A panel discussion at the University of British Columbia (UBC) raised more questions than it answered when it brought together an assortment of participants to talk about what it means to be queer and Asian.
Hosted by UBC’s Asian Canadian Cultural Organization, the Mar 7 discussion capped off two days of workshops regarding Asian experiences.
Titled Queer + Asian = ? it was touted as a safe haven for people to share their own stories about being queer, racism in the gay community, struggles with coming out, and the cultural give and take between Asian family values and more Western norms.
The most wide-ranging discussion stemmed from the concept of coming out.
“Western culture advocates the individual, whereas Asian culture is more about the collective,” says Allen Chen, a 21-year-old UBC student, who says being Asian-Canadian and queer means being caught between two sets of expectations.
For many of the panelists, being gay is only one facet of their identity — and not the dominant facet at that. In contrast, many felt the norm in Vancouver’s gay community is to identify first by sexual orientation, then by ethnicity, cultural association, or career.
Being gay isn’t a topic generally discussed with family members, panelists noted.
“In Chinese culture, straight or gay, we all hide our relationships,” says Lydia Luk, who works at The Centre on Bute St.
Luk has been in a relationship with a woman for over four years but has never told her family. But, she points out, several of her straight friends are also in long-term relationships and haven’t told their families either. It’s not so much a secret, she says, as a culture founded on respect and privacy.
“There’s the idea of a Confucian duty to carry on the family line,” Chen says. “As long as you fulfill the public duty, you can live your private life.” It’s not uncommon for men to marry, have children, and continue to have sex with men on the side.
Asian communities can be incredibly small and close knit, notes Luk, so word gets around very quickly if someone comes out. That’s why, she explains, “sometimes we’re out in certain communities and sometimes we’re not.”
Coming out to family also means finding the right words, something that can be difficult in some languages.
“I haven’t been able to say I’m gay in Chinese,” Chen says. “It’s a bad word. It’s immediately connoted as negative.”
Several people echoed having similar difficulties. For instance, there is no equivalent to “coming out” in Cantonese, as the terms are all very technical. Even if some people wanted to have the conversation, it could prove almost impossible.
For Asian Canadians who do decide to come out, many have difficulty finding resources that reflect their own cultural realities. The majority of resources target English speakers, and while translations are available, language barriers may muddle the meaning and intention of the words.
Additionally, many Asian cultures don’t seek support networks outside the family. There are currently no Asian members of PFLAG, a statistic the organization is desperately hoping will change in coming years.
Asian Canadians may also face discrimination within the gay community, an idea that’s referred to as a “pecking order” of idealized looks, cultures, and experiences. One of the questions raised by the panel was: is racial preference simply preference or is it racism? And, just because you’re attracted to people of the same sex, does that mean you’re automatically accepted into the gay community?
Several people in the room pointed to gay personal ads that tell Asians not to bother responding.
“We’re supposed to be a community that is oppressed, so we should be aware but I just as quickly realized, no, it doesn’t necessarily work that way,” says Luk. “And that’s too bad.”