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Gay Asian-American male seeks home.

"The West thinks of itself as masculine--big guns, big industry, big
money--so the East is feminine--weak, delicate, poor ... but good at
art, and full of inscrutable wisdom--the feminine mystique ... I am an
Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man."
--Song Linling in M Butterfly

IN THE CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED play M Butterfly, by David Henry Hwang, the main character, Song Linling, explains his ability to fool a French lieutenant into believing that he was a woman for nearly two decades, a feat based not on his mastery of deception but on the lieutenant's inability to see him as anything other than a woman. For decades, the mainstream media have usually portrayed Asian men as meek, asexual houseboy types or as sexual deviants of some kind. When it comes to attitudes about sex, Asian-American men have generally been portrayed as being on the "traditional" or "conservative" side of the spectrum. Recently the magazine Details, which caters to "hip, young, urban males," prominently featured an item entitled "Gay or Asian," and challenged its readers to ascertain whether a given man was, in fact, gay or Asian. Interestingly enough, while the broader Asian-American community mounted a protest against the presentation of Asian men as "gay," the larger gay community stood silently by.

"The Orient was almost a European invention," observed Edward Said (1978), "and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." These are all images that happen to be female evocations in the Western mind, and indeed the association between the Orient and the feminine can be traced back to ancient times. The West's view of itself as the embodiment of the male principle was further justified by--and undoubtedly served to justify--Europe's subordination of much of Asia starting in the 18th century: its "masculine thrust" upon the continent, if you will.

This discourse of domination at the level of civilizations has played itself out in countless ways over the centuries. For men of Asian descent who have resided in the United States, this has often meant their exclusion from the labor market of "masculine" jobs and the denial of leadership positions in their communities and even in their families. The cultural emasculation of Asian men in America has produced what Eng (2001) has called "racial castration." This in turn has led to the image of Asian men as largely sexless or undersexed--but this hasn't prevented another stereotype from arising, that of Asian men as sexual deviants, helplessly lusting after white women who don't want them. But more often they fade into the sexual background--even as Asian women are often portrayed as highly desirable, notably to sexually competent white men.

The situation for gay men of Asian descent in the U.S. has been are intimately tied to the same processes that led non-gay Asian men to be racialized and marginalized by mainstream society. While straight men have been able to function within the growing Asian-American community, gay Asian men continue to be marginalized both by the dominant society and by the Asian communities. If anything, they've been rendered even more invisible by a new cultural formation that stresses "family values" while it perpetuates the image of Asians as "America's model minority"--an image that denies the very existence of gay Asian-Americans. Studies on gender and sexuality have largely ignored racial minorities in their discussions. Given this invisibility, it is not surprising that so little has been written about the process of identity formation for gay Asian men. What is known about gay Asian-American men has come from the small but growing number of literary and artistic works produced by gay Asian men, as well as the literature on HIV/AIDS in the Asian-American community.

In Chay Yew's acclaimed play Porcelain, both the Chinese and the gay communities deny "ownership" of John Lee when he's charged with murdering his white lover in a London lavatory. In a particularly trenchant scene, members of the Chinese community exclaim, "He is not one of us!"--a sentiment that's echoed in the gay community as well. Choi (1998) argues that marginalization by both of these communities may lead to low self-esteem among gay Asian men and contribute to the increasing percentage of gay Asian men who engage in unsafe sex and seroconvert.

In his essay "China doll," Tony Ayers (1999) discusses his sense of being outside the gay mainstream due to his Chinese ethnicity. In addition to discussing the overt forms of racism--such as gay classified ads that specifically state, "no fats, no femmes, no Asians," and being told by other gay men that they are "not into Asians"--Ayers describes some of the more subtle forms of racism, such as that of "rice queens" who desire Asian men purely for their exotic eroticism. What rice queens are often attracted to in Asian men is an idealized notion of a passive, docile, submissive--in short, a feminized--lover, eager to please his virile white man.

It is indeed striking how the image of gay white men has been transformed from that of "sissy nelly" to "macho stud" over the past few decades, but no such transformation has occurred where gay API (Asian and Pacific Island) men are concerned. Gay white men are often portrayed as rugged, chiseled studs. But the masculinization of gay white men has been coupled with a feminization of gay API men. When a white man and an API man are presented together in a sexual situation, the former is almost always the sexual dominator while the latter is submissive. For better or worse, many gay Asian men seem to have accepted this stereotype, often participating in their own exotification and playing up their "feminine" allure.

What's more, Asian men themselves have also bought into the gay Western notion of what is desirable. Ayers explains that "The sexually marginalized Asian man who has grown up in the West or is Western in his thinking is often invisible in his own fantasies. [Their] sexual daydreams are populated by handsome Caucasian men with lean, hard Caucasian bodies." In a survey of gay Asian men in San Francisco, Choi (1995) found that nearly seventy percent of gay Asian men indicate a preference for white men. More damaging to the gay Asian population is that most of these men seem to be competing for the attention of a limited number of "rice queens." This competition hinders the formation of a unified gay Asian community and further acts to splinter those who should be seen as natural allies.

Not surprisingly, many gay Asian men report feeling inadequate within the larger gay community that stresses a Eurocentric image of physical beauty. Given these feelings of inadequacy, gay Asian men may suffer from low self-esteem and actively pursue the company of white men in order to feel accepted. In addition to seeking the company of white men, the obsession with white beauty leads gay Asian men to reject their cultural roots. For example, Chuang (1999) writes about how he tried desperately to avoid anything related to his Chinese heritage and his attempts to transform his "shamefully slim Oriental frame ... into a more desirable Western body." Other manifestations of attempting to hide one's heritage may include bleaching one's hair or even the wearing of blue contact lenses.

The fear of rejection from family and friends may be more acute for gay Asians than for other groups. While some have noted the cultural factors associated with Confucianism and the strong family values associated with Asian-Americans, these explanations fall short, given that many Asian-American communities (particularly Filipino and South Asian) are not rooted in a Confucian ethic. Instead, the compounded feeling of fear may have more to do with their status as racial and ethnic minorities within the U.S., which isolates these groups and increases the importance of the family as a nexus of support. By coming out to their families. Asian-American gays and lesbians risk losing the support of their family and community and facing the sometimes hostile larger society on their own. Unlike gay white men, who can find representation and support in the gay community, gay Asians men often do not have the option of finding a new community outside of the ethnic one they would be leaving behind. In fact, there is some evidence that gay Asian men who are less integrated into the Asian-American community may be at higher risk for HIV/AIDS due to a lack of available support networks. In a study with gay Asian men, Choi (1998) found that gay Asian men often feel that their families would not support their sexual orientation, which leads to them to remain closeted until a later age than is typical for white men.

In the absence of a vocabulary to describe their experiences, gay Asian men and women have had to create news words and concepts to define their identity. Within the past few years, a number of gay Asian groups and activists have challenged the Western notions of beauty and questioned the effects of these notions on the gay Asian community. Eric Reyes asks, "which do you really want--rice queen fantasies at your bookstore or freedom rings at the checkout stand of your local Asian market?" In posing this question, Reyes asks us where we should begin to build our home in this place we call America, in the "heterosexual male-dominated America, white gay male-centered Queer America, the marginalized People of Color America, or our often-romanticized Asian America?" It is this continuing attempt to find a gay Asian space that lies at the heart of one group's quest for a place in the American sun.


Ayers, T. "China Doll: The experience of being a gay Chinese Australian," in Multicultural Queer: Australian Narratives, by P. Jackson and G. Sullivan (eds.). Haworth Press, 1999.

Choi K. H., et al. (1998). "HIV prevention among Asian and Pacific Islander American men who have sex with men." AIDS Education and Prevention, 1998.

Choi K. H., et al. (1995). "High HIV risk among gay Asian and Pacific Islander men in San Francisco." AIDS. 9.

Chuang, K. "Using chopsticks to eat steak," in Multicultural Queer: Australian Narratives, by P. Jackson and G. Sullivan (eds.). Haworth Press, 1999.

Eng, D. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Duke University Press, 2001.

Reyes, Eric E. "Strategies for Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Spaces," in Asian American Sexualities, Russell Leong (ed.). Routledge, 1996.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1978.

Chong-suk Han is a doctoral candidate in social welfare at the University of Washington.
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Title Annotation:ESSAY
Author:Han, Chong-suk
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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