“Being brave is an important value for me. I have come to know myself through being courageous and doing hard things. Whether that is performing, putting work out into the world or transitioning. None of this came naturally to me. But I had no other choice.”
Growing up in Vancouver as the middle child of three born to strict Chinese immigrant parents, Kai Cheng Thom’s early life stands in stark contrast to her life now as a writer, performer, social activist and speaker. She describes herself as having been an extremely nerdy, introverted and obedient child. Raised conservatively with a focus on studies over social life, Kai Cheng’s limited knowledge of the world primarily came from books.
“When I think about myself at that time, I think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I was very much like Ariel at the beginning when she is singing “Part of your World,” with that intense longing to experience myself independently and experience freedom, to explore gender and meet other people,” Kai Cheng says. “Children’s books are always about them having these incredible adventures and doing amazing things. That is what I wanted my life to be like.”
Moving to Montreal to attend McGill University helped Kai Cheng create the physical and emotional distance she needed. She quickly aligned herself with gay and trans activist groups at school. Her early twenties were an intense but exciting time of self-exploration and many firsts.
“Like a lot of trans people, I got pulled into the social justice and political world. I absorbed those values of freedom, equity and pushing back against authority. This shaped who I became as an adult. And at the same time, I was transitioning my gender presentation,” she says.
Kai Cheng also struggled with mental health issues throughout adolescence and into her twenties. A bad trip unearthed long-buried feelings about her gender identity and put everything into focus.
“At that moment, I was in real danger of hurting myself,” she explains. “I had to make a choice between a life that was unlivable without transitioning or to be who I am.”
Kai Cheng’s writing about gender, sexuality, and activism has grown her a loyal following and also connected her with other queer and transgender writers around the world. A lover of literature who once sought books as a refuge and a source of inspiration, Kai Cheng now carves out a safe space for others through her own work.
“I believe in the historic archetype of the artist, as someone who aspires to be part healer and part activist,” she says, “and as someone who is trying to bring a new vision into the world. It isn’t something I am always able to achieve. [But] what I work toward is to show people a different way of living – a different way of being with each other. A way that is more compassionate, free and truthful.”
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