The Last Bias: How & Why We Tolerate Gay Anti-Asian Prejudice -- & Its Pernicious Effect on Our Community
In the first part of this multi-part story, EDGE examines the experience of one of the most common scapegoats of the gay male dating and socializing scene: gay Asian men. I’ve tried to reach beyond the various stereotypes and phrases sometimes applied to men of this ethnicity (e.g., "rice queen").
Anti-Asian sentiment remains one of the last prejudices tacitly if not overtly condoned in the gay community. Even more than anti-fat, anti-aging or the other "anti’s" (racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, even geographic snobbery), prejudice against Asians seems to be endemic in the wider community, especially American gay urban affluent men.
What are the sources of this anti-Asian stigma? How does such sustained hostility affect the self-esteem of gay Asians? What other harm does this hostility wreak in our world? How do non-Asian gay men contribute to an atmosphere that is all-too often unfriendly to diversity?
As an article published here last month similarly addressed, LGBT communities, despite having long histories of themselves facing (and fighting) discrimination, isolation and inequality, are far from immune to the racism that permeates modern society. Bowing to a heterosexual, white upper-middle class-headed hierarchy that pits minority groups against each other in a "divide and conquer" strategy, queer white folk are not innocent in fostering a queer culture that turns its back on people of color -- when not being actively or at least covertly hostile.
The ways in which some gay men, in particular, continue to perpetuate certain racial stigmas can prove doubly dangerous to our queer brethren who share our sting of homophobia while being hit from the other side by an ideology that both overtly and subtly devalues or even rejects men of color from social spaces.
Note: In the interest of coherence and brevity, our story focuses on men within the Asian and Pacific Islander (or API) communities whose heritage takes root in Eastern nations of the sprawling continent including but not limited to China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Queer men from other parts of the continent, as well as women and transgender people, encounter social stigmas and experiences largely unique to their identity groups, though some overlap is to be expected. Still, for the purposes of this article, I have restricted myself to the Pacific Rim and Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand), which does not include ethnicities of the Indian Subcontinent.
Rice, pandas and ’Princess Tiny Meat’
Odds are, if you’ve been both gay and awake in the last decade, you’ve heard something like this quote somewhere before: "I know what they’re thinking [when they see us at the club]. They think that I’m a potato queen," Jimmy Chen, a gay Asian man in a relationship with a white man explained to Tyra Banks on an episode of her talk show devoted to interracial dating back in 2006.
A potato queen is," Chen explained, "somebody who is like a gold digger who hates themselves and who, you know, is Asian," Chen explained. "And they see him [his partner] as a rice queen ... An older gay white man who is ugly and fat and they are attracted to, like, people like me and objectify me."
The name-calling Chen described is a common experience for queer API men. For Anglos, such terminology is seen not as hateful, but as playful -- as seemingly guileless terms like "panda hugger" would suggest. According to a 2007 study commissioned by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, however, the result is anything but harmless: 78 percent of API LGBT people experience racism within the predominately white LGBT community.
Anti-Asian racism manifests itself in varying ways. Asian men routinely confront the common "No Asians" disclaimers found on many profiles on gay dating and hookup sites. More publicly, some bars in large metropolitan centers resist the label of being seen as a gay Asian hotspot by limiting Asians or at least not making them feel as comfortable as their Anglo counterparts. It’s not uncommon on list serves that serve party boys to read disparaging about how a Circuit party or a particular bar has "too many Asians" or "has been invaded by Asians" or "there were pockets of Asians everywhere."
And, of course, there’s the most common, widespread and perhaps pernicious stereotype of gay Asian men, which makes a broad (and ridiculous) generalization: disappointing penis size. According to sources interviewed for this story, such abstractions serve to emasculate gay Asian men who, via mainstream media depictions, are already painted as more feminine, scholarly and submissive. It paints them as universal bottoms and as in thrall to Anglo (and black) men’s presumably more massive members.
Such caricatures often make it difficult for the men to land a date, find a community and feel welcomed to the queer "table" and can lead to lowered self-esteem and an upped risk of isolation, opening the door to all the emotional and physical problems, like depression, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, that stem from these concerns.
Anti-Asian bias may even be a contributing factor to earning potential. A 2006 study on same-sex API couples from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation & Public Policy found that, based on 2000 U.S. Census data, couples comprised of two Asian LGBT people earned, on average, $3,000 less than non-Asian couples annually and over $20,000 less than inter-ethnic couples.
Discovering the (Deep) Roots of Anti-Asian Bias
Patrick Cheng http://www.patrickcheng.net/, an assistant professor of Historical & Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., has written widely on the experiences of gay Asian American men and partially faults a lack of positive media coverage of queer Asian lives in explaining the biases API men face.
"We’re often either completely ignored or completely fetishized," explained Cheng, who is also ordained in the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church denomination. "I think this issue of visibility -- and what’s being depicted as being attractive or not -- is real."
Cyrus Hernandez, a 24-year-old blogger of Filipino heritage at The New Gay, has written about his own experiences reconciling his Eastern ethnicity and "Western" sexuality. He draws a parallel with the way in which Asian women are one-dimensionally fetishized in American media. But he believes that more forces are at play with the way queer Asian men’s sexuality has been presented.
"We are perceived as sexually passive, compliant and very effeminate men who seek romantic relationships with largely with Anglo men," Hernandez said. "In furthering that perception, sexual agency for queer APIs is relinquished as not necessarily one’s own, but one defined in relationship to male access."
Cheng notes the feminized depiction of gay Asian men simply doesn’t mesh with queer nightlife venues and media, which seem to place higher value on more "macho" depictions of gay life: Club posters and web ad campaigns are centered on bulky white bodies with chiseled abs. Gay club promoters or magazines were not the first to invent or popularize such images, however.
"I think all this stems from something larger than the queer issue, but rather this ’Orientalist’ notion of East vs. West," Cheng said. "In order for the West to assert its masculinity, it needs something to be feminized, and this ends up emasculating Asian men. We’re already seen as less masculine in movies where we’re either nerds or Zen masters, but never just the guy next door -- or a stud."
This ties in with a much wider anti-Asian prejudice that is an integral part of American history. In 1862, California enacted the "Anti-Coolie Act." As the name implies, it limited Chinese manual labor and immigration. In 1882, the U.S.’ "Chinese Exclusion Act" effectively became the first law to suspend immigration from a foreign population.
Ways in which "the inscrutable East" were shown to be anathema to the West European-orented Americans is graphically demonstrated in 1873’s "Pigtail Ordinance," which forced prisoners in San Francisco to cut off their distinctive braids. Chinese were stereotyped as spitting, opium-using deviants.
The instances of Asian stereotyping are still very much with us. (Take a look at Rosie O’Donnell’s controversial Chinese imitation on The View circa late 2006.) But the most pernicious anti-Asian movement came in California during World War II, when Japanese-Americans were rounded up, their livelihoods taken away and they were placed in "internment camps" -- the only instance of a foreign population placed in concentration camps (comparable to our deplorable treatment of Native Americans).
Gay Asian Men in Media
Chong-Suk Han looks at depictions like a feminine gay Asian man on the Grey’s Anatomy’s episode "Where the Boys Are" and a Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ad showing an Asian man as the spouse -- rather than the soldier -- with a critical eye. The assistant professor of sociology & anthropology at Middlebury College is one of the leading researchers of queer API men. Han said such images contribute to a cultural devaluing of gay Asian male sexuality.
According to GLAAD, 86 percent of the LGBT characters on the national airwaves in the 2008-’09 television season were white; only 19 were of Asian descent, usually playing more minor roles. LGBT media articles, like Out Magazine’s "How to Gab in Gaysian" in February 2005 are also seen as perpetuating a perception of Asian gayness as foreign and outside the norm.
"The media is perpetuating an image of anti-femininity and the LGBT community has bought into this idea that being masculine -- and the way the straight community defines that -- will make us better off," Han told EDGE.
"It reflects a deep-seated insecurity among a lot of gay men that there’s something wrong with not being just like the straight people we see walking down the street," Han continued. "The problem lies much deeper than just with gay Asian men. It just happens to be that we often become the scapegoat of that line of thinking."
All of these negative semiotics came to a head in 2004, when hundreds of LGBT New Yorkers were joined by Asians and anti-racists at the headquarters of Details. The men’s magazine published an article called "Gay or Asian?" that was meant to be funny. The protesters found it anything but.
A letter authored by Asian Media Watchdog and signed by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered student groups on several college campuses said the column "suggested Asian men cannot be both gay and Asian. Or that we are both and therefore should be mocked."
The magazine ended up apologizing for its double insensitivity, and the incident eventually led to the firing of its then-editor. But the incident served to galvanize Asian-Americans and gay Asians into a new sense of activism. No longer, they said, would they be stereotyped as nerdy, slightly effeminate science whizzes who lacked a sex life and a normal-sized penis.
The battle was officially on. But gay Asian-Americans faced -- and are facing -- an uphill battle to fight what seems to be ingrained prejudice in the larger community.
In the second part of this story, coming out next week, we will take a look at the limitations and problems posed by cultural and linguistic barriers and how this internalizes inadequacy. Also we look at what might and what has already been done to foster a queer community that both accepts and lavishes in the varied backgrounds and traditions of its members, and the role that the Internet has played with this issue.