Qian Li immigrated to Connecticut from Beijing, China at the age of six. His fascination with music took hold at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia where he studied Balinese gamelan with Tom Whitman and composition with Gerald Levinson. After graduating in 2005, he explored his childhood dream of environmental activism through construction site monitoring, habitat restoration in the Sonoran Desert, and consulting in San Francisco. A member of multiple groups that are silenced through oppression, he works to transform the arts from an act of privilege into a tool for personal development and community building and bridging. Qian recently returned to the New York area from Oakland, California.
Who? name, age, what you identify as (or not)
Qian Li, which English speakers pronounce Chen and Indonesian speakers, Cen. A couple years after I came out as male, my mom and I toyed with ideographs less feminine than my given name but I’m still looking for something that captures my wandering, wayward nature. I was assigned female at birth and questioning, queer, genderqueer opened the door for me to throw down and live as a man. After four years of thinking about gender harder than most do in a lifetime, I don’t consider mine as representative of either women’s or men’s experience. As an immigrant and artist my bridge role makes me rely and draw on multiple experiences that are constructed as exclusive. I’m 27.
What? what do you do for a living or things you would like to do.
Since 2009 I’ve been composing full time. I recently gave my first workshop using performance, discussion, and theater and rhythm activities to facilitate dialogue about gender, culture, and sexuality among a group of mixed-background strangers. I’m deeply committed to consensus building and navigating group dynamics. One of my projects is to establish a sustainable queer artists of color colony.
When did you come out? Any stories?
Coming out is a loaded term. Why does society assume we’re one gender and one sexuality until we signal otherwise? It’s unnatural. I dealt with being the one Asian kid, new in the school year after year as my parents moved around town, by taking pride in being odd. It didn’t surprise me when I crushed on girls as well as boys as a female-presenting high school student, though I knew better than to advertise it. I dated one girl who wanted to stay in the closet, and after a tumultuous year, she walked into class hand in hand with a boy. That was her way of breaking up with me — it felt like all of society had her back. Though years later, my classmates assured me they all knew, but didn’t know how to support me.
Coming out as a transguy was more glorious. Once I got hooked into the trans network in Oakland, I had role models and options. Everyone used male pronouns for me at Camp Trans; it was the first time I got to hear that and it felt right. It would be a year before I could correct mistaken pronouns casually — coming out to friends and strangers in a word — but transitioning pulled me out of the abyss that living was becoming.
How did coming out impact your career or relationships with others?
If questioning and genderqueer opened the door for me to transition, transitioning opened the door for me to compose. At the edge of the abyss, I got on my unsteady feet and demanded more power. Expression became perhaps more important than knowledge. I quit my cushy consulting job (which didn’t have the human resources support for my transition anyway) and turned back to music. If coming out as a man made me a jerk, it’s mainly through the wormhole of art. Being out as a transgender person in conservative art music scenes isanother world of rudeness I’m still learning.
I’m pleased to report I’ve only lost one friend because he wouldn’t respect my gender. You see, gender construct creates expectations for how we dress, who we love, how we have sex, how we talk/write, the subjects we study or take for careers and hobbies, when we get the vote, how much we’re paid, and everything else. Family, friends, acquaintances, and teachers prove to be fine human beings, even if variously educated despite the silencing of gender issues in mainstream media. Coming out to them over and over, to those who knew me before as a man, now to new people I meet as a transman, gave me thicker skin, confidence, and perspective. It’s impossible to separate transition from coming of age as a composer and advocate. In social contexts, I no longer hesitate to take a young homo down a notch for not educating himself about how to be respectful about gender.
Advice you can give to other Asian, Gay & Proud readers.
Get tested. You have to take care of yourself before you can support anyone else. Do the right thing without regard to consequences: that is the only way the world will become a better place, and people stronger and kinder to one another.