Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders Discuss Racism in the LGBT Community
By James Bohling
If you're reading this, you probably know what discrimination feels like. You know what it's like to be intimidated into silence and acquiescence, to long for a different life—one in which you aren't considered a sinner or a freak. It's likely that's what pushed you out of the closet, and maybe what brought you to Los Angeles, where it's easier to be gay without fearing ostracism or violence.
On one level, it's bewildering: What makes people behave so callously? Why would you at best ignore—and at worst participate in—the debasement of another human being who's done you no harm? Are people so void of compassion? In the broadest sense, possibly so; but in most cases, the explanation is more banal: Being a bigot is easy.
And bigotry is hardly limited to the sexual majority. Racial discrimination and stereotyping go on among gays routinely and often, much as they do in the world at large. Like the average heterosexual who typically doesn't dwell too long on the plight of LGBT people, white gays are largely indifferent to or unaware of the struggles faced by people of color.
None of this is news. Anyone who's been in the gay scene for a while —particularly in L.A.—knows that, along with the city's lack of provincialism, comes a blasé acceptance of our self-serving natures: Hollywood deals in images and cash. And the lion's share of each—as in gay media, entertainment, and politics—is still white.
It is this seeming disconnect, in a city so diverse and self-conscious, yet also so oddly segregated, that has prompted Frontiers to investigate the issue of racism and find out how gay men of color interpret their place within—and without—the mainstream LGBT community. Here, I speak with Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders about the issues and concerns specific to them as people of color and, in some cases, immigrants.
This is the first of a series of articles that will continue throughout the coming months, focusing on issues of racism among LGBT people. It is not intended to serve as a lecture about inclusion and tolerance. Nor is it meant as a comprehensive survey. Rather, it is an attempt to foster a dialogue that is too often sidestepped or simply shut down.
How often, when watching "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," "Queer as Folk," or even "Sex and the City" have you seen gay Asian characters? How many major gay magazines regularly feature Asian-Americans on their covers? Almost never and none, as you likely guessed. The concept of Asian-Americans as a significant portion of the big gay pie in this nation has yet to capture much attention or air time. And in a city like Los Angeles, whose metropolitan population is about 20% API, gay Asians are conspicuously underrepresented.
"The only time you hear [about gay Asians] is doing stories like this, where you talk about racism," says 34-year-old Eric Wat, author of "The Making of a Gay Asian Community." "It sounds like any time that someone of color gets asked to comment on something, it has to do with racism, so we sound like whiners," he adds, laughing.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone who less fits the profile of a "whiner" than Wat. While he's evidently given more thought to the place of APIs within the LGBT community than most, he is decidedly calm and matter-of-fact when discussing the intersection of the two. For his 2002 book, Wat interviewed many gay men of Asian descent in Los Angeles, the majority of whom first experienced Southern California's gay scene in the '70s or earlier. During his research, he discovered many instances of racism, both casual and at an institutional level.
At that time it was fairly common, Wat says, for gay nightclubs to demand two or three pieces of I.D. when Asians showed up at the door, while white patrons were given easy access. Such conspicuous incidents are far less common now, but many Asians still report feeling less than welcome in some popular gay environments. Much of this uneasiness, Wat believes, has to do with stereotypes of Asian men in relation to the mainstream gay ethos, which is typically preoccupied with the idea of masculinity.
"It's really hard to say how much of this is really perceived and how much of this is racism at work," Wat says. "I think it has to do with the idea of masculinity. I think the gay community as a whole has this obsession with ultra-masculinity. It's not just masculinity—it's ultra-masculinity.
"I think a lot of it is stereotyping, because you do have Asians who are ultra-masculine," he continues. "You have that in all communities: You have the nelly types in all communities, and you have the really masculine types in all communities as well. But I think stereotypes work in a way that once it's set, you don't see the exceptions."
The stereotype of the gay Asian man is a fairly consistent one: "Queeny, probably a bottom, submissive," says Tawal Panyacosit, 24, delegate at large for the Gay Asian Pacific Support Network. When he's out, white men routinely approach him with these notions, he explains, unable to hide his annoyance. "I've actually had somebody come up to me and they're like, ‘Are you a top or a bottom?'" Panyacosit says. "And before I can even answer, they're like, ‘Oh, you must be a bottom, because all Asians are bottoms.' "
While many might attribute such behavior to mere rudeness, Panyacosit believes Asians are on the receiving end of similar comments more often than other gay men. "It's that notion, when you think of Asians as submissive and kind of in a lower part of the power dynamic, [that] it's OK to go to them and say stuff like that," he says.
Some of the stereotyping of Asians within the gay community comes from notions that have been around for a long time, Wat says. "Historically, even though there are a lot of Asians who work on the railroad, in the field, [doing] very masculine type of work. But what people remember is the Chinese laundry and restaurants," he says. "Service work, or submissive work. So that gets perpetuated through history as well.
"The other thing about stereotypes," Wat adds: "It gets internalized. So it's almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are expected to behave in a certain way, if behaving a certain way gets you a certain reward, then you would do that. So there's these sort of community standards, positive/negative reinforcement at work here that makes certain parts of the community even more visible."
One visible stereotype that generates some rancor in the gay API community is the coupling of older white men with younger Asian partners, who are often assumed to play the "submissive" role. "When I see a couple where the Asian guy is totally relying on the white guy, it bothers me," says Jonathan (who asked that his last name not be used). "It bothers me to see an Asian totally submissive to his white counterpart."
Panyacosit is also angered by the stereotypical notion of a dominant white man with a passive Asian partner—the "daddy thing," as he calls it. "It pisses me off sometimes when I see a 50-year-old white man and his ‘little Asian boy,' " he says. "When you see stuff like that, that's one of the things that reinforces racism within our community."
The picture of the white "rice queen" can indeed be problematic, says Wat, though he stops short of drawing conclusions about interracial couples, even when they fit the "daddy" profile. "If it's really based on stereotypes, then there is something wrong with it," he says. "But I wouldn't cast aspersions on their relationship. I wouldn't necessarily think that the relationships are unequal or think that the white guy is controlling everything, because sometimes that's just not the case."
Assumptions and stereotypes aside, the question remains: Does institutionalized racism against Asians continue to be a problem in the gay community to this day? According to Jonathan, it does. He had been a longtime member of a Los Angeles-area sex club, and says that in November 2001, his membership to the club was mysteriously revoked, and he was not allowed to renew it. Consequently, he claims, he discovered many other Asian-Americans had had similar experiences.
Although he did write letters to the club and the gay media, no lawsuits were ever filed, and hence the matter was never reported. The association with casual, promiscuous sex, Jonathan says, has stopped anyone from taking their complaints to the legal level. "The sex-club owners, they know they can get away with [discrimination]," he says. "Who's going to protest that? You think some Asian is going stand around in front of a sex club and do a demonstration? That's not going to happen."
Jonathan's membership was not renewed, and the club never offered an explanation of its policies. And although he has had positive experiences at other gay establishments, Jonathan believes bringing his story to light is important. "We need the community to know that there is discrimination within our community," he says. "Don't kid ourselves; it exists."
And even though it happened years ago, Jonathan's recollection of the incident is still a painful memory. "If somebody has a discriminatory attitude against you, it hurts," he says. "It hurts because you have so many things against you, but on top of that, you have to deal with the fact that people hate you—not because you're doing something wrong—just because you are who you are. It's very disappointing."
Panyacosit likewise reports being somewhat jaded by his interactions in the gay community. He, like the other men I spoke to, recognizes and accepts that physical preference often leads to one being more or less attracted to APIs (and others). Panyacosit, however, says he has had his share of negative experiences with white men who fixate on his ethnicity. "It's something you become hypersensitive to," he says. "Even when somebody's saying something as innocuous as ‘I love the shape of your eyes,' all of a sudden I attribute it to an Asian fetish.
"I think it's due to all the experiences of distrust I have now—[of] anybody [who's] attracted to me; I've gotten very skeptical. And it's not a fun place to be or a good feeling to have."
It is perhaps unsurprising that many gay APIs, having encountered discrimination based on both sexuality and race, have grown disenchanted with the mainstream LGBT-rights movement. Longtime activist André Ting, 52, who admits to having been far more militant in the past, says a great number of the younger API population in particular tend to espouse a "fuck the white community" mentality.
Ting, who says he's "a little more diplomatic, a little bit more mellow" nowadays, understands the urge to self-segregate. But, he cautions, even though Asian-Americans can easily be frustrated by the lack of inclusion in gay politics and media—and by demoralizing personal experiences—it is important to think in terms of the larger struggle. "We have a long battle ahead of us. This is just the beginning, and we need allies."
And getting people to open their minds is not the express responsibility of whites, Ting adds. "Just as white people should not judge people of color, people of color should not judge white people," he says. "Once they look at a white person and say, ‘Oh, he's a racist'—we should not do that. We should reserve our judgment … Many times I've assumed [someone] to be homophobic, but lo and behold, they turn out to be different."
Likewise, recognizing racism shouldn't be beyond the white LGBT community's grasp. "Gay people are not really color-blind," Ting says. "They realize they're also an oppressed group, so they're a little more sensitive … Perhaps I am holding the gay community to a higher standard, and that's why I'm disappointed more often."
"A lot of it is just what is the easiest thing to do," Wat says. But the idea of promoting racial harmony within the LGBT community simply isn't a priority for most white gays. "I think a lot of the time people are so busy with what they do that they often take the path of least resistance."
He adds, however, that the gay community might be wise to recognize the value of racial unity, if for no other reason than its political advantages. "I have to say this, though: I think the religious right is very smart in doing what they do, because they [understand the value of inclusion], surprisingly. When the gay-marriage thing was going on, they reached out to a lot of API groups, because some of them are very religious … they have all these inroads into the API communities; can you imagine what we could do if the national [LGBT] organizations did the same thing?"
"People talk about diversity. If they really practice embracing diversity, in the long run everyone benefits," Ting says. "It's almost like straight people—homophobic people—getting to genuinely know gay people. It can really open up their minds. When it comes to a personal level, it really can."