C. Winter Han is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Middlebury College. He has also written a fascinating book called Geisha of a Different Kind, which explores Race and Sexuality in Gaysian America. He did an interview with Jake Talks last year and he was asked about Queer Asians having visibility in the gay community. Here is C. Winter Han response
I think the answer to this question will probably be met with a bit of hostility, for a number of reasons. But I want to give what I think is an honest response. To be frank, there are two broad reasons why this is so. One is socio-historical and has to do with the way that “gay” and “Asian” is thought about in the larger imagination. When we think about who is “gay,” we routinely think about white men. This isn’t an accident. Rather, the way that gay media presents what is “gay” equates gayness with whiteness. In my book, I talk about a number of different ways that gay media have equated gayness with whiteness, but the most telling example is an article that appeared in Out magazine titled, “How to Gab in Gaysian.” In the article, the magazine claimed to give its readers a lesson on how to translate Gaysian into English. Clearly, by implying that the readers of the magazine would need a “English-Gaysian dictionary,” the column presupposes that the readers are white, or at least not Asian.
More importantly, the tactic used by national gay organizations to win acceptance has been largely along the lines of presenting gays and lesbians as being “just like” straight people. A part of that strategy has been to present gay couples as being “just like” straight couples. Certainly, gay couples and straight couples are similar in a number of ways. But the gay media, and to some extent mainstream media, have unfortunately presented gay and lesbian couples as having very gendered relationships similar to those often found among, and stereotypically believed to be characteristic of, straight couples. So to some extent, media has presented gay and lesbian relationships as husband and wife relationships rather than husband and husband or wife and wife relationships. Often, when there is an interracial coupling of a gay white man and a gay Asian man in the media, the Asian man is presented as the wife. So in many ways, gay white men are normalized while gay Asian men are other-ed for the purpose of presenting a very heteronormative gay couple.
On the other hand, as Russell Leong has noted, the model minority myth that constructs all Asian Americans as being hard-working, studious, and family oriented, precludes the idea that Asian Americans can be both gay and Asian. So here too, gay Asian Americans are largely invisible in the way that we think about what it means to be Asian American.
But it’s not just outside forces that make it difficult for gay Asian men to gain visibility. Another big issue that I see among queer Asian American men, not so much women, is that too many of us fail to see each other as potential allies and/or potential sexual partners and see each other as “competition” for the affections of white men. Of course, this is deeply ingrained in us through the constant portrayals of white men as being more desirable sexual partners than men of color by the gay media. So a lot of gay Asian men come to see getting a white man as a measure of our own self-worth. In fact, I’ve met a lot of gay Asian men who actively attempt to distance themselves from other gay Asian men as a way of distancing themselves from the stereotypes of Asian men. So they come to see themselves as exceptions rather than coming to see the images and stereotypes as problematic. Certainly not all of us, but a significant percentage of us see the world that way. In fact, many of us have become apologists for some blatantly racist acts committed by gay white men towards gay men of color. And that makes organizing around race to be difficult.
This problem isn’t by any means unique to gay Asian men. There are numerous accounts by gay black and gay Latino writers about the problematic desire for whiteness among gay men of color. But for gay black and Latino men, there is a much larger and visible socializing along race that has the potential to lead to activism. For example, there are some visible social spaces created and maintained for gay black men and gay Latino men outside of the racially fetishized spaces where the intent is for men of different races to come and meet each other. Yes, there are organizations and clubs where that is still the intent, but for gay black and Latino men, there are alternative spaces. We don’t see this so much among gay Asian men. With Asian men, most of the social spaces that are allegedly for us are actually a platform for white men to meet Asian men. I want to be clear that I don’t think that in and of itself is problematic. But what is problematic is that there are no other alternatives. So if the primary goal of social spaces that are allegedly meant for gay Asian men is to meet white men, it further compounds seeing other Asian men as competition.
The good news is that there are, at least, gay Asian organizations that are trying to address this. When I was in Seattle, there were two groups, Q&A and YAMS that did quite a bit to build connections between gay Asian men. For a lot of the men that we reached, it was the first time that they actively socialized with other gay Asian men and these organizations gave them a safe space to voice their concerns. In many ways, they were phenomenally beneficial in that they gave gay Asian men a social space outside of bars and mainstream gay organizations that largely cater to gay white men. But these things are labor and cost intensive and difficult to maintain. Clearly, we’re all socialized in the same way and desire for whiteness, once developed, is difficult to overcome. But at the very least, we need to start recognizing where that comes from and how that privileges white men at our expense. Once we start doing that, we can begin to challenge it.