While many LGBTQ people are familiar with the intolerance of society at large, Asian Pacific Americans must also deal with cultural differences. Coming out experiences are often intensified by a lack of visibility, racism and language barriers.
“Coming out when I did was tremendously difficult because I had no knowledge of lesbian or gay people at all,” said Doreena Wong of the San Francisco-based API Wellness Center. Through awareness campaigns, the visibility of LGBTQ Asian Pacific American organizations and more people living out and open lives, Wong has seen great progress over the past few decades. For example, she recently participated in a forum on API lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, hosted by the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, which advises the governor and legislature on issues affecting the state's API community.
The lack of Asian Pacific American visibility within the LGBTQ community can also create challenges.
“When I open a gay magazine or watch gay news shows, all I see depicted are gay white men,” said Edward Kai Chiu of Gay Asian Pacific Support Network (GAPSN). “If I wasn’t living in West Hollywood and exposed to other gay Asians, I would question if gay Asians even existed!”
An absence of positive images of LGBTQ Asian Pacific Americans in entertainment and media can also make acknowledging one’s orientation or gender identity more difficult.
“Coming out took a bit longer for me because of being a child of television,” said Loren Javier, a former Gay Asian Pacific Alliance board member. “I was glued to the TV in the ’70s and ’80s and rarely saw Asian characters or gay ones, let alone Asian characters who were LGBTQ. It was such a revelation when the sit-com ‘Soap’ featured Billy Crystal as Jody Dallas, an openly gay man. But even then, part of me related to Jody, but part of me didn’t because he was white. Because the most visible gays and lesbians tend to be white, society in general falsely perceives that all LGBTQ people must be white.”
Today, the number of Asian Pacific Islanders in the entertainment world has slowly increased. However, there are still few characters of color on television and in movies, let alone those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer. But some of the more prominent ones include the recurring role of Yosh Takata as a gay nurse on the hit NBC series “ER,” B.D. Wong, an openly gay dad who has starred in “Law & Order: SVU” and provides the voice of Captain Li Shang in Disney’s “Mulan” and “Mulan II,” and Korean-American comic Margaret Cho.
Another challenge that many Asian Pacific Americans who are LGBTQ must face is racism, in society at large and within the GLBT community. Sometimes this is from overt discrimination, other times it is the lack of Asian Pacific Islander representation.
“I was coming out when self-help rap groups were big, and some of them just naturally evolved into coming-out rap groups,” said Wong of the A&PI Wellness Center. “I went to one group at the San Francisco Women’s Center and that helped to an extent, but I was the only lesbian of color there and I felt uncomfortable.”
It often helps to seek support groups made up of people from similar cultures.