Even before we meet Kaspar Wan, it’s clear our interview is going to be an enlightening one. Our email correspondence alone proves instructive, reading, in part: “Just make sure you can separate each letter of the community. It’s the least you can do.” Meeting Wan, we quickly realise that this hint serves as a mere launching pad into the complexities of an issue that has for too long not been given the spotlight it deserves.
The ‘community’ to which Wan refers is the LGBTI one, and by‘letters’ he means the various groups classified under this increasingly expansive and incredibly diverse acronymic umbrella. The Hongkonger knows firsthand how important it is to make the distinction between numerous rainbow categories – for years, he struggled with his own transgender identity.
A student of film at a Sydney university, Wan documented his female to male transition in the 2015 documentary short, Kaspar X: If I Had A Soul. The self-directed, no-holds-barred film, which toured the international queer film circuit to critical acclaim, delves into Wan’s conversations with family, friends and God – Wan is a devout Christian – before and after surgery to remove his breasts. “Apart from my self-journey,” he says, “I realised it was a journey for everyone. When the transition made sense to me, it made sense to the people around me. And I guess they could put the pieces together, as they’d known me for some time.” This is evident upon seeing photos of a younger Wan – the high school and university student looks extremely similar to the man opposite us today. A photo of a teenage, leather jacket-clad Wan holding an electric guitar is especially telling. “That’s how I perceived myself, like a cool guy,” he tells us. Does he still like to jam? “No, no, I never played,” he laughs. “That was my brother’s!”
Wan underwent surgery at the age of 32. Life until that point had been ‘an exploration, a journey’ to realise that he had not been assigned his true gender at birth, and that he was not a TB (Hong Kong slang for ‘tomboy’ or ‘butch’ lesbian). Gay and lesbian support groups did little to allay internal angst – likewise bargaining with God. “I thought I could be a boy simply by praying,” he admits. What did come of this exploration, though, was an understanding of the struggles of sexual minorities, lighting a fire to want to help others facing gender issues.
Thus Wan’s support network Gender Empowerment came into being. This trans-focused NGO is based on his knowledge that gender issues are extremely different from those faced by people dealing with sexuality. “Local gay and lesbian organisations acknowledge that they don’t understand us or our issues,” he says. “In the past, trans and gay people would be part of the same community but they didn’t get along and they didn’t know why. They tried to offer us help, but they failed.” Gender Empowerment provides a safe space for Hongkongers struggling with gender identity to discuss everything from how to dress and speak, to experiences with doctors and hormone treatment. “Transition isn’t easy,” says Wan. “You have to go through a lot of things. We can’t rely on the gay community because it’s not about sexuality. It’s about cisgender or transgender. And, as a transgender person still going through this journey, this is how I want to start the conversation and get the community together, so that we can work it out ourselves.”
Something in which Wan is particularly interested is changing the language of transgender discourse. Through Gender Empowerment, he has become a regular guest lecturer in medical, legal and social science faculties at several Hong Kong universities. The great paradox is that while gender identity is a necessarily internalised process, identity is assigned through externalised labels. Not recognising a third gender or assigning equal rights to transgender people establishes a de facto third gender or, as Wan puts it, ‘someone outside the existing structure’. And indeed, language is of holistic value. “We are trying to make a language with as much information as possible for the [wider] community on the one hand,” he says, “but also we want to let our own know that there is diversity within the community. Because I know how it feels not to fit in. When a trans person doesn’t feel like they fit with a transgender identity, it’s even harder for them to find a place.” In a society in which notions of gender are so deeply embedded, however, difficulties can certainly arise. “A lot of things are segregated by or somehow related to gender,” notes Wan. “Transgender people are not trapped in their own bodies but they’re trapped in gender. And gender is everywhere. So they’re trapped everywhere.”
Finding one’s place becomes an especially loaded process given the dichotomic sum of its parts – internal identity versus external recognition. “The transition period is the hardest part for transgender people,” says Wan. “It’s about recognition. When you’re not being recognised for who you are, you want to hide yourself.” Wan recalls being referred to as ‘madam’ in his youth. “I wanted to escape. But the other person hadn’t done anything wrong – it’s only you who feels strange, so you just want to hide yourself. Understanding how easily transgender people could get stuck in their transition period, I realised I had to help.” Separating letters, it seems, really is the least we can do.
To find out more about Wan’s work with Gender Empowerment, visit genderpower.space.