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Being Asian and transmasculine was ‘a revolutionary act.’ Now he’s a model for what’s possible.

Willy Chang Wilkinson
Orion Rummler for the 19th

Willy Chang Wilkinson stands on a deck at Camp Lost Boys in Colorado on May 12, 2024.

At 61, Willy Chang Wilkinson has always tried to take care of his community — from HIV prevention to helping the next generation of AAPI transgender men.

Originally published by The 19th

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This reporting was supported by the Trans Journalists Association.

In the 1980s, Willy Chang Wilkinson was a young adult struggling as he navigated coming into his own gender identity. He had known he was male since he was a child, but he’d never had the language to describe himself. As an adult, he was living in the lesbian community because there was no concept of being transgender — it just wasn’t an option.

As public understanding of LGBTQ+ people has shifted, Wilkinson has watched that transformation from within different parts of the Asian-American and LGBTQ+ community. From his time as a lesbianin San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood fighting for HIV prevention in the 1980s to hiscurrent quest to bring together other Asian and Pacific Islander transgender men, Wilkinson has lived through decades of change in communities that are still evolving and experiencing new hardships.

Wilkinson, who has a mixed heritage of Chinese and European descent, endured pressure from his family and broader community when he was younger to conform to traditionally feminine roles while also trying to figure out his gender identity without a roadmap.

“I had a lot of pressure on me from my mother to be a good Chinese girl, and that was never going to happen,” he said. Asian people overall are hyper feminized, he said, and Asian women are often expected to fall into stereotypes to be either “delicate lotus blossom” or “dragon ladies.” Wilkinson felt that pressure, too.

“For me, being a masculine, female-born Asian person felt like a revolutionary act because I was experiencing pressure from family and community that I was not OK in my gender expression,” he said.

Wilkinson did not meet another transgender man until 1994 in San Francisco. He realized that there was a bigger community out there — and he wanted to find it.

“When the ’90s hit, I thought, oh, yes, now we can talk about bisexuality, mixed heritage and transgender issues,” he said. “I think people started to expand their minds about what was possible.”

In 1995,Wilkinson was at the FTM Conference in California, the first and largest gathering of transgender men in the world at that time. It was eye-opening. He met trans men who were confident in their identities without medically transitioning, trans men who shared their pronouns long before that was a common part of conversation and trans men who had transitioned years prior. These men showed him all the different ways it was possible to be trans and how he could express his own gender. He imagines that those kinds of experiences are still just as mind-blowing for young trans men as it was for him.

A key difference is that young trans people are coming into a whole world of information and people who can share support and common language about their experiences, he said. There are more allies and media representation, andas an LGBTQ cultural competency trainer who has been educating others for 35 years, he has observed thatthe general population has dramatically shifted its understanding of trans issues.

At 61 years old, Wilkinson is now the one modeling what’s possible for a younger generation of transgender men, especially those who are Asian American.

He’s written two books, one focused on his experiences navigating the intersections of his mixed heritage, gender identity and disability, and another that aims to be a healing tool for trans people in a hostile world. Wilkinson is a frequent attendee at Camp Lost Boys, a triannual retreat for 150 trans men to connect with one another in nature and explore their masculinity. He also co-organizes a retreat for Asian and Pacific Islander transmasculine people, which will be held for the second time in July.

The retreat, API TransFusion, intentionally welcomes a broad range of gender identities and expressions in one of the few gathering spaces for Asian transmasculine people in the world. Anyone under theAsian and Pacific Islander umbrella is welcome, as is anyone who was assigned female at birth or intersex who feels that “female” is not an entirely accurate description of their gender. The retreat is open to trans men, nonbinary people, butch and genderqueer people.

The first API TransFusion, in 2017, was held in a more rural location in California; the upcoming retreat will be in Oakland. Wilkinson recalls hours of conversations around campfires among the 37 attendees at that first retreat. Through those conversations, other Asian trans men realized what could be possible for them once they saw how others were living and expressing themselves.

People felt more confident — and felt more self-acceptance — after gathering with other gender-expansive and trans Asians in a safe and comfortable setting. That’s the power of these kinds of gatherings, Wilkinson said: People are able to figure out who they are and what they want in life once they can relax in a shared space.

“Afterwards, people pursued social and medical transition, came out to their families, navigated challenging situations with their families, came out in their workplace,” he said.

Trans people need to draw on inner strength to navigate these and other challenges, Wilkinson said. The mental health of trans people nationwide is suffering as political attacks and restrictive statehouse bills intensify. On top of that, Asian Americans have faced escalating racism and violent attacks in the pandemic, leaving many feeling unsafe and unwelcome — especially elders, who have been more vulnerable to these assaults.

All of this leaves transgender Asian Americans in even more dire need for safe community spaces, he said. Retreats like API TransFusion are a powerful antidote to isolation brought by violence, Wilkinson said — and on one level, he sees it as a form of suicide prevention for Asian transmasculine people.

“We really need to develop community care, community-led healing, storytelling across the generations, emotional skill building and a broader feeling of community safety,” he said. “This is one way we can really care for our community, by connecting more.”

Wilkinson has always taken care of his community, regardless of how that community has changed. In the 1980s, he was working alongside other lesbians of color to care for sex workers, injection drug users and queer transfeminine people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood as part of an effort for HIV prevention and crisis intervention. That meant connecting people to services and getting people rides to the doctor and the hospital.

As part of that work in HIV prevention and crisis intervention, Wilkinson reached out to Asian communities — work that few others were doing in San Francisco at the time, he said. Health education around HIV and AIDS was critical.

“People still thought Asians were immune at that time. There was a lack of understanding about transmission. A lot of people in Asian communities thought that HIV could be transmitted casually, like from riding the bus with gay people or acupuncture needles or elevators and doorknobs. It was about educating folks,” he said.

Reaching people on a one-to-one basis and treating them like neighbors was important to a successful approach. He handed out condoms and dental dams for safe sex and bleach to help injection drug users sterilize equipment and stem the spread of HIV, and simply made himself available to answer questions.

There were fewer resources for Asian LGBTQ+ people because of the misperception that they were somehow immune to HIV, misinformation that spread because numbers among that demographic were initially low. There were also language barriers to work through during outreach to the local queer Asian community; some people spoke only a small amount of English.

“We had T-shirts that said, ‘Asians are not immune’ in like seven different languages,” he said. He also joined drag performances and skits that conveyed HIV prevention and safe sex practicesfor Asian people with limited English proficiency.

In 1987, Wilkinson co-organized a landmark gathering for Asian lesbians in California and later that year attended the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.According to the National Park Service, 50 Asian lesbian and gay men from across the country gathered in the capital to form the first Asian contingent at the march.

“We crashed at one person’s home, a bunch of Asian dykes that came from California to Washington, D.C., and there was something like 30 people crashing at this one person’s house,” Wilkinson said. That same spirit of community-driven resources is embedded in API TransFusion, partially by the necessity of having a small budget at a volunteer-run outlet. Housing for attendees is informal and usually involves crashing at a local volunteer’s house.

But for all his work connecting with community, Wilkinson also feels like he has adopted a certain “lone wolf” mentality by necessity — since he navigated his gender identity for this first half of his life on his own.

“So I think it's harder for me sometimes to ask for help or to remember that there are resources. I'm used to doing this on my own,” he said. “That’s where I think my perspective might differ from younger people.”

He still feels like it’s a revolutionary act to be Asian and transmasculine — it means bucking expectations and stereotypes from family, community and broader society.

“We're still fighting those stereotypes around the idea that we should be accommodating to others, that we should be behind the scenes, that there's less room for us to assert ourselves,” he said. Wilkinson wants young transmasculine Asian men to know that they should be themselves and celebrate who they are, even if they are not feeling celebrated by the world around them.

“We have to always remind ourselves of our brilliance and resilience, and that we are extraordinary people,” he said. “We always have to remind ourselves that we’re okay, and we are enough.”

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article summary misstated the nature of Willy Chang Wilkinson's work during the HIV/AIDS crisis. He helped with prevention efforts.

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