In summer 2019, Kai Wes ‘14 appeared as one of 16 cast members on the eighth season of MTV’s Are You the One (AYTO), a reality dating show about finding one’s perfect match.
Wes remembered the moment he learned to see beyond the gender binary—he met someone who had undergone top surgery but still identified as female.
“I was like, ‘Well, wait a second, you can do that?’” Wes said in an interview. “I had no idea. Because, again, this is the whole just lack of visibility, lack of education.”’
Though Emerson’s rich LGBTQ+ culture had exposed him to a better understanding of the community, Wes said it was after college that he began to understand where he fell within it. Since graduating from Emerson, Wes came to identify as a queer non-binary person using both he/him and they/them pronouns, although his self-realization process took many years.
“I think that I was kind of used to one train of thought, and used [to it] on a certain level, thinking that because I was a queer person, I would just always kind of be uncomfortable,” he said. “And then I realized that ‘Oh, wait, no, there are other things that I can do to make myself more comfortable and feel more aligned with my identity.’”
Now, Wes wears his non-binary identity proudly, often calling out pubilcations for misgendering him and working to be a voice for queer and trans normalization.
Wes earned an interdisciplinary degree in Integrated Documentary Journalism from Emerson. He also served on Emerson Advancement Group for Love and Expression’s executive board and participated in organizing the college’s first Trans Awareness Week.
In 2016, Wes began his second coming out process, this time as a trans-masculine person. He went through 12 months of state-mandated gender therapy before officially being able to undergo top surgery in 2017.
Wes wears his trans identity confidently and publically, showcasing his top surgery scars in Instagram posts and on television throughout his time on AYTO. The show highlighted Wes’ hormone shot process and gave him an opportunity to discuss his nonlinear transition. Wes noted that, to him and many trans and non-binary people, there is an understanding that transitioning does not have to follow a set of rules.
“We all get put into a box,” Wes said. “We’re told, ‘That’s your box, that’s you, here you are.’ And then I realized one day that you can put me in this box, but it’s not locked. I can step outside of it and make my own box that feels more comfortable.”
Wes said he hoped to lead by example for any nonbinary people like him by appearing on AYTO. He said he aims to create an online platform to normalize queer and trans identities. According to Wes, exposing people to queer and trans people helps normalize these identities.
“My whole adulthood and adolescence would have been completely different if I had seen someone like me,” Wes said. “Where I was from and the way the media was, I never saw someone like me.”
When it was announced that this season of Are You the One would be entirely sexually fluid, fans expressed a lot of excitement on social media. People take pride in seeing others like them featured on screen, Wes said. He said the representation of queer people on a reality TV dating show may be what drove many new queer fans to tune into this special season of AYTO.
“I don’t [get to] watch a lot of TV that has queer characters, let alone real queer people,” senior Lily Scher, a self-identifying queer woman, said. “It was so cool to see real people interacting on a show, especially Are You The One.”
Junior Annie Noel, an avid AYTO fan and queer woman, said there are many reasons why the dating show format was a great starting point for queer acceptance.
“The dating show is a place where people can express their sexuality. And it won’t be as stigmatized, because last season there were just as many straight people hooking up,” Noel said. “It kind of allows for that expression without the [judgement].”
The importance of representation did not evade Wes, who noted how much queer representation has changed since he was younger. He said that being on national television can be taxing, yet there was a greater purpose to being seen so publically.
“[The insults] do not make me feel good about myself,” he explained. “But at the same time, the fact that I’m even on a TV screen is huge. There’s gonna be some kid in the middle of some tiny little town somewhere that sees that and goes, ‘I can choose to live my life like that.’ And that’s more important than me crying about a mean tweet.”
Since the season aired, Wes has re-opened his clothing brand, Gender Eclectic, which focuses on creating gender-neutral clothes. His message focuses on transcending the gender binary and encouraging support for queer people with graphics like “Support the People You F—” and “This Shirt is Queer Culture.”
Wes said he wants people to see and comprehend his queerness and transness. The public’s reaction has been one of the most surreal elements, according to Wes, who said people on the streets constantly recognize him from the show.
“The mind-blowing part is not necessarily the fact that I get recognized,” Wes said. “It’s that I’m recognized because I’m queer.”