For many LGBTQ people of color, their different identities are like roads that intersect to give them a distinct form of discrimination and prejudice. Everyday — all around the world — LGBTQ individuals are targeted for who they are, especially queer people of color. LGBTQ people of color have “unique experiences of marginalization that are shaped by their racial and sexual oppression” (Sandil et. al, 77). In the past decade, scholars and activist have shined a light on the experiences that queer people face. While the main focus have mostly been on Latinos and African Americans, there is very little research on Asian American LGBTQ individuals. There is misconception that Asian Americans do not experience oppression or that is less serious than other marginalized groups.
These beliefs are deeply rooted in the idea that Asian Americans are “model minorities.” However, just like other LGBTQ individuals with intersecting identities, Asian American LGBTQ individuals face discrimination and oppression too. In order to create a more just world for not only queer Asian Americans, but for all LGBTQ poeple of color — we have to understand the unique challenges that each group face and how those challenges are stopping LGBTQ people of color from fully thriving in society. There is call to normalized queerness (especially in Asian culture) and to create safe spaces that is more inclusive for all queer people of color.
To begin, queer Asian American face a unique challenge where they are pressured to choose between their culture or their sexual identity. Even-though “the Asian American population is diverse, they [all] share many common values and views toward homosexuality” (Szymanski and Sung, 259). In Asian cultures, “homosexuality is considered a deviant behavior that brings family dishonor and shame” (Hahm and Adkins). Asian cultures value collectivism that emphasizes conforming to both cultural norms and traditional gender roles.
Moreover, family plays a big role in Asian cultures and these values can negatively influence the attitudes towards a son or daughter coming out as LGBTQ. Fear of being rejected by family members, queer Asian Americans often hide their sexual identity to their families because of the possibility of being shamed or rejected. For Example, Hifumi Ohnishi et al recalls the experiences of a lesbian Asian American women who came out to her mother. According to Ohnishi et al, “the [woman’s] mother told her that she would rather her daughter gets cancer and dies than identify as a lesbian” (Ohnishi et al, 83).
For a long time, the daughter struggled with shame and became suicidal. Stories like these are reasons why most LGBTQ Asain Americans are less willing to come out. Conservative Asian cultures fuels queer Asian Americans to internalized heterosexism which can lead to depression and affects their psychological well-being. Only through internalized hetersexism can queer Asian Americans mediate coming out and their Asian culture. It is reported that within queer Asian Americans, “only 26 percent had come out to their parents” (Harris et al, 241).
One participant was quoted saying, “I wish I could tell my parents, they are the only ones who do not know about my gay identity, but I’m sure they would reject me” (Harris et al, 241). For the Asian American community, it is much harder for them to express and voice their sexual identity — especially if they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Studies have shown that Asian gay males are the ones that are usually discriminated against within their ethnic community. Queer Asian Americans are face with two options: come out and risked being rejected by their families or live their life in secrecy for the rest of their lives. With this, navigating the coming out process for queer Asian Americans is extremely complicated.
This this, prohibits queer Asian Americans to fully thrive in society as they are not able to embrace their who they are which then can significantly take a toll their mental health. The possibility of tainting the family name have also prevented many LGBTQ Asain Americans from fully embracing their sexual identity. Most Asian cultures value collectivism and “emphasizes the importances of conforming to the values of the society” (Ohnishi et al, 82). They view the family as one social unit and each family member plays a role in shaping the family’s overall identity. There is a expectation that sons will continue the family name while daughters are suppose to fulfill their role as wives and mothers.
Anyone who identifies as LGBTQ are seen as rejecting their gender roles and therefore bring shame to the family. Furthermore, this idea of ‘shame’ have created a fear amongst LGBTQ people of color to accept their who they are. In The Trouble of Normal, Michael Warner discusses the word ‘shame’ — in particular sexual shame. Warner states, “although nearly everyone can be easily embarrassed about sex, some people stand at greater risk than others. They might be beaten, murdered jailed, or merely humailited” (Warner, 3). Warner hinted at the realities for people who are deviate from cultural and gender norms. It is common for an LGBTQ person of color to be targeted by law enforcement, thrown in prisons and even murdered.
For queer Asian Americans, they will internalized shame that could result in self-destructive behaviors. One of the ways LGBTQ Asian individuals (particularly gay Asian men) handle their stress is through this idea called stigma management. This allows the individuals to hide certain characteristics about themselves from their family, friends, etc. When discussing the experiences of gay Asian men in particular, studies found that managing stigma within “homosexulity allows individuals to pass as straight, which allows them to avoid potential discriminatory treatment from others” (Han et al, 56). Doing so alleviates the stigma that gay Asian men experience, and in a way a helps improve their own self-esteem.
Strategies that are used to manage stigma includes passing, covering, and normalizing. In the first method ‘passing,’ gay men will oftentimes act less feminine around their Asian community in order to “pass” as straight. The most common strategy is ‘covering,’ this strategy is the “elephant in the room.” Everybody knows, but is not willing to bring it up and just ignore it. Through this strategy, “[it] helps Asian men hide their sexuality in plain sight” (Han et al, 58). Moreover, covering helps gay Asian men to avoid officially come out to their families and don’t see the need to. The last method is normalizing. It focuses on what it means to be queer in a heterosexual Asian environment, and a first step towards queer justice.
This involves educating “normal” people and stigma reversal, which is “when the stigmatized group is able to impose moral inferiority to the members of a dominant group” (Han et al, 60). In her book Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde writes “it is the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes” (Lorde, 114). Through stigma reversal, it allows queer Asian Americans to point out the flaws of homophobic Asians. In addition, they also criticize the Asian community for conforming to western thinking towards queerness. Scholars have pointed out that “historically homosexuality was much better accepted in Asian than in Europe,” it is western cultures that have led Asian people to be homophobic (Han et al, 60).
It is the homophobic Asians who should be ashamed for giving in to western thinking, not the other way around. For groups that are marginalized, there is an importance and an urge to belong to some sort of community. The exclusion that marginalized individuals felt often times “increases their need to belong to social groups” (Harris et al, 240). There has been research that found “that outcast may have positive outcomes for White [LGBTQ] populations; however, the effects of outness for Asian American populations is mixed” (Sandil et. al, 79). It is important to keep in mind that LGBTQ people of color will have a significantly different experience than their white counterparts. There needs to be spaces where all LGBTQ people are welcome and accepted; “safe” spaces is essential to the well-being of all LGBTQ individuals and is essentially for this community. Having a sense of community helps these individuals to flourish by building their cultural identities “that facilitated the integration of their queer, colored, and gendered selves” (Harris et al, 242).
Moreover, having a safe space will allow these individuals to work through their struggles against their families, racism, homophobia, etc. If we want to create change and empowerment for all LGBTQ individuals, we need to have spaces where individuals of all identities are welcomed. This sense of belonging is especially crucial to the well-being of queer Asian Americans. Studies have shown that “experiences of alienation and discrimination within [Asian] and LGBTIQ communities have led to higher rates of mental health issues and higher frequencies of engaging in risky behaviors” (Choudhury, 261). Furthermore, queer Asian Americans feel most complete when they are accepted and acknowledged for each facets of their identity. In order to for this happen, we must change the cultural and social norms in Asian American communities.
We must create a “tolerant and supportive environment” for all LGBTQ individuals with muitiple intersecting identities (Choudhury, 261). This way, all LGBTQ individuals are able to express their needs and concerns. Audre Lorde states, “the threat of difference has been no less blinding to people of color” (Lorde, 119). For decades, queer people of color have fought for queer justice and will continue to keep fighting for justice. Today, LGBTQ activist and advoates of color have made great strides in an effort to support queer individuals of color. Specifically for queer Asian Americans, there is a nonprofit called The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) who is working to promote visibility within the queer Asian community. They recently launched a campaign called “Family is Still Family” to help “promote acceptance of LGBTQ people in API families” (NQAPIA).
Their campaign includes workshops for parents of LGBTQ children, PSA’s, and additional resources. The truth of the matter is, people with intersecting identities face unique forms of discrimination and prejudice. In order to build an inclusive world for all LGBTQ people, we have to learn to embrace our differences. We must not let our differences tear us apart, but use it to empower us towards a better and just world for all. Leslie Feinberg notes that, “when we put forward a collective list of demands together, and fight to defend each other from attacks, we frequently win” (Feinberg, 105). There is still a long road ahead for LGBTQ people of color, but if we continue to stay hopeful and visible then the road won’t seem too long for much longer.