Pride and the Pride: Mental Health and the Queer Asian American Community
written by Ana Chen, edited by Simon Wu and Jing Jing Wang
I was ten when I learned that one of my closest friends, a fellow Chinese American, was gay.
The news, while it did not shock me, was surprising – I’d never thought of gayness as a facet of the Asian American community. Gayness seemed like a Western novelty, a movement of whites and rainbows.
I did not know how to react to the news; I continued treating him like normal, skirting around the issue for fear of saying something offensive.
But as I began looking into the Asian American diaspora, I realized the depth of the intersections between LGBTQ+ and Asian American communities. Stigma against queer Asian Americans runs rampant not only in Asia, but in the United States as well.
Part of this stems from ancient cultural values such as the importance of family and traditional gender roles; another part originates from backlash against what many older Asians see as the fearfully liberal culture of America. Asians, who typically immigrate to economically developing or booming parts of the United States, are disproportionately more exposed to more liberal mindsets.
Recently, I interviewed seven queer Asian Americans about their experiences with identity, family, and the LGBTQ+ community – not only to inform myself on a typically silenced part of the Asian American diaspora, but also to provide an avenue, no matter how small, for their voices. I was inspired in large by Hyphen Magazine, a journal which seeks to capture the unabridged Asian American experience.
I acknowledge that most of my interviewees are from relatively liberal areas across the United States. Most of them have extremely supportive friends, if not family, and all of them are teenagers and young adults. However, I see this work as a launching pad for further journalism and investigation on the multifaceted nature of ethnic minorities.
I sent a questionnaire to seven Asian Americans across the country to investigate common stereotypes surrounding queerness and the intersections between the LGBTQ+ and Asian American communities. I offered the interviewees anonymity and/or the option to refuse or elaborate on any of the questions posed. All of the interviewees, however, chose to give their names.
Despite knowing my interviewees through friendships or mutual friendships, I am not typically involved in queer communities and was therefore hesitant to broach the subject. “Tell me your inspirations,” I decided to ask first. “Let me know a bit about yourselves.”
And then, “What can we – as in non-queer Asian Americans, non-Asian American queers, or those neither Asian American nor queer, gain from hearing your experiences?”
My interviewees provided a plethora of background information: ethnicity, favorite foods, gender identity and sexuality, hobbies, cats or dogs. I was surprised at how much the background questions helped me relax – as the interviewer, I had been unconsciously reaching out for ways to bridge their experiences with mine, to dislocate my own apprehensions from their stories.
The answer to my second question was unanimous: Shouldn’t America, supposedly the cradle of inclusivity and diversity, be a fountain of voices silenced elsewhere? The homogenization of the Asian American community – perpetuated by images such as the model minority stereotype and reinforced by the silencing of Asians lower on the socioeconomic spectrum, brown Asians, and queer Asians – completely counters this. Even though Asians comprise only 6% of the U.S. population, queer Asian Americans even less so, Asian Americans are still a vital part of our economic and social scene, an increasingly prominent face in politics, international relationships, and activism.
Sriya, a sixteen-year-old from Seattle (and a dog person), stresses the amalgamation of Asian American experiences and the subsequent loss of queer Asian American voices. “I had never seen a brown queer woman and was really lost,” she says. She is a Telegu who recently came out to her family as bisexual. “This is a huge problem, with the privilege of East Asians as the focus of ‘Asian activism’ [in LGBTQ+ communities] while forgetting...brown Asians. The model minority myth does not allow for a queer Asian American identity.”
Simon, also a sixteen-year-old from Seattle (cat person), agrees. “I had no visible queer role model to look up to,” he says, “since gay culture in America is so white-normalized. The feelings of being ‘not gay enough’ or ‘not Asian enough’ are two that I continue to struggle with to this day.”
This phenomenon also pertains to non-queer Asian Americans – as a humanities-orientated Chinese American woman who aims to pursue academia or law, I too have very few role models. Although this paper will not discuss the whiteness of feminism, I do wish to point out how the intersection of race and feminism bears many parallels with that of race and queer identity. All too frequently, Asian Americans are underrepresented in activism.
But the lack of diverse voices does not only stem from stereotypes applied from non-Asian Americans; familial and cultural pressures also suppress queer Asian American voices. Although most of the interviewees emphasized supportive family as a huge source of security and confidence; Sowmya, a seventeen-year-old from Colorado, is an exception.
“My family has always either avoided the topic of sexual orientation or discussed it in a negative light,” she says. She is seventeen years old and Indian; she loves bubble milk tea, dancing, and dogs. “The topic of sexual orientation is completely taboo in much of contemporary Indian culture.”
Sowmya began the process of coming out as a lesbian to her family earlier this year. She cites her school communities – and queer Asian American communities in general – as both inspiration and security. “There’s solidarity among queer Asian Americans,” she says. “We’ve all had relatively common experiences navigating queer life in both our cultural backgrounds and American communities.”
Jing Jing, a genderqueer (they/them) seventeen-year-old dog lover from Seattle, agrees on the vitality of finding queer Asian American communities and role models. “Their stories [are] different from mine, but so relatable,” they say about a queer Asian American theatre production that was recently launched in Seattle. “...seeing them, queer Asian Americans, share their stories through theatre meant so much to me.”
But Jing Jing has faced difficulties during their own process of coming out: Although their mother was extremely supportive of their gender identity and sexuality, their father and grandmother are less tolerant. Jing Jing cites the language barrier as a reason for Asian American difficulties in expressing themselves; for instance, there is no commonly-used word for ‘non-binary’ or ‘trans’ in Mandarin Chinese. “My mom still doesn’t use they/them pronouns for me,” Jing Jing says, “[since] English pronouns are hard for her.”
Language isn’t the only barrier for queer Asian Americans – as addressed earlier, Asian cultures typically value traditional familial structures and duties. Says Russell, a sixteen-year-old from Seattle, “my grandparents are always talking about how they want me to grow up and have children, so I’m not sure if they will take the news [of my gayness] as easily.” Russell is Chinese and a dog lover; he came out to his family in middle school. Similarly, Emi, an eighteen-year-old from Seattle (cat person), cites cultural standards and stigma as a prime reason for her own fear of coming out as transgender.
The language barrier, cultural expectations, and widespread stigma are only a few problems that discourage conversations about queerness even among non-queer Asian Americans. “There’s so much stigma about queerness that most [non-queer Asian Americans] won’t even talk [among themselves],” Jing Jing says. “And when they do it’s definitely considered bad and wrong.”
But despite the difficulties faced by Asian Americans in the United States, all interviewees agreed that America is much more accepting of queers than Asia. “When we last visited,” Sowmya says, “I remember seeing groups of homeless transgender people on the streets. My cousin explained that people refused to give them jobs and that much of society rejected them.”
Some of these stigmas are institutionalized; as Simon says, China has multiple “laws and regulations that hurt and marginalize queer folk.” After the criminalization and pathologization of queerness during Mao’s regime, Beijing has made no reforms to legalize gay marriage in China and surgeries for transgender individuals require familial consent. In addition, queer media such as producer Fan Popo’s television series Mama Rainbow are frequently censored or blocked.
Nonetheless, queer communities are making great strides in Asian countries on both political and cultural fronts. In addition to the queer theatre production mentioned above, Jing Jing cites photographer Ren Hang and singer Leslie Cheung as major sources of inspiration, both of whom sought to shed light on queer Asians through their respective mediums. In 2004, a Beijing court deemed conversion therapy illegal; this was backed by a similar ruling in 2006. Multiple LGBTQ+ groups in Asia are continuously striving for social and political reforms.
These reforms, which are applicable to both the United States and Asia, include better sex education and legal protection for housing and employment practices. According to Sriya, immigration laws are uniformly biased against queer Asian American immigrants and there are very few healthcare provisions for queer Asian Americans.
But while institutional-level reform is vital for increased inclusivity in both Asian and Asian American communities, many of the interviewees necessitate smaller actions, too. Russell discusses the importance of visual cues to queer individuals: for instance, “rainbow posters that say ‘Safe Zone,’ rainbow flags, or rainbow ribbons.”
Encouraging conversations between queer Asian Americans, Asian Americans, and members of the LGBTQ+ community is also vital for dismantling stigmas surrounding queer Asian Americans – case in point, this interview was an extremely eye-opening experience for me. We tend to label what we do not understand, as exemplified by common stereotypes regarding Asian Americans and queerness, a practice that discourages and suffocates inclusivity and self-reflection.
Chayada, a seventeen-year-old (dog person) from Colorado, discusses this phenomenon’s pertinence to queer Asian Americans: queerness is typically labeled as Western. Asian American experiences are “equally valuable,” she says. To other queer Asian Americans, she asserts that there is no need “to commit to any labels,” considering the nuances and fluidity of sexuality and gender identity.
These thoughts are strongly echoed among the rest of the interviewees; they also resonated with me. Considering the daily bombardment of information and perspectives we receive from news and media outlets, certain aspects of our identity are inevitably fluid. This specifically pertains to the aspects of our identities that seemingly contrast or oppose one another.
Tying back to queer Asian American communities, Jing Jing cites the double-bladed problem of such an intersection. “Homophobia...is pretty bad in Asian American communities,” they say. “And racism...is still pretty bad in queer communities.”
Emi agrees. “You don’t have to [earn] respect as an Asian and respect as a queer person,” she says. “But you have to gain respect as a queer Asian.” She stresses the importance of stepping beyond tolerance, which implies a passive acknowledgement of queer Asian American identity, and the necessity of normalizing typically-silenced voices.
Ultimately, activism and discussion along both avenues of queer Asian American identity are the first steps towards inclusivity and a platform for queer Asian Americans.
As Simon aptly puts it, “To the queer community: treat Asian American members better. To the Asian American community: treat queer members better.”
Again, this interview does not come close to encompassing the myriad queer Asian American voices and experiences. Instead, I treat it as a starting point for studies into Asian America that I will continue to pursue in the future.
With today’s rapid evolution and globalization of cultures, it is all too easy to jump to conclusions or to leave certain voices unheard. However, it is through these unheard voices and experiences that we can learn more about ourselves and our place in an increasingly complex world.
I aim to extend my research into the vast socioeconomic spectrum of the Asian American diaspora. I also desire to document the experiences of brown Asians, Asian women, and Asians in the humanities. One of my recent projects focuses on destigmatizing mental health issues in Asian American communities; the next series of interviews in this portfolio focuses on intergenerational relationships to explore common stereotypes of Asian parenting.
As an optimist, I find hope in all the progress Asian Americans and America have made. And as an activist, I am constantly pushing for more.