided to make a documentary about trans men living in China, entitled The Trans Men’s Guide to China. As in most student projects, the first candidates I thought of for this documentary were myself, my friends, and my family members. I have never been particularly fond of this lens, nor have my family. That left me with the option of my trans friends. But first, as a newly made man, I needed to befriend some fellow trans men.
I met Andy and Lukas at a trans seminar during Shanghai Pride. They had both been advocates for trans communities for some time and were no strangers to the camera. Andy is from Northern China and started making a living on his own at the age of 19. After working in hotels, street food tents and online retail, he saved up enough money to open his own cafe. Like most transgender men in China, he started taking black market hormones after he left home. Yet things turned out differently for him: after being rushed to the emergency room twice after injecting testosterone, he had a chromosome test done and discovered that he is, in fact, genetically male, and has a condition that prevents his body from responding to male hormones. He would have known this if he had not been adopted and had had all the medical records from birth: “Every feeling makes sense now. It’s like I’m certified male.” The dots started to connect and Andy’s self-identification gravitated towards intersex rather than transgender. Now he was more ready than ever to embrace his new identity and leave the old one behind. He was able to change the gender marker on his ID without having to have “the surgery”. Having previously appeared in a documentary about trans issues, he then asked the filmmaker to take him off the film. He also no longer takes part in social events as a trans advocate.
In retrospect, he probably joined my project because I was a trans brother who seemed harmless and was new in town, and was particularly interested in his experience with the Chinese medical system, something which he felt strongly about. Andy was candid throughout the filming and offered some nitty gritty stories of transgender men living in rural communities and small towns of China. I was thrilled with what I captured and the parts of the documentary that Andy featured in received positive feedback. Andy never told me to take him off the project. However, when he moved to a different country to start a new career and expressed his determination to cut off his ties on social media with the community back home, I knew it was a signal for me to remove footage of him from the film.
Lukas has been a trans advocate his entire life. After years of volunteering and studying, he is now, in his words, “living the dream” working as a researcher with an NGO specialising in trans rights. When we first became acquainted, he was studying for his master’s degree as an international student in Eastern China. Being a white male of trans experience living in Asia, Lukas was constantly reflecting on his white, male and cis-passing privilege in all scenarios. He used to joke about me being the “gringo” between us—the Asian with an American accent. Even on a Chinese campus he managed to make his studies and work revolve around the trans community. Footage of him that I ended up with included Lukas organising a protest, printing flyers and speaking at a seminar on gender diversity, which made Lukas into a trophy activist character in the film. There is nothing wrong with trans advocates being so eloquent to the point of sounding rehearsed, because that’s how they are able to communicate their points to a larger audience and answer the unexpected, uninformed, and sometimes vicious questions. It is, however, the filmmaker’s job to capture a subject in their natural, everyday ways. Happy as I was to see Lukas leave China for the job of his dreams and finally be able to put to use what he had learned over the years, I wish I had more time with him to explore his experience and could present him as the multi-dimensional person he is.
Then there was Shawn. Shawn was the first Chinese trans guy I saw on YouTube documenting his transition through vlogs and sharing them with the community, something I wish I myself had had the guts to do, or simply had done for my own memories. Shawn was essentially my surrogate self in the project: we were similar in age and shared the same experience of studying abroad as well as the same luxury of transitioning in a friendly environment, where professors were well versed on pronouns and medical insurance covered hormones and surgeries. Three days after his top surgery, I was invited to film his post-op appointment where he would see his new chest for the first time. And the next summer we met up in China to talk about his first visit back home since his transition. He also gave me access to his “xx months on T” ('T' refers to testosterone) vlog footage to create the opening sequence for my pitch tape. At one point, I even thought of making a documentary entirely about Shawn. He had just graduated and got a job that had practically secured him a green card; a new girlfriend; a new passport with a new gender marker; and he was looking to get a puppy. Shawn was living the perfect post-transition stealth life. I envisioned a film that followed him on a hero’s journey back to China, full of hopes and fears, reverse culture shock, and family dramas, until one day Shawn told me he had to take down his YouTube channel. He was being stalked by someone in the local Chinese student community and, to prevent word from spreading, he deleted all traces of himself from the internet.
As my subjects moved away from China one after another, I began to realise this was no coincidence. On the one hand, it is a reflection of how this society and culture treats its own trans citizens, and on the other, it is a reflection of my own selection of subjects and the inevitable failure that came out of it. Hard as I try to include a variety of people and perspectives – Chinese guy living in China, foreigner living in China, and a Chinese man living overseas – these are people who have current passports and are just a few steps away from a ticket to a new life in another country, while many more trans people live on facing unemployment, violence, and what is essentially forced sterilisation by the government without the means to a life elsewhere. Even if, by any luck, I managed to maintain access to all three subjects, it would be a movie made by an outsider who followed three characters as they moved away from the environment that he had set out to explore in the first place. It might as well be titled The Trans Men’s Guide to Leaving China.
I hope my failed attempt (certainly won’t be my last) of this topic carries some meaning for those who are interested in creating trans-related content. A lot more exposure in the Chinese media is needed for trans issues to attain the level of attention that they are currently receiving abroad. And more importantly it needs to be the right kind of exposure. The kind that shows trans people are the same as others rather than the typical voyeuristic approach. The kind that shows trans people beyond the surgeon’s office. The kind that shows them at work, at home, at the dog park and at cooking competitions. The kind that re-humanises them. Only then can filmmakers, trans or not, truly create content that empowers trans people and raises awareness of trans issues among the general public.
Mason Na is a video editor based in Beijing. His work can be seen in theaters, online and in festivals, with genres spanning from musical television to automobile reality shows, from crime thrillers to family dramas. When Mason has time for his own projects, his topic of interests include gender, transcultural experiences and geek culture. Image Credit: alexy p