Queer in Asian/Pacific Islander Chicago

Though Asians and Pacific Islanders (API) make up the global majority, we (API Americans) make up roughly 5% of the entire US population, according to data from the 2010 Census. As such, the diversity of our community has been largely disregarded by mass

I am a queer Chinese-Vietnamese-American woman. Growing up, I had very few role models in mainstream America. A large percentage of the faces I saw on television and in the news and magazines were white, whether they identified as heterosexual or not. If not white, they were black. Then if not black, they were Latino. Rarely did I ever see an Asian face in mainstream media.

I want you to imagine growing up white in a city, like San Francisco, where APIs make up over a third of the population. Then imagine your first step into a mostly white campus town.

Would you exclaim, “Oh my God, there are white people!”?

True story: One of my white friends did just that our first year of college at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

My friend’s reaction mirrored mine whenever I see an Asian person in American mainstream media.

“OMG! There’s an Asian [in the show/magazine/news/etc]! Who is she/he?”
“OMG, an Asian ad!”
“OMG, an Asian couple!”

It’s no surprise that Harry Shum, Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz are my favorite couple on Glee. They are unlike martial arts masters Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee, who brought about the ridiculous notion that all Asian Americans know kung-fu or karate.

True story: Kids on the playground assumed that I knew kung-fu or karate as a kid.

The other caveat is that when we think of Asian Americans, most people think Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. Rarely are southeast Asians such as Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians; south Asians such as Indians and Sri Lankans; or Pacific Islanders such as Filipinos, Indonesians, and Malaysians represented.

At age six, I felt befuddled when another six-year old told me to “go back to China.” I was born and raised in America, and I have never been to China. At age six, I didn’t know what that kid was talking about nor why he had said that. What I did know, however, was that it was mean-spirited.

Regarding our sexuality, non-Asians thought, and perhaps still think, that we in the API community are largely asexual or hypersexual. Sex may be a taboo subject in a lot of households, but it doesn’t mean that we’re asexual. What it does mean though, is that we are stigmatized from talking and learning about sex. I volunteer for Howard Brown Health Center’s Safe Sex Street Outreach Program, and I pass out condoms and lubricants to bar patrons in Boystown. When my mother learned about this, she expressed horror, “Men are going to think that you’re open to having sex with them!”

Furthermore, our women are considered “sexually exotic” thanks to films like Full Metal Jacket (1987), Miss Saigon (1989), and countless others. As an Asian woman, I’ve been subjected to some of the most ridiculous comments borne out of prejudicial stereotyping.

Have you seen this video? “How to Hit On An Asian Girl”

True story: Just a couple of weeks ago, I was asked, “Do you work in a massage parlor?” Whoa, WTF, no, and F-U!

Thank you, Stanley Kubrick.

When thinking about API men, the word “emasculated” comes into mind. Throughout history in the United States, Asian American men have been “feminized” by white Americans when they were forced into labor that had traditionally belonged to women–laundering, food preparation, house-keeping, etc. At one point in history, it was considered a sign of wealth for white people to have a China boy as a housekeeper. We often forget that there are white middle-class American women who hold cultural and class power over Asian American men. Not all men are created equal. We have been socially conditioned to think that Asian American men are less likely to be successful, attractive and desirable. Just take a look at Wesley Yang’s “Paper Tigers: What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?” article in New York Magazine, and you’ll see what I mean. He doesn’t seem proud of Korean-ness, and he seem to think that in order to succeed, Asian Americans need to be more like white people. When this article was published last year, one of my Korean American friends told me that he doesn’t know why but he couldn’t see an Asian becoming the “CEO of a restaurant chain like McDonalds.” I found it ludicrous because the CEO of Panda Express is Asian.

These are the lived experiences that we as API Americans face when we go about our lives without a more multifarious representation in the media. The largely white and heteronormative society around us think that we APIs only exist in stereotypes, and those of us in the queer community do not exist at all. (Note: In this article, I am using queer as a political umbrella term to mean everything non-heteronormative).

As we inch our way into the second decade of the new millennium, let us take notice that a queer Asian America is slowly emerging in the world around us.

I used to study gender and sexuality issues within the framework of social and developmental psychology yet, even as recent as 6 years ago, I had a lot of trouble finding valuable studies on queer Asian America.

Perhaps the most-well known Asian American lesbian film of our times is Saving Face (2004), and there were several others but, like Saving Face, they did not hit mainstream. It’s great to see young APIs in mainstream media like Glee, Hyphen Magazine, Audrey Magazine, and across billboards now that companies are starting to recognize that APIs are the fastest growing ethnic minority group in America.

At The L Stop, we were inspired by the Visibility Project led by Mia Nakano in her quest to bring visibility to female-identified queer APIs. Though we are Chicago’s premier lesbian website, we want to take it a bit further and bring visibility to people in the entire LGBT spectrum within the larger API community. We partnered up with Chicago i2i and ElleCee Photography for this project. Chicago i2i (pronounced “eye to eye” and stands for Invisible to Invincible) is our local community-based organization that celebrates LGBTQQ APIs in the Chicago area. Linda of ElleCee Photography is a personal friend of mine from Sacramento, California (Shameless plug: Please consider using them when you visit California!).

For this project, I wanted to showcase the many, different facets of Chicago’s queer API community.


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About JT

JT is originally from San Francisco, CA. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in psychology, focusing primarily on gender and sexuality research. Seeking a change in 2008, she moved to Chicago, and what a change it has been! She can been seen walking and yelping about various Chicago neighborhoods. JT identifies as queer and bisexual, and she is currently dating a straight man. She has an unapologetic love for civil rights, whether it’d be for racial, gender, sexual, or political socioeconomic equality. Occasionally, she volunteers with Howard Brown Health Center to promote safer sex in Boystown.


4 Responses to “Queer in Asian/Pacific Islander Chicago”

  1. I love, love this article. Way to bring focus to a huge population of very diverse people that often get overlooked here in the States. When people break race relations down to a white/black issue they are further creating racial tensions through their omissions. There are a whole rainbow of folks in our world, each the same as the next, and deserving of recognition and respect. Thanks JT!!!

    Posted by Leah | May 31, 2012, 1:19 pm
  2. Thanks for this great article JT!! And thanks to the L Stop for helping raise visibility. i2i was proud to be part of this fun and important project.

    Posted by Joy | May 31, 2012, 7:42 pm
  3. Joy – it’s our pleasure. But really all the thanks go to JT!

    Posted by Vivian | May 31, 2012, 9:15 pm
  4. I am a White guy.I just want to have a short word here.I do not mind a lesbians,or bisexual women,since 99,point something of worldwide women are bisexual,but if you do prefer your own gender,as you do,please stop lying to guys and rob us of our money and marry a girl instead and do not write under the Facebook status interested in men,since very few,if any of women nowadays is truly interested in men,other than that interest for money a male might have.Thank you and have a nice holidays.

    Posted by Roko | December 28, 2012, 12:30 am

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