Foundation of Love
Activist Cecilia Chung Fights for Healthcare & Justice for All
by Connie Rose
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
“I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for my religion—I have shuddered at it—I shudder no more—I could be martyred for my religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that.”—John Keats
When I first began researching Cecilia for this article I found this quote on her “About Me” page on Facebook, and, with a quote like that, it was no surprise to me that justice, liberation, healthcare and basic medical treatment for all humans around the world are just a few of the goals Cecilia C. Chung would like to ensure her work and activism helps further. Internationally known as a civil rights leader, she is a pioneer in several groundbreaking ways. She is the first Asian transgender woman to be elected to lead the board of directors of the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Celebration as well as becoming the first transgender woman living openly with HIV to chair the San Francisco Human Rights Association. She was recently portrayed as a character in the epic ABC miniseries When We Rise, written and created by the Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Currently, she serves as Senior Director of Strategic Projects at the Transgender Law Center, as well as a member of the San Francisco Health Commission.
She’s so busy changing the world and saving lives that understandably it took us a while to connect and I was so excited when she called me while I was walking in the Las Vegas Women’s Day parade earlier this year. What an inspiration to me to be walking with all those women while talking to one of our modern-day civil rights leaders. I asked Cecilia if she uses any daily affirmations or reminders and she said, “What we need to ask ourselves daily is, what kind of world are we leaving for future generations? What we need to remind ourselves daily is that the whole fight is not only marriage equality and we are not single-issue humans. We must make an effort to understand and appreciate our differences to work together to overcome any obstacles and to keep an open dialogue.”
While humble about her advocacy work in the transgender and the HIV community, Chung has been a passionate and vocal voice for almost three decades now.
Immigrating with her parents from Hong Kong to Los Angeles in 1984, early on she suffered years of severe depression, homelessness, as well as sexual and physical violence in the beginning of her transition, which put her in danger and great risk as did her lack of adequate medical care which forced her to buy hormones on the black market. These events created multiple high-risk situations and it was during this time that Cecilia said she thinks is when she acquired HIV. “It was my desire to survive as a transwoman, an immigrant, a person of color living with HIV, that pushed me into my advocacy work—I was fighting for my life.” It was in 1998 while visiting Bangkok when Chung finally had full gender reassignment surgery and was able to put that dark period behind her.
While talking with Cecilia about the changes that need to be made for us to see continued progress, she said, “We must break down arbitrary borders around the world not only for immigration but also the borders and labels we put on people, the assumptions we make about other humans, how they live and what they believe.”
When the discussion of religion came up, Cecilia only has one statement she wishes she could make to the small group within faith-based communities who think transgender or LGBTQ persons do not deserve the same rights as they do and she only wishes that they would practice what they preach, or, in her own words “Do no harm.” She also thinks that “laws that govern all people should not be guided by religious beliefs that are only meant to apply to those who follow that specific religion. I would like people to focus instead on making life better for all people now by using basic common sense and not looking the other way any longer when they witness injustice around them.”
For instance, Cecilia noted that “we need to be critical of the treatment of transgender people who are incarcerated and transgender people who are trapped in the criminal justice system. Those people should have resources provided to them, not taken away.” Chung mentions hormone medication and mental health care, as two examples. Problems can be compounded as many are subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
Inmate rights are such a hot button issue that support for reform has growing momentum, especially within the transgender and HIV community.
She continues: “They are serving time for charges against them, but they did not sign away their human rights and basic needs. And the cruel and unusual punishment they received is not part of their sentence.” While a person is incarcerated and serving time for crimes they’ve been found guilty of they should not also face even further punishment and abuse from those controlling the activities, policies, procedures, and interactions between inmates and staff at mostly all privately run and or state-owned prisons around the globe.
Chung hopes that, if we collectively continue opening healthy dialogue with the general public about all of these topics, we can expand as many human minds to see that the world is not black and white and it is our responsibility to our children’s children to ensure that this world continues to improve and move forward, and that it never regresses. She says that to do this we must learn to love one another as humans first. As she mentioned earlier, no borders, no labels—Cecilia wishes for us to love the human in each other first.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method that rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
The foundation of love Chung has cultivated is evident in her long history of successful campaigns to further overall healthcare and wellbeing of people, ranging from the transgender community, the HIV/AIDS community, LGBTQ, cisgender, women, the disabled and to all people. What started out as a desire to survive so she could have happiness in her life has turned into a lifelong fight for human rights for all people.
In 2014 Cecilia became the first recipient of San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Cleve Jones Award for excellence in the fight against HIV/AIDS and her hope is that her accomplishments will empower more strong, powerful, trans-voices, becoming visible as leaders in this fight for fair and just human rights for all people, using our differences to achieve the unimaginable.
But the work is not over, especially in today’s climate, where GOP politicians in North Carolina and Texas, for example, are attacking and stigmatizing the transgender community by restricting access to public accommodations. Chung says the focus is unjust, and bemoans the fact that the mainstream media has directed the public’s attention away from what matters most. If mainstream media would devote more of their attention on creating unity by showing our similarities instead of focusing on our differences and irrelevant topics, like bathroom rights over healthcare, she notes, we may begin to see change. For example, if the mainstream news would start covering how many transwomen were and still are in some areas dying from lack of breast cancer screenings and other basic healthcare needs when one might be in between a gender reassignment surgery instead of where that one person may be choosing to use the restroom, we may start seeing the general population begin to understand what is really going on.
That’s not what is most important to her though. Chung says, “I am where I am today because someone believed in me and gave me the opportunity to serve my community, and what I do today is to pay it forward and create opportunities for other trans and gender non-conforming people of color and those who choose not to define by any of the categories. And there is always more that I can learn.”
For more on Cecilia Chung, follow her on Twitter @cecilia_c_chung.
Connie Rose, a long term survivor since 1996, lives in Las Vegas with her daughter, grandson and best fur buddy, Sugar Bear. She is the founder of Livingapozlife on WordPress, trying to change the world one blog at a time. You can follow her on Twitter @Cricketlv and other social media sites.