Hi all, Kohaku here. Is everyone okay? How was your week?
Today, I would like to talk about something very important to me, something I have been thinking about a lot recently: the intersectionality of being Asian American and queer. This topic is particularly on my mind because of some of the articles I have read recently. Here are a few of them:
“What It’s Like Coming Out as Queer in a Traditional Chinese Family,” The Stranger
“Question: Why is coming out to your Asian parents hard in Hong Kong?”, The Honeycombers
“‘It gets better,’ but for Asian Americans, coming out can also get complicated,” Voices
“How Cultural Norms Make It Hard To Come Out As Gay To Asian Parents,” Newsy
There were a lot of common threads between these articles, and I found a lot of things that I heavily related to. So today I would like to use my weekly journal entry to speak about this topic at length as it relates to my own life.
My name is Kohaku Toran. I am Asian American, the third and youngest child of two Taiwanese immigrants. I am a writer, a musician, and a student who was at one time suicidal and is still sometimes affected by depression. And I identify as queer and nonbinary. All of these parts of my identity have combined to shape my life in unique ways – ways that are still developing, ways that I’m still trying hard to understand. But I know that writing things down, telling a story, is an imperfect but integral part of the process of understanding. That is the meaning of this journal.
Race and Sexuality
My Childhood, My Parents
I think I had it better than a lot of people. Growing up, the atmosphere in my household was for the most part tolerant and accepting. All three of us children went to a high school with a strong social justice-minded humanities program, a place where systems of oppression like the patriarchy and homophobia were openly discussed and unpacked by teachers and students alike. With this kind of educational background, we were supported by older mentors who preached coexistence, surrounded by close friends who loved us unconditionally, and inspired by fellow classmates who lived out and proud and willing to be true to themselves. It wasn’t perfect – far from it – but it could have been much, much worse. Meanwhile, at home, my parents watched TV shows with gay characters in them, and my middle sister M continuously challenged traditional notions of femininity and masculinity. From a young age, she fiercely rejected feminine-associated traits and behaviors that she did not like, refusing to wear skirts and dresses, for example. When she was a senior in high school she came out to us as bi and then pansexual, explaining to my parents what these words meant. She wore a suit and tie to prom, accompanied by a close male friend. Then she went to college, and came back with a beautiful boyish haircut, tattoos, and a girlfriend.
My parents’ general attitude toward all things LGBTQ+ tended toward passive acceptance, at least in terms of the existence and humanity of gay people. They never really talked about it. I don’t remember them ever saying anything to my face about the gays, whether good or bad. But, like I said, they made their household a tolerant and accepting place. As I grew up, I saw gay characters on TV, I saw my sister come out as pan, and I didn’t think anything about any of it. Because of their parenting, I just unconsciously understood and accepted the existence and humanity of sexual minorities. It was only in high school when I realized that the rest of the world didn’t necessarily feel that way.
I’m not really “out” to my parents as queer. I’m not out to a lot of people, really, but for the most part it’s not because of fear. From the way my parents raised me, as well as my own individual personality, I just don’t feel the need. I’m not hiding anything. If they asked me straight up if I were gay, I’d tell them. If I get a girlfriend, I’d tell them. But I don’t feel that it’s necessary to sit my mother and father down and say, “hey, I like girls.” If I were to do that, their reaction would probably be the same as it was to my sister M: “okay.” My father would nod and keep playing on his iPad. If I said specifically “queer,” my mom might ask, “what’s that mean?” And then after I’d explained this new English word, she’d probably go on about how she doesn’t like labels. Or she’d just say “okay.”
How can I be so sure? Besides their parenting style and my sister M paving the way for me, I remember one particular event in the summer after twelfth grade that truly affirmed my mother’s understanding and love. I was in a doctor’s office, privately talking with my mom’s acupuncturist S about some health problems. At some point in the discussion, S said, “If you have or get a boyfriend, we should talk about that.” Intending only to say that I wasn’t currently interested in a relationship, I replied, “I don’t want a boyfriend.” Immediately S asked, “So you want a girlfriend? You like girls?” I felt suddenly cornered, stammering a noncoherent answer. S smiled down at me and said, “That’s okay too.” I walked out of her office slightly mortified. Still in shock, as I walked with my mother back to the car, I told her, “Ma, [S] thinks I’m gay.” My mother asked, “Are you?” I struggled to find a response for a minute – I didn’t want to have to go into my queerness yet, I didn’t want to explain to her a lot of new words, I didn’t want to put the nail in the coffin when I was still questioning my identity myself. In the end I settled on saying, “I take people one at a time.” And my mother nodded and said, “Me too.”
I’m lucky to have such accepting parents. But I still have fear and tension of being out or bringing a girlfriend around my extended family on multiple axes. On one hand, my father’s side of the family, at least the part that emigrated to America, is largely Christian, and I don’t know how conservative they are, I don’t know how they would react. This is the one part of my family about which the words “I’m not hiding anything” become an absolute lie. But looking along a different axis, I am also afraid of the older generation of my extended family on both sides, those who live or have lived in Taiwan, those who are much more culturally traditional. Taiwan is one of the most LGBTQ+ accepting nations in Asia. Same-sex marriage was just legalized last year – the first Asian country to do so. But legal marriage doesn’t mean social or cultural acceptance. And this is where the intersectionality of being Asian and queer really starts to come in.
Social and Cultural Pressures
Take a glance at any of the articles I linked earlier, and you’ll find basically everything that I’m going to say here. Many Asian cultures in general are community and family-based rather than individualistic; they place more focus on ancestors, family respect and duty, and collective family reputation. There’s not a lot of education about LGBTQ+ people, and not a lot of social acceptance, either. So when I think about “coming out” or being truly myself around the older generations of my family, I’m faced with questions like these:
Are you respecting your ancestors? Are you representing your family well? Are you going to trash our family’s reputation? Are you going to carry on the bloodline? Are they going to disown me or otherwise cut me out to save face? Will I be allowed at the family banquet next winter? If I get a girlfriend, will they let her attend?
And so on and so forth. Some of these questions are more intersectionally nuanced; carrying on the bloodline or family name, for instance, is more relevant to my gay male cousin than to me, and he really struggles with this burden. But questions like these plague us all – my cousin, my sister, me, and many other Asian queer folks out there. It’s an added cultural level that further complicates the whole process of questioning and accepting yourself, coming out to family, and living true to your heart.
Besides my struggles with questions of family and culture, the other big problem I had (and still have to some extent) is the lack of social representation of Asian or Asian American queers. In the mainstream media in Taiwan, there’s not a lot of representation of LGBTQ+ people; in America, there’s maybe a bit more, but intersectionality is a big player. Yeah there’s gay characters in some mainstream shows and films – but they tend to only be gay white males, and when there’s people of color, they’re almost never Asian. So when I was questioning my sexual orientation and other facets of my identity in the past few years, I kept wondering: What is a queer Asian female-assigned person supposed to look like and act like? And underlying that question, another: Am I queer ‘enough’? Will people accuse me of pretending, of not actually being queer, because I don’t look or act ‘right’?
Lack of representation of the subordinate group is a manifestation of any system of oppression. Minority faces are erased, their voices are silenced, their existence is shoved backstage or downstairs, so that the dominant group can control and rewrite both history and society. So the lack of representation of queer Asian women is a form of oppression and something that I believe needs to be fixed. However, at the same time and on an individual level, I’ve recently also come to understand this lack of representation as a form of freedom for me. There isn’t any particular way I have to look or act or be – I can just be myself. I can be true to my heart without worrying about matching up to media representations of what other people think I’m supposed to be.
Race and Gender Identity and Expression
My Childhood, My Parents
Now I’m going to switch gears and really talk about my experience of being Asian and nonbinary. I decided to separate this section out because it really differs from my experience of just happening to be attracted to girls. In looking at the ways being Asian or Asian American has impacted my life, its intersections with my sexual orientation and my gender identity exist on different planes. Where my parents were tolerant and accepting of gay people, they were more resistant against things that contradicted social and cultural norms of gender, and I don’t know how they’d react if I told them I identify as nonbinary.
As I mentioned before, my sister M really paved the way for me. She rejected a lot of traditional female gender roles. She refused to wear skirts and dresses and ‘girly’ things, she didn’t like shopping or makeup. She went to university, and she went into engineering. She changed to a more masculine-presenting haircut and image. Our maternal grandmother recently found an old picture of her, back when she had long black hair and presented more feminine, and commented to her, “Look, you were a girl then.” She still is – she just expresses in a more androgynous or masculine way. And she taught me that it’s okay to do the same. She taught me that it’s okay to be comfortable in myself, to present myself however way I feel best. It wasn’t easy for her, and it’s still not easy for me. My parents still tried to get me to wear feminine clothes for the longest time. My father would sometimes remark that my knee-length shorts were ugly, that I should wear shorts that are much shorter – like a girl. My mother would still buy me skirts and dresses. My father doesn’t really like my short hair. They didn’t always understand my preferences, they weren’t always the most open to letting me express the way I wanted to express – but I know that on the inside, they were and are still trying, and it’s getting better.
I just don’t know how they would feel about this new term, “nonbinary.” I introduced it to my mother last year, in a somewhat passing side conversation. I mentioned that Apple had released new nonbinary emojis, and used that – I know it sounds ridiculous – to explain to my mother what the word means. I don’t know if she really understands. I don’t know if my father would understand. But for me, for the most part, that’s alright, because like I said, I don’t feel the need to be out, and I don’t care very much about how other people see or think of me. That’s why I don’t care about what pronouns are used to refer to me. But for other people, who need recognition and validation, who need to feel explicitly accepted by their families and others, life like this can be really hard. That’s why education and representation are so, so important. Being Asian or Asian American adds another level of complexity.
Social and Cultural Pressures
A lot of the cultural struggles and questions I listed above for sexuality also apply for gender. In a culture that is so based around family and reputation and fitting in, it’s hard to be yourself if that means standing out. Gender roles in traditional Asian cultures at large are pretty defined. One of my personal biggest challenges was getting through cultural activities in Chinese School. In one year, my class was supposed to do a pop dance, and it was pretty gender neutral, so even though I hate dancing, I participated – and ended up as lead dancer, on account of being the only one who did the homework and actually learned the dance. Even though I didn’t like it at all, I got through it. But the following year (and maybe the year after, I don’t really remember) we were supposed to do a traditional Chinese dance, wearing qipao. For those unfamiliar, a qipao is a very feminine close-fitting dress. And I absolutely, absolutely hated the idea of wearing one, let alone going up on stage with it and waving around a fan and dancing. I couldn’t see a way out of it – it’s not as though I could have gone up to my teacher and said “I’m nonbinary” and she would have let me sit it out. I don’t know if there’s even a word in Mandarin for nonbinary gender. In the end – and I’m not very proud of this – I used my bad shoulder as an excuse to not have to do the dance. My shoulder probably wouldn’t have been that much of a problem for the slow type of dance we were supposed to do, but I said that it hurt, and I got out of it. “Bad girl,” they might have said if they knew. “Shameful.” “Disgrace on your family,” yada yada yada. (That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but what if it wasn’t just a school dance?)
And what about representation of gender-nonconforming (whether identity, expression, or both) Asians/Asian Americans? Little to none, though in some sense that’s debatable. Conceptions of femininity and masculinity in Asian cultures aren’t always the same as in the West; Asian men are often depicted or described as naturally Western-feminine, and looked down upon for it. So seeing images of guys who looked more “feminine” to me was in itself a form of representation. But in my questioning of my identity, I was personally searching for more representation than that. For something bigger, something more meaningful, I really had to dig. What came up was Japanese visual kei.
I’ve talked about vkei a lot before on this blog and elsewhere, but for those unaware, visual kei is a Japanese musical style that emphasizes the visual appearance and expression, typically in ways that result in gender-nonconforming costumes, hair, makeup, and so on. I remember the story of how the all-male members of X Japan, old vkei giants and one of my favorite bands, were once criticized for dressing too feminine – so the next week, they showed up dressed as princesses. Hearing stories like these, of musicians challenging traditional conservative gender norms, thrilled me. I loved getting into various visual kei artists, watching videos of their concerts, exploring their different modes of expression, because for me, this all meant representation. It meant representation and it meant empowerment, and it was something that at the time I was hard-pressed to find elsewhere. Vkei is still my favorite music, its artists still my favorite and sometimes the only artists on my daily playlists, and I’m still slowly and steadily exploring this style.
Visual kei was what gave me, personally, a reflection of my gender-nonconforming self and all the ways I could be free to express the way I wanted to be. But the fact that I had to dig hard and come up with an Asian musical genre to make up for the lack of representation of Asian queers in America says a lot. Gender-nonconforming folks of all races and backgrounds, as a whole, do not receive much representation at all, and this needs to change.
This is my story of my life so far and how the intersectionality of being Asian and queer has shaped it. What I want to hear now are your stories. If you’re Asian, or queer, or both, or if you know anyone who identifies as such or has been affected by these identities, I want to hear what you think about this topic. Leave a comment or an email. Let’s talk about it!
Take care of yourselves and have a great week.