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Navigating Identity with Chella Man    

Navigating Identity with Chella Man

Art by FISK

By Meadowlark Monaghan 

In a world that still has lots of work to do when it comes to representation and intersectionality, Chella Man has embraced his continuum of identities so powerfully that his sense of self is undeniable. 

The 22-year-old Chinese-Jewish artist is a deaf, trans, genderqueer, and pansexual creative and activist who currently resides in Brooklyn. Known for his acting role as the mute superhero Jericho in the DC Universe and his collaborations with fashion brands like Private Policy and Opening Ceremony, Chella is now adding author to his resume. His new book Continuum is a series of essays geared towards a younger audience that explores his journey and what he’s learned about resilience and self-acceptance, topics the artist has been showcasing on his online platforms for years. 

Four years ago, while a student at Parsons School of Design, Chella Man began documenting his transition online. Even in those early videos as he navigated this life-changing shift, Chella’s self-awareness was palpable. He exudes a strong sense of self that’s not always seen in someone so young, one that’s reflected in the vulnerable art he creates which explores gender dysphoria, self-acceptance, and different coping strategies

Today, Chella Man is one of the most beautiful embodiments of intersectionality and someone we can all learn from. “Each of these identities have taught me resilience in their own way, made me stronger, mentally and physically,” he explained. We continue the conversation below,  exploring how he’s fostered such a strong sense of self, his advice on being your own advocate, and what he’s learned about himself in the past year. 

You were one of the first people, if not the first, I ever saw share their entire experience with transitioning online. What inspired you to share that journey with your followers?

It is not always easy to share such intimate moments, but I find it imperative to show the in-between and journey of figuring out who I wanted to be. The dark, dysphoric stages of transitioning exist and should not be ignored as they are just as important to showcase as the ones filled with joy. All stages have something to teach. I am trying to listen to each one in order to help others going through the same thing.

How do you make space for that kind of vulnerability in your life? Is it innate for you or something you’ve had to work on? 

How can you not? To live without vulnerability is to live without the utmost authenticity stemming from the core of who you are. This is a practice. It is terrifying at first and still [can be] at times, yet overwhelmingly rewarding and liberating to implement.

Since you are so vulnerable, do you have to set intentional boundaries with social media to protect your emotional energy? 

Yes! This is imperative if social media is a tool for your job. [Those boundaries] honestly change every day! I do my best to only go on social media for a limited amount of time. Additionally, I am very intentional about the content I let myself dive into and do my best to verify that the information [I’m getting] is factual.

There is a video of you and your partner MaryV that illuminates how self-aware the two of you are individually and together. What are some suggestions you’d give to partners of those who are transitioning or navigating their true identities for the first time?

Be patient, gentle, supportive, and loving. Center these values at your core. Know that this will likely be an extremely emotional journey, and it is up to you to decide how much energy you want to expend. Always put your mental and physical health first. I have a great resource video for this, actually. 

How have you gotten to know yourself? What do you do to actively practice becoming more self-aware?

I’ve been through more experiences than most people my age [which] I believe this has both encouraged and forced me to mature quickly. I practice staying in touch with my thoughts, feelings, and intuition. Following these truthfully is one of the most courageous things one can do.

You wrote a letter to cis folks asking them to shift the way they perform their gender in order for them to notice how “exhausting it is to be consciously aware of the ways you present yourself and the ways other people may be perceiving your gender expression.” What was the thinking behind this experiment? 

I began to write this hoping to reach those with no prior knowledge of queer issues such as gender performativity. Turning the tables through this mental exercise encourages others to literally step into the shoes of other gender stereotypes around personality, clothing, and mannerisms and [can help people understand what it’s like to] experience gender dysphoria.

What, when, or who makes you feel the most seen?

This fluctuates and changes every day but what is constant is the ability I have to be my own representative. I always validate myself this way.

What lessons or tips do you have to help folks become more confident in advocating for themselves?

Build a strong support system of people who you truly love and trust. This family and community is key.

What is one thing hearing folks can all do today to be more inclusive of the Deaf/HoH community? 

Caption your videos! Even if you are just speaking in an Instagram story, captions make all the difference.

What are some self-care or coping strategies that are non-negotiables for you? 

I work out almost every day. My whole attitude feels refreshed and reset after. I also journal quite often and try my best to always read rather than be on my phone during late hours.

In what ways is your art an outlet for you? When do you find yourself most inspired to create?

I can pour myself and my emotions out and let them go from weighing me down. Each piece I create leaves me feeling lighter and free. I am always inspired. I honestly cannot turn it off and wouldn’t change that for anything.

What is one thing you discovered about yourself in the past year-and-a-pandemic that you didn’t know before?  

I have the power to rewire where I receive validation which has proved to be one of my greatest assets to healing. Practicing this has led me to not only prioritize my own values, but trust them. In the beginning, it called for each choice I made to be meticulously assessed and compared to my core beliefs which [can be] an exhausting cycle. But I am happy to report this cycle becomes easier to process with practice. I am alive, now, to the best of my ability, by which I mean: I am healing and prioritizing radical self-love. Remember, sometimes exercising your right to heal is the most radical thing you can do. This process has been incredibly liberating, yet so very painful at times. Like any binary, you cannot have one without the other.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.