Chasing myself: The story of Chase Norris

It was in the fall of 2020 that the epiphany came. I was reading the final papers from the students in my media and society class. They had just finished watching the documentary film, “Call Her Ganda,” and had to write about it. They were charged with incorporating as much of what we had learned about media throughout the semester while they discussed what they say in the film.

The subject of the film was Jennifer “Ganda” Laude. She was a 26-year-old sex worker in the Philippines who was found dead in a dumpy motel in Olongapo City. She was murdered by Joseph Scott Pemberton in October of 2014. Pemberton, a 19-year-old U. S. Marine on shore leave, had hired Laude for sexual acts. He strangled her and stuffed her face in the motel toilet after discovering she was transgender.

I tell students that it’s a challenging film to watch for many reasons. First, it’s a documentary film. Not a “documentary” in the vein of “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” but a real documentary film.

It was shot in the Philippines with most of the people in the film speaking Tagalog. Challenge number two is reading the subtitles while the people speak. So students have to work a little to keep up with the story.

Some other challenges include seeing a Marine (who is their same age), as well as the U. S. government, presented in a negative light in the film. Most of us don’t see our soldiers in uniform presented this way.

As I read those papers written by my students, I saw a recurring statement from many of them: “I’ve never met someone who is transgender so it’s hard for me to relate to Jennifer Laude.” Flash. The light went on in my head. I guess I’m going to have to change that.

So, starting in the spring and continuing this semester, Chase Norris, 29, has spoken to the class and made himself available to answer students’ questions as well. Chase was born Chelsea Norris in June of 1992. Chase is a transgender man.

While Chase was working on his Master’s degree at Western Illinois University he had to do an independent study project. Instead of a paper Chase decided to do a documentary film. He had never really done much video work but he thought it would be a great way to tell his story. Titled, “Chasing Myself,” it tells the story of his transition from Chelsea to Chase.

Much of what he presents in the film, which you can watch for free on YouTube, he talks about with the students in my class. He says he’s given his presentation many times to a variety of audiences. Everyone from parishioners at local churches to seniors in retirement homes.

His presentation, in the form of a PowerPoint, covers a lot. Chase shows pictures from when he was a much younger Chelsea. He shows his transition in pictures covering a couple of years. He also educates the audience on the proper verbiage. For example, he says, don’t use the word transgendered – it’s transgender.

He goes even more in-depth in the hour and forty-three-minute film. He tells the story of his mom getting Chelsea a “big froofy” sequined green dress for the senior prom at Pekin Community High School. In the film his mom says, she’ll never get to see Chelsea in a wedding dress but she, at least, got to see her in a prom dress.

Chase includes honest and forthright interviews with a lot of his family and friends. He includes a lot, including graphic photos from his breast removal surgery.

One of the things he talked about to the class is how family has to get used to the idea that the person they have known for years, Chelsea, is going away and she won’t be coming back.

In a story in “The Atlantic,” a mom named Ann talks about her son who transitioned to female.

“It feels like a death,” Ann says. “I don’t know how to process the grief. It sneaks up on me and I have to hide in the bathroom to cry.”

Chase noted in class another unexpected side effect of his transition. His mood changes every week shortly after he takes his shot of testosterone.

“Yeah, I get a little aggressive on shot day,” Norris said. “I tell the people in the office to give me some space on those days.”

In addition to the documentary film he produced during graduate school, Norris was also meeting and counseling weekly with LGBTQ+ kids in the area. As he neared graduation he says he couldn’t fathom abandoning them. In one of the last meetings he had before graduating, he asked them: “If you could have any resource available to you, what would you want?” He recalls they replied, almost in unison, “A safe place for us to go.”

Norris got to work. After overcoming what seemed like insurmountable odds, he established a 501c3 non-profit organization in December of 2018 which he called Clock, Inc. The motto for Clock: “Your Time. Your Place. Your Move.” Just four months later, he opened the Clock, Inc. LGBTQ+ community center in the Quad Cities.

Norris has accomplished a lot since he moved forward with his transition from Chelsea to Chase. Not everyone has been supportive and not every moment has been stellar. But, Norris says, it’s all been worth it.

“Be yourself. Embrace your individuality. Be unique. Be weird. Be true to yourself and make a difference in this world,” Norris says in his film.

If that’s the definition for success, Chase Norris has been phenomenally successful.

“Chasing Myself” is free to view on YouTube. “Call Her Ganda” is available for rent or purchase on Amazon.

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