Sliding comfortably into a chair on the sidewalk at Starbucks, Jimmy Cho pulls a cigarette out of its box then offers me the pack. When I decline, his eyebrows rise slightly as if he’s reconsidering if he should have one as well, but then he lights it up. “I’ve never been interviewed before,” he says, “I can’t imagine that I’ll tell you anything important.” In his baggy jeans and $200 Nikes, he looks the part of a street thug. It’s difficult to imagine him being afraid of anything. He speaks easily and confidently, his manner more of a seasoned veteran speaker than someone just out of college and looking for work.
But when Cho told his parents that was gay, it was the most frightening moment of his life. “I fully prepared to be kicked out of the house, I had my bags pack, I made arrangements with my friends who were waiting outside, I was ready,” he says. “I was really a drama queen about the whole thing. But it really did take me years to finally decide to tell them. So it was just building up and building up inside. I think ultimately, it was a bigger deal for me than it was for them.”
For Cho, the event was less traumatic than the worst he had feared. “They always told me that they would love me no matter what, I guess they really proved it.” Over the years, his parents have grown to accept his sexuality and have even welcomed his partner to their home with “almost open arms.” Cho adds, “I know that my father is still a bit apprehensive around [my partner], but I try to be understanding, it’s a big step for him.” And what a step it was.
As a child, Cho always know he was “different” from other children. “It wasn’t something that was all consuming of me, but yeah, in some small way, I know I was gay. I was the little boy who never grew out of the stage where we think that girls are gross.” Cho was lucky in some aspects. He never really had bouts of emotional trauma over his sexual identity. Sadly, he is the exception among preadolescent gay youths. Nationwide, an unimaginable number of gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender (GLBT) youths suffer emotional angst over their identities.
While estimates are hard to come by, many in social services working with GLBT youths argue that thousands of youths are kicked out of their home every year by parents who do not understand their child’s sexual orientation. While support groups for GLBT youths exist in most major cities, many do not attend for fear of being found out. In smaller towns where such services are hard to come by and there are no gay role models, the situation is even worse. Cho states, “I never went to support groups or anything like that. I knew they existed, but I was always afraid that someone I knew would see me.” And he had good reason to worry.
As devout Christians, Cho’s parents attended one of the largest Korean churches in the Tacoma area. “The Korean community is really small, and big on gossip,” Cho said, “ I wasn’t ready for that.” Although he personally did not like church, Cho went to make his parents happy. “I never heard anyone openly say being gay was wrong, but that was the message I got from the church,” Cho said. “It was something that wasn’t talked about, it was just assumed that being gay was bad.”
As for his parents, Cho says they never openly discussed homosexuality. “One time we (the family) were on Broadway and we saw men holding hands. But neither of my parents said anything at all. I mean, they didn’t say it was good or bad. They made no comment at all, and I think that was the scariest part.” Cho adds that it was difficult for him to talk to his parents about his sexuality because he thought being gay was even more “taboo” in Asian cultures. “I don’t know why I thought that, I guess I bought into the stereotypes about homophobic Asians.” But Cho states that it was ultimately his Asian friends that accepted him the best. He adds, “I’ve had a few white friends from high school who stopped talking to me, but so far, not a single Asian friend—even those from church—stopped being my friends because of my sexuality. So much for stereotypes.”
Odd Man Out
In the mainstream media, Asian men are often portrayed as weak, timid, and unassertive. These images have perpetuated the stereotype that Asian men are somehow docile and un-masculine. Take these stereotypes and multiply them ten-fold and you get what it’s like to be a gay Asian man. According to Alex Nguyen, these gross stereotypes often place him into uncomfortable situations. “ I went out with a guy for a few weeks and it was fine for a while. Then, he started complaining that I was not what he expected. When I asked him what he expected, he simply said someone not so …demanding.” Later, Nguyen found out that “not demanding” meant someone who did not have an opinion, did not complain about being kept waiting, did all the cooking and cleaning, waited patiently by the phone to be called, and who would stay home while his partner went out with his friends. “It was really disgusting what this ‘rice queen’ (a white man who dates only Asian men) wanted in a man,” he adds.
While Nguyen doesn’t see any problems with inter-racial dating, he says the problem comes when white men only want to date Asian men because they believe that an Asian man will be less “trouble.” Much like the geisha image, Nguyen says that there are a lot of white men pursue Asian men because they have unrealistic expectations that the Asian guy will do everything possible to please a white man. In a lot of interracial relationships, Nguyen says, Asian men are expected to play the “female” role of submissive giver while the white man plays the “masculine” role of dominant taker.
“Sadly enough,” Nguyen adds, “there are (Asian) guys who will play this role. According to Nguyen, there is an obsession with a “white is beautiful” mentality in the gay subculture. “Most of the images in the gay community,” he says, “are of young, blonde haired, blue eyed white men. When Asian men are portrayed at all, it’s always something exotic, something different. We just aren’t presented as desirable.” The worst part, according to Nguyen, is that Asian men have internalized these images and stereotypes.
“I’ve been in situations where I’ve heard Asian men say things like, ‘I don’t find Asian men attractive.’ Well, what does that mean? That you don’t find yourself attractive? That you don’t find people that have similar characteristics as yourself attractive? It seems to me like there’s a bit of self-hate there. So a lot of Asian men will date any white guy. I guess it makes them feel accepted.” Nguyen is quick to point out that this type of mentality lead to gay Asian men as seeing other Asian men as competitors rather than natural allies.
Steve Chin disagrees: “It’s not about feeling bad about ourselves, it’s more about who we find attractive.” For Chin, dating white men has nothing to do with being proud of being Asian or turning his back on his cultural heritage. While he admits that “most” of the Asian men that he knows prefer white men, he says they are also very comfortable with their Asian heritage. Chin says that on many occasions, he has been called a “potato queen” (a gay man of color who exclusively dates white men) but it doesn’t bother him. He adds, “If some people want to be closed minded then what can I say?”
According to Chin, too much goes into dating to narrow people’s preferences down to psychological models that negatively portray those who explore outside of their ethnic circles. He adds, “ It could be that there are just more white men out there than there are Asian men.” He also noted that the trends in inter-racial dating he sees in Asian women. In fact, according to Chin, most of his close friends are other gay Asian men. According to him, “Relationships come and go, but your friends stay for ever. I’d rather have that kind of relationship with other gay Asian men.”
Finding A Gay Asian Home
According to Nhan Thai, the goal is to “empower gay Asian men and provide them with a place where they can feel safe.” According to Thai, the problem is not that there is self-hate in the gay Asian community, but that there is no real community to speak of. “Most things in the gay community are geared toward ‘mainstream’ gay men who are most often white, and most things in the Asian community are geared toward heterosexuals,” he says. “If gay Asian men want to have a community, we have to build it ourselves from the ground up.”
As president of Queer and Asian (Q&A) and the community facilitator for Young Asian Men’s Study (YAMS), Thai has been doing a lot of community building. According to Thai, “If we are to build a gay Asian community, these organizations are critical.”
Kieu-Ahn King, who came out several years ago, agrees. “If weren’t for these organizations, I would have been lost.” King credits organizations such as Q&A and the Asian Pacific Aid s Coalition (APAC) with providing a culturally sensitive place where he was able to explore his sexual identity in conjunction with his Asian American identity. King believes that in order to have a strong gay Asian community, gay Asian men need to examine their own prejudices and ask themselves how much of the stereotypes of Asian men have been internalized. By working together, he believes that gay Asian men can create positive images for themselves.
According to Nguyen, the gay community is no more inclusive of racial minorities than the straight community. “In a lot of these gay organizations, ethnic diversity is just lip service. They want you to come, but if you have an opinion you’re labeled a troublemaker. Men of color are invited to dinner, but they aren’t served any food. This is why we need Asian specific organizations.”
“The deeper problem,” says Phi Huynh, “is that most gay Asian men are not even aware of the things that affect the way they see the world.” Huynh adds that the drive to fit into any community might hinder careful consideration of gay Asian men’s own identities. “The messages that are bombarded on gay men in general, and gay Asian men specifically, can be very damaging if they are not critically explored.” While Huynh understands the value of such groups like Gay City that reach out to gay men in general, he feels that racially specific issues are often ignored. “There is a tendency to lump everyone together, but the reality is that our needs are very different from those of other gay men.” This, he says, is the most important reason that Asian specific organizations need to exit.