Colonialism Family Features International Lived Experience Non-binary

Creative Journeys with The Mollusc Dimension

SJ Zhang writes that healthcare providers need to take into account if you’re a person of colour, because “your background, heritage, your upbringing, [can mean] it’s a lot more difficult for you to come out to your family.”

Content notes: references to mental health difficulties and various types of trauma including homophobia, transphobia, family conflict.

In their article, Transgender healthcare in the UK is in crisis and people of colour are at the sharpest end, SJ Zhang writes that healthcare providers need to take into account if you’re a person of colour, because “your background, heritage, your upbringing, [can mean] it’s a lot more difficult for you to come out to your family.”

"Imaginary Friend" Comic. Panel 1: A cartoon carrot says, "I feel lonely today." Panel 2: He draws another carrot the same size as him. Panel 3: The two carrots hang out eating cakes and drinking tea and chatting merrily.

As the child of immigrants this really resonated with me; I was raised internalising the idea that “no one will ever care about you the way your (blood) family will”.  And when I first came out to my mum as trans around 2013, we were going through traumatic bereavement. 

Whereas I felt determined to “finally start my life”, she found my proposed changes very difficult. Her reaction was devastating as I was performing a lot of bereavement administration. My family was dramatically opposed to my transness, arguing that it would “shock my Grandma” and endanger her health.

To everyone’s surprise by the time I convinced my mum to tell my Grandma – her response was, “Others may be old-fashioned but not me!” 

The Mollusc Dimension, an East Asian transqueerian, is on stage holding a mic and performing stand-up. He looks happy and bouncy and wears a flamboyant red floral shorts set and white trainers.

I’m a British East-Asian, queer, trans-masc, non-binary, neurodivergent multidisciplinary artist. I’m a stand-up, songwriter, composer, pianist, visual artist, poet, writer and zine-maker. I also teach and do some care work for my elderly mum. 

Immigrants and BIPOC I have spoken with face particular pressures to stay in contact with family and meet their approval. This may stem partly from the sense that our parents endured hardships to travel, survive and raise us – and that we in turn owe them gratitude. However this does not take into account the safety and needs of LGBTIQA+ and/or those who have experienced toxicity from their family. Therefore, queer and trans BIPOC may experience judgement from other (cishet) BIPOC for choosing to distance themselves from blood family.

For some white people, I think it could be hard to imagine struggling with invisibility as a BIPOC child. As well as a homophobic, transphobic society, I grew up in amidst white supremacy and sino-misogyny.  Luckily, I now know these words but I started talking about them in my early thirties.

After I performed this poem about erasure, I explained how as a child I thought I might be Italian because “brunette” was the closest there was to ESEA (East or Southeast Asian). 

My East Asian parents tried, somewhat clumsily, to “protect me” from a “dangerous” outside world. Home was where I first studied music with my mum. A few aspects of my feminised upbringing have benefitted me – the social encouragement to sew and craft for example. 

6 felt squids in bright colours sit in an adorable yet declamatory formation on the lid and music stand of a black upright piano above the keyboard.  The squids each have a ribbon coming from their mantle and googly eyes. Some have bells attached.

My parents wanted me to be financially independent from my “future husband”, yet nonetheless expected me to find one. Home was where I was subjected to their homophobia, transphobia and general fears regarding non-conformity. In immigrant and/or BIPOC communities – some more than others, the fear of non-conformity may be linked to intergenerational trauma.

Back in 2012 or 2013, I was afraid to go on T due to lack of representation and support. What would I look like if I went on T? Would I turn out to be white? How dare I, an unwelcome POC body, ever dare imagine myself growing older or seeking well-being?

Around that time, I met SuMay (Gaybourhood East) my first queer British Chinese lesbian friend at a Drag King Show in East London. I knew very few Asian queers, let alone trans people. A lot has changed since then. On Instagram, I am now connected to hundreds of LGBTQIA+ ESEA!

I think decolonising transphobia is important because the legacy of transphobia stems from colonisation. Colonisation and imperialism affects white people as well BIPOC people, socio-economically as well as culturally, but these subjects continue to be erased in schools. It took me decades to understand that my parent’s homophobia and transphobia were imported into their minds via British colonisation. In the meantime, so much self-hate and bewilderment had collected leading to self-destructive thoughts and unhealthy behaviours.

I highly recommend checking out Alok V Menon who talks and writes about transness, fashion, gender non-conforming bodies and colonisation on Instagram and in their videos such as “The History of Cross-Dressing Laws” (The Guardian) (please note, this video covers transphobic police brutality).

Like many LGBTIQA+ people who grew up under Section 28, it is both encouraging to see how things have changed but also dismaying to see how progress has stalled, and in some cases is even reversing. 

As I teach music privately, I plucked up the courage to ask a few of my teenage students whether they had learnt about LGBTIQA+ people at school. To my surprise, they had learnt that trans people existed. I was annoyed however that the curriculum didn’t cover non-binary and intersex people. It is unacceptable that these two groups are still excluded from the Equality Act.

The former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s words about gender suggest that he wasn’t aware of the Equality Act. The fact that Liz Truss, the current Prime Minister did not exclude trans people from the proposed ban on conversion therapy is very disturbing.

I felt frustrated by the obstacles to transitioning set both by my family and other people (my GP practice, the various institutions and companies I had dealings with and co-workers). Writing and singing rude, humorous songs at gigs was when I felt I could be myself and be seen.

The Mollusc Dimension (then just Squid in his band Squid & the Krakens) is an East Asian transqueerian standing on stage with a keyboard on a stand. He wears a skeleton t-shirt under a very dark blue-black satin jacket and black trousers.

Before I was on T, I was illustrating and animating for clients. Since my teens, I have enjoyed a wide range of music from alternative rock and metal, to riot grrrl, to Classical music, to electronic dance music and more. So why had I never seen myself as a singer? 

There were two main barriers. 

Firstly, I had not grown up seeing British East and Southeast Asian vocalists.

Secondly, I had voice dysphoria (although I didn’t know what it was called at the time).

Later, as my voice broke, transness became part of my public artist identity, I began worrying about exploring topics such as sex, politics and others in a provocative way. I feel that I have a lot to say on these topics. 

1-panel comic showing two characters in dark purple pen drawing on pink paper.  One says "I have no idea why or how I survived this long! What if I'm going about this all wrong?!", the other replies "you're funny. you'd be good on stage."

When I realised I was trans, I started singing more as I needed to perform angry/ funny songs and stories to vent how frustrated I was feeling about being misgendered and my family who were initially not behind me. Apart from being a way of connecting with people, lyrics-writing and show creation gives me a playful focus beyond my recurring mental health struggles.

A cartoon flying saucer-style spaceship outlined in magical rainbow colours hovers above a simple grey road or runway. It has 3 portholes in trans flag colours: blue, white and pink. The sky is a light blue colour and has 3 white clouds partly seen.

Like many other East and Southeast Asians I experienced coronaracism during lockdown. I wrote a song called “Asians Have Feelings Too” combining #StopAsianHate and LGBTIQA+ positive representation. As well as trying to recover from covid-racism, at the heart of the resulting Arts Council Funded music video is a positive message about “being yourself” – for people from all backgrounds. I directed the music video together with film director and DOP Darius Shu (Peach Paradise, Queer Parivaar and Stockholm.) Believe it or not, I actually attempt to dance in it (k-pop inspired!) and animated sections! Look out for Asians Have Feelings Too at events this year, and eventually YouTube.

3 people are standing in a room with their hands on their hips. They look like they're in a pop band mid-choreography.

I started singing when I was 34. One thing I really love about taking T, which I started in 2015, is my voice. I studied for the past year or so with non-binary singing teacher, Beatrice Murray (The Embodied Voice) whose quirky and trauma-infomed techniques helped me. It took a lot of work and a while to get there but in April 2022, I gave my debut solo show as part of “Re-Rooted” at The Rich Mix, London at the age of 42, supported by an amazing team.

The Mollusc Dimension is an East Asian artist on stage playing the keyboard with a mic stand in front of him and dramatic green and blue haze lighting streaming down from above.

Private lessons are not affordable for everyone, but there are lots of online resources and communities like Trans Vocal Training and r/Transvoice (suggested by the Editor). I consider mine an investment as they are contributing towards my work. I hope to encourage people to try new things in little steps and enjoy creating.

Illustration featuring photographic elements and one character from each of The Mollusc Dimension's zines (2008 to 2019).  Including: hot British Asian femme, running ice cream grrrl, LH pushing their alien baby, Mr Carrot. trans-masc cutie

I find music and art so helpful for coping with stress, depression and anxiety. I turn sadness into music and sometimes my songs are so upbeat/funny people have no idea how sad I felt when first making them. I would like to encourage others to try writing their own songs. Sometimes you can start by changing the words to an existing song, which is a tactic used by drag artists.

While it’s different to how I was raised, I now believe it’s positive to try things even if we don’t seem to be that “good” at doing them. This way, we can have new experiences, grow as people and maybe make some new friends!

The Mollusc Dimension stands by the piano after a stand-up, screening and interactive music performance at besea.n's "Celebrating You" for ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) Heritage Month at China Exchange in September 2022.

Trans-inclusive mental health resources

In addition to those mentioned above, various resources have been really useful to me over the lockdown and beyond:

Poetry LGBT: InstagramFacebook

Big Bag Training: Trans-inclusive fitness group on Zoom with qualified instructor. Contact Becca.

BIPOC trans, non binary, gender non conforming, gender questioning group: Contact Travis Willie. 

Survivor Arts London for all adult survivors: InstagramFacebookWebsite 

Sabah Choudrey’s book: “Supporting Trans People of Colour” 

Sabah’s Mental health support hub: “Whether it’s winter, pandemic, 2020 endings or new year beginnings, you might need a bit of support and you absolutely deserve it..

Photo Credits:
1. The Mollusc Dimension: Illustration, Where are you from

2. The Mollusc Dimension: Comic, Imaginary Friend (from Mr. Carrot Comics)

3. The Mollusc Dimension with Po Po (Grandma)

4. Shaven Raven Designs: TMD at Hoopla with Comediasians

5. Felt Squids sewn by TMD

6. Absolut Queer Photography

7. The Mollusc Dimension: Squid Horse

8-9: Darius Shu: “Asians Have Feelings Too” music video 

10. Vanessa Ng: TMD at Rich Mix, London

11. The Mollusc Dimension: Illustration, Where do you feel most at home?

12. Tim Chung: TMD at China Exchange, London for besea.n, ESEA Heritage Month 2022.

The Mollusc Dimension (he/him) is a British-born Chinese, transqueerian, non-binary, multidisciplinary performer, stand-up comedian, visual artist, composer and writer.

Instagram/Facebook: @TheMolluscDimension
Asians Have Feelings Too: @AsiansHaveFeelingsToo

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