May meets June: The intersection of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and queerness

by Maxwell Ng, MTPC Steering Committee Vice-Chair

In May I celebrate and honor the work that has been done by my Asian and Pacific Islander brothers, sisters and siblings in the fight against racism. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the completion by Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad as well as the first immigration of a Japanese person to the United States.

And in June I remember and honor the work that my LGBTQ brothers, sisters and siblings have done in the fight against homo/transphobia. June is the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the event that is credited for creating the modern LGBTQ Civil Rights movement.

While most of the time, it feels like this work is distinctive, isolated and separate, for me as a second generation Asian American and an out transman, these worlds have always been linked.

Have you looked at a map recently? Asia is big. Really big. There are 49 countries in Asia, a region that stretches from Saudi Arabia to the Kamchatka Peninsula and includes 60% of the world’s population. “Asia” as a concept was created when westerners were exploring the globe looking for exotic lands and rare spices. In fact, the earliest disputes about the border between Asia and the “western” world were centered on the Caucasus Mountains and so we interpret Asian to mean other.

Today “Asian Pacific-Islander” is a geopolitical term that refers to blobs of color on an atlas that are approximately close to each other. But in the “melting pot” of American race politics, to be API means you have yellow skin and slanty eyes. It possibly also means you’re good at mathhave demanding parents and slur your Rs. To be Asian American is to remove all the subtlety and nuance of a rich cultural heritage and to boil it down to a degrading stereotype that was created during the Wild West, institutionalized at Tule Lake, and given household recognition by Stanley Kubrick.

I remember as a child in the early 80s, my mother would caution me repeatedly, “Make sure you tell people you’re Chinese.” The fear was that if people thought I was Vietnamese, I would be construed as The Enemy because “we all look alike”. In 1982, Vincent Chin was bludgeoned to death by two Detroit autoworkers. Even though he was not an autoworker, or Japanese, they blamed him personally for the rise of Japanese automobile companies. He was brutally murdered for the way he looked and the perceptions of his race. In the months immediately following, Asians all over this country realized that it didn’t matter where we were born or who our parents were, we would still be labeled a Chink, a Jap, a Gook, and hated for simply because we are different. Vincent’s murder inspired a movement of togetherness that has lived to this day. In fact, immediately after the attacks on 9/11, Japanese Americans who survived Tule Lake were the first to come out in solidarity to make sure the same institutionalized racism didn’t happen again to Muslim Americans.

Power politics
I talk about these things incessantly because so many people don’t know the fundamental link between racism and homophobia the way I have experienced. Vincent Chin’s murder changed hate crime legislation in the United States. Something that happened again with the murder of Matthew Shepard. So much of the hatred in this country is based on perception of power. Most recently, a troubled misogynistic young man went on a killing spree in Isla Vista aimed at the women he perceived to reject him. It is difficult to rationalize any of his actions or his beliefs, but it is very obvious that his own internalized racism at his half Asian self was a contributing factor to his self loathing.

Intersection Junction, what’s your function?
The simple truth is that no one’s identity is simple. For me, my world and life are profoundly shaped by the color of my skin. I have long said that the two things people see about me are (1) my race and then (2) my gender. Before I say a single word, they assume that I don’t speak English, and that I will be submissive to them. 2011 statistics show 46.9% of hate crimes were motivated by race and 20.8% by sexual orientation. In my own life I have been subjected to decades of microaggressions that are in accordance with those statistics.

To be both API and LGBTQ in this country means you stand at the cross roads of intersecting identities. Often times we are forced to choose allegiances. We can either fight to end racism OR end homo/transphobia, but apparently not both. Could you choose to favor the right half of your body and willingly remove the left half of your body? Could you select between your head and your heart?

The author shaved his mustache to raise awareness for API Heritage month.

Queer it up America
People who are Asian American or Pacific Islander are subjected to stereotypes that only limit us. We must continue to defy those stereotypes and break down the imagery that dominates this thinking. Not all Asian Americans come from stable two parent homes. Not all Asian Americans work in STEM careers. Not all Asian Americans are yellow. Similarly, just because you’re a gay man, doesn’t mean you’re automatically a hairdresser. Just because you play softball doesn’t mean you’re automatically a lesbian. LGBTQ people have been working for decades to break down these misconceptions by living their diverse and full lives in between the extreme polarities that people perpetually use to try to define us. We should all be working to breaking down the same and preposterous myths and stereotypes of racism.

When I sat down to write this blog post I was inspired by this blog post about pioneering Black Transwomen. My intent was to try and write a historical perspective of API LGBTQ persons who have been doing trailblazer work. But I am not a historian, and sadly, my cultural knowledge is hugely augmented by Wikipedia. And while I could sit down and do scholarly research, I am hampered by language and terminology that is not always culturally appropriate. We need more Asian American elders who are doing pioneering work. I was mournful of the death of Senator Daniel Inouye, and most recently the death of Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese internment camp survivor and civil rights activist. But I am also thankful for contemporary LGBTQ activists like Helen Zia, Patrick Cheng and Pauline Park, who continue to work on civil rights and recognize that their visibility doing so inspires us all to do more. And I am excited about rising stars like Andy Marra, who bravely puts her own personal life into public scrutiny. I look forward to the day when I can rattle off hundreds of names of API LGBTQ activists who are household names, and I hope that you do too.

Additional reading*
Q & A: Queer in Asian America, ed. Alice Hom and David Eng (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998)
Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience ed. Russell Leong (New York: Routledge, 1996)
Howard Chiang and Ari Larissa Heinrich, eds., Queer Sinophone Cultures (New York: Routledge, 2014)

* Thanks for the bibliography, Prof Mo.
Martin Manalansan, Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003)

This entry was posted by Mel.