3 min

Embracing diversity within diversity

When I was 18 I almost jumped off an eight-storey building in Tokyo.

I am an only child and my parents had always told me to “prosper and populate the family” — as the Asian saying goes. When I realized I was gay I wished I had not been born.

After my only gay friend actually committed suicide, I became motivated to save the lives of gay people and, to be honest, myself. I made queer friends online and we started the first queer group at Japan’s oldest university.

When we reached our mid-20s, many of my gay male friends got engaged to women, succumbing to social and family pressure, while continuing to sleep with men on the side. At one point I was tempted to marry a lesbian friend — these “setups” are also common.

Finally, against my friends’ advice, I came out to my parents. They were devastated at first but gradually became supportive and understanding, eventually coming to the conclusion that I should move to a place where gay people are more accepted, somewhere I could possibly raise kids in a gay relationship.

So I immigrated to Canada, which, in 2008, was one of five countries where I could marry another man, something I want to do . . . eventually.

When I started searching for a boyfriend, however, I was shocked to find how “white” the queer community in North America is. I was also surprised by numerous offensive online dating profiles that openly said things like “I don’t eat chocolate/rice” or “any race (Euro preferred).”

I’ve found that for many North American men, race is a, if not the, make-or-break attribute they are looking for in a hookup or partner. To my surprise, many of those who “only date white guys” are also East Asians and other men of colour.

This is one intersection of racism and homophobia. Every ethnic group is different, but in general, gays of colour experience the hurdles of being a double minority. We face deeply embedded cultural, religious, social and legal discrimination inside our ethnic group as well as external racism. To put it another way, we have to overcome internal homophobia, because of our ethnicity and sexual orientation, and external racism, because of our colour and sexual orientation.

Kenji Yoshino, an openly gay professor at the New York University School of Law, coined the term “covering” to describe a form of discrimination that directs itself against the subset of the group that fails to assimilate to mainstream norms. He says, “Outsiders are included, but only if we behave like insiders — that is, only if we cover.”

I see many Asian and other non-white gays in Canada trying to assimilate into mainstream “white” queer culture by dating or marrying Caucasians — disavowing racial identities, almost, in exchange for their sexual identities.

The phenomenon is so prevalent it adversely affects the self-esteem of Asians and other non-whites who are proud of their cultural heritage. To be fair, I also know there are some Asian gays who are interested only in other Asians. They are called, and call themselves, “sticky rice.” I haven’t heard white gays who date only Caucasians label themselves in some sardonic way; this is accepted as just “normal.”

I think this is an issue precisely because Canada is more diverse and multi-ethnic than Japan and most countries in the world. It is more complicated: it is not just foreign immigrants, students or expats, but also non-white “born and raised” Canadians who experience this intersectionality.

Canada has seen tremendous progress in terms of legal rights for gays and lesbians (though to a far lesser extent for trans people). But this progress created another, rather advanced, level of social stigma. When I was in Japan, I needed only to deal with homophobia.

Conscious Canadians have long been aware of the intersectionality of racism and homophobia (and any other grounds of discrimination). In 2001, the Ontario Human Rights Commission published a report calling for a more holistic, intersectional approach in discrimination complaint cases.

As a newcomer, I want to put it to you, Canadians of all races and sexual orientations: the time has come for us to stand up for the minorities among minority groups. The similar “conformist” pressure applies to any sub-minority groups within the queer community, such as trans people, impoverished gay people and other marginalized groups.

We need more diversity within diversity. By adding more colours to this already picturesque country, I am convinced Canada can lead the world in embracing diversity and social liberalism.