Part 2 of 2 in a series about the difficulties APIs face when it comes to sexual identity
By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
The feeling of disdain was palpable at one particular South Asian event that Bish, who wishes that his full name not be used in this story, and his partner attended. Bish is South Indian and his partner is white. They’re often stopped at such events by older community members who question what Bish’s partner is doing there. When he responds that he is Bish’s partner, the question then is “What kind of partner? Business partner? What are you?” Many South Asian spaces are dominated by traditional elders that are the same age as Bish’s parents, which makes explaining that Bish and his partner are a gay couple difficult.
The cost of exposure
Whereas coming out may seem like the end to problems for some, for Bish and others, coming out is the start of new ones. Once out, owning their sexual identities means carrying the torch forward as educators and counselors in their communities. The cost of not doing so, as some have seen, could mean life or death.
While David Nguyen and his partner stroll around Seattle, the desire to hold hands is not a romantic instinct; rather, it’s a heavy decision. Doing so means potentially weathering suspicious or disapproving stares, and stares from the wrong person could mean trouble. Not doing so means laying low, not drawing attention, and acquiescing to a less accepting world.
“My partner would always point out that if we don’t expose people to it, then they’ll never get used to it. There is this dichotomy of when you can be affectionate and when you can’t express yourself fully,” said Nguyen.
The cost of expressing her identity weighs on Lulu Carpenter, an openly queer Black and Filipino working at a youth non-profit organization that supports young women who have experienced trauma.
“[People’s] body language changes, because they may know how to deal with you as a woman, as a heterosexual person, as a brown person, but not as a queer person,” said Carpenter. “Some people will start thinking you’ll hit on them. People will start thinking that their children are not safe with you. What does that do to a person? I’m a good person. I work with youth all the time. All of a sudden, a youth or their parent does not feel safe, but I’m not going to hide that part of myself. They need to know that information, so they know whether they’re going to choose to move past that and allow me to mentor their children, or not.”
Navigating the identity divide
Being openly queer on top of bearing a racial or cultural identity can cost some individuals their job, opportunities, and security. But the decision to remain visible, in part, supports the greater community — where the need for API queers to see a reflection and acknowledgement of their struggles is great.
“If they don’t see another API person that is demonstrating that they can still have their family or community, or that they can go to a different community and still keep their identity, cultural heritage, and their integrity, people will think they’re wrong, that they’re not any good. That’s what society does. [It] makes you feel like you have to choose rather than being your whole self,” said Carpenter.
Though the country has been gripped by a rash of suicides by gay teens, the story is familiar to many API queers. The choice to express their queer identities could potentially help other persons struggling with the same reality. After coming out to his family, Bish encountered resistance and negativity. A comment from a family member, like “Oh, it’s just a phase” or “You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re too young,” would lead to a fight. Bish joined Trikone, a local South Asian LGBTQ organization, which helped him address these issues with his family.
“[At the time], I hadn’t found a place to express both [identities] in the same places because there wasn’t a place of acceptance for both Indian and gay together. That is one of the reasons why I got involved with Trikone. It’s a place where identities intersect, and it’s an empowering place,” said Bish. “It took me a couple years to come to terms with myself. I had to be very patient for a year. I had to listen to a lot of negativity. That’s where Trikone, and a lot of members who have been through the same experience really helped me.”
On the fourth Tuesday of each month, Sabina Neem, a clinical counselor and Trikone board member, hosts Trikone Speak, a program that allows South Asian queers to voice their fears and concerns.
“Some of the younger participants in college come to the group experience [due to] fear of family response to coming out as gay, navigating the identity divide where, in a world that is more gay oriented, one’s South Asian-ness is misunderstood, invisible, or out of sync with whatever else is going on; whereas in a South Asian community, being queer is not able to be held in a community. It’s having that constant back and forth, figuring out where one can be and what part, of that whole person,” said Neem.
On some nights, Nguyen goes by a different name, his drag moniker, Teriyaki Temple. He dresses in glittering gowns, sporting long black hair and sleek stilettos. But by day, the dresses and the hair are gone. Nguyen adopts another identity while at work, where the traditional corporate environment requires that he be one of the guys.
“You have to tone down the way you talk, the way you dress. You almost have a disadvantage already because you have to network in an ‘old boys’ club environment. You have to work 10 times as hard so you can establish that you’re competent, that you’re good at what you do,” said Nguyen.
“I was up for a promotion [at another job]. The way that panel worked is that there were three people that interviewed you. One of them was the special provider, the other one was her ‘friend,’ and the last one was actually one of my friends [who worked there]. During the interview, one of them said, ‘Well, why would you hire him? He’s … you know,’ with ‘you know’ being very open ended. My friend told me [about this] afterwards.”
Paying the price
While the reported increase of violence in South Seattle, including the murder of gay hairstylist Danny Vega, has raised awareness of the general public, community organizer Katrina Pestaño has been on alert since hearing of the members of her own community who were physically assaulted within a short period of time.
Many cases of violence and assault go unreported, often due to mistrust or fear of the police felt by members of the minority or queer community.
It wasn’t long before Pestaño found herself in a similarly dangerous and uncomfortable situation, and having to decide whether to report her trauma. Pestaño and her queer friend were surrounded by a big group of guys after leaving a club one evening. The guys jeered and placed their hands on the two women, making comments that insinuated a sexual relationship between Pestaño and her friend. There were crowds of people exiting the club at the time, but no one chose to step in. Though the incident went unreported, it was not kept silent. This incident, coupled with a few other incidents of violence in her community, spurred a dialogue about safety planning.
“What happens to gay men is that they get raped or they get beat up. More often than not, what happens to lesbians is that they get raped. That’s the price we all pay for being who we are sometimes, of being over-exposed. But I don’t know. I’d rather be who I am than harm myself,” said Carpenter.
Being your full self
In 1998, Nguyen co-founded the Mister and Miss Gay API International Pageant to provide a space and forum for the API drag community, one that was largely unrecognized even within the gay community. With the pageant in place, drag performers mentored new generations of Asian drag artists, and a community developed behind the event.
“Drag taught me how to speak out and be heard. It’s hard to ignore a 6’1″ Asian glammed-up drag queen. What better platform to stand on for a cause I believe in than my 4-inch stilettos!” said Nguyen.
“I got involved five years ago because I wanted support, and I’ve been involved in a leadership role since three years ago. With my involvement, I think my confidence grew, and now, I’m at a stage where I feel pretty stable and comfortable with integrating my identities,” said Bish.
“When coming out, being gay was 100 percent my identity. That was how I perceived myself. But it was great to meet people at different stages in their life and careers. This made me realize that it is a very minute part of a richer tapestry of life.”
Pestaño and Carpenter got to know each other through their work as cultural workers and community organizers, where queer advocacy is only part of the greater agenda to combat institutional and structural oppression affecting all minorities, ethnicities, sexual identities, social classes, or otherwise. Pestaño is also a hip hop artist known as Rogue Pinay. She uses music and art to connect to larger values of resistance and uses her craft to represent her community.
Pestaño adds, “It’s definitely a choice that I want to honor these folks, for whom it’s not an easy choice to be visible, and create visibility and address these issues. If it weren’t for the people who I’ve built the community with or who I connect with now, I wouldn’t be able to be my full self and survive. I could maybe be a very small part of myself, but I feel like this is the only way I can live my life at this point.” (end)
To read part 1 of this series, click here.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.