Part 1 of 2 in a series about the difficulties APIs face when it comes to sexual identity.
By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Julz Ignacio, Queer Network Program coordinator at the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Safety Center, leads a queer 101 class where “What is gay?” or “What is transgender?” are some of the questions students will have to answer. The course emphasizes that being gay doesn’t ensure that one is an expert on LGBTQ identity or that one can relate to other LGBTQ experiences.
“Being gay doesn’t mean you are void of committing oppressions against others because you are one of the oppressed,” said Ignacio.
“Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’ll understand other gay people. Especially in the API community, there are many words that aren’t ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian.’ I always tell youth that just because these are the English words that exist, [it does] not mean they have to identify by them.”
Thinking out of the box
Though pervasive stereotypes in the media has brought the gay experience to the forefront, issues like race, social, and economic class, and other identities surrounding sexuality are rarely represented.
“There are gay, lesbian, or queer characters on TV, but they’re all from a certain class, like ‘Will and Grace’ or whatever,” said Luzviminda “Lulu” Carpenter, a community outreach youth counselor.
“Some people stereotype like, this is what it means to be gay, [discounting] people who identify in a wide variety of ways. It’s a totally different experience for Asian queers, and it’s totally different for Pacific Islander queers, too.”
In the last five, six years since Bish came out, he found that many friends were largely supportive, but there were a few acquaintances for which his identity meant something completely different. (Bish declined to use his full name in this story.)
“They’re like, ‘Oh my God! You could be my gay best friend, and we can go shopping together,’ and then I give them this look like, ‘You’ve known me for three years. I’ve never been shopping with you. I don’t like shopping,’ ” said Bish, board member of Trikone, a local South Asian LGBTQ organization.
“There’s this thing where even when people are really cool and accepting of who you are, sometimes, it’s just acceptance in stereotype.”
Carpenter, a Black and Filipino bi-queer from a military family, worked her way through college, during which she struggled to find a space where she can fully express all the aspects of her background.
“I was learning about those identities, but you get boxed in, and it was like, you can learn about yourself here … with only Black people, or only Filipino. … Never was there a space where all of those identities were honored [together],” said Carpenter.
Even with many gay friends, she struggled to find a close reflection of her situation, but through her involvement, she encountered issues like violence, poverty, and ethnicity, relevant to her experience as a mixed-race queer. For Carpenter and other advocates, the word “queer” is an umbrella term to encompass various sexual orientations, also addressing the oppression of harboring multiple marginalized identities.
“There are particular identities that tie to someone’s sexual orientation and gender expression. The way I see ‘queer’ is connecting all these identities to form a more political alliance, to say that for these folks, we are wanting to address this beyond gender and sexual orientation, and really being able to see it as a struggle connected to a lot of different things like race, class, ability,” said community organizer Katrina Pestaño, a member of the steering committee at Filipino youth organization FilSTAR.
The way out
Despite her mother’s lack of full acceptance of her lifestyle, Pestaño gained perspective through looking beyond her sexual orientation. “If I hadn’t been involved in community organizing, I would’ve just been like, ‘My mother doesn’t get it. She’s really messed up.’ [But] I never really got into that [kind of bitterness] because I understood that there were so many other issues,” said Pestaño.
“I’m able to have a deeper understanding with my mom as far as where she is at, also being able to understand her in terms of being an immigrant, being of a particular class background in the Philippines. In those ways, it affects her everyday life here, that she doesn’t want any more identities to make it harder for me to survive in the U.S.”
While in India, Bish remained silent about his identity for about 10 years, largely focusing on excelling in school and acquiring a scholarship to study in the States, which he saw as his way out.
“There was a lot of emotional insecurity, but also financial. So there was a practical reason for not coming out. I was completely convinced that they would not be OK with it, and I would just be thrown out, and they would just cut off my education, which would limit how far I go in life,” said Bish.
According to statistics provided by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, seven different studies of homeless youth in the United States reported approximately 20 percent of homeless youth as LGBTQ, citing severe family conflict as being a primary reason for their homelessness. LGBTQ homeless youth are more vulnerable to unsafe sexual behavior and violence than their heterosexual homeless peers.
Ignacio works with many LGBTQ youth, and is cautious when approached by youth who feel pressured by friends to come out to prove they’re gay.
“The majority of gay people I’ve seen in the media are white. Most of their experience is about coming out, being out loud and proud about it, acting on stereotypes that perpetuate many myths about LGBT people. This is the major example I’ve seen of what gay identity can look like. I encourage queer API youth that this isn’t the only way your identity can look like. They don’t have to come out because that’s what they see or people say they have to. There’s a lot at stake coming from an API background.”
Bish came out during his last year in college to his siblings and family living in the area, and shortly afterward, graduated and found a job. When Bish tried to come out to his parents and family in India, he found that he lacked the words to do so.
“My family in India meet me once every couple of years. In my absence, all they have to imagine my life are by culturally prevalent anti-queer stereotypes,” said Bish.
“They don’t have the same parameters or things to look at. What is the point of telling them when they don’t even have the means to understand, when they don’t even have a word for it? They don’t have the proper language to communicate it.”
Bish spoke to other Indian friends who came out to their parents. Even for parents who understood their child’s sexual orientation, the expectations for them to marry and raise a family remain.
“The whole idea of marriage in some cultures is not about love or sex in any way,” said Carpenter. “It’s about the family. Sometimes, if you identify in a certain way, you’re seen as selfish because you’re putting yourself and your desires, which you’re not supposed to have anyway, before your family and community.”
Building solid ties
Over the years, local organizations like Trikone and the Queer Network Program have worked to address the effects socio-economic background and ethnicity have on API sexual orientation. “It becomes hard to be just one big gay family without giving up much of oneself. Some of the movements that are being organized in the mainstream community may not be prioritized the same way in the Asian gay community,” said Sabina Neem, a social work clinician and Trikone board member.
“A lot of folks focus on one single issue like gay marriage or something like that, whereas I think a lot of these issues are interconnected and we can address these issues in a way that isn’t isolating anyone,” said Pestaño.
Pestaño opened the issue to community members outside of the gay community, including gender education as part of her work with Filipino youth at FilSTAR and joining the Safe School Coalition’s efforts to address biased based bullying in schools. Ignacio at the Queer Network Program now leads queer youth and ally organization P.A.N.D.A.Q.O.R.N.S. (Pacific Asians in the Northwest Doing Allianced Queer Organizing RealNess). Trikone recently expanded to include the Middle Eastern queer community. Every first Sunday of the month, members from all organizations are invited to a Queer People of Color Dim Sum luncheon open to queer people of color and allies.
“If we can build within our own communities’ acceptance, then we will really be able to weather a lot of challenges that we face as queer and Asian,” said Neem.
“We have in our communities, just a lot of love, and that’s why we struggle so much, because we want to maintain our solid ties with the people who love us so much. It’s not that we’re more homophobic than others. It’s more that our communities are more community and family-centric, which makes it much more difficult to navigate.” (end)
Read part two of this story in two weeks.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.