Invisible No More: It's Been a Year since an Offensive Feature in Details Inspired Unprecedented Activism and Visibility among Gay and Lesbian Asians. So How Much Has Really Changed?
Caldwell, John, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
While Andy Wong has gotten over what he calls "the biggest mistake of my life"--joining the Mormon Church in high school--he still struggles with being gay in his traditional Chinese immigrant family. Now living in San Francisco, the 24-year-old activist grew up in a conservative neighborhood in San Diego. When he came out at 18, he says, his mother at first accepted his homosexuality, then backed away. "She desperately wants me to have children and has mentioned more than a few times that she wished I would turn temporarily straight so that I could conceive a grandchild for her," he says.
Filmmaker Quentin Lee, who grew up in Hong Kong before immigrating to Montreal, has faced his own demons. "Long Duk Dong traumatized my entire generation of Asian males," says the 34-year-old, referring to Gedde Watanabe's extreme Asian stereotype in the 1984 John Hughes comedy Sixteen Candles. Twenty years later, young gay Asians looking for people like themselves still have few choices, Lee notes: "Asian men are often left out of popular culture, and gay Asian men are nonexistent."
That invisibility is one reason both gay and straight Asians were outraged by Details magazine's "Gay or Asian?" stab at humor. When Wong first saw that April 2004 feature he was offended but not surprised by the sarcastically captioned photograph of a young, spiky-haired Asian man dressed in metallic shoes and a V-neck T-shirt Portrayals of Asian men as sexually ambiguous or purely feminine are still quite common, he says: "This is an issue that the gay Asian community has faced time and time again. There's so much ignorance."
Nearing the one-year anniversary of the Details article, Wong says little has changed for gay Asian people. Yes, studies have been done and pro-Asian programs implemented, "but there's still a lot of work to be done. We need to really speak out on our own invisibility."
Glenn Magpantay, cochair of Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York and a staff attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, agrees. He helped organize a high-profile protest outside the Details office in Manhattan that resulted in a full-page apology from the magazine. "[But] we are still finding homophobic articles in the Asian-language press and anti-Asian caricatures in the gay media," he says.
The Details controversy did shed light on the pervasive stereotypes and general lack of positive representation that Asian men continue to face. Despite the success of gay Asian stars like Alec Mapa and B.D. Wong, "gay Asian men are still not perceived to be popular," says Lee, who has featured young gay Asian characters in his independent films Drift and Ethan Mao.
Gay Asians are still perceived as passive or exotic, says Alain Dang, 28, a gay Asian activist in Manhattan and a member of the New York API group. "The Details article really perpetuated the 'rice queen' phenomenon," he says, referring to gay men who pursue Asian lovers on the assumption they'll be passive or submissive. "It's a real part of my existence and my friends' existence. It's been hard."
That particular assumption crosses gender lines, says Pauline Park, a transgender Asian activist in New York. "I actually have had men say, 'I really like Asian women because white women can be too independent,'" Park says. "One of the big challenges for transgender Asian women, just like gay Asian men, is dealing with our exotification by men of all races. …