Whenever you’re one of the few, or the only person from a certain ethnic/social group in a particular scene, you inadvertently become the representative for the entire culture — which is a very tough position to be in, but I’m owning it — that’s why I’m the King of Bollywood Burlesque!
My hope is that I won’t always be one of the very few South Asian performers in the burlesque community or in the drag community etc…that more people of color will be inspired to perform. If anything this whole experience has opened my eyes.
After my burlesque debut was such a success, I had to do more research to perfect my act. So I started taking Bhangra and Bollywood dance classes and getting more involved in the South Asian community in New York. I’ve made so many new friends and have finally realized how lucky I am to be a part of it. It’s always amazing to learn about and discover a new culture and even more rewarding when that culture is your own. Doing so has even allowed me to become ever so slightly closer to my family, because now I can talk to my parents about Bollywood & Bhangra music. Of course, they’re not happy about me being a burlesque dancer but that’s another issue.
Born in 1956, Leslie Cheung was one of Hong Kong’s most famous stars during the golden era of Cantopop in the 1980s. He was dashing, stylish and fitted the public idea of a perfect heterosexual male lover. But in reality, he was in a long-term relationship with his childhood friend, Daffy Tong.
It was not an easy time to be gay. At that time, homosexuality was still viewed by many as an illness and abnormality in Hong Kong, especially after the emergence of the first local case of Aids in 1984. It was not until 1991 that adult gay sex was decriminalised in the territory.
“The LGBT movement in Hong Kong took off in the 1990s, when the community finally became visible to the public,” Travis Kong, an associate professor of sociology researching gay culture at The University of Hong Kong, told BBC Chinese. And it was at this point that Cheung became more daring in his work.
Last year, Invisible Footprints curated an exhibition at the Ontario College of Art and Design that featured seven contemporary queer and trans Asian artists’ reflections on the theme of queer Asian history. This year, the group is embarking upon an even more multifaceted project for the Gardiner Museum’s Community Arts Space that comprises both an exhibition as well as a series of workshops where Asian-identified members of the LGBTQ community are invited to join in clay-making and dialogue on themes selected by the featured artists.
“This [year’s exhibition] is interpreting the word ‘archival’ differently,” says Khanh Tudo, a filmmaker and installation artist whose theme for the Invisible Footprints show this year is pleasure and comfort. Her part of the exhibition, she tells me, will include a giant, interactive durian sculpture that viewers can climb into: “[I’m] more so looking at it as not so much big accomplishments that you can hold physically but rather emotional archiving, archiving how our bodies experience feeling and memory.”
In her debut novel America is Not the Heart, Elaine Castillo writes about a Bay Area that is rarely represented in our culture: a home of working class immigrants. It’s a Bay populated with rundown malls and Filipino restaurants that hold karaoke parties after closing time, of young second-gen immigrants who spend Saturday night playing cards in garages, and who take long drives every weekend in their hand-me-down Honda Civics to see friends spin the Pharcyde and Afrika Bambaataa records in Daly City.
For me it was very important to write about queer women, bi women in particular, because I’m also bi and I don’t see any representations of bi women anywhere, especially not bi Filipina or Asian Americans.
It was also really important to write about queer suburban women, because it’s exactly as you said. I read a lot of really formative, beautiful queer literature growing up, but a lot of it was urban, a lot of it took place in either San Francisco or New York. The suburban or the rural or the country—that’s always the kind of backwards place that you have to leave behind in order to come into your queerness. And I just don’t think that’s everybody’s story. I don’t think that is the trajectory that every queer person takes.
I’m writing about queer women who are also immigrants, who are also at the crux of their community, who are also working class women, who are a part of families. How do you write about women who are beholden to all of those parts of themselves? Those are the queer lives that I’m interested in showing and exploring. Those are the queer lives that I knew growing up.
The brainchild of London-based fashion and art curator Ryan Lanji, Hungama – which loosely translates to ‘chaos’ or ‘uproar’ in Urdu – was born after he noticed the lack of spaces and club nights allowing queer South Asian people the chance for their culture and sexuality to seamlessly co-exist. It’s also one of the only events in London to bring queer Asians together with the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, as they aren’t always one and the same.
“I used to be obsessed with Bollywood music but I’d left it to the wayside,” Ryan tells me, speaking about how it often feels like queer South Asians have to leave their culture behind once they come out. Ultimately, he hopes that attendees – a significant proportion of whom have come with their significant others – can dance to the music they grew up with alongside throwback chart hits, only this time with “our boyfriends or girlfriends and not wonder if we’ll ever get the chance to be loved for ourselves.” But he’s also keen to stress that Hungama is just like any other night in that it’s a place to let loose. “The night itself has organically become a party that celebrates being you, who you are, who you love and who you want to be.”
Right now, Hungama seems to be part of a new wave of third generation South Asians redefining their self-image and celebrating the multiplicities of their identities. Burnt Roti Magazine, for instance, is a magazine centred on non-binary identities and bisexuality from a South Asian perspective, and they recently celebrated their third issue. Meanwhile, earlier this month, LGBTQ+ charity Imaan played host to the Big Gay Iftaar, bringing both the mainstream Muslim community together with its queer counterparts to observe Ramadan.
As a disabled person, I’ve always felt a keen sense of justice and drive to do what is right and to challenge systems of violent oppression. And because I am disabled and queer and [an] East Asian person of color, I understand particularly what it is to be multiply marginalized in society. I work alongside many people who face other marginalizations and oppressions, including those that I don’t personally experience, and I’ve always had a firm belief in my lifetime that, whatever resources a person has to challenge injustice, we have an obligation to use those.
My work centers around the idea that all human beings are in fact valuable, not in spite of our bodies or our brains, not in spite of our identities or experiences – marginal, targeted, or privileged – but rather in the whole of who we are. That’s what disability justice is about. And much of my work has been predicated upon working with folks in all other fields, professionally, or in activism work, or completely outside of the spheres of recognized labor, and understanding that disability justice is relevant to everyone. And more than being relevant, it is necessary. If we want to achieve a just world, if we want to achieve a loving society, if we want to end systems of oppression, if we each want to be able to live truly fulfilling and meaningful lives, free of fear of violence, then we need disability justice.
NBC Asian America’s interview of Lydia X.Z. Brown is here.