Highlighting Queer Asian History During APIDA Heritage Month

Discover the collective accomplishments and histories of APIDA communities and APIDA queer and trans people during AAPI Heritage Month.

portrait of T.J. Jourian, Ph.D.
by T.J. Jourian, Ph.D.

Published on April 29, 2022

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Highlighting Queer Asian History During APIDA Heritage Month
Image Credit: Merrill Images / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images


In May each year, we honor and celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Desi American (APIDA) Heritage Month. As we do, it is important to consider the vastness of nations, ethnicities, languages, and histories that encompass this incredibly heterogeneous community. This also includes ensuring we acknowledge all the ways that APIDA people’s lives are enriched by their full lived experiences, regardless of their gender, sexuality, disability, or immigration status.

Exploring Asian LGBTQ+ Histories

APIDA people and communities have a long history of participating in cross-racial solidarity-based activism in the US, like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs. In the 1970s and 1980s, Asian Americans began forming their own gay, lesbian, and HIV/AIDS organizations, such as Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays and the Asian Lesbians of the East Coast. The 80s also saw the birth of Trikone magazine, the world’s oldest South Asian LGBTQ+ organization. APIDA lesbian anthologies and magazines also started popping up in the 80s and 90s.

There was even more organizing in the 2000s, with student groups forming on college campuses. Famously, Korean American Dan Choi became the face for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the military’s policy of discharging LGBTQ+ servicemembers if they were ‘discovered.’ Today, over 60 APIDA LGBTQ+ organizations around the country are members of NQAPIA, a federation of LGBTQ+ Asian American, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander organizations.

Why It’s Important for Queer and Trans APIDA Visibility

Despite progress to the contrary, queer and transgender representation in the media continues to be overwhelmingly white. Stereotyped as docile and compliant, APIDA activists are sidelined and even erased from queer and trans history. Take the Respect After Death Act (Assembly Bill 1577) that passed in California in 2015, enabling trans people to have their chosen gender be recorded on their death certificates.

AB 1577 came to pass because of at least 3 APIDA trans people. In 2012, Chinese and Polish American trans man, Christopher Lee, died by suicide and was mislabeled by the coroner as female on his death certificate. Lee was the co-founder of Tranny Fest, now known as the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, and the first openly trans man Grand Marshal of San Francisco Pride in 2002. His friend, Chinese Mexican trans man Chino Scott-Chung, brought his case to the Transgender Law Center, which lobbied for AB 1577. When the bill passed three years later, the executive director of the Transgender Law Center was Japanese American Kris Hayashi. Yet, the white former executive director was reported in the media as the current ED and quoted to mark this historic moment.

We must also contend with how colonization has impacted the representation of diverse genders and sexualities that are part of various APIDA communities and traditions. The documentary "Kumu Hina: The True Meaning of Aloha" is about “the struggle to maintain Pacific Islander culture and values within the Westernized society of modern-day Hawaiʻi…told through the lens of an extraordinary Native Hawaiian who is both a proud and confident māhū, or transgender woman, and an honored and respected kumu, or teacher, cultural practitioner, and community leader.”

The intersections of racism, colonialism, xenophobia, and anti-LGBTQ+ hostility mean that APIDA queer and trans people contend with a number of challenges compared to non-LGBTQ+ APIDA, including higher rates of poverty, economic insecurity, depression, and engagement in high-risk behaviors. A study on LGB college students showed that they navigate multiple arenas (home, faith, country of origin, social media, and higher education) with conflicting and competing expectations about sexuality. While the students felt more accepted in college, not having visible LGB APIDA role models impeded their sense of agency and holistic identity.

As APIDA people have been and are part of the beautiful fabric that encompasses diverse queer and trans communities, we must ensure that queer and trans spaces are accessible to, affirming of, and even led by APIDA individuals. Especially at a time of heightened violence and harassment targeting APIDA communities, our spaces must not perpetuate the same vitriol and disregard.

Resources to Learn More About LGBTQ+ APIDA People and Experiences

So, let’s do our part to learn, raise awareness about, and connect with queer and trans APIDA people. Here are some places to start:

Memoirs are one of my favorite ways to connect to people and worlds similar and different from my own. “Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, a queer disabled woman of color and abuse survivor, is described as “an intensely personal road map and an intersectional, tragicomic tale.”

Vivek Shraya’s “I’m Afraid of Men” is the gender reimagining we all need today, as Shraya explores how masculinity was imposed on her as a child. Kevin Kumashiro’s “Restoried Selves: Autobiographies of Queer Asian/Pacific American Activists” is a great place to find multiple and varied stories in one book. Ryka Aoki’s “He Mele A Hilo” tells the story of Noelani Choi’s new show about Jesus through hula dance and the reckoning of enough-ness.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” by Ocean Vuong, is a letter from a son to his mother unearthing his family’s history before he was born. It explores race, class, and masculinity, with Vietnam as its epicenter.

There is something soulful about poetry. That is indeed true of the spoken word works of Kay Ulanday Barrett (“When the Chant Comes”) and Kit Yan (“Queer Heartache”), who in different ways and from different vantage points breathe life to immigration stories, trans masculinity, disability, and love. Fatimah Asghar’s “If They Come for Us” is a collection of poems about being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in the United States.

Conclusion

APIDA month is a great opportunity for all of us to put some time aside to do what we can actually do all year long — learn about APIDA (and) queer histories in the U.S. Despite stereotypes, activism has been ever-present in APIDA communities, including among queer and trans APIDA, yet they contend with erasure and invisibility. However, there is are many resources and media we can tap into to undo that erasure and learn about — and especially from — queer and trans APIDA.

It can be hard for AAPI students to find college funding. Check out these scholarships, grants, and financial resources for Asian American and Pacific Islander students in college. Asian American and Pacific Islander students face unique challenges when attending college. Find helpful resources for AAPI students in this guide. Academic institutions continue to take steps to create environments and policies that meet the needs of students with LGBTQ+ identities. Here are the top-ranked schools.