Several decades later, it’s hard to imagine a period where
queer Asians were largely invisible. These days, queer
Asian Americans regularly march in gay parades, and
in large urban enclaves such as Los Angeles, routinely
gather en masse at dance clubs celebrating gay Asian
pride. How did that situation change? In this essay,
I’ll look back at the pre- and post-Stonewall periods
and at some of the conditions that led gay Asians in
North America to begin organizing publicly.
To be sure, the politics three decades ago were different.
It was the period of the Vietnam War, student
protests, racial uprisings, and the stirrings of the
women’s and gay liberation movements. American
society was in turmoil, with street protests and
marches. Anti-establishment ideas were in the air;
the old, established order had to be overthrown. In
short, the sixties had spilled over into the seventies.
Stonewall in 1969 had been where gay and transvestite
barflies had fought back against the police
raiding the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan. But queer
Asians did not just erupt from Stonewall, nor did
they appear from nowhere. We may have been
invisible, but many of us were active in the Civil
Rights Movement and in the anti-war movement
as well as the emerging women’s and gay liberation
[…] Another early pioneer was Merle Woo, openly lesbian and socialist. As she has written: “The Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement gave inspiration to the student movements of the sixties, and then there were the modern women’s movement and the post-Stonewall lesbian/gay movement. I am one of the beneficiaries of these movements: I have gotten an education to affirm not only who I am, an Asian American lesbian woman, but I also got support in terms of physical survival – I got work because of these movements.”
Around the same time, Kitty Tsui was coming out. Kitty, who like me, was born in Hong Kong, but spent part of her youth in England, arrived in the U.S. in 1968. As she would later recall, when she came out at age 21 in San Francisco in the early 1970s, “the faces that surrounded me were white.” She sought visibility: “As an Asian American lesbian I am unrepresented, omitted, silenced and invisible. I write to fight erasure, to demand a voice, to become visible, to reclaim my history. I write to turn on the light.” She would become a strong proponent of talking and writing about sex.
In 1971, an Asian American progressive women’s publication was already proclaiming that “gay women must also have the right to self-definition”: “Lesbianism can be seen as revolutionary in that it is a challenge to the basic assumptions of the present system, representing an alternative life style. As revolutionary women seeking the liberation of all women, we support a united front with our sisters against all arbitrary and rhetorical social standards.”
[…] In Philadelphia, I also got to see Don Kao more often and he and I ended up organizing the first gathering of gay and lesbian Asians—at the first National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in October, 1979, the same weekend as the first gay March on Washington. The conference was organized by the National Coalition of Black Gays.
Those events are documented in the Summer 1980 issue of Gay Insurgent, a gay left magazine I edited at the time. I wanted to make sure that this historic gathering would not be forgotten. Re-reading it recently, I’m struck by how the cover stands out: It features a photograph of the nine of us, female and male some with arms raised, most of us smiling, behind a huge banner: “WE’RE ASIANS, GAY & PROUD.” Inside was Audre Lorde’s keynote address at the conference (“When Will the Ignorance End?”), resolutions from the conference, and news accounts after the conference.
[…] Also reprinted in the magazine was a Chinese-American lesbian sister’s talk at the conference, Tana Loy’s “Who’s the Barbarian?” Expressing unity with other people of color, she spoke about what had happened at the Asian caucus meeting: “Somehow, we felt—immediately and immensely in tune with each other, because when an Asian sees another Asian—they run away from each other.” She attributed this avoidance of ourselves in part to a “survival response, because for decades of imperialist wars we have been atomic bombed, we have been napalmed, we have been raped; we have been driven to suicide—and we have built this country from the east to the west. And we have been called the barbarian! … Who’s the barbarian?”
She added: “But today we are going toward each other, and we are sharing our strength with each other, and with all our brothers and sisters here today. You know something? We’re not that quiet and reserved Asian… We’re not that ‘model minority.’ Oh no, oh, we’re silent, buy why are we silent? We’re silent, even from each other, by the racism and the sexism that exists in this country, that manifests itself in the fears and frustrations that keep our own people in the closet as Asians and as lesbians and gay men. Many of us cannot even come out for fear of deportation; and yet I know there are many Asians who are going to be out on that street tomorrow, knowing that’s a reality in their lives.”
She explained: “In our short time together, a support system has evolved from which we have drawn our strength, from each other and from all of you here. And out of this strength we have collectively decided to march together as Asians…and you can be sure, you can be damned sure, that those who oppose us will hear us, and they will hear us loud and clear.”
And indeed they would, as about a dozen of us marched from Howard University in the black neighborhood through to Chinatown and to the mall, behind the banner expressing our pride, an historic first march by openly gay and lesbian Asians.
At the march, we marched joined in solidarity with other people of color, with the indigenous gays and lesbians leading the entire Third World contingent, behind a “First Gay Americans” banner. We listened as one selected to represent our group, Michiyo Cornell, a Vermont-based Eurasian poet, addressed the huge rally at the Washington Monument, on the theme, “Living in Asian America.” Her talk was also published in the magazine.
Saying it was the first time such a network had been formed, Michiyo noted: “I am careful to use the phrase Asian American because we are not hyphenated Americans nor are we always foreign-born women and men from Asia. We have been in this country for over 150 years! We live in Asian America…”
She continued: “We are called the model minority, the quiet, the passive, exotic erotics with the slanted cunt to match our ‘slanted’ eyes or the small dick to match our small size. But we are not. For years Asian Americans have organized against our oppression. We protested and were lynched, deported and put into concentration camps during World War II. We must not forget that the United States of America has bombed, napalmed and colonized Asian countries for decades… . It could rape and murder Vietnamese women, children and men, then claim that ‘Asians don’t value human life.’”
Describing herself as an “Asian American woman, a mother and a lesbian,” characteristics that are “difficult to put into a neat package,” Michiyo exclaimed that “I know that I live in the face of this country’s determination to destroy me, to negate me, to render me invisible.” She demanded “white lesbians and gay men” to think about how they repress “your Asian American lesbian and gay sisters and brothers,” urging them to address their “white skin privilege.” She urged the crowd to realize that “the capitalist system uses not just sexual preference but race and class as well to divide us…I would say that we share the same oppression as Third World people, and for that reason we must stand together or be hanged separately by what Audrey Lorde calls the ‘noose of conformity.’” She urged fellow closeted Asian Americans to come out, asking them to “consider how we become accomplices to our own sexual and racial oppression when we fail to claim our true identities.”
[…] At the time many of us remained active in progressive causes because we sought a radical restructuring of America. We rejected straight depictions of us a psychologically impaired, or as incapable of progressive work. We knew those stereotypes weren’t true. We remained activists even when we suffered racism or homophobia, because of this larger goal of changing overall society. And we saw our struggle as part and parcel of people of color (“Third World” peoples’) struggles. But in 1979, because similarly inclined individuals were able to meet together, a critical mass was achieved, and we were able to begin organizing publicly as both Asian and gay. That effort continues, because the task of creating a society that meets basic human needs remains unfinished. The transnational flow of queer activists and activism back and forth between the U.S. and Asia also continues. One example. Less than a year after China reclaimed sovereignty over the former British territory, Russell Leong, I and other activists from North America gathered with our sisters and brothers in the Chinese diaspora for the first Tongzhi Conference in Hong Kong under the Communist control (during an unexpectedly chilly February of 1998). In impeccable Mandarin, Russell spoke and read poetry while I resorted to English as I reminisced about my early days of gay activism and writing in Hong Kong and the initial stirrings of gay Asian activism in North America. My talk was simultaneously translated into Mandarin for a large delegation (male and female) from across the border. The solidarity that emerged at that meeting resembled similar gatherings in the U.S.; we felt a certain comradeship that transcended national boundaries, coupled with a sense of mission to continue this work.
An excellent first-hand account on queer API history and a reminder in how our struggles are deeply intertwined with the civil rights movement.