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These Trans Women Just Made History


Checking in with the HIV-positive leader and the trans actress who portrayed her on screen, making prime time history.

She’s become one of the most visible transgender activists in the country, but Cecilia Chung was, at one point, just a girl trying to fit in a world that didn’t understand kids like her. In When We Rise, Ivory Aquino plays Chung first as a spunky street kid in San Francisco, helped out by poz activist and homeless youth advocate Ken Jones. By the third hour of the miniseries she’s an accomplished legal figure helping Jones get his life back together. Today, Chung is a senior strategist at the Transgender Law Center. She was the first transgender woman appointed as San Francisco Health Commissioner and, later, the first out HIV-positive person (and first trans woman) to serve as chair of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. She also served on the U.S. Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Aquino, a first-generation immigrant and trans woman like Chung, is a rising stage actress. They tell Plus about meeting and moving the needle forward.

What was your gut reaction when you first saw yourself portrayed on screen, Cecilia?
Chung: It’s kind of surreal. But I think meeting Ivory in person and getting to know her helped really put me at ease with her playing me on the TV series. Ivory is a very likable young lady. So, it just makes it a lot easier. But TV series are different from real life. I had to learn to set my expectations aside. I have to remember this is just the essence of what happened in that period. It’s not necessarily an accurate recollection of events. 

Was meeting each other important to you?
Aquino: Oh, it was non-negotiable — I had to meet her. When someone is living and doing such amazing work, first of all you want to do justice to their life. You want to capture the core of their life’s work. I am just so fortunate that [creator Dustin] Lance Black and his team was very supportive and knew the importance of connecting us. I was so happy when she invited me … to a conference for transgender women and HIV. I got to actually watch her in action. To actually get to have that peek into her life as she’s doing her advocacy work, that really was very valuable not just for my work as an artist, but it really affected me as a person and as a member of the community. 

Chung: Meeting was not so much [about] telling her how to portray me in the TV series. It was more about getting to know her as a person. We bonded over dinner and we spent three days together when I was in New York [for Pride]. I think that because I made a friend with Ivory, I really want to see her succeed in the role. So, when she asked me about how I felt about certain things, I was able to give her input. I think that what really connected is that we talked about being Asian and Catholic. I feel that I can’t explain to somebody my inner thoughts and experiences, but because we have so many similarities … she understands … the struggle to survive. 

Ivory is the first Asian-American trans woman to play an Asian-American trans woman on American television.
Chung: That really needs to be pointed out [as] kind of a big deal. I feel really excited and proud. I think that she’s actually really brilliant. She actually came here to New York to be a Shakespearean performer. 

How much has San Francisco influenced your work?
Chung: I moved to San Francisco in 1984 and I’ve been calling it home since then. I got to witness almost the entire HIV epidemic from the earlier gay period to now. And I think that it really shaped some of my activism and vision in social justice.

Cecilia, you’ve had some tough, but common experiences. You lost your job, experienced homelessness, sex work, self medicating, and a violent sexual assault. How did you cope? 
Chung: I think that the most important part for me is finding hope towards the end of my 10-year-long history so to speak. I was estranged with my family but toward the end, even though I experienced a lot of trauma and violence, I was able to reconcile with my family — and that really made a big difference in my life. I felt hopeful again. My mom actually supported me on my gender reassignment surgery and gave me the funds I needed to fly to Bangkok to have my surgery. It was like my dream come true. It’s hard to describe the joy and gratitude I have. Now I really want to do whatever I can to support … others who may be experiencing similar challenges as I did, and to really help them find hope.

What surprised you most about doing this series?
Aquino: I would say, rather than surprised, what reaffirmed my my belief in humanity is going on set and seeing that people weren’t concerned about sexual orientation or about gender.… [just] the desire to tell these stories about triumph and hope. So, it really was a group of people who didn’t care about differences. The creative team that I know, Gus [van Sant], Bruce [Cohen], and Lance Black, are part of the LGBT community. But once I got on the set and I met everyone on hair and makeup, camera people, everyone, it was people from all walks of life and it didn’t matter. 

Are you concerned about a roll back of rights under Trump?
Chung: You know, that’s always the fear, and that’s the nature of bipartisan politics in the U.S. It seems that politics are getting more and more polarizing … it’s going to be very anti-abortion, anti-women, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant. We’re expecting an onslaught of backlashes, and rolling back some of our wins we have experienced in the last eight years. But I think this TV series shows that we are very resilient. We have done this before and with a little organizing we can do this again.

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