LGBTQ+ Asian American History
Before API (Asian Pacific Islanders) first interacted with the West, those with LGBTQ+ identities lived peacefully without being given much thought. According to historian Amy Sueyoshi, “white missionaries and imperial zealots wrote often of the prevalence of same-sex intimacies in the Pacific”. However, due to the effects of European imperialism, queer Asian conventions were often shunned and removed from historical records. In American history, LGBTQ+ API immigrants were punished for their identities, with “criminal courts in the 1910s and 1920s [beginning] to blame ‘Oriental depravity’ for promoting degeneracy among America’s transient white youth” (Sueyoshi). This began the legal disregard and contempt towards queer AAPI (Asian American Pacific Islanders), creating a threatening environment for them. Thus, the pervasive white, Christian, heterosexual colonist standard had rendered queer Asians and other people of color as subordinate and stigmatized.
The Start of an Inclusive Movement (?)
It would not be until the 1969 Stonewall Riots when LGBTQ+ Americans would gain national recognition. At this significant event, many queer patrons of the Stonewall Inn fought back against a sudden police raid of the bar, which people saw as an attack of their identities.
(Picture source: Time Magazine)
Though this was a watershed moment in that the Gay Rights Movement emerged in the aftermath, the activism focused mostly on LGBTQ+ white, cisgendered, gay male interests. While there have been great strides when it comes to the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, much of the mainstream movement’s endeavors have not been as comprehensive as they seem. In Queer: A Graphic History, Meg John-Barker explains that LGBTQ+ POC “question the gay rights movement’s focus on things like marriage, consumer culture and serving in the military” and say that “…focus should also be on the groups under the queer umbrella who are most marginalized, such as those who are at everyday risk of violence, suicide, poverty, and homelessness” (12). Many white male activists and groups that had gotten attention have continued to fail representing the complex range of racial, class and national identities in the broader LGBT community (Morris).
Recently, more diverse stories have come out centering around the POC and transgender participation in the Stonewall riots, shifting away from the mainly white and male-focused perspective that is used when recounting the event. However, LGBTQ+ AAPI stories have not even been as acknowledged as much as those of others’ have. Three years before the Stonewall Riots, “[transgender] activist Tamara Ching of Native Hawaiian, Chinese, and German descent fought back against police harassment” in San Francisco (Sueyoshi). Even though she had been one of the catalysts in fighting against the anti-LGBTQ+ bias in policing, her story has mainly been left in the shadows.
Throughout queer American history, AAPI stories have slipped through the cracks and are forgotten, which causes isolation and disconnect from the larger LGBTQ+ community. Thus, while the representation and inclusion of queer narratives may have gotten better over the years, queer Asian American narratives are still left invisible.
The Current Problem
Due to the slow recognition of this group, many of the problems queer Asian Americans faced in the past are still present today. Historically, Asian immigrants have lacked the awareness and understanding to accept those with LGBTQ+ identities. For example, in an op-ed video published by The New York Times, Chinese American Mengwen Cao shared how difficult it was to embrace her queer identity and then come out over video to her parents, who live in China (Bartkowiak and Cao). Many Asian families push the heteronormative “pressure to marry, to have children, and to pass the family name onto the next generation” (Han et al.). Moreover, values such as having respect for your elders and bringing honor to the family keep queer Asians from sharing their identity, causing an internal struggle between themself and their Asian cultures.
Furthermore, there is a lack of LGBTQ+ AAPI people in the media, whether that be in Asia or the U.S. Other than a couple of actors and content creators, popular queer Asian Americans are pretty sparse in mainstream media. Also, the term “Asian” covers a plethora of ethnicities and cultures, so it might be difficult for a person of a certain subgroup to find a role model they can identify with. Although public figures like Japanese American George Takei, Korean American Margaret Cho, Filipino American Bretman Rock, and British Pakistani American Tan France have gained followings, they are not as mainstream as their white counterparts, whether gay or straight.
There is also a lack of political leaders who identify as LGBTQ+ AAPI individuals. Having more representatives with political power would help this group gain influence by keeping queer Asian perspectives in mind when laws are created and enforced. Having this representation helps marginalized groups feel validated and included, and prominent role-models can help inspire individuals to be proud of their identity. Within the LGBTQ+ community Queer AAPI have lacked acknowledgement and connection. Without a sense of community or solidarity, queer Asians are left feeling isolated and invisible, which can exacerbate an unwillingness to engage socially or politically. This could also be reinforced by stereotypes implying that Asians are quiet and not politically active. Thus, there are not any places where Asians can feel welcome to participate.
Who Is Working On The Problem?
Many LGBTQ+ Asian American advocacy groups have been created to strengthen and uplift this community. For example, Asian and Pacific Islander Queers United for Action (AQUA DC) was founded in 1997. On their webpage, the group say that it “works closely with other API and queer-identified organizations through advocacy, coalition building, education, networking, outreach, and support events”. Since their start, the group has enacted their mission by hosting many potlucks and events, networking with other social groups, and collaborating with many LGBTQ+ campaigns in Washington D.C. Another notable group is P.F.L.A.G (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), which supports queer people and their families (Truong). While these established organizations exist, few are widespread or well-known. Hopefully, LGBTQ+ Asians can start being included in the national conversation on how to create change for all LGBTQ+ people.
Here are some of my potential solutions for showing support for LBGTQ+ AAPI:
On a micro-level:
- Educate yourself and others about the LGBTQ+ AAPI community’s experience; become aware of the struggles, differences and nuances that are within the community.
- Use your vote to elect more LGBTQ+ AAPI people into positions of power; having representation in leadership who can speak for a marginalized group can have a say in how we will live.
- Uplift and amplify LGBTQ+ AAPI social communities and organizations. Using your voice and platform can inspire others, especially queer Asians, to participate in activism.
On a macro-level:
- Advocate for LGBTQ+ AAPI experiences to be included and mandatory in school curriculum; queer Asian American history has been erased, so inclusion can show appreciation of past and current LGBTQ+ Asian Americans.
- Create more media with LGBTQ+ AAPI representation in them; again, having representation can validate queer Asian Americans while also sharing experiences with others. To do this, petition and write to film studios demanding the creation of more stories with LGBTQ+ AAPI characters.
On a personal level:
- Keep researching about LGBTQ+ AAPI issues after the conclusion of this project so I can keep up with any developments in my topic.
- Learn about local organizations that support queer Asian Americans and how I can support them.
- Make this topic accessible for AAPI individuals and their families through my hobby of art; create artwork/stories around the LGBTQ+ AAPI community to help people understand this group’s experiences and reflect on their own identity.
- AAPI: An acronym that stands for “Asian American Pacific Islander”.
- Cisgender: A term used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns the sex assigned to them at birth.
- LGBTQ+: An acronym for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning”. The “plus” sign represents other identities.
- POC: An acronym that stands for “people of color,” an umbrella term that collectively refers to anyone who isn’t white. (More recently, BIPOC, which stands for which stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color” has been used to amplify Black and Indigenous American voices.
- Queer: A term people use to express a spectrum of identities and orientations, including those who do not identify as exclusively straight or cisgender. This term was previously used as a slur, but has been reclaimed by many in the LGBTQ+ community.
- Transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.
If you would like a more expansive list of LGBTQ+ terms, here is the one I referred to from the Human Rights Campaign. Other definitions came from Healthline.com.