Tom Lee 「The Gay Asian American Male — Striving to Find an Identity」

Posted on June 22, 2000 commentaires
『AsianWeek』, June 22, 2000, p.15-17 (San Francisco Public Library)

“When I hear ‘gay community’ I automatically think ‘white.’ Being gay seemed like such a white thing. It never occurred to me that you can be Asian and gay,” says 22-year-old college student Alex,* who is of Chinese descent. “Even though I’m Asian and gay, I just never associated the two. It was always one or the other.”

Alex’s sentiments echo that of many gay-identified Asian Americans today. To be gay and Asian is at most times a contradiction. Ethnicity and sexuality, while vastly different concepts, run parallel in terms of self-identity and societal acceptance. And for gay Asian Americans, these two aspects are intricately intertwined. Even when gay Asian Americans come to terms with their sexuality, they have to find a place in the community where their ethnicity is a welcome fit. But for many, the notion of an inclusive gay community is a concept that still seems out of reach.

Alex, casually clad in sweats and a baseball cap, fidgets in his chair while contemplating his place in the gay community. His tall, athletic frame provides a sharp contrast to his pensive face. “I don’t know. I don’t think I fit in anywhere,” he finally says. “It’s hard being a minority in a white society, and ten times more difficult when you’re a minority within a minority.”

“All I see in the gay neighborhoods are porn displayed in shop windows and rainbow flags. The rainbow is a commercialized symbol that is supposed to be a catch-all, representing everyone, but I just don’t relate,” he says.

Like in the straight community, the media has a tremendous effect on people’s perceptions. The gay community as depicted by the media, is a place where muscle-bound, blonde, blue-eyed boys shamelessly flirt with each other, go to dance clubs, and shop at Ikea. David Chan, 36, believes the image of the “young, gym-toned, white male that is often portrayed” stems from a “focus on youth and vitality as a means to get attention and sell products” just like in mainstream media.

When gay Asian males are portrayed in the alternative media, their characteristics are often wrought with gross stereotypes. These misperceptions play a major role in how gay Asian American males are perceived, says Alex. The common conceptions of heterosexual Asian men being weak, timid, unassertive, and not masculine likewise apply to gay Asian men. “As in any community, stereotypes thrive. It’s funny — gay or straight, Asian men face the same problems. Certain people may or may not want to date Asian men because of these stereotypes. And these stereotypes can over time contribute to unspoken racism,” he says.

Alex details one incident particularly upsetting. During his junior year in college, he dated a white guy for a few weeks before being casually dumped when the relationship was about to get serious. The person’s only excuse: “I don’t date fortune cookies.”

“I was completely shocked that he would reduce my whole existence into the equivalent of a cookie. I thought he had more sense than that,” says Alex. “I think the only reason he dated me was because he was intrigued by my ‘exoticness’ and when I didn’t fit the stereotypes he expected, he lost interest.”

Dino Duazo, the public relations chairman of Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA), has seen gay Asian American stereotypes evolve over time in the past decade. “Traditionally and historically, gay Asian men are seen as young, thin, submissive, and exotic. During these past 10 years, there’s been a lot more visible gay APIs so the stereotype is being [broken down] gradually,” he explains. “It’s hard to quantify what makes people attracted to others. There’s racism, preference, stigma, and stereotypes.”

Adds Alex: “In the gay community, everything is very visual. Looks are everything. And when you deviate from that accepted look of the white [notion of attractiveness], no one pays you any attention. No one just wants to be friends, unless they’re attracted to you.”

The desire to fit in has led Alex to downplay his Chinese heritage and appearance. His gay friends are mostly white, his style of dress could be labeled as “skater,” and he punctuates his sentences with “bro” often. “I’m not whitewashed,” he insists. “I know my culture. But because Asians are still seen as foreign in the gay community, whenever I meet someone I want them to just think of me as a person, although all he might see is an Asian guy. I wanted to transcend that.”

For some gay Asian Americans, coming to terms with being Asian is just as much of an ordeal as coming to terms with being gay. Many deny their ethnicity because they do not want to be seen as an outsider by an already ostracized group such as the gay community. Alex’s experience is not atypical of many young gay Asian American men.

Chan went through the same process in his formative years. “I have asked myself a lot of hard questions and have done a lot of soul searching and personal growth,” he says. “I took the time to self reflect on my internalized and externalized homophobia and internalized and externalized ‘Asianphobia.’”

Duazo has seen many gay Asian Americans struggling for years trying to forge an identity for themselves. “One of the biggest obstacles is maintaining that balance, trying to find an identity as Asian or gay or both. There’s that conflict there. Being Asian, there’s expectations you’re supposed to live up to. Being gay contradicts those expectations,” he explains. “Ultimately you have to [come to terms] with that.”

Traditional Asian cultures’ emphasis on close family units is one of the underlying issues that makes the gay Asian American experience different than other experiences, says Duazo. There are more incidences of Asian American men hiding their sexuality in order not to disappoint their families. “The family aspect is stronger in our community. It affects the coming out process with it being much harder because of close ties with family. It’s hard to generalize for each ethnic group, but this is consistently a [theme] in the API community,” he says.

For Alex, having a close relationship with his parents was both a blessing and a curse. While he is grateful for having such a solid connection with his family, it also at the same time kept him from completely accepting his sexuality. He has since come out to his family and is on his way to reconnecting with his Asian heritage. “I thought my culture would never accept my homosexuality. Maybe that’s why I just sort of disregarded and rejected [my culture],” he offers. “Now I see I can integrate the two and I’m trying.”

In the past 10 years, the dating pattern of Asian American men have shifted from predominately Asian/white pairings to more Asian Americans dating others of their own race, according to Duazo. There are no theories as to why this phenomenon is occurring but Duazo offers some suggestions: “Maybe it’s just the fact that they see other Asians doing it, or it’s empowering that they don’t have to wait around for white guys to tell them they are attractive. It’s an option now.”

But just as the gay community should not be stereotyped, the gay Asian American experience is not the same for all. Some gay Asian American males have no problem integrating into the larger gay community. Elliot Wong, 31, is such a person. Having lived in the Castro for five years, he has never experienced any difficulties regarding his race. “The degree of inclusiveness depends on the individual. For whatever reason, Asian Americans aren’t very active in this community,” he states.

An inclusive and active gay community is possible, believes Chan, but it can only be achieved when each person examines his own prejudices. “On an individual level we need to each take part in dealing with [aspects] of our own heritage that we are not comfortable with and learn to understand that the reasons we have racial prejudice in the gay community is the fact that we have externalized some fears and insecurities that we have of ourselves and others,” he says. “We can change the world if we change ourselves first.”

Because gay Asian Americans share these unique experiences of identity, it is important for support groups such as GAPA to exist, insists Duazo. These groups create a supportive network and in turn form into their own communities tailored to the specific needs of the Asian American community. Involvement in these organizations also increases awareness and provides a voice for gay Asian Americans who otherwise would not have one, he says.

As if to reflect the growing presence of gay Asian Americans, more and more gay ethnic and inter-ethnic groups have been established, such as Malaysian Gays and Lesbians Club, Pacific Friends, Lavender Dragon Society, and Trikone.

Alex is aware of gay Asian organizations but had never thought of joining one. “It just seems so exclusive,” he says. “I don’t think that’s the answer. Segregating ourselves into our own little comfortable niches and never venturing out into the bigger community doesn’t seem very productive.”

Even some members of GAPA are concerned about gay Asian organizations inadvertently promoting divisiveness just by existing. “My experience with gay Asians is through groups like GAPA. Although that might not necessary be a good thing,” says Hao Thai, 23. “We shouldn’t try to have a segregated and fragmented community. Ideally, we should all band together. It’s easier to break the walls with a boulder than pebbles of different colors.”

Duazo has heard all the criticism before but fears that any integration into the larger gay community would overshadow gay Asian Americans’ specific needs. “To grow into a larger group, it becomes about [the larger group’s] needs. They might superimpose their experience over ours. By having a group that’s specifically for APIs, it provides a safe place to voice our experience, our perceptive,” he says.

Eighteen-year-old U.C. Berkeley student Joseph Gavinlertvatana agrees: “I feel that any community that tries to cut through color lines will segregate by race, initially. The women’s movement is largely colored by race. So was the youth movement, the sports movement, and any other social institution. I think it is necessary to explore different aspects of gay culture that cannot be explored in a setting that is too open.”

Although Gavinlertvatana believes race-specific groups are a positive inclusion in the gay community, he observes that many people who are involved in these organizations are not involved with the greater gay community as a whole. “That is a sad result, but understandable,” he says. “It is unnecessary, because I feel that an inclusive gay community can coexist with race-specific groups.”

He adds: “I think there has been recognition [that there are stereotypes and] racism and that is the first step. The next steps would be to be more inclusive, sensitive, and oriented toward racial minorities.

As the population of Asian American grows, more and more young people will struggle with their cultural and sexual identities. Gay Asian support organizations may be the answer to empower these individuals, says Duazo.

Asian Americans will be an integral part of the gay community in the near future, believes Thai. It’s only a matter of time. “The Asian voice is growing louder, more active. As people get more active, they interact with other people and create a greater whole,” he says.

Chan, for one, has felt the effects of being more active in his community. Having been a member of seven gay Asian groups, he sees these organizations serving as an essential bridge providing dialogue between the Asian American community and the mainstream gay community. He is also now confident in his identity as an gay Asian American male.

“I am proud of my Chinese Malaysian heritage. I’ve learned to accept its grandeur and shortcomings,” he says. “In the beginning, it was overwhelmingly scary and fearful for me to deal with the incongruities and to try to conform myself to my subcultures — Chinese, Asian, gay. Overtime, I made a conscious decision to choose to lovingly lead my own life and not live in irrational fears.”

As for Alex, he is slowly coming to terms with his identity. “I’ve learned to deal. Although I’m not part of the ‘sub’ or mainstream gay community, I have my own sense of self — I’m just me,” he says. “I’m in a void but that’s OK. Does that make sense? I hope someone could relate.”

Author: Tom Lee/Date: June 22, 2000/Source:
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