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GLBT Awareness & Acceptance in Asian Communities

On this page are third-party educational resources that may serve as a starting point to generate greater cultural awareness and exchange of multicultural ideas. Asians & Friends Denver is not responsible for content and the following is for informative, education purposes only.

November 20 - 26, 1997

The Freedom to Marry

What Asian Americans have in common with same-sex marriages


There is a little-explored but important connection between the Asian Pacific Islander struggle to end race discrimination and the lesbian and gay community's struggle for equality. Fortunately, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) will shed more light on the linkage of these civil-rights battles when it convenes its annual conference in San Francisco on Nov. 21-22. For the first time, a NAPABA panel will compare the fight to end the prohibition on interracial marriage to the current effort to end the prohibition on marriage between same-sex couples.

In all 50 states today, lesbian and gay couples are denied the freedom to marry no matter how long they have been together, no matter how committed their relationships, and no matter how much they and their families need the protections, benefits, and responsibilities that come with civil marriage. But same-sex couples have not been alone in suffering marriage discrimination.

In 1967, laws in 16 states prohibited interracial marriages. These anti-miscegenation laws, based on white supremacist prejudice and assertions about "divine will," had a lengthy history. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the defeat of these laws with the United States Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia. The Loving case involved a marriage between an African American woman and a European American man, but the laws under which they were prosecuted also had a malevolent impact on APIs. Fifteen states, including California, once had laws specifically prohibiting marriage between whites and anyone of API descent.

In California, where API communities have existed in substantial numbers for many generations, the history of discrimination is particularly extensive. In 1850, the California Legislature passed a law declaring "all marriages of white persons with negroes or mulattos" to be "illegal and void" in the state. Thirty years later, after large numbers of Chinese men immigrated to California in search of work, the state Legislature passed a law prohibiting the issuance of a marriage license to any white person who wanted to marry a "Mongolian" (the term then used by the California Legislature to characterize people of Chinese descent). In 1905, the California Legislature expanded the state's anti-miscegenation law, declaring "illegal and void" all marriages between whites and "Mongolians."

In the early 1930s, an API man and a woman of European descent challenged the state in Roldan v. Los Angeles County. A California appellate court ruled in their favor, but for racist reasons. The court ruled that California's marriage law did not apply to Solvador Roldan because, as a Filipino, he was "Malay," not "Mongolian." The California Legislature amended the marriage law within a few months of the Roldan decision in order to nullify the Roldans' marriage, making it clear that all marriages between APIs and whites would be found prohibited and void in California.

Finally, with its 1948 ruling in Pérez v. Sharp, the California Supreme Court foreshadowed the U.S. Supreme Court's Loving decision and became the first state high court to hold that laws based on race limiting who one could marry violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection. This groundbreaking decision is linked to the racial diversity of California's population, 15 percent of which is now made up of people of API heritage.

Today, in Baehr v. Miike, three interracial couples (each including one partner who is API and one who is not) are challenging Hawaii's prohibition on their getting married due to their being in same-sex relationships. The case is back before the Hawaii Supreme Court after a prior favorable ruling from that court, followed by a favorable lower-court ruling. It could be decided any day.

Consequently, Hawaii, a state with an API majority, soon may be the first state to end civil-marriage discrimination against lesbians and gay men. Meanwhile, API organizations are illuminating existing parallels between these two struggles to gain the freedom to marry.

In 1994, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) became the first non-gay organization, after the American Civil Liberties Union, to support same-sex marriage. It endorsed the Marriage Resolution, a document affirming marriage as a basic human right that should not be barred to same-sex couples.

Since then, the JACL has been joined by other API organizations, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, the Gay Asian Pacific Support Network, and the Japanese American Bar Association.

There are several steps we can take in joining the battle to ensure full marriage rights for everyone. The most crucial work continues to be educating the larger public. Many people have only recently been asked to think about how the denial of the freedom to marry hurts gay and lesbian families. This past summer, polls showed that only 56 percent of Americans say that they are opposed to same-sex marriages. With continuing dialogue and outreach, a shift to majority support for same-sex marriage is possible. We must reach out to organizations in our communities to endorse the Marriage Resolution and spread the word about the continued damage caused by marriage discrimination.

Conservatives in the California Legislature have attempted to pass legislation that would prevent recognition of same-sex marriages, which may soon be allowed in Hawaii. These opponents rely on assertions about history and divine will strikingly similar to those used to attack interracial marriages in the past.

Fortunately, a coalition of civil-rights advocates--gay and non-gay, as well as API and non-API--have so far been able to defeat this anti-gay and anti-marriage legislation.

However, the same extremist groups that placed Proposition 187--restricting immigrants' access to basic human services--and Proposition 209--eviscerating affirmative-action programs--on the California ballot will attempt to place an anti-marriage initiative on the November 1998 ballot in California.

The API community, which recognized the discriminatory intent and effect of these propositions, can help promote discussion of same-sex marriage and facilitate the defeat of such an anti-marriage initiative. In addition, a ballot initiative is already set for November 1998 in Hawaii. If passed, this initiative would give the Hawaii Legislature the power to amend the state constitution to ban marriages between same-sex couples.

By educating our legislators and showing our opposition to the passage of discriminatory legislation, we can prevent our country from resembling the broken and divided United States of 1966 when marriages between couples like the Lovings were recognized in some states and not others.

In 1997, society agrees that discrimination based on race is wrong and morally reprehensible. With each passing year, more and more Americans agree that discrimination based on sexual orientation is also abominable. Through a dialogue about the parallels between discrimination against interracial couples and against same-sex couples, and through outreach for endorsements of the Marriage Resolution, we can further civil-rights progress for the API community and ensure equality for everyone, including lesbian and gay Asian Pacific Islanders.

Myron Dean Quon is a staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation's oldest and largest legal organization fighting for the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS. Lambda is co-counsel in the Hawaii marriage case.

1998 AsianWeek. The information you receive on-line from AsianWeek is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright protected material.


Are Asian societies more homophobic than Western societies?

I recalled reading an interview with an Asian lesbian immigrant in the US. She recalled dumping a white ex-girlfriend who did not respect the immigrant's culture and background. According to the Asian woman, the white woman had no interest in understanding her Asian girlfriend's culture and the struggles of her family. "She wanted to be my great white savior. Show me the American way." the Asian said, "Later I found out she had a pattern of dating immigrant women."

Like straight whites, many white gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people (an expression which will be shortened to the acronym 'glbt' for the rest of this article)believe that women of color (or in the case of gay men, their supposedly "passive bottom" yellow boyfriends or "sexually-aggressive, well-endowed" black boyfriends) need to be "rescued" from their communities of origin, which whites perceive to be inherently flawed. This mode of thinking comes from colonialist European hypocrisy - the need to justify the exploitation of women of color by claiming that particular forms of exploitation are beneficial for the women.

A prime example is the catalog-bride phenomenon which brings Southeast Asian women to the West to marry European-descent men they haveve never met. White men boast about providing poor Asian women with a better life while not at all addressing the economic, social and racial inequalities that cause the women to make such choices. Many of the women brought over to the US are abused by their "spouses", and even in the absence of abuse, one must ask, "Why is it not the case that Australian/European/Canandian/American men place themselves in picture catalogues for the viewing of Filipina and Thai women in the hopes of being sent over to Southeast Asia as husbands?"

One might expect that the "rescue mentality", being a product of an European male-dominated heterosexist world view should have no relevance among non-heterosexuals. Ironically, it is practiced by white lesbians who do not give a second thought about assuming the role of the "dominant white male" in interracial relationships. Many whites assume that Asian societies are more homophobic than Western societies. Correspondingly, they conclude that the Asian glbt person's only choice for acceptance is to join 'white society'. While many individual Asian glbts have found a greater level of acceptance in largely-white Western glbt circles than among straight Asians in their communities, that has not been everyone's experience. At any rate, all that could be said about an individual glbt Asian choosing a white glbt social network over an Asian 'heterosexual' social network is that glbt individuals generally find greater acceptance with other glbt individuals, who do not necessarily have to be white. When comparisons are drawn between 'straight' Westerners and 'straight' Asians, then it becomes apparent that Asians are not always more homophobic than white Westerners.

Are Asians More Homophobic?

Are Asian societies "by nature" more homophobic than enlightened European/Euro-centric societies? Let's take a look at the 1990s:

"International" (aka Western) news sources report that 2 Iranian youths, accused homosexuals, were punished by having a building demolished over them. So fitting with the dominant American view of Iran as an insane place ruled by religious fanatics of the Islamic persuasion. Western sentiments in response to this unfortunate incident very likely echoed the lines of the oppressed American wife in the film Not Without My Daughter (set in Iran): "This is a primitive, backward country!!!"

But what about that unreported incident which happened in an American school? A mid-teenager thought to be a lesbian was gang-raped by male classmates because one of them thought she made a pass at his girlfriend. A female classmate who helped her home saw blood running down her legs. The alleged lesbian was a virgin until the gang rape. She did not report the incident for fear that her mother would be informed of her alleged sexual orientation. If this heinous human rights violation was reported, it would be read by international audiences as a case of "savage, primitive USA"!

While the Iran incident was the result of sentencing by a religious court in an openly and self-admittedly hostile environment, the US incident took place in a school, where children are supposed to be safe. The Iran incident involves religious authorities as the initiator of violence, the US incident involves children as the perpetrators of rape. If you ask me which of the 2 horrifying incidents is the more twisted nightmare, I'd pick the American incident.

Sexual relations between women are illegal in India. No woman has yet been prosecuted. In December 1998, rioters mobilized by the far right Hindu religious group Shiv Shena attacked and vandalized cinemas showing the lesbian-themed Indian film Fire. Lest white Americans self-righteously thump their chests about how much better gays and lesbians are treated in America, think of the neo-Nazi who murdered two gay men and set fires to synagogues. What about the lesbian in a mid-size US town who was run down by a car driven by a group of kids shouting, "Die, dyke!'?

In many non-white societies, including Asian nations, glbts enjoy privileges their European/Euro-Am counterparts can only dream of. (Click here to read ColorQ Article on Queers in the non-European world)

Differences in Asian and European/European American Homophobia

I am by no means claiming that ALL Asian cultures welcome glbt with open arms. Certainly there are some Asians cultures which are much more tolerant than others. I have heard of Asian parents who cry over, remonstrate with, and even disown glbt children, especially in the case of sons who must carry on the family line. But Asian sentiments of disapproval pale in comparison to the violent homophobic hate of many European American families. An American father tried to cleave open his son's head with a hammer after finding out he was gay. Talk about American family values.

Some Asians, particularly those influenced by Euro/Euro-Am culture, disassociate themselves from friends whom they discover are glbt. But this passive rejection is nothing like the deep-seated irrational rage some Euro Americans dish out to their glbt ex-friends. A gay American thought it wise to tell his high school best friend that he is gay before they become roommates at college. The result: the gay youth was beaten unconscious in his own front yard and went to hospital with a concussion. So much for friendship. And there is the well-known case of Brandon Teena, a FTM transgender youth was was raped and murdered by 2 former friends when they discovered he was a biological female.

Yet even in the homophobic milieu of the U.S., Asian American communities can be more accepting of sexual and gender minorities than European American communities. Ann, a New York lesbian, said, "We have our Philippine Independence Day Parade, but the Irish lesbians and gays cannot march [in the St. Patrick's Day Parade]. But with the Filipinos, it is fine... When issues about gay/lesbian rights or children's rights or any other minority rights come up, the women hold up an umbrella. When lesbians are being discriminated, it is always the women that support us. That is how it is in the Filipino community here."1

Is Homophobia a European Import?

Homosexual or gender-bending behavior has existed in Asia and Australia, just as it has existed on other continents, since prehistory. Many non-white societies have a place for glbt in public life, or did until recently.

There is reason to believe the homophobia and the limitation of gender identities in modern Asian societies (and other non-European societies) is a European import. Conservative Singapore is known to tolerate lesbians. Gay bashings are virtually unheard of. Nevertheless, gay men could be arrested under Singapore's sodomy laws, a British legacy. Most of the homophobia comes from self-styled "Westernized" Singaporeans who try to ape European values and denounce their Asian traditions as "backward", "pagan" and "ungodly". Western-educated Singaporean politicians accept Western culture as the normative, universal standard and pride themselves on upholding an Anglo version of "morality".

In Thailand, transgender people are a common sight, and homosexuals are visible and accepted in every aspect of life from grade school to college and beyond. Most straight Thais have openly gay relatives and friends. Yet, in Laos, a neighboring country with a similar material culture and language, glbt are closeted. Thais and Laotians are so closely related they can understand each other's speech, and cuisine differences are minimal. One major difference in modern Thai and Lao cultures is the presence of European colonial influences. Laos had been under French colonization, while Thailand, although visited by many foreigners through the ages, has never been colonized by Europeans. Some observers attribute the tough situation for glbt in Laos to the cultural legacy of Europeans.

The European/American attitude of showing the rest of the world how to be a non-sexist, non-homophobic society is hardly appropriate considering that it is Europeans/European Americans who exported their cultural evil of virulent homophobia to the non-European world in the first place. http://www.colorq.org/Articles/article.aspx?d=2000&x=asianover

Dang, Alain and Mandy Hu, "Asian Pacific American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People: A Community Portrait a report from New York's queer Asian Pacific Legacy Conference, 2004, page 4"

Dang, Alain and Mandy Hu, "Asian Pacific American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People: A Community Portrait a report from New York's queer Asian Pacific Legacy Conference, 2004, page 30"

Dang, Alain and Mandy Hu, "Asian Pacific American Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People: A Community Portrait a report from New York's queer Asian Pacific Legacy Conference, 2004, page 41"

Caution: Some viewers may find some of the images to be disturbing. While some of these images show tragedies, these images are not necessarily reflective of the same realities that every single GLBT person faces. Everyone's experience is unique to them as a person - in which the factors that affect that person's life include their parents, family, relatives, friends, neighborhood, community and overall society and government.

The objective is to generate awareness about the results and outcomes of homophobia and show actual events that affected real people forever. None of the stories or images should, or should not imply that the same will or will not happen to you or to someone that you know who is GLBT. It is important for GLBT persons to be aware of their surroundings and exercise due care and caution; however this is not to imply that anyone in these situations did nor did not do the same - just that awareness and personal safety do have the potential to afford someone reasonable, but not absolute, protection.

While awareness and personal safety can play a role in preventing these outcomes, it is important to remember that the social problem being shown is about homophobia, not about the awareness of GLBT people to protect themselves from every possible situation.

However, this content is not meant to imply that "coming out" would or would not necessarily subject a GLBT person to these types of situations. The objective is not meant to install unnecessary fear to GLBT persons, or even to send a message about self-protection - but to highlight the effects of homophobia and work for social change regarding anti-gay rhetoric and violence, in which there is a clear link.

It is not necessarily productive to focus on the GLBT person, and analyze is they did everything correctly - but moveover to look at homophobia as being the real problem.

This is sensitive and powerful content, and may result in emotional responses due to this content, that may include anger, fear, depression or sadness.

Please advise anyone watching these videos to be well aware that these are worst-case scenerios, and do not necessarily represent a typical life for a GLBT person.

The intented outcome is that participants will talk away a sense of awareness regarding the profound scope and extent of homophobia, and the effects on people's lives that go far beyond a GLBT person, but affect countless other family, relatives and friends that love a GLBT person.

These videos highlight that homophobia can be a social reality for many people. Please watch with caution.

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On this page are third-party educational resources that may serve as a starting point to generate greater cultural awareness and exchange of multicultural ideas. Asians & Friends Denver is not responsible for content and the following is for informative, education purposes only.

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