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Kai Tse and His Brother Shaped a Masculinity All Their Own

Trans and queer, the artist has a unique insight into toxic masculinity. ‘When you’re perceived as a man, there’s a certain level of masculinity that you can’t get away with without being perceived as an asshole.’

In collaboration with Junior High, a not-for-profit in L.A. dedicated to creating space for marginalized voices in the arts, MEL has produced a special print issue focused on contemporary masculinity. For the Men’s Issues Issue, six men from the Los Angeles area picked someone close to them to conduct an original interview about what it means to be a man today. In these conversations, which ran on MEL throughout last week, they talk about how societal expectations impact them and their work and what they think the best path forward is for men. Capping off the series is artist Kai Tse, interviewed by his brother, Nathan Tse.

To purchase a copy of the print issue — as well as a tote and pin — please click here.

Kai Tse may only be 20 years young, but he has to be one of the most talented 20-year-olds in the world. I know I’m biased — after all, I’m his older brother — but whenever I peek into his room, the illustrator/sculptor/stick-and-poke tattoo artist is always hard at work on some sort of commission or project. 

Since we were little, we’ve been practically inseparable. Since childhood, we’ve done everything together — from playing video games to visiting other countries. Now that we’re grown, I can tell him anything, and I especially appreciate the time that he’s spent scolding me about the stupid things that I’ve done. I know that the older sibling is traditionally supposed to be a role model, but we aren’t your average siblings in the slightest.

So what do you think it means to be a man in 2020?
In 2020, it’s hard to have a clear definition. A couple of years ago, in like 2010, it would be pretty easy to answer that question.

Yeah, back then, everybody just followed stereotypes and believed them 110 percent. That’s all there was.
I very ignorantly believed that genitalia equaled gender, which is completely not true. 

Do you think you were ignorant, or do you think you were just young?
We were taught that.

Photography by Lynn Torres

Every adult, every person we looked up to, told us that. I can’t remember someone who told us differently.
Fast forward to 2020, and gender has absolutely blown up in everybody’s faces. There’s a lot of strange nuance to the phrase, “Being a man.” I really don’t think it’s black and white anymore. But that’s 100 percent for the better.

Do you think toxic masculinity is still at work today?
I had my first experience with “locker-room talk” in my speech class. We were all separated by guys and girls. I was placed with about 20 other guys. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Just because there were no girls around, they felt comfortable saying gross stuff. It’s totally unacceptable, but it’s ingrained in our society and that sort of language is so common. I feel like I was the only one who felt uncomfortable. A lot of other guys were either very complacent or actively taking part in it.

I remember when I’d experience stuff like this on the baseball team. A handful of guys — me included — were uncomfortable with what was being said. We weren’t outwardly challenging our teammates but at least people were aware of how wrong it was.
I think toxic masculinity is looked down upon now, but masculinity in general is still celebrated amongst the majority of the male population. Femininity is still looked down upon for guys. I mean, have you seen masculinity that’s not toxic? I feel like I have healthy masculinity.

Not in people other than immediate family, no.
Well, that’s bad. Do you think that’s because of the people you associate yourself with? 

I honestly just think the majority of the male population has no clue. Of course, there are people who are simply terrible. But I don’t think most guys are aware of what toxic masculinity is — they’ve never heard of it.
That’s also because of the communities that you’re in. You’re a cisgender, heterosexual guy. Being trans and queer, I kind of know not to perpetuate toxic masculinity. The people that you might associate yourself with don’t know that and haven’t had that sort of experience. They just know a different kind of masculinity.

Yes, they know what masculinity is, but they don’t know that there’s a bad side to it. There’s a lot of ignorance — people choosing to not better themselves and be shitty people instead of working on their issues. We owe a lot to mom and pops. Their concept of masculinity was okay. Not toxic. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, and sure, there are improvements that needed to be made, but they were made as time progressed.
Yeah. So you’re saying that parents obviously play a large part in a person’s masculinity?

Totally. You’re so impressionable as a child, you literally don’t know any better. And where are you getting most of the information? Your parents or whoever raises you, whoever you’re with the most. And if that person isn’t practicing healthy masculinity or if they’re just super, super terrible, that’s going to imprint on you.
I think mom and pops definitely influenced both of our ideas of masculinity in a positive way. But there have been situations where our dad has, for example, slammed down on the table. That’s not a healthy coping strategy, and it stems from masculinity problems. 

Photography by Lynn Torres

As siblings, we’d band together and be like, “No, this is messed up.” Even if mom would side with pops, it wouldn’t matter because we’d know. Like, “Yo, to us, this isn’t okay.”
If we didn’t have each other, I think I would maybe have gone crazy because mom does back up pops.

We were each other’s reassurance, which is interesting because we were just talking about how much parents influence kids. But maybe —
It’s also siblings.

Having someone else there to experience the same thing with you and actually converse about it afterwards. Do you think you developed a healthy masculinity and that helped illuminate when pops was doing something bad?
A big part of me being able to differentiate what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy wasn’t being forced to conform to a type of masculinity. I feel like you were very specifically taught a certain kind of masculinity — like not to cry.

Yeah, men don’t cry. They don’t get sad.
They’re not emotional.

You have to be the strong one. You’re not the one crying. You let people cry on you.
Well, if you look at our dad, he’s a very typical man. 

He’s a super massive dude.
And we’re the opposites of him. I’m literally like 5-foot-3.

People look at us and go, “What happened to you?” when they see pops.
So we have a lot to live up to. And I don’t fret him that much when he tries to push on me these weird, masculine habits or “dude behaviors.”

You think about his background and how he was when he was a kid and what he was going through — he wasn’t thinking about this. He was thinking about what he was going to eat next. But when do you think our parents got better around issues of masculinity?
I think it had to do with us. I think it had to do with mostly me.

It 110 percent had to do with you.
When I came out, it threw them for a loop because they have unconditional love for me. They had to decide if they were going to continue the way they were acting and living. For instance, them being in a conservative, evangelical, Asian church was confusing for them when I came out as bi and trans.

How did you think that was going to work out?
There’s no playing two sides without hurting me. If mom stayed, I would’ve been hurt. I had a role in altering their perception of how they interacted with the world and people in general.

Photography by Lynn Torres

They’re proof that it’s possible to change if you’re approached in the correct way.
I don’t think you can necessarily fix a mindset like that, but you can definitely have a conversation. You can expose them and hope for the best.

We can expose them to what’s better. They need to change that themselves. They need to take that initiative themselves to change the way that they think.
Our parents are perfect proof of that — of taking the initiative and changing and altering what you think. They were so ingrained in the mindset of all that bad shit. They were in that church for decades.

How do you think we can get rid of toxic masculinity? What about a first step?
Initiate conversation with people who have been affected by it and guide them. But again, you can only lead a horse to water. Also, maybe showing them a masculinity that isn’t toxic. Personally, I think my masculinity is healthy enough to be an example to someone. As a college student, I’m stealth, meaning no one knows I’m trans; everyone just thinks I’m a cisgender guy. It’s been weird, obviously, to go from being perceived as a “girl” for 17 years to a full-ass man.

When you’re perceived as a queer woman, there’s a certain masculinity that you can get away with. But when you’re perceived as a man, there’s a certain level of masculinity that you can’t get away with without being perceived as an asshole. So for a while, I had to take a step back and think twice about what I say because I’m not perceived as what I used to be perceived as.

Do you think my masculinity had an impact on the way that your masculinity was formed?

I do. Your gender presentation was different and drastically different from what I was experiencing from the people around me in high school. That gave me a basis and an anchor to realize, “Oh, shit, this isn’t healthy. This is bad, and this isn’t something that you should be saying. You’ve got to change this.” But that wouldn’t have been possible without a healthy, positive reference. You were that for me.
Well, I’m glad that my masculinity has helped form your masculinity.

It’s pretty much flipped our whole family. Before you came out to us, I don’t think it was a thought in any of our minds — me, mom or pops. How did our other family members react? I don’t really know about that.
I wasn’t the direct person who came out to them. It was mom and pops who went to our family members and said that I’m trans and stuff. You’d think that my family members, who are all first gen, would have a strange reaction. But I was always a masculine girl, so they saw me as a tomboy for the majority of my life. It wasn’t a crazy surprise, and also, their reaction wasn’t what I thought it was going to be at all. Our uncles on our Chinese side were very, very, very cool. They were trying to welcome me into a sort of manhood, I think. 

They went beyond just tolerance.
They showed me acceptance — and that you don’t necessarily need to understand me to still love me.