Question: Male or Female? Answer: Neither
Why should our understanding of gender be confined to only the categories of male and female? Nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals are not new nor some sort of passing “fad.” But unfortunately, due to the aftermath of hundreds of years of colonization, Western ideals of heteronormativity — and inadequate systems of education that uphold heteronormativity — far too many people are unfamiliar with the idea that people can subscribe to a nonbinary system of gender and exist beyond the societal norm.
Within certain Asian cultures, people have long recognized the existence of gender beyond the binary system that predominates today. Whether it be through language, such as gender-neutral dialects like Tagalog, or space for people within cultural communities who do not identify as either a woman or a man, like in some South Asian cultures, gender diversity is ingrained in who we are and where we come from.
With an unprecedented platform structure and endless possibilities, TikTok created the perfect storm and opportunity for marginalized communities — like queer and Asian communities and individuals — to finally have their time to shine. Combining the best features of other social media platforms like Vine, Instagram, and Twitter, TikTok utilizes information from liked videos, comments, and accounts followed to help creators grow their audience exponentially. Having this freedom allows queer and nonbinary creatives and content creators of color to dream and enact spaces of vulnerability and safety, spaces that may not have been accessible or available elsewhere.
At the Intersections: Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, & Asian All at Once
Being both queer and/or gender-nonconforming as well Asian or Asian American, these diverse folks unfortunately have to settle for only having separate parts of their identities represented in the media they consume — never all of it at once. Because TikTok uplifts a huge variety of social media genres, creators on this platform are able to share their personal stories and imaginative content through mediums like cosplay and comedy to touch on serious topics of social commentary and advocacy. A few favorites include the amazing cosplay of @mercy.cosplay, the neverending laughs and humor of @k8sabz, and the media critique and lifestyle content of @mitskyi.
When asked about how they were pushing boundaries and creating social change, Kell (@mitskyi) initially chuckled at the thought of them having any sort of impact on anyone, even their following of over 25,000 people. “[My channel] originally stemmed from me just wanting to send my friends funny videos of myself, but then I saw how it could grow to something much bigger than that,” Kell explained.
In contrast to other social media platforms, TikTok is a video-based app. Kell told me that being able to see people’s actual faces increased their ability to make more genuine and meaningful connections with others. The strong community of mutual and like-minded friends Kell was able to find through the platform is due to a thriving presence of intersectional queer representation on TikTok, whereas mainstream media platforms have next to nothing or even shadowban certain expressions of creativity.
“Not trying to hype up the algorithm too much, because it for sure has its faults, but without it, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to find the community I have now of like-minded creators with shared identities as myself,” they stated.
Identifying as a queer, Asian lesbian, Kell uses both she/they pronouns — something that they’ve felt more comfortable publicly saying over the course of the past year and a half. While navigating this journey in identity, Kell actively thinks about decolonizing preconceived notions of queerness and deconstructing the stereotypic images of nonbinary people in Western media.
One of the biggest difficulties they’ve faced is representation as someone who identifies as both female and gender-nonconforming. “The majority of the content that I consume is Western, so it is a little harder to find content that speaks to both my queer identity and Asian identity,” they explained.
With the constant reinforcement of white androgyny as the face of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, Kell elaborated that there was no one they could even remotely relate to in the mainstream media, especially when it came to the spectrum of femininity: “I’m femme-presenting and am comfortable with how I express who I am. But because of how I look, people already have their assumptions and ideas of how they think I should present myself, as an Asian person and as a queer person, when in reality one person’s experience can’t and shouldn’t be compared to another’s.”
When asked about the huge audience Kell has found, they chalk this up to an inability to choose just one genre. “I never set out with the intention of garnering a bunch of views on a video, and instead just try to make videos that are funny to me but also have the ability to touch on larger societal issues that don’t get talked about nearly enough,” they said. With a deep love of pop culture and music, Kell’s TikToks, which have a combined total of a little over 800,000 views, discuss topics like “portrayals of mental illness in television that don’t suck” and “songs you didn’t know were anti-capitalist anthems.”
Building off the momentum of their platform, Kell recently launched an Etsy shop showcasing their handmade jewelry depicting various sapphic characters from television shows and other queer iconography. “TikTok has really been my only form of marketing for my shop, and it’s been doing really well so far,” they share. Although their shop is currently closed for the time being, they regularly sell hand rings and statement earrings for their customers to enjoy.
Power of Digital Community & Chosen Family During a Pandemic
Creators and users can continue to connect in a time where physical barriers are still in place due to a global pandemic through these community platforms like TikTok where folks around the world find space to be their full selves, albeit digitally. Because many queer folks do not have the most supportive family members and may face unsafe living situations, these digital spaces where communities and chosen families flourish are sometimes all that is available.
Although greater representation is starting to emerge within the mainstream, the internet has historically been where underrepresented and marginalized voices turn to when nowhere else will welcome them. Where YouTube used to reign as a creating space, TikTok is its natural successor, breaking down the high barriers of access for people to create global content.
The beauty of TikTok is this: A simple minute-long video of a person reviewing their favorite animated television show or sharing a short skit of a funny encounter they had at the grocery store can easily reach thousands of users around the world. The short-form storytelling pioneered on TikTok expands the horizons of what the future of media could be. This liberation of creativity and expression among queer, Asian people is not only beneficial for the millions of LGBTQ+ nonbinary folks around the world, but also enables a freedom for anyone — regardless of how you identify — to feel safe and comfortable enough to live authentically.
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
Cover photo credit: Ian Taylor//Unsplash