Summer Luk is a senior at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, studying media communications, music, and social justice. Her goal is to use the media and music to connect with a larger audience and elevate stories from the LGTBQ community.
Her new music video for the song, “I Am A Girl,” which she wrote, performed, and produced, tells a powerful narrative of a young transgender woman claiming her truth. It features over twenty other transgender women and non-binary individuals uniting while also expressing their diversity.
Luk shared her story with Refinery29 in New York.
Can you set the stage and tell us a little bit about yourself?
"I came from a very religious and conservative family from Hong Kong. And so my first college experience here in the U.S. was at a Christian school, where biblical studies was a compulsory minor and I had to go to church about 36 times per semester. We even had to sign a contract that says that we weren't allowed to party, drink, have sex, or engage in LGBTI behavior. I was there for two years before I transferred to NYU, but it was during my time at the Christian school that I started interning at GLAAD."
How did you get involved with music?
"I started playing piano when I was 6. It was not fun for me at the beginning because it felt very goal-oriented, where I had to participate in competitions and play songs that I didn’t particularly like. But I always thought that knowing how to play the piano would be helpful, as I loved to sing.
"Coming to NYU was the first time in my life where I was encouraged to write whatever I felt moved me. I didn’t have people telling me what I could or couldn’t do, and so writing music became cathartic. It was just me and the four walls in the practice room. Music became a way for me to make sense of my internal world."
How would you describe that internal world?
"Music was a way for me to make sense of the conflicting emotions of pain that I suddenly don’t have to suppress. When I first started transitioning, I thought that there was a standard I needed to achieve. A woman is supposed to be feminine, fragile, and girlie.
"But then, through music, I started to confront myself with questions like, 'Who is Summer? What is her purpose? What kind of person does she want to be?' I started to realize a few things. I stopped caring about being perfect or the most desirable woman. I wanted to be a woman willing to fail and grow, even if it hurts.
"I found, through performing, that I am able to invite the audience into my internal world. The lyrics enabled me to articulate what I am feeling, but the contours of the melody allowed you — the audience — to feel my emotions. I think what connects me to the audience is the understanding that, although my experience is unique, my struggle towards self-love and reaching my fullest potential is very common.
"As a musician, I would think, What would the 14-year-old Summer wish she had heard? I am a girl, always have been, always will be. I will defy, I will break free. It articulates internal turmoil, but at the same time, recognizes that she has power in reclaiming her narrative and identity."
What was the process behind the video?
"It was a difficult process choosing the right team. A lot of directors I met were interested in the victim perspective. I didn’t know how pervasive that narrative [was]. They suggested that we should add a scene of a trans woman crying, cutting her wrists, or removing her makeup. It was so focused on the external transformation. I just wanted to celebrate trans women where they were. So, thankfully, I met Laura, the director, and all she was interested in was to help bring my vision to life.
"A particular scene I remember is the bathroom scene. I write, 'It never was a dream, it’s my truth, it’s the truth.' It was very emotional for me as I knew that I was reclaiming my narrative and identity. This video was a big milestone for me, especially since I invited so many of my trans friends to be in it. I feel like I can finally show myself and say I am proud of who I am and that I love me."
How does the transgender experience in Hong Kong differ from here, and how did your traditional Chinese family embrace your transition?
"Right now in Hong Kong, the big push is on the gay movement. Trans is definitely not accepted. NYU was the first place where I was able to email my professors and reintroduce myself as Summer and go by female pronouns. They didn’t have a problem with it.
"My family was not for it at first. The portrayal of trans women on-screen is that they are sex workers, are mentally unstable, or are victims of violence.
"Now there is this huge Chinese trans woman, Jin Xing. She’s in movies, on TV, and hosts the equivalent of, So You Think You Can Dance in China. My mom called me one day [and asked], ‘Summer, do you know of Jin? She would be a good role model for you. I never knew trans women could have healthy, fulfilling lives doing what they love.’ It never occurred to her because it was never shown.
"I showed my family my music video, and they were very supportive of it. I don’t think they have ever seen that many trans people in their life! I think this video helped them realize that we have a [diverse] community. I think my family got the message, that this community is beautiful and they exist."
It is not appropriate to ask a trans person about their birth name. However, chosen names often have unique stories. Tell us, why did you choose Summer?
"It’s a bit of self-help. I grew up watching movies like Jerry Maguire and Disney classics. A woman was not complete until she had a man in her life. When I was younger, I watched this Asian TV show. The woman said the husband was the source of her joy — her sun. She compared life without a man to winter, and a life with, to summer.
"From age 13 to 19, I kept the belief that I would not feel complete without a man in life. At 19, I met the man of my dreams, but [it] didn’t work out. I realized this was stupid, that I had wasted six years of my life. With or without a boyfriend, I was complete in any season of my life. That’s why I call myself Summer. Every time people call me Summer [I think], Yes, that’s the season I want my life to be in."
What’s next for you, Summer?
"I am curating an event for transgender performers to celebrate the talent within this community. It will be this summer! [And working on] my next song, which will be about another aspect of my identity. My biggest worry is that people will reduce me to one thing — being transgender. That’s not all there is to me."
Hannah Simpson, a transgender advocate, marathoner, and unabashed nerd, appeared in Refinery29’s Trans America series. You can follow her on Twitter at @hannsimp.