Wen Neale—known as Wen Wen online or by his handle "sippystraw"—is a self proclaimed "introvert" who didn't initially intend on becoming a model or activist. Today he has become one of the most followed Asian, trans men on Instagram, with 35k followers, and a suite of YouTube videos where he does makeup tutorials and shares his skincare regime, as well as candidly sharing his experiences with transitioning—from the first time he cut his hair to the obstacles he faced in booking appointments for hormone injections, and even a tutorial on how to self-inject.
These videos have made him both a pivotal figure in the Asian, trans community, many of whom follow him on Instagram, and ask him advice on how to navigate their relationships with their—sometimes foreign-born—family members. Wen is also a refreshing face in the evolving landscape of Instagram style and beauty, eschewing strict notions of masculine beauty through his personal photography and professional modeling work with brands like Omocat. He first drew my attention through his modeling, and later through his Youtube videos where I learned he, like me, is half-Asian.
I spoke with Wen about his online and real life community, his struggles with being continually mistaken for K-Pop stars, and his projects for the future:
VICE: Which social media platforms did you start with, and how were you ‘discovered’?
Wen Neale: The first platform I started with was Tumblr, back in 2012-2013. I didn’t think much of it. I just recycled posts and thought ‘this is just a platform for me.’ And then I made a Vine and that’s when it took off, when it came to people finding me. I posted funny, random stuff I enjoyed making. One of the popular viners, Thomas Sanders, revined one of mine. He had an insane following—and from there maybe half of my followers gravitated towards my personal Instagram. Fortunately I had a lot of open-minded followers. Thomas Sanders is a very optimistic person, and when he shared my work, his followers followed me and were as optimistic as he was.
As for YouTube, even before I knew I was trans, some of my friends had mentioned that I might do well on video—I’d always kept it in the back of my mind, but didn’t think I’d have the patience or time to do more videos. So it was this kind of chain reaction. I’m normally very introverted. I don’t like putting myself out there a lot, so it’s hard for me to post videos sometimes. But I’m very fortunate to have a lot of people who really pushed me to put myself out there more.
How did the online community support you through transitioning, and what inspired you to start posting videos about your experiences being a trans Asian man?
I have a lot of mutuals who are also trans. Most of my friend group is in the LGBTQ community, and are very supportive of me. They even referred me to different websites for binders at a time when I was first coming to the realization that I was trans. I always had support from my friends, though I didn’t necessarily have the same from my parents at the time. And my boyfriend has been very supportive of me, as always. He’s also a trans guy, and we were able to share that feeling of dysphoria. We are also both half-Asian!
When I realized ‘Yeah, maybe I should post videos,’ I thought they should be about stuff that people don’t openly talk about as much. Things like being trans, and going through this transition, talking about hormones, my insecurities sometimes too. It doesn’t feel as common. I remember just a few years ago that trans resources weren't comparable to how they are now. There weren’t resources in the past, and back then, I thought, ‘Hey I want to put information in the world to help others figure themselves out.’
I get a lot of people DM’ing me through Instagram telling me, ‘hey, that video you posted a while ago made me realize I was trans,’ or ‘it encouraged me to try hormones.’ It’s done a lot of good and made me gain more confidence in putting myself out there.
In your work, you talk about eschewing traditional notions of masculinity. How has that helped you become more comfortable in your own skin?
I always hated this whole ‘hyper-masculinity’ thing. When I first found out I was a trans guy, I didn’t feel like I could do what I wanted to because I felt like I had to fit in. I was so unhappy all the time, buying super masculine clothes, making sure I was not wearing too much makeup. It was frustrating.
I realized I should just wear whatever I want. Even when I was dressing super masculine, I would still get hate online. There are people who just don’t like me—I get hate no matter what I do, how I dress, even dressing the most masculine I could at that time. I realized I should invest time in doing what I like to do instead, especially if I’ll be hated for it no matter what. This time I’ll be happy.
I feel I am very behind about how I want to embrace this. I can like feminine things, and that doesn’t denounce my gender or mean I’m any less trans or any less of a man.
There also just aren't that many trans Asian men who are on a public platform.
Mostly, at least from what I’ve seen, the ‘faces’ of the trans community are not people of color.
In particular, and in my case, there’s just something relatable about having an Asian mom. I think this year she figured out me being trans. I wasn’t sure that she knew what being trans meant. She is from mainland China. I struggled to translate it to her—maybe even in Chinese—because I don’t think she necessarily has the concept for what being trans means or what a trans person is. I can more easily explain gay relationships, but the language barrier and lack of education about the trans community in general makes it very difficult. But I think she understands now.
It seems like an ongoing relationship.
Our relationship is really great, which is especially important. It didn’t used to be. And I might actually make a video about it—sometimes time and healing—that sort of stuff. A lot of half-Asian or full Asian, trans people follow me. They ask me, 'because you’re Asian, how are you able to talk to your mom?' I had to explain, ‘I haven’t really told her, because I don’t know how, but I think she just figured it out.’ It’s relatable.
Have you been affected by American projections of Asian men as ‘effeminate’ and the negative connotations in the US?
I’ve only recently became ‘passable’—which is not the greatest term I like to use, I more mean that in public I can be ‘seen as a man.’ But I noticed, even initially in San Francisco in the gay community, that men would see me was very feminine or—I don’t even know, what’s the word—’submissive,’ that’s it. Very submissive. I’ve been cat-called on the street.
It’s only been a couple years where I’ve been a passable guy, and it’s very new to me. There's a big difference between now and how I was treated a couple years ago when I identified as a woman. It’s especially challenging with K-Pop becoming such a big thing—K-Pop is awesome and cool!—but I dislike the number of people who love K-Pop and take the look of Korean men and put it on me.
I saw your comment on your videos that people keep saying you look like this or that Korean star.
It’s frustrating because, nearly every person they bring up—we don’t look anything alike! It’s so bad. I was talking to my boyfriend and another friend who said I needed to be more vocal about this. There is part of my following who only follow me because I look like a ‘Korean male actor’ or whatever. And maybe I need to filter it out.
But that’s not your job!
I know, I know. But I mostly dislike the idea that a good-looking Asian person in the US must be ‘a Korean star,’ which is so dismissive of people’s roots. Especially Southeast Asian people, who get a lot of hate and anti-blackness sentiment. And when people see an ‘attractive Asian,’ they instantly compare us to East Asians.
People will even ask if I’m Japanese or Korean, and when I share that I’m half-Chinese, they’ll look at me disappointingly or even with disgust. It’s weird. I don’t get it.
That is extremely frustrating. On a more positive note, I wanted to take a moment to thank you for the positive messages you send about making space for everyone to explore their gender identity and sexuality.
Oh, thank you. I feel like I’m being so goofy all the time, and I sometimes worry that people can’t tell when I’m being serious.
What projects do you have coming up?
I have a little online store selling clothes and accessories. It’s been going for four years now, but I want to put more stuff on it. Making art and printing it on clothes. I can’t wait to take actual pictures of the mockups. I haven’t been doing as much art as I want to.
We also have a few art related projects far down the line. But that's not for another year or so!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.