Deaf Is Beautiful
It’s hard enough finding a role model and road map for life as a marginalized individual. Chella Man already knows this, of course. The artist, actor, model, and activist is deaf, genderqueer, Jewish, half-Chinese, and pansexual.
Yet the Brooklyn-based 22-year-old, best known for his art-design collaborations with fashion brand Opening Ceremony, and for playing mute superhero Jericho in the DC Universe TV series Titans in 2019, will ensure that new generations can access his inspiring, multi-layered life experience widely this Pride season through Continuum.
The book is a revealing autobiography from Penguin Random House’s YA-geared Pocket Change Collection. Authored by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC activists, other releases include Leo Baker’s Skate for Your Life, and Alok Vaid-Menon’s Beyond the Gender Binary.
“I got to a point in my life when I realized there have been so many checkpoints, so I wanted to take a moment, reflect, and unpack what I’ve been through,” says Chella, who wore cochlear implants, a small electronic device placed in the ears that partially restores hearing, during our recent interview on Zoom.
Chella wrote the book while quarantining at his central Pennsylvania family home during the pandemic with artist and photographer girlfriend MaryV Benoit. During this time, the whole family contracted COVID-19 and recovered, although Chella says, “my dad got very sick and it was very scary.”
Continuum sees Chella dive right into his childhood as “Rachel.” “I don’t feel like it’s a deadname,” he says. “I once did, because I internalized other trans individuals’ ideas of what their names meant to them, but I’m OK sitting with and being close to the name I was given at birth. If you look at my name now, I actually kept some of it. I took Rachel, cut off the ‘ra’ and added the little ‘la’ and here I am: Chella. And because I always still felt connected to what society deems feminine and femininity, I identify as genderqueer and felt I wanted to keep some of that with me.”
In Continuum, Chella recounts going deaf as a child and early gender identity epiphanies, the trauma puberty wreaked in middle school, and accessing first images of LGBTQs, including those of gay men kissing in public and lesbians holding each other. Contributing to the vividness of these memories was the fact Chella kept a diary over the years from which he could cull and repurpose entries. He said writing the book in the same family home he experienced the intense isolation and trauma of his youth was a “blessing and a curse.”
“It connected me to memories I wouldn’t have otherwise, but at the same time it was very heavy because I felt everything so deeply,” he recalls. Referencing the diary entries helped him formulate a fluid story, despite having lived a life that he says has been “extremely non-linear.”
“How do you explain systemic oppression to a child? I thought that was interesting,” Chella says, “and it encouraged me to look back on things I initially thought were complex to simplify them, and I realized they aren’t so complex after all. The world just makes us believe they are.”
Later passages in the book cover his move to New York to attend Parsons School of Design (he was admitted to its early acceptance program while still a high school junior), transitioning via top surgery and testosterone—a process he shared at the time via social media and columns for LGBTQ+ digital news platform them—and his relationship with MaryV, whom he says was encouraging throughout the process.
Since completing Continuum, which Chella Man also illustrated, he has served as an executive producer on Topic’s documentary series, Trans in Trumpland, and collaborated with NY genderless streetwear brand Private Policy on a line of ear jewelry that celebrates “the beauty of being deaf.” He also directed its video promo, which is set underwater and features deaf BIPOC models (50 percent of pre-order profits go to Deaf Queer Resource Center).
“That was a dream come true, because since I was a kid I imagined that vision of, ‘How can I let people know how...beautiful it is to be deaf?’” he says. “I was surrounded by people who weren’t disabled and didn’t understand, and I wanted to amplify that and what’s more beautiful than being able to communicate underwater?”
Chella is reticent to discuss other upcoming projects, barring a potential zine. He’s also hoping to embark on a book-reading tour at schools, bringing visibility and inspiration to any baby Chellas out there.
“I have actually, this past year, been most privileged to mentor an 11-year-old who is deaf, genderqueer, Jewish, and Chinese!” he says. Every so often, they meet on FaceTime, where Chella mentors the child. “I never thought I’d meet someone like that,” he says. ▼
NY-raised entertainment and travel journalist Lawrence Ferber has contributed to publications including Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, The Advocate, NewNowNext, the NY Post and TripSavvy. He also co-wrote/co-created the 2010 gay romcom BearCity and authored its 2013 novelization.