Photos by Laurel Golio
Who gets to be a superhero? Hollywood gatekeepers have historically reserved the cape and tights for yet another straight white guy marooned on an island or blasted by cosmic radiation. But if the success of films like “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” are any indication, audiences are gravitating away from cookie-cutter narratives and toward characters that break the mold.
Chella Man, a 20-year-old artist based in Brooklyn, New York, has never seen his identities reflected authentically on-screen, let alone in a blockbuster, as a deaf, transgender, Chinese and Jewish person. And yet, a superhero he’ll be when he suits up for the second season of “Titans” as the mute crime fighter Jericho and makes history as the first disabled trans masculine actor to join the DC universe.
The part seems tailor-made for Chella, and his casting was celebrated as a cut-and-dry representational win amid an ongoing dialogue about which actors (not now, Scarlett Johansson) should inhabit which roles.
The activist, model and social media star has been steadily building a following across Instagram and YouTube, where he’s carved out a much-needed space for his intersectional voice. Chella’s videos and posts document his life, relationship, transition and just about everything in between with an uncompromising vulnerability, and they bravely position his multiple identities not as some fetishized novelty, but as an everyday, lived reality.
As his star continues to rise, Chella remains fiercely committed to making his communities proud and becoming the role model for young LGBTQ folks he never had growing up. Before he blasts off, we caught up with Chella to talk about what makes a hero, the power and pressure of intersecting identities and his undeniably super future.
You recently broke a certain part of the internet when it was announced you’d been cast in “Titans.” What spurred your decision to get into acting?
Now that I finally feel like this body I have is mine and I identify with what I look like on the outside as well as on the inside, I can experiment not with figuring out who I am, but with other personalities, which is why acting ties in so perfectly.
What initially drew me to you was how you showcase everyday joys, struggles, wins and losses, because we often only get to see a slice — and it’s usually pretty bleak — of queer people’s lives. Do you think that kind of openness fueled your following?
It’s definitely about being my own representation. The fact that not only just me, but anybody with a smartphone has the ability to represent themselves and it’s somewhat accessible and isn’t scanned through big corporations that tell you, “Oh, that’s not palatable,” is powerful. We don’t have to be palatable to anyone, and it’s our choice what we want to share.
You sit at the intersection of multiple identities. Does this put a certain pressure to be entirely representative of each of these communities?
Something important that I always remind myself of is that you can’t fight everyone’s battles. It’s impossible to fully share every single perspective of every identity because you can only work with what you have. I think the point of being visible as a marginalized person is to bring up more people within your marginalized communities, because every single person has a different experience that you can’t always represent.
Have any of these identities informed the other? Queer people can often have difficulty communicating who they are to the world, so I’m curious whether losing your hearing in some way better situated you to understand your own gender identity and sexuality?
Any struggle you ever overcome helps you climb over the next obstacle. I think when I was figuring this out it wasn’t necessarily one thing before the other, but all at once. Hearing is something I had a language to explain myself because it was medical, and people gave it to me. I was simultaneously figuring out my gender and sexuality, but no one was telling me the language for that or saying it was acceptable, so it just took me longer. Losing my hearing showed me the power of language and probably on some subconscious level made me realize how important it would be to articulate my queer identity in the future.
Superheroes have typically represented a masculine ideal in popular culture, and somewhat problematically so because who among us actually looks like that? Did you see yourself in comic book culture growing up?
I definitely did not see myself in the sexism or the misogyny, but I did in the parts where they were helping people. I’m thankful to DC for showing people that there are no limitations to be a superhero. A superhero can be anyone with any identity. I knew that luckily thanks to the help of people I love around me, but to display and represent that authentically is going to be revolutionary. Hopefully, it will show kids growing up in our binary world they don’t have to be binary, straight or able-bodied to still help people and be a superhero.
If you were in charge of a major movie studio, what types of stories would you want to see?
You never see a love story with a person like me. I’d like to see a movie with a disabled trans person and have that character be authentically represented by a person who is actually transgender or disabled. To see them fall in love and the challenges that come with that is a story I’ve been waiting for ever since I was born.
Um, inject that rom-com into my veins immediately, Hollywood!
I know! I’m waiting for it! Like tick tock! I’d like to someday write a story about how my girlfriend and I fell in love, because we broke a lot of stereotypes. I was pre-testosterone when I asked her out. She appeared very straight, but appearance never equates with sexuality. Since then, she’s learned ASL [American Sign Language] so we can communicate, and has been with me through my entire transition. I never knew I would be able to be worthy or accept love that way.
Conversations about what kind of actor should play what kind of roles have reached a fever pitch recently. Where do you fall on the issue?
Only 5% of disabled roles go to disabled actors. If a part were to go to someone who doesn’t have those years of challenges and a deep understanding of what that identity means, it can often be misrepresented. Hire someone who actually has the experience with that identity because there are so many marginalized people that aren’t getting the jobs. Until trans people are frequently cast to play cisgender roles and deaf people are frequently cast to play hearing roles, we deserve jobs and equal access to roles that are actually our identities.
What narratives of transness or deafness are you tired of hearing about?
No. 1 is the binary and people only transitioning FTM or MTF [female-to-male or male-to-female]. Sometimes people do not medically transition, and that doesn’t mean they are any less trans than people who do. It’s become very hurtful within our own community because typically only the binaries are shown, and it invalidates so many people’s experiences. If this were more authentically represented — or just represented at all — it would open people’s eyes. Although I wish someone just standing up and saying, “Hey, this is me and this is how I identify,” would be enough.
As for hearing, being deaf is on a spectrum. A lot people think you either hear nothing or you are hearing, which is a misconception. There are people in between like me!
You also hold your Jewish identity very close to you. The queer community can often be incredibly dismissive of LGBTQ people who engage in organized religion. How has your belief system aided you in this chapter of your life?
Growing up Jewish, you are taught about the Holocaust at a super early age. Hearing about just how sadistic people can be when you are like 7 years old, it’s not really a shock anymore to you when you see how cruel the world can be. Learning the history behind my marginalized communities and seeing the people who still took the high road have definitely paved the way for me. People like Anne Frank who wrote, “In spite of everything I still believe people are good at heart,” in a diary she never knew anybody would find. She is definitely a role model.
An anecdote I’ve heard you mention before is that Donald Trump came to speak at your high school a few months before the election, which must have been incredibly unsettling.
Anecdote … more like a horror story!
What was that day like?
I was out protesting the whole day with the two friends that I had in central Pennsylvania, where not many people shared my views. Watching all my other classmates go into that building is a moment I will always draw fire from whenever I want to fight back against discrimination I faced. At the same time, I knew these are not evil people because I grew up with them. You can’t present things in a way that makes them feel like the villain. There are lots of people in marginalized communities who do not have the tools or privilege to heal, so they cannot present it that way because their anger is valid and healthy. I have had that privilege, so it’s part of my responsibility to fight back in a way these people will be able to understand and approach debates neutrally and swallow your anger.
Pride month has taken on a complex meaning for many given the rampant capitalism, association with police, issues with inclusivity, etc. What does pride mean to you and do you still embrace the month? Or are you a bit more critical of it?
I just don’t think pride is limited to a month. I think pride is all the time. It’s important to see the public beginning to accept queer people on a large-scale level because it just shows that in a very public event queer people are supported. But as a queer person, we have pride all the time and we don’t necessarily need a huge parade.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.