Nova Scotia·First Person

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, artist Cyril Chen explores happiness

Cyril Chen's comic and personal essay are part of the CBC Creator Network's Happy Place series.

Chen's comic is part of our Happy Place series

In Halifax, Cyril Chen met 'friends who fully embraced my identity, accepted my pronouns, and also felt dysphoric themselves.' (Cyril Chen)

In the midst of the pandemic — where do you go to find joy? Maybe it's a physical spot or a memory. Our new Happy Place series, through the CBC Creator Network, explores both. 

Saskatchewan artist and animator Cyril Chen, who studied at NSCAD University in Halifax, created a comic to share their happy places. Chen used to go to these spaces to escape the feelings that come with gender dysphoria. Now, there's new joy to be found. 

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I knew that I was a boy ever since I was two. Long before trauma, and long before gender preconceptions could make any influence on me. It may as well have been one of my first memories. I remember looking at newspapers and books, seeing boys, and asking my older sister, "Don't you wish you were one of these, too?"

I found happiness in places where I could escape these feelings and the anxiety that came along with it. I still find so much happiness in these places now. Being in nature, playing music, being a part of bigger art projects helped me both cope and distract myself from what I used to describe as a mind-body incongruity. As I have gotten older, I learned more about the scientific literature behind gender dysphoria and transgender identities. That has been the most empowering for me.

Chen is a Saskatchewan artist and animator who studied at NSCAD University in Halifax. (Cyril Chen)

Growing up, these feelings were quite suppressed, but they jumped out from here and there. My sister and I frequented a united Chinese church in Regina. Not because my parents forced us; my mother used to attend church, and my father is more so on the atheist side but still practises some Buddhist and Taoist customs. We ended up being churchgoers, just the two of us, because we met friends who spoke Cantonese and joined the Sunday band.

I remember zoning out in the pews during service. I wondered if I'd burn at the touch of holy water. I fantasied I was possessed by a male entity — that one day, I would engulf into a fire of brimstone gay transgender flames. That I would use all the gay power unbeknownst to me to cast hellfire over any belief rotten with bigotry. That I could shake out the real devils residing in organized religion. 

(Cyril Chen for CBC)

We ended up not going anymore for various reasons. I was in high school at that time and feeling more dysphoric than ever. I studied at the University of Waterloo in 2016. At student health services, I finally obtained a diagnosis for gender dysphoria.

I was in Halifax the year after. I needed an excuse to situate myself in a city that had a thriving animation industry. I studied at Dalhousie for one year and then NSCAD University the next. I met more friends who fully embraced my identity, accepted my pronouns and also felt dysphoric themselves.

During the pandemic, I kept in touch with a friend from NSCAD, Excel Garay, who is non-binary and baklâ. Talking about our dysphoria empowered me to start my transition. We're both lifting each other up, albeit through digital space. The second panel of this comic is inspired by one of our life-saving conversations.

(Cyril Chen for CBC)


Cyril Chen

For CBC First Person

Cyril Chen (陳嘉雯, he/they) is an animator and expanded media artist who was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, Treaty 4 Territory with family from the Guangdong and Hong Kong regions of China. Cyril’s work stems from the exploration of migration, separation, and the ways in which we are intertwined with cyberspace.