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Cecilia Chung: Finding My Purpose

Cecilia Chung is Senior Director of Strategic Projects for the Transgender Law Center and a Health Commissioner of San Francisco. Ms. Chung is an internationally recognized human rights leader who advocates for HIV/AIDS awareness and treatment access, as well as LGBT equality, and social justice broadly. She is a founder of Positively Trans, a project focused on trans leaders with HIV. She also the first person of trans experience to serve on AIDS United’s Board.

We were honored to speak with Ms. Chung about her work, motivations, and the importance of National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you become involved in your work?

As an immigrant originally from Hong Kong, I moved to San Francisco in the Christmas of 1984, four months since my family and I stepped foot on US soil. Those were the early days of the AIDS pandemic and it’s hard not to notice the veil of grief and sadness. That has left a deep imprint in my mind that there is a huge cost to be gay. Despite trying my best to avoid talking and thinking about how the AIDS virus ravaged the gay communities across the nation, I found myself confronting it head on when I share with my family my plan to transition to become a woman. My mom didn’t take it very well and my dad was even worse.

I soon found myself without a job, marginally housed, and disconnected from my family. I was so desperate to find my community, I volunteered for an HIV organization doing prevention outreach. During this time, I experienced multiple episodes of sexual violence and assault and tested positive for HIV. I didn’t seek treatment because I thought it was the end of my life. I retreated into my own little apartment. Besides survival sex, I didn’t have much social interaction.

In 1995, my life turned around. I was assaulted by two men and one of them charged me with a knife. I was able to block him from my body, but he punctured my wrist. Because of that violence, I was able to reconcile with my mom. She finally realized I didn’t transition because it was fun. I wanted to live as a woman and die with dignity as a woman. In 1998, she supported me to get my gender reassignment surgery in Bangkok.

From then, I became more political and vocal as an activist for immigrants, trans people, and people living with HIV. It was like finding my second wind in life and the actualization of my dream of becoming my authentic self, I found my purpose –– to fight and advocate for those who are like me. And I have been in this work ever since.

When we talk about HIV, we don’t often talk about Asian and Pacific Islander communities. What do you want people to know on National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day?

One of the major gaps when we talk about HIV is prevention and care is the fact that Asians and Pacific Islanders have trouble finding the right services. Compounded by our cultural beliefs when we were taught to keep everything to ourselves. These all contribute to why Asians are the most disconnected from HIV testing and finding out their HIV status. As a result, we constantly see lower numbers of Asians getting tested. In the early days, many Asians would only find out their status when they get really sick with opportunistic infections and compromised immune systems and show up at the ER. Because they were so sick, many of them would last no more than one week to one month. It was a very gloomy time.

I am always living at the intersection of my race and gender identity. As a Chinese American, I feel that most of the time my racial identity is invisible. We get lumped in with Asian and Pacific Islander as one community but in fact, we are made up of many from different countries, speaking different languages and have different cultural practices. It saddens me at times that we, as Asians and Pacific Islanders living in foreign lands, have to assimilate and set aside and sometimes erase our own identity in order to fit in. So to me, National Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is a day that reminds us why we should acknowledge the differences within communities and bring awareness not just about HIV and AIDS but about the culture and communities. It is a day to remind us to help monolingual immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands to find their own communities and voices.

Can you speak more to the fact that there is no one, monolithic Asian-American community or culture?

In the Bay Area, we have more prominent Asian communities from Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and China and we have a large community of Pacific Islanders from the Philippines and Samoa. But when we go to the Midwest we might find a large Hmong community. If we thought that we can use the same approach for Chinese Americans to treat the other communities, we might not get the result that we really desire. It really speaks to the demand of the certain majority group – in this case it would be white Americans – how they pressure the racial minority to assimilate and to deny our own cultural and racial identity to be American when in fact these identities and cultural diversities are enriching our lives.

As a result, I often find conversations to be patronizing. They may ask me to say hello in Chinese, but if they met someone who speaks Mandarin or Cantonese they wouldn’t know the difference. Or, when they learn these words and they just come up to someone on paper who identifies as API, but in fact they may be Vietnamese or Korean, that does more harm than good. We must acknowledge our own ignorance in order to meet clients where they are. Cultural humility is not a class you take, it is a commitment to a life time of learning and embracing differences.

As a community, what could we be doing different to better serve Asians and Pacific Islanders living with or affected by HIV?

When it comes to the API community and HIV awareness there is still a lot of work to be done. We still don’t have appropriate services and resources that meet the linguistic needs of all of our communities. We are often unable to provide linguistically and culturally appropriate because of resource and funding inequity. Just because API occupy a certain slice of the pie in HIV funding, that does not mean it is appropriately distributed.

It is important to de-segregate the data of Asian and Pacific Islanders. I felt very concerned when I read a recent article that the administration is trying to do away with different categories and allow people to identify as only Asian. We are going backwards from what we are fighting for, which is to give different Asian and Pacific Islander communities their own data so we can provide better services that meet the linguistic needs of different communities.

You have an extensive resume as a community leader, mentor, trailblazer, and advocate. Looking back over your career, what is something you are most proud of?

I am grateful that I have been able to connect with so many different types of non profits, from substance abuse treatment, to homeless services, to capacity building, and more celebratory things like San Francisco Pride. I have been able to experience a whole range of what makes our community unique. It’s hard to say which one I am the most proud of, but if look back in recent years, the things I am most proud of are being part of the beginning of the Transgender Law Center, co-founding Trans March in San Francisco, as well as my current project, Positively Trans, where I am building a community of trans leaders living with HIV.

We are so excited to have you join our Board! What are you most looking forward to as you join the Board of AIDS United?

I have to talk a bit about what I appreciate about AIDS United. In the last three years, AU has really strengthened their relationship between the trans community and the organization. I am appreciative to see the commitment that AU makes in helping to develop leadership in the trans community. Because of this commitment, I decided that I would accept the invitation so that I can help facilitate a more inclusive culture on the Board of Trustees and prepare them so they can invite more trans people to join in the future.

How do you stay motivated in your work?

It goes back to the year 1998 after I reconciled with my mom and she offered to pay for my surgery. I realized I needed to find another purpose – I was able attain the goal I had had all my life to be a woman. I recognized that one of my purposes is to hold spaces for other community members who come after me. I want to make sure that no one goes through the same experiences and trauma as me. They are hard to forget because they are my lived experiences – and I have actual scars to remind me of these trauma – so it keeps me focused.

One thing that I am really looking forward to is to help mentor the next generation of leaders in the community and hopefully one day I get to be inspired by their visions and their dreams. I don’t see myself retiring – I find so much energy from working. My drive comes from working and advocacy and organizing. Even when I am not sitting in the office, I am in the community doing something. I might step back, but I will always stay active and work hard – it is part of my cultural identity as Chinese American.

Thank you, Cecilia!

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Posted By: Sarah Hashmall, Communications Manager - Thursday, May 17, 2018

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