If you’re not a Millennial or member of Gen Z, you may be unlucky enough to not yet have heard of Chella Man, the actor, artist, and activist who exists as a textbook delineation of the power social media harbors as a tool for change. Jewish, Asian, deaf, and transgender, the 20 year-old has become a bastion of representation and diversity among the online community and beyond.
Unlike other social-media stars, however, Man never set out to become an “influencer.” Instead, his activist status and fame (he has 321,000 followers on Instagram and 236,000 YouTube subscribers) came about as a happy accident. When he started his channel two years ago, YouTube was merely intended to be an antidote to his disorganized personality, a sort of online video vault that was to document his transition. “I’m very disorganized … It wasn’t ever to build an audience!” he tells me, animatedly, from Toronto, where he’s filming the DC Universe web series Titans. We are talking via FaceTime rather than a traditional call, as Man needs to be able to read my lips. “I really enjoyed how people were opening my mind just by asking me more about my experiences, so I decided to add in answering their questions as well,” he says.
Man’s transition is thus meticulously documented on YouTube, perhaps to a more intimate degree than any other transgender public figure has ever done before. One vlog sees him record his voice every few days after starting hormone therapy, while another sees him injecting himself with hormones, an attempt to destigmatize the process “normalizing the process, normalizing the routine, showing these people who are following me what to expect. I know how it feels to go into the process not knowing what’s going to happen, not knowing how your body’s going to change, not being able to expect your future.”
Though the support Man has received online indicates the world’s increasing desire to comprehend the transgender experience, during his childhood, Man was somewhat unmoored. He attended a classic American high school in a conservative area in central Pennsylvania, where a few months before he was elected, Donald Trump came to give a speech. Despite the prevailing attitudes of the area, he lived in being somewhat archaic, Man grew up in a supportive family. “I won the family lottery,” he says. “There was a lack of language and communication many times, but they’ve always wanted what’s best for me. I’ve been so privileged in that way.”
It is Man’s conservative background that begot his latest, devoid-of-virtue-signaling form of activism, which is seeing him tour high schools around America, in a similar way to what Trump was doing, but with a very different message. “I grew up in a very small town, there weren’t people who were ‘out.’ Because of that, I feel the responsibility to bring this view to small places like that,” he tells me. He approaches these sessions with the same open attitude he uses in his YouTube videos. This November, he’s heading to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to speak at a college there. “It’s an open Q&A. I want people to be able to ask me absolutely anything, I don’t get offended easily. If it’s polite, and if it’s stated without aggression, I will answer as honestly as I can.”
After finishing high school, Man moved to New York to attend Parsons School of Design, one of the city’s leading creative universities. “This is very clichéd, but New York is this source of energy 24/7. Living there has pushed me,” he says. At Parsons, he studied integrated design, which he describes as “having a major without having a major, really perusing what you actually want to do.” In the city, he exists at the center of a conscientiously curated sup-port system: “I was really meticulous with the people I chose to be around me … because a lot of my identities are marginalized and not shown in mass media, a lot of people have to learn how to interact with me. I have to accommodate for myself with my disability. There are times when I don’t feel comfortable in situations, due to my trans identity or being queer, and do a lot of advocating for myself. Seeing how people respond to that has become a filter for me in my own life.”
Perhaps the key person in this sup-port network is Man’s girlfriend, the photographer MaryV Benoit, who has a starring role in many of his videos. The couple met at a “classic college party” a few years ago, when Man was identifying as a pansexual female. Benoit caught his eye and he decided that he could not leave the party without asking her out. “I was
like, ‘This is really crazy, but would you like to go out sometime?’ There was a pause, and she was like, ‘Yeah!’ What I didn’t know at the time was that, in her mind, she identified as straight and thought that we were just hanging out, as friends. It’s just a classic gay problem!” he says.
Benoit has since become Man’s muse in all his endeavors, particularly his fine art. “To be in love with someone is the most intense of all emotions,” he continues. “When you’re in love with someone, to an extent, that person automatically becomes your muse for things, because you draw so much emotion and inspiration out of your experiences with them. From the moment we met, from the moment I laid eyes on her, she just did that for me.”
This semester, Parsons is taking a back seat while Man films Titans, in which he portrays the mute super-hero Jericho. He modestly explains that although “actor” was never a word he foresaw being used to de-scribe him, he couldn’t resist attending the audition (which was his first) when he read the call sheet’s character breakdown: “A half Latin export, half Asian person who is either deaf or hard of hearing but knows ASL [American Sign Language].”
After reading for the role, Man voiced his belief that the casting directors should go for someone who was actually deaf or hard of hearing, who fully recognized the importance of deaf culture and representation, regardless of whether or not that turned out to be him. “In today’s world you just see so much space being taken up by the wrong people,” he explains.
Man was, however, cast as Jericho, a character with whom he relates to on many levels, not just the character breakdown. “Jericho has this hope. Whatever people do, he tries to see the best in them,” he says. “That’s how I’ve chosen to live my life. There have been instances where I could have let the trauma from my past make me angry all the time, but I have continuously tried to see the best in people, and that’s the same thing Jericho does.”
Man is clear and succinct in both elucidating his gender identity and the wider societal discourse sur-rounding gender and sexuality. His philosophy revolves around an integral belief in gender and sexual fluidity, and respect for whatever pronouns and identities people wish to take. “Your preferred pronoun can be completely separate from your gender identity. If you identify as non-binary or genderqueer, it doesn’t immediately make your pronoun they/them, it can be whatever.”
When I ask him how he came up with the name Chella Man, the activist lightheartedly highlights the irony behind the fact that Man has always been his last name. Although he is reluctant to disclose the first name he was born with (he is concerned it will begin to be used throughout the media), he says that Chella was a name he adopted at 16, designed as a play on his birth name, which ties into the femininity that still exists as part of his queer identity.
The final topic I broach with Man is the complexity of what is commonly referred to as “top” and “bottom” surgery in the trans community. He’s critical of the idea that the surgery a trans person chooses to undergo should dictate their self-perception and the perception others have of them. He has undertaken top surgery and is not planning on getting bottom surgery, or what was traditionally referred to as a sex change. “I’m perfectly content with just getting top surgery. I think it’s important to dismantle the myth that we need to ft into what is deemed a perfect body and a perfect gender, which is why it’s imperative to share the fact that you don’t need to get surgery at all you don’t need to medically transition at all. You can get one if you prefer one, or the other if you prefer the other. Your body is your body, the choice is yours.”