If you’re not familiar with Meg Lee’s work, you should be. The Japanese-Korean artist and activist has made it their mission to create and share art that represents QTBIPOC (Queer and Transgender People of Colour) and LGBTQIA+ folks.
As an Asian-American trans non-binary artist and activist, Lee knows first-hand what it’s like to not feel seen, heard, or represented. “I’ve always wanted to create a life for myself that allows me to express my creativity and share my journey with others in hopes that they feel less alone,” they said. “By going on my own journey of exploring my gender and sexuality, I’ve been able to express these experiences through my art and activism, while also creating a safe space for other QTBIPOC who are also on this journey of becoming their best and most authentic selves.”
Although Lee’s art focuses on the LGBTQIA+ community, they have also been very vocal about social justice issues, such as the Stop Asian Hate and Black Lives Matter movements. In fact, back in January, Lee created Very Asian apparel in response to an incident involving award-winning news anchor Michelle Li. At the time, the Korean-American journalist was criticized for being “very Asian” and was told to “keep her Korean to herself” after she shared her New Year’s tradition of eating dumpling soup.
“I knew from past experiences that because this incident was centered around Asian-Americans, the story wouldn’t gain as much traction as other stories on the news,” Lee told The RepresentASIAN Project. “I also felt very angry after the incident and wanted to express that through my art and [by] creating the Very Asian design.”
As part of their activism, 70 per cent of proceeds from the Very Asian apparel and stickers goes to the AAPI Community Fund, which supports a number of initiatives such as Asian Health Services, AAPI Women Lead, Mekong NYC, and many more.
Below, Lee speaks to The RepresentASIAN Project about the lack of visibility of Asians in the media and the LGBTQIA+ community and how they learned to be vulnerable about their Asian-American and gender identity.
On how they overcame the shame they felt from a lack of representation
I never ever saw myself represented in the media. As a kid, the closest I got to feeling represented was anytime I saw anyone who was Asian American starring in any sort of TV show or movie. As I got older and began exploring my gender and sexuality, I first saw myself represented in the queer TV show “The L Word,” but even that felt like a bit of a reach as there weren’t any main characters who were Asian. Not feeling represented in the media perpetuated my loneliness around my culture, sexuality and gender, and created even more pressure to conform to what I thought society expected of me in order to be accepted, “successful” and/or happy.
My hometown was predominantly white, cis, and heteronormative. From the earliest I can remember, I was convinced that I had to fit into this cookie-cutter shape if I ever wanted to fully be accepted and successful in this world. This created a lot of shame and embarrassment around my Japanese-Korean culture. I pushed away every bit of my culture until I moved away from my hometown for college. Moving away allowed me to finally see myself represented in the classroom or just simply while walking through campus. It was then that I first started to allow myself to freely explore who I was and what parts of me I didn’t want to hide anymore. I slowly became more and more proud to be Japanese and Korean and now you’ll never hear me stop talking about it because it’s such a big and important part of who I am and what I love about myself.
“Not feeling represented in the media perpetuated my loneliness around my culture, sexuality and gender, and created even more pressure to conform to what I thought society expected of me in order to be accepted, ‘successful’ and/or happy.”
On why creating visibility is such an important part of their work
I definitely feel like there’s a lack of visibility and representation for Asians in the media and in the LGBTQIA+ community. I think [this is] because culturally, we are expected to fit into one cookie-cutter shape and follow the same path in life. Sometimes this pressure comes directly from family and other times it comes from societal norms and expectations. Either way, many LGBTQIA+ Asians feel like they need to hide who they truly are in order to be successful and/or accepted by their family and the rest of society.
I still feel like this [lack of visibility and representation] continues to be one of my biggest motivators as I continue to share my story and journey as an Asian-American trans non-binary artist and activist. I started sharing online [in 2019] because I wanted to create the safe space that I didn’t have growing up. I wanted to be able to be the representation and support that I needed when I first began exploring my gender and sexuality. I know first-hand how lonely it feels to not feel seen, heard, or represented out in the world, so my hope is to be able to be that safe space and representation for younger generations and all other folks who are exploring their gender and sexuality.
“I know first-hand how lonely it feels to not feel seen, heard, or represented out in the world, so my hope is to be able to be that safe space and representation for younger generations and all other folks who are exploring their gender and sexuality.”
On how taking an activist approach with their artwork came naturally
I first began creating art with my mom and grandma back when I was young. I was a really quiet and shy kid, so both my mom and grandma always encouraged me and supported me [to] express myself through my art. Drawing has always been my creative outlet and a way for me to express myself freely.
My art has always been centered around helping others and creating a safe and inviting space for folks to be their most authentic self. Right when I started posting my art and sharing my experiences, I knew that I wanted to use my platform to spread awareness, educate, and do everything I could to uplift and amplify the voices of folks who didn’t usually have a safe space or platform to feel or be heard by the rest of the world. I want to be able to help and support the communities I’m a part of as well as the communities who rarely get any support from the rest of society or those in power.
[An example is] the Michelle Li incident in January. I instantly felt compelled to amplify what had happened and use my platform to spread the word and Michelle’s story as best as I could. This incident hit home for me because as a kid during lunchtime, I always felt ashamed whenever my mom packed me any sort of Japanese food. Other kids and classmates would point out that my lunch looked or smelled funny. Expressing myself through my art and amplifying Michelle’s story really helped me to heal a part of my inner child, younger self, and past trauma.
On how they are coping in light of anti-Asian racism and anti-trans bills
Anti-Asian racism and news of anti-trans bills has affected me greatly. I think it affects me more than I can even admit as I answer this question. I have felt a very wide range of emotions over the past few years and continue to struggle on certain days. I always wish that there was more I could be doing, but continue to feel so lucky to be surrounded by so much support and other Asian-American LGBTQIA+ folks who remind me that I’m not alone.
Someone who continues to be a role model and someone who I feel lucky to call a friend is [trans athlete] Schuyler Bailar. The work that Schuyler does and the experiences he’s shared with me continues to help me along this journey of exploring my gender and living life as my most authentic self.
My favourite form of self-care is being outside with my shar-pei pitbull mix, Lilo, playing fetch with her, and taking walks with her and my partner, Kai. Just being outside in the sun and taking a moment for myself really helps me feel more grounded and genuinely so happy. I constantly remind myself of my privilege to be able to be out and about and always think about what I’m grateful for.
On why they became so open about their Asian-American trans non-binary identity
I think that I’ve become so comfortable [with] being vulnerable and open about my Asian-American trans non-binary identity because I spent the first 20-plus years of my life trying to be like everyone else – trying to fit in to be accepted by the rest of society and my peers. After so many years of hiding who I truly was, I now have such an overwhelming sense of pride in my Asian-American trans non-binary identity and feel so open and willing to share who I am and what it means to be me.
I definitely feel like I put a lot of pressure on myself to educate the public about anti-Asian racism, transphobia, and how to advocate/support the trans community, but know now more than ever how important it is to take care of myself first. I try to only create educational content when I have the capacity and energy to do so and I always try to stick to that in order to take care of myself and my needs. I also often try to remind myself that I don’t owe anyone an explanation when it comes to my gender, sexuality, and Japanese-Korean culture.
On the impact of their artwork on the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond
It’s so, so important to create a safe space for LGBTQIA+ folks and specifically QTBIPOC because everyone deserves to live in this world feeling free and safe being their most authentic self. There are so many folks in this world who have never had to experience the violence and fear that so many QTBIPOC face on a daily basis just for being their true self. I hope to be able to help create a safer world for QTBIPOC to be able to safely exist, live, and express who they truly are.
Although I’ve received a lot of hate for sharing my artwork and personal journey, I’ve received even more love and support from so many folks all around the world. Through sharing my art and experiences, I’ve been able to connect with so many amazing folks who continue to inspire and support me through this never-ending journey of living life as my most authentic self.