Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Becoming Men at My Expense

I. A Night on the Wall
Men line up against a back wall that some have taken to calling China Alley. A derogatory term, really. One not-so-cleverly coined by muscle-bound white queens to mark the area where some of the “less desirable” men gather. In this particular case, it’s a place for a third of those who the muscle queens mark as being undesirable when they drunkenly type “no fats, femmes, or Asians need reply” in their personal ads. It’s not racist, they say, just “preference.” But any personal ad that begins with, “I don’t mean to offend anyone,” does specifically just that.

There are names, to be sure, for where the other two thirds go. By now, I’ve heard them all – fat farm, fairy village, take your pick. Sometimes, we joke about them, if only because laughter seems to be the appropriate response to the absurdity of it all. Yet, the mere existence of these dark corners, to where gay men who don’t quite fit the new image of what it means to be gay and male are forced to retreat, betrays the rigid hierarchy of desire that has come to exist in the gay “community.” Men who are pushed into these corners are told, time and again, that they somehow don’t measure up. Once relegated to these margins, they are not free to roam gay spaces. Instead, they must wait patiently on the sidelines, hoping somebody will play sexual tourist.

From their vantage point, in the back of the dimly lit nightclub, they can watch the night’s events unfolding but don’t really take part in them. Instead, these men wait, like cattle at a show, with hopes of winning a prize. They line up in their Sunday best, trying to look nonchalant. They sip slowly from plastic cups filled with watered down liquor, trying to make it last as long as possible. There’s nothing worse than standing alone, doing nothing. At least with a drink in your hand, you’re doing something. If you drink and smoke, you can keep both hands occupied. Sometimes, muscle queens walk by and sneer or laugh. But mostly – and perhaps this is the most degrading of all – they don’t even notice. It’s as if the mere existence of non-white, non-muscular, non-masculine, and non-young men is an inconvenience to be tolerated rather than a rich diversity to be embraced.

Nonetheless, the men on the wall – along with other undesirable men – wait. For most of them, the “prize” is predictable. Not free to choose the most desirable of men, they wait to be chosen. More specifically, they want to be chosen by what every self-respecting gay man is told that they should desire. Some will get lucky, even if it’s only for one night. But most will go home, empty handed, yet again. Hidden in these dark corners, these men are constantly reminded that they are not desirable while those who are deemed worthy of gay desires are constantly put on display to remind them exactly what is.

II. Cartographies of Desire
At first blush, the required props are an odd assortment of thrown together objects. But by now, they have become so ingrained in our collective gay consciousness that they barely register a whisper of curiosity. There, in the middle of the dance floor, long, hard poles jut proudly out of K-Mart variety kiddie-pools while naked torsos gyrate to ear numbing music and uncontrolled spasms of light. As odd as this set-up might seem to outsiders, to those in the know, the props are instantly recognized as the make-shift stage required for the most stable of gay-bar entertainments, the wet underwear contest.

The contestants, too, are an easily recognized bunch. Young, muscular, and overwhelmingly white, they mirror the images found on gay billboards, advertisements, and magazine covers. While the visual image of the contestants represent what is physically desired in the gay community, their actions represent what is desired behaviorally. Contestants flex their muscles, saunter across the stage, thrust into the pole, and proudly display their manhood for the audience to see. The more vivid the masculine display, the bigger the cheers. Here, like in so many other arenas of gay life, masculinity is rewarded while femininity is punished with outright disdain. Masculinity is desired while femininity is not. Sometime between Stonewall and Will and Grace, the gay “community” has become very very butch.

The most cursory glance through gay personal ads makes the emphasis on masculinity blatantly clear. “Straight acting,” is proudly displayed as a marketing tactic while “no femmes” is an equally striking warning to potential suitors that femininity is not desired. In contemporary gay life, men are to be men. In one sweeping swivel of the hips, with a magic flip of the wrist, gay men became the “manliest of men.”

It’s not just that gay men are becoming increasingly attracted to “masculine” men but they are becoming increasingly hostile toward “feminine” men. Websites such as that promotes itself as a site for “guys that like sports, change their own car’s oil, or just don’t fit the effeminate stereotypes,” and Lance Bass’ recent claim of being a “straight acting” gay man, are increasingly becoming more common. It’s not just that these guys feel like they don’t fit the “stereotype” – although it might come as a surprise to them that the vast majority of us don’t – but that they are actively denigrating it as something so completely unacceptable to them that they truly believe that somehow, being “straight acting” makes them better than the rest of us. From a blatantly heterosexist perspective, if you can’t be one, at least you can act like one. Bass may not be straight, but he plays one on Broadway.

But masculinity never exists in a vacuum. Nor is it simply a state of being. Rather, one is only defined as masculine if others are defined as feminine. More importantly, claiming masculinity is a process. It must be defined, developed, then claimed. But claiming masculinity when you’re having sex with other men is a tricky task. Within the larger social imagery of what it means to be gay, what it means to be a gay man, is immediately equated with men who have failed to make the masculine claim. Gay characters on mainstream television shows are routinely mocked and ridiculed as having somehow failed at being “real” men. No matter how “straight acting” some gay men might think they are, they will never be accepted as “real” men by the mainstream that they so apparently want to embrace.

If gay men are truly to be masculine, what they really need is a feminine “other.” And they don’t have to go far to find one.

III. They Became Men and I Became…
According to social theorist Edward Said, “the orient was almost a European invention, and has been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic being, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences…” But rather than just a way of describing the “Orient,” orientalist discourse also acted as a political vision meant to promote the superiority of the west against all that was east. Perpetuating this mirage of western superiority, orientalist discourse took on a distinctively gendered tone. Hinging on masculine domination of the Orient, Asian bodies, both male and female, were painted with feminine brushstrokes.

Because Asian men have been so thoroughly feminized in the Western imagination, it becomes easy to mark gay Asian men as being the feminine other to the “masculine” white man within the gay community. When presented at all by the supposedly inclusive gay press, gay Asian men are uniformly portrayed as being more feminine than gay white men. Not only are they portrayed as more feminine, they are routinely presented as counter to masculine gay white men. In the briefly aired sitcom Some of My Best Friend, the role of Vern, played by Alec Mapa existed only as a contrast the masculine, and thus supposedly normal, Warren played by Jason Bateman. Likewise, a recent ad by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network urges the U.S. government to “let him serve.” He, of course, is a brave white soldier while his Asian partner can do nothing but offer emotional support. Rather than portrayed as individuals, gay Asian men are presented only as adornments for gay white men who virtually always take the superior position. Within the gay imagination, gay Asian men exist only to validate the masculinity of gay white men.

No where is this more prominent than gay porn. Despite the snickers associated with it, porn has a unique place in gay identity development. For many, if not most, of us, gay porn is the first place where we see ourselves, where we see our desires get validated and expressed. Borrowing a phrase from Stuart Hall, “it is the place we go to discover who we are.” Long before we venture into our first gay club or meet our first gay friends, many of us surreptitiously turn to gay porn. Between the covers, or within the frames, we learn gay desire. And we learn that gay desire is very very white.

It is the white man who is centered. Asian characters, if presented at all, are only included to fulfill white male domination fantasies. Unfortunately, gay Asian men are told that our worth is based almost entirely on our ability to be receptacles for gay white men’s masculine thrusts into our bodies.

The feminization of gay Asian men, and by contrast the masculinization of gay white men, is intimately tied to the growing need, perhaps hunger, for acceptance within some quarters of the gay community by the heterosexual majority. It is part and parcel of the cleansing of the gay community of all that does not mirror the heterosexual norm. Gay publications harp on incessantly about our purchasing power, gay activists push for marriage recognition as if the goal of all gay men (and women) should be to mimic heterosexuals and their institutions. The face of gay America, one so intimately cultivated by too many gay activists, is one of heterosexual normality – with one minor exception. Somehow, we went from demanding recognition for our differences to begging for tolerance. According to this new strategy of gaining acceptance, “they” (the rarely blamed, but often alluded to, heterosexuals) should, pretty please, accept us because “we” (the rarely named, but often alluded to, “straight-acting” gays) are just like them. To show just how much we are like them, we, the collective we, support legislation that exclude those of us that they find shameful or embarrassing. We tell them that we, again the collective, need to make sacrifices for the larger goal. Why should the larger goal be for some of us to have equality but not others? More importantly, why should only some of us make these sacrifices? Interestingly enough, those of us making sacrifices are always those of us who have adamantly opposed the “mainstreaming” of the gay community. For some of us, the opposition is due to the rapidly declining visibility of the gay community. Others simply can not fit the heterosexual mold.

My critique is not that we are making sacrifices for the larger goal. Certainly, victories come in spurts and fits. My issue is that those who are becoming more “acceptable” to heterosexual America, and therefore appear to be gaining more ground, are doing so at the expense of the rest of us.

IV. The Fallout
None of this would be problematic if the gay community didn’t idealize and objectify masculinity while simultaneously denigrating femininity. Nor would it be problematic if “straight acting” gay men weren’t using their supposed masculinity to draw distinctions between those of us who, according to them, are “normal” and those of us who they believe are not.

People can prefer whatever damn thing they want to, that is, after all, well within their rights. Not being sexually attracted to women doesn’t make me a sexist. And not being attracted to Asian men doesn’t make a gay white man a racist. But blanket statements and widely held beliefs about Asian men being undesirable sexual partners depend on racist notions of superiority and inferiority. Also, the marginalization of gay Asian men within the larger gay community is intimately tied to the objectification of masculinity and placing it in a supposedly superior position to femininity. For gay white men, claiming masculinity requires an ability to shift femininity onto someone else. Doing so comes at the expense of gay Asian men. Using gay Asian men to make gay white men more masculine, while simultaneously reinforcing the notion that all things masculine are superior to all things feminine, is a racist practice.

The problem is that gay white men have become “men” at my expense. In their quest to prove themselves to be masculine in order to acquire some semblance of heterosexual privilege, they’ve actively denigrated men who look like me. In doing so, they push me – and other gay Asian men – to the very distant most margins of the gay community, to places like China Alley where we are told that our role is to wait to be chosen by a white man. Rather than participants, we become spectators to gay life.

For gay Asian men, there are larger psychological consequences. For them, sexual desire almost always revolves around masculine, “straight-acting” white men. Sadly, we strive for the attention of the very same white men who mark us as being completely void of value. Rather than joining together, we see ourselves as competitors for the few “rice queens” who further marginalize us. Like white men, we marginalize other gay Asian men. Our own fantasies and our own desires are also wrapped up in the images that the gay community feeds us as being the only appropriate and acceptable images. Standing in China Alley, we look outward for potential sexual partners rather than looking inward at the other men on the wall.

Gay men – white, black, Latino, Asian and otherwise – aren’t the only ones to blame for this, of course. Masculinity is the mechanism by which straight white men maintain both racial and gender domination. But as gay men, as men who are marginalized and denigrated by others, shouldn’t we rise above this? Gay white men who promote the “straight-acting” narrative would be wise to recognize that they are simply feeding into the hierarchy of masculine domination, the very same hierarchy that defines heterosexuality as normal and homosexuality as anything but. Rather than win acceptance for themselves by cloaking themselves in masculine posturing, they are simply propping the hierarchy that relegates them to second-class status in the first place.

For gay Asian men, the struggle may be different. We, as both racial and sexual minorities, may have little power to change the social arrangements that continue to mark us as inferior. Yet at the same time, have we completely given up? When we look at other Asian men and think that they are not attractive, what are we thinking of our own reflections? After accepting ourselves as gay men, are we so eager to displace our race? We can begin to look inward rather than outward and begin by expanding our own sexual narratives to include each other in our sexual and emotional fantasies. Only when we find value within ourselves and among ourselves will we be able to demand that others see what we are worth.

After all this time, after being bombarded with images that tell us that we don’t quite measure up, it will be difficult to pull ourselves off the wall. That first step is the hardest.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why point out what we already know

Small talk with gay men I meet is like a river with many tributaries that all flow into the same delta. No matter how it starts or where it winds, I’m inevitably asked about the big O. “How long have you been out?” Or its fraternal twin, “How out are you?”

In the Western narrative of what it means to be “gay,” coming out, that pivotal moment when one goes from being unsure, afraid, or ashamed, to being proud of one’s sense of self, is mythically defined as the moment of rebirth into a new life. Just as the O question is predictable, so is the narrative that accompanies the answer. Always marked by various stages of denial, internal conflict, and eventual acceptance, the journey of sexual self discovery for a gay man is envisioned to culminate in the cathartic moment when he confidently proclaims to the world that he is gay—“coming out of the closet.” As such, coming out is thought to be not only a matter of publicly acknowledging one’s sexual preference, but also a reflection of an individual’s positive appraisal and commitment to being gay in a heterosexual society—whatever that might mean.

To come out, then, is to mark oneself as a specific type of person, one who takes on a specific type of identity, one who leads a specific type of life. Coming out is so important that asking someone how out they are is like asking them how gay they are. Asking them when they came out is like asking them when they were born. Some men I know celebrate it as a second birthday, much like former alcoholics who mark the end of one life and the beginning of the next. If you’re not “out” entirely, then you’re simply not gay enough.

The problem here isn’t the nature of coming out or of living out and proud all the time. All the more power to those who do it. The problem is the belief among many gay men that not coming out is a mark of shame and denial. According to The Gay Almanac, being in the closet is considered “the confining state of being secretive about one’s homosexuality.” The problem is the way that some of us who live out loud judge those who do not. For too many gay men, there is a clear line between being out and “hiding.” Sometimes, they believe so strongly in the power of being out that they deliberately out others. But is this dichotomy between being out and being closeted so easy to draw?

For me, and for many other men I’ve met in my life, being “gay” is a constant negotiation rather than a momentary declaration that changes one’s life forever. Rather than being “out and proud all the time,” gay Asian men vacillate between being “gay,” being “Asian,” being “gay and Asian,” depending on the situation. While one can easily read this vacillation as being out when convenient and hiding when not, such an argument would simply reinforce the very Western notion that not focusing on my gayness as being my central identity somehow diminishes my life overall.

From my perspective as a gay man of color, the problem of putting such importance on coming out, being out, and living out reinforces the Western notion that there is only one way to be gay—and that all other ways of being gay, obviously including mine, are simply not enough. It’s as if, once we decide to be gay, we have to leave all our other identities behind. I see this often with gay white men. Once they come out of the closet, they sever all ties with their former self. Almost overnight, all of their friends are gay, all of their activities are gay, and all of their support systems are gay. But not all of us have the comfort of seamlessly entering the gay community. For some of us, the entry is rather bumpy.

Many gay activists like to believe that there aren’t issues of racism within the gay community; they like to think that they are above oppressing others. These folks are not simply blind, they are deluded.

Looking around any gayborhood, any gay magazine, or any other place where “gay” is visible, one thing becomes blatantly clear—“gay” is very, very white. Certainly, gay men of color will tell you stories of explicit racism in the gay community. These forms of racism include being excluded from leadership roles in gay organizations to being denied entrance to gay bars. But for me, explicit racism is easy. You can point to it, name it, and then fight it.

Subtle forms of racism are a bit more difficult. Racism in its subtle form seeks to erase the experiences of non-white folks, whether gay or not. It’s about not seeing myself in gay magazines and being told at gay meetings not to muddy the waters by trying to interject issues of race and racism and confusing them with gay issues. But the most subtle is being told exactly how I should be gay. In the Western narrative of what it means to be gay, it isn’t enough simply to be happy with the person we are, but we must also actively accost others with our happiness.

“What do you mean you’ve never told your mother?” my gay white friends ask me. It’s more than a question, it’s an accusation: “How could you not tell your mother?”

The better question for me is, “Why in the world would I?” A friend who also never “told” his mother, summed it up best when he said, “For me, telling my mother that I’m gay would be like telling her that the sky is blue and expecting her to be surprised. I know I’m gay, she knows I’m gay. We don’t routinely spend time pointing out the obvious.”

I’ve never sat down with my mother and had the “Guess what, Mom” discussion. But to be fair, I don’t think my sister ever sat her down to explicitly tell her that she’s straight. Yet somehow, my mother figured out that her daughter is straight and that her son is gay. She asks about my “friend” and tells me never to move to Wyoming; yes, Matthew Shepard’s horrible death even made it to the Korean cable news channel. I just don’t think discussing my sex life is high on her list of things to do; I certainly have no desire to discuss hers. If I ever wake up one morning straight, then I’ll call my mother. That would be news.

For me, strongly identifying with my Asian identity has always provided me with a healthy sense of self-worth, long before it dawned on me that I like men. The lessons I learned as a racial minority in an often-racist society gave me the armor to combat the racism I see in the gay community. Am I expected to give up that part of my life? Should I relinquish that part of my identity?

Leaders in the gay community argue repeatedly about needing to be inclusive. Perhaps what we really need is a new way of measuring “gayness” other than our willingness to live “out and proud” all the time. The belief that for gay men to be truly happy they must confront others with their gay identity privileges a Western view of what it means to be gay. Focusing on coming out as the universal requirement to being gay puts the experiences of gay white men at the center while pushing the experiences of other gay men to the margins. Of course, there are countless numbers of gay Asian men who have actively come out to their friends, their families, the guy at the market, etc. Many of my gay Asian friends, even those who have not yet had the Guess what, Mom talk, feel a tremendous amount of pressure to engage in that conversation.

But I wonder if they ever ask themselves why. Is it for them; their families; or does it fit the
Western model of what it means to be gay? Certainly, we shouldn’t have to hide who we are from anyone. But is there only one way of being who we are? I’ve never told a single person in my family that I’m gay, yet somehow, everyone knows. More importantly, nobody cares. If I told them, they would have to confront what that means in a very public way, and confrontation is so Western. I just don’t see any need or benefit of pointing out to my mother that the sky is blue.

*this essay was previously published in "first person queer" edited by richard labonte and lawrence shimmel.

The "state of" Gaysian America

It’s difficult, I think, to talk about a “state of “ anything. How does one go about discussing complex issues in a few hundred words? What are the important points that need to be covered and who decides?

When asked to write this particular op-ed, I imagined a different trajectory, one based on racism in the gay community, homophobia in API communities, the prejudices inflicted on gay Asian Americans, and the perils of negotiating both an “ethnic” and “sexual” identity in a society that values neither of what we have to offer. I’ve made a living writing about racism found in the gay community, written countless pieces, been interviewed by magazines and newspapers, and given talks around the country, all to sympathetic audiences composed almost entirely of other Asian Americans, both gay and ally, or academics invested in issues of race and racism. Then it dawned on me. Writing such a piece, I would be, once again, preaching to the choir. I’m certain the audience for this paper, being who they are, will nod and agree with such a piece. Perhaps even sigh with understanding. Maybe shake their head and remember similar events that have marked their lives or similar thoughts that have crossed their minds. Some will ask what can be done, it will make some seethe in anger ready to rile the troops, and others will answer with “nothing.” But perhaps what is needed now is a different approach, perhaps now is the time to clean our own house before we begin demanding that others clean theirs.

Certainly, there is racism in the gay community and homophobia in API communities. By now, it is so well documented in both the academic and popular literature that to deny its existence would be an act of utter suspension of disbelief. Sadly, so much of it is directed towards Gaysian Americans. When it is, we mobilize, we stomp our feet, and we lick our wounds of the hurt feelings that racist attacks usually leave. The problem here is that, all too often, we go back to our lives. And all too often, our lives involve the subtle actions that reinforce the very things that upset us, that justify the treatment that we receive, and not only maintain hierarchies of race but contributes to them.

Self-reflection is a painful endeavor. It leads us to challenge our own beliefs, our attitudes, and perhaps most troubling, our actions. It leads us to question how it is that we are contributing to our own “problems” – not simply shift the blame onto someone else, when shifting the blame is so much easier than looking in the mirror and scrutinizing all our own demons.

I suppose there are many ways that we contribute to our own demise. But I want to speak specifically about our desires. Our desires are rarely about “preferences” but mark the way we build hierarchies of worth. When we mark some as being more desirable, we are marking them with more worth, more value, and more power.

When we put white men on a pedestal and deem them more desirable and more attractive than our API brothers, somehow more worthy of our affections and our time, we reinforce the erroneous and dangerous belief that our worth is less. It reinforces the attitude that we can be seen as less valuable because we see ourselves as less valuable.

By now, I’ve heard all the excuses. Some men have told me that dating other Asian guys would be like dating their biological brothers or they just simply want something “different.” But why is it that the desire to not date someone “like our brothers” or someone “different from us” rarely extends to black men or Latino men? Why is it that someone not like our brothers or different from us is always a white man? What are we saying about our own worth when we make subtle arguments that somehow white men have more value than our “brothers”? I have to wonder, when I hear my gay Asian brothers say things like, “I don’t find Asian guys attractive,” what they see when they look in the mirror? Who stares back at them?

It’s time for us to examine our own desires, challenge our own values, and turn the lens of self-reflection on ourselves. Rather than simply reacting to events, circumstances, and situations that infuriate us, we need to critically evaluate our own roles in creating those same events, circumstances, and situations.  Before we can demand that others see us as equals, we need to see ourselves as just that. When we make second-class citizens of our own brothers, we ensure that all of us will be treated as second class, and therefore – second best.

*this op-ed is forthcoming in The International Examiner.