Queer Asian and Pacific Islanders: Crossing Borders, Creating
By Ankita Sadaf Kelly
"Just before I die I want
someone to make love to me in Cantonese"
--Indigo Chih-Lien Som
The Very Inside: An Anthology
of Writing by Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian
& Bisexual Women, Sharon Lim-Hing, Editor (Sister
Vision Press, 1994)
Last year the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center
(A&PIWC) produced the first ever Asian & Pacific Islander
Pride Stage at San Francisco's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender (LGBT) Pride 2000 Celebration. The success of
the stage was one indicator of how far the queer Asian and
Pacific Islander (A&PI) community has come. "It put us on
the map," A&PIWC's Nikki Calma (a.k.a. Tita Aida), a Filpina
immigrant, says. "It said, 'You can't ignore us.' It brought
our communities to the next level and put a face to our leadership."
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to intersecting communities
of Asians and Pacific Islanders that speak dozens of languages.
"There is not a single identity for A&PIs," says Stan Yogi,
a gay Japanese American activist. "The group consists of different
ethnicities, American-born Asians, immigrants... Class, generation,
religion and other factors come into play as well." A&PI identity
in the U.S. is varied; defining a queer A&PI identity poses
its own challenges and offers a world of possibilities.
"Our diversity is also a valuable resource," says Javid Syed,
National Technical Assistance Trainer with A&PIWC. Syed, who
emigrated to the U.S. from India, adds: "It brings out the
idea of plurality. Because we are a diverse community, one
of our core values becomes respect for differences."
Queer A&PI communities in the U.S. maintain close links with
their sister groups in Asia and the Pacific. Bay Area organizations
Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Network
(APILBTN), and the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA)
have supported and participated in LGBT movements in their
countries of origin.
"There is a constant flow of ideas and people between the
diaspora and the motherland," says Syed. "The support has
taken the form of letter-writing campaigns, multi-city demonstrations,
individual and grass-roots fundraising, educational trainings,
awards ceremonies, as well as cultural projects--all with
an eye to strengthening queer A&PI networks in the U.S. and
For example, the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights
recently presented its Felipa de Souza award to the group
Companions on a Journey, and its Women's Support Group. The
organization works on behalf of people with alternative sexualities
in Sri Lanka. Last year in Sri Lanka an editorial letter to
a well-known newspaper, The Island, advocated unleashing
a gang of convicted rapists on a national lesbian conference
proposed by the Women's Support Group. Sherman de Rose, a
founder of Companions on a Journey, filed a complaint over
the letter to the Sri Lanka Press Council. The council issued
a judgment rejecting the complaint, condemning lesbianism
and fining de Rose.
Cut Sleeve: A Rich History
One afternoon, Emperor Ai of China's Han Dynasty was resting
with his lover, Dong Xian, when he was called into court.
Rather than wake up his beloved who was reclining across the
emperor's sleeve, Ai took out a dagger and cut off the end
of his garment. Writers have used the term 'cut sleeve' as
a symbol of homosexuality among the Chinese ever since.
Today in China gays and lesbians often face persecution and
isolation. A 1999 Beijing libel lawsuit resulted in what is
believed to be the first legal decision in the People's Republic
of China on the nature of homosexuality. Judge Zhang wrote
in her decision, "Homosexuality in China today is considered
as abnormal sexual behavior and not acceptable to the public..."
The court, ruling for the plaintiff, said, "... by describing
him as a homosexual without any proof, Fang Gang brought depression
and psychological pain to the plaintiff and affected his life,
work and reputation."
According to Chou Wah-shan, author of Tongzhi: Politics
of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies, homophobia
is a by-product of Western cultural expansion. Same-sex eroticism
was prevalent throughout Chinese history and class and gender
were more important than sexual identity in Chinese society,
Homosexual contact is outlawed in India, Malaysia, and Singapore--under
prohibitions against 'acts against nature' inherited from
British rule. In many other Asian countries a degree of ambiguity
surrounds LGBT issues. The Philippines have the reputation
as one of the contemporary societies most tolerant of homosexuality.
Filipino criminal law is silent on the subject of consenting
same-sex relations and there is little or no prosecution under
In Japan, it was considered a landmark "first" in early 1999
when the Governor's Advisory Commission invited Tokyo gays
and lesbians to testify at an official hearing. It was an
even bigger "first" when the Commission's December 1999 report
recommended inclusion of sexual minorities in new measures
to protect human rights. While the Commission included their
concerns in its report, they are omitted from the published
LGBT A&PIs in America
In the United States, gay A&PIs often experience a complex
blend of circumstances. In urban settings, there's often the
freedom to come out and organize. But there may also be disapproval
from families and mainstream communities. Then, as people
of color, there is the task of relating to and within a predominantly
white mainstream LGBT culture.
"In America you can develop the life you want," says GAPA
historian Kek Tee Lim. Lim, who is Chinese, was born in Malaysia
and moved to the United States 25 years ago. "People in San
Francisco are more tolerant of gay people than other places."
Lim, however, encountered problems within his own community
of origin. "The Chinese community does not understand gay
issues. They think being gay is a social choice and not biological.
The community may not accept you. But if your family accepts
you, others don't matter. I had a large family. I had many
other brothers and sisters. So my father did not demand that
I had to get married and have kids to carry on the family
Another example of LGBT experience is that of Noelle, an immigrant
who escaped abuse in the Philippines because of her transgender
identity and has sought asylum in the U.S. "Being in the U.S.
has its pros and cons," Noelle says. "The mainstream community
ignores us and perceives us as outsiders. I am ignored and
denied services when I go to stores. It brings back memories
of the abuse I received in the Philippines. Many people lack
the sensitivity in how to address me. It is very hard."
Different groupings of A&PI LGBT communities and their allies
are making an impact and resisting the homo genizing tendency
of a mainstream queer nation. Groups like Asian/Pacific Islander
Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians & Gays (API PFLAG),
established in 1995, is a peer-led community effort to increase
understanding of LGBT issues. Their groundbreaking video Coming
Out, Coming Home , featured four in-depth interviews with
Asian and Pacific Islander queers and their parents. Inspired
by the success of API PFLAG's initiative, A&PIWC produced
in 1997 There Is No Name for This, a tri-lingual
video targeting homophobia and heterosexism in the Chinese
community through a broad spectrum of interviews with activists,
family members and community leaders, straight and gay.
In May 1999, the Mandarin Asian Pacific Lesbian/Bisexual Network
published the first edition of Beloved Daughter , the culmination
of its five-year Family Letters Project. Written in both Chinese
and English, the book's goal was to help "our parents accept
and understand their lesbian/bisexual daughters." Members
of the group asked their parents to write about their experiences
so they could be shared with other parents.
Song That (Be True) is a queer Vietnamese radio program. Director
Vuong Nguyen sees her program as a way to educate her community
about LGBT issues. "Most Vietnamese families think lesbians
are under the influence of Western culture," Nguyen says.
"Vietnam has been under foreign control for centuries. Others
have always taken advantage of us. We tend to stick together
and try to keep our culture, language and traditions alive.
This is why Vietnamese families are afraid to let American
culture influence them. The radio program in Vietnamese is
a great tool in educating our families about lesbian issues.
Our stories have more influence in our own language."
"We have more opportunities and freedom in America," says
Nguyen. "In Vietnam one has to struggle more. However, the
mainstream American lesbian community is very different from
the Vietnamese lesbian community. Our culture, our language
is totally different."
"Today, young gay A&PIs have many options," says Yogi. "They
have the option to take their ethnicity in a positive way.
They have resources like GAPA and A&PIWC available to them.
This is not to say they don't have any issues to face. There
may be problems within the context of traditional families
and such. But it is better than it was 20 years ago."
"On the whole A&PIs are gaining greater visibility with a
marked increase at Japantown's Cherry Blossom Festival, Chinatown's
Lunar New Year Parade, in addition to LGBT Pride," says Zoon
Nguyen, a long-time lesbian advocate of Vietnamese descent
and director of external affairs at Pacific Bell. "This crossover
presence demonstrates more of a social and political awareness
in the community." Nguyen observes "a new wave of energy from
younger A&PI dykes" connecting with their "big sisters" as
well as stepping up to orchestrate more of the demonstrations
and opportunities for visibility.
Seeing the value of supporting the organizing initiative of
young queer A&PI lesbians, Nguyen spearheaded at Pacific Bell
an effort that yielded grant funding for QUACK--Queer
A&PI Chicks--one of A&PIWC's newest programs.
Creating Community Responses
A&PIs have always been a part of social justice movements.
Kiyoshi Kuromiya, who died of AIDS in 2000, participated in
the first protest for gay and lesbian rights in Philadelphia
in July 1965. However, it is only recently that a queer A&PI
movement has emerged in the American consciousness. The San
Francisco Bay Area has been home to significant efforts in
the queer A&PI movement.
The emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis put an extra urgency
in the need for organizing. "When my generation was coming
out in the 1970s and '80s it was the time of the AIDS epidemic.
That's how GAPA came about," says Tee Lim. From the beginning,
GAPA held support groups for gay and bisexual A&PI men who
Providing HIV services to the Asian and Pacific Islander community
provides special challenges. For example, in order to serve
the community, Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center
must recruit a staff able to offer free and confidential oral
HIV/STD testing in Cantonese, Cambodian/Khmer, Ilokano, Japanese,
Lao, Mandarin, Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese as well as English.
A&PIWC offers a comprehensive mix of programming ranging from
sexual health education with women in massage parlors to HIV
testing at Thai temples, from promoting safer hormone use
with transgender persons to piloting community-based HIV research.
"Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center embraces a vision
where we find community and make wellness a constant goal
in our lives," says John Manzon-Santos, A&PIWC's executive
director. "Increasingly this organization is seen as a resource
for diverse groups--a community center for LGBT Asians and
Pacific Islanders, our families and allies."
This article first appeared in San
Francisco Frontiers News magazine special issue
Asian Pacific Islanders Make Their
Mark on Queer Culture published on March 22, 2001
(Volume 18, Issue 24)
Back to Top