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Asian Representation in the Media

Lesbian and Bisexual Women of Color on TV

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.

Asian American Literature

Asian American gays and lesbians voice richly multiple and diverse identities as they assert sexual autonomy in the face of stereotyping, homophobia, and racism.

The names "Asian" and "Pacific (Islander)" are often yoked together to emphasize the shared concerns of Asians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Asian and Asian American groups have been comparatively more visible in recent mainstream media than Pacific Islanders, whose colonial histories remain relatively obscure. This entry will focus on Asian American artists, many of whom choose to name themselves "Asian/Pacific gays and lesbians."


Asian/Pacific gays and lesbians share problems of invisibility specific to histories fraught with Orientalist stereotypes. To compound this situation, racialized and gendered stereotypes pervasive in heterosexual communities return to disfigure representations of Asian/Pacific homosexualities. For Asian/Pacific gays, Hollywood images of asexual Charlie Chans and emasculated Fu Manchus recirculate within gay communities where Asian/Pacific men find themselves repositioned as Cio-Cio-San from Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Similarly, Asian/Pacific women's bodies are disfigured by racist constructions of "slanted cunts," while stereotypes of Suzy Wong and geisha girls configure the Asian/Pacific lesbian as a submissive, exotic object of lesbian desire or as solely an object of male desire and thus irrevocably heterosexual.

Although these problems of representation demand an interrogation of desires based on racial stereotypes, what is urgently needed is the recognition that Asian/Pacific gays and lesbians voice richly multiple and diverse identities.

"I am an Oriental," explains a disrobed Song to the investigating judge in David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, "[a]nd being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man." Hwang's 1988 Tony Award-winning drama explores one of the greatest concerns for gay Asian/Pacific artists: the pervasive racialized stereotype of the Asian/Pacific man as an emasculated sissy, what writer Frank Chin has broadly labeled the "Charlie Chan Sex Syndrome."

Gay filmmaker and critic Richard Fung further adds that "the Asian man is defined by a striking absence down there. And if Asian men have no sexuality, how can we have homosexuality?" Yet homosexuality certainly persists within the field of Asian American literatures, significantly informing many of its anxieties over issues of masculinity and paternity.

Early Asian American Gay Stories

Two of the earliest Asian American gay-themed stories can be found in the groundbreaking Asian American anthologies Aiiieeeee! (1974) and The Big Aiiieeeee! (1991), respectively. Wallace Lin's (a.k.a. Russell Leong) "Rough Notes for Mantos" (1974) is about a racially and sexually displaced Asian American man who copes with both the loss of his would-be lover and his inability to accept the heterosexual imperatives of his demanding father.

Lonny Kaneko's "The Shoyu Kid" (1976) recounts the molestation of a young Japanese-American boy by a white soldier in a World War II internment camp. Highlighting the intersection of racism and homosexuality, Kaneko's story calls for a revisioning of American history and a reclaiming of sexual autonomy.

Asian/Pacific Gays in Mainstream Publications

In the tide of concerted gay activism around AIDS, the late 1980s and the 1990s witnessed an increased representation of Asian/Pacific gays in mainstream publications by well-known but straight-identified writers such as Jessica Hagedorn and David Wong Louie.

Concomitantly, there has also been a proliferation of works by Asian/Pacific artists who explicitly address their own concerns and desires, while contesting the absence of their images within the commercial and political sectors of mainstream gay artistic circles. Artists such as Norman Wong, Han Ong, and Dwight Okita have written and produced notable stories, dramas, and poetry.

For instance, Wong's eponymous story from his collection Cultural Revolution (1993) narrates the dilemmas of a young Chinese-American man who accompanies his father on a visit to their ancestral village in China. The story probes issues of cultural and sexual alienation as the protagonist becomes sexually involved with a white history student who seems to know more about China than he does.

Contemporary Issues Raised by Asian/Pacific Gay Artists

Contemporary issues raised by Asian/Pacific gay artists in The Asian Pacific American (APA) Journal's special issue "Witness Aloud: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Asian/Pacific American Writings" (Spring/Summer 1993) and the "Smut" issue of The Lavender Godzilla (Fall 1992) include the negotiation and reconciliation of a gay identity within racialized communities often marked by cultural and gay communities often tainted by overt racism.

Lawrence Chua's "Love in a Cold Climate" plays out the ambivalences of internalized homophobia and the difficulty of naming gay love. Martin F. Manalansan's "Your Cio-Cio-San" explores the controversial topics of cross-racial dating and "Rice Queens"--gay white males attracted to Asians through their racist fantasies of a submissive and feminized gay Asian "bottom."

Another related problem raised by Quentin Lee's "The Sailor & the Thai Boys" is the often radical class disparities between Rice Queens and their Asian/Pacific lovers. These inequities introduce the specter of prostitution, literal and figurative.

Looking at class relations from a different perspective, John Silva's "The Romantic Banquero" examines economic and sexual privilege mapped along international lines between a boatman and a Filipino expatriate vacationing in the Philippines. An additional form of domination is revealed by John Albert Manzon's "Willi": domestic violence.

The gay community has largely considered it inconceivable for Asian/Pacific men--all stereotyped as "bottoms"--to date one another. Nevertheless, a current debate fueled by works such as Justin Chin's "Bite" revolves around the topic of "Sticky Rice," gay Asian/Pacific men who do date one another. This situation has created a dialogue around the problems of cross-racial dating between gays from different Asian/Pacific ethnic groups as well as dating between immigrant and American-born Asian/Pacific gays.

Several performance art pieces have been produced not only to educate but also to instill a sense of responsibility and empowerment within the Asian/Pacific community regarding issues around HIV. For example, the "Love Like This Theatre" of San Francisco's Asian AIDS Project recently toured the United States and Asia with their performance of director Vince Sales's Dates, a series of tableaus organized around three gay Asian friends grappling intimacy in the face of AIDS.

Asian/Pacific Lesbian Literature

Like their gay counterparts, Asian/Pacific lesbians have been writing and speaking long before their narratives were published. Living at the intersections of often mutually exclusive heterosexual Asian American communities and European-American feminist and lesbian communities, however, has frequently put the Asian/Pacific lesbian in the position of having to "prove" she is possible.

When white lesbians look at her in a bar, Alice Hom wonders, "Maybe they are surprised to see me because Asian/Pacific women stereotypes are so ingrained in the heterosexual context that Asian lesbians do not even come to mind." Nevertheless, Asian/Pacific lesbians contest these erasures of their sexual identities by representing their lesbian desires.

"I, splinter trees / with the roar / of my voice," writes Willyce Kim in Under the Rolling Sky (1976), her third book of poetry. Although lesbian-themed works, such as Margaret Chinen's play All, All Alone (1947), have been published since the 1940s, Kim is recognized as the first Asian/Pacific lesbian to publish a collection of poetry, Curtains of Light (1971); she is also the first to publish a novel, Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid (1985).

Challenging the racialized, gendered, and sexualized conventions of the Western, Kim introduces new terms for a Korean-American lesbian Western. In "Poem for Zahava," Kim writes, "we could: / roll five joints with either hand, / rescue ten women with a smile, / and kick the shins out of any man."

Other early writers, Barbara Noda, Kitty Tsui, Merle Woo, and Canyon Sam wrote to revise dominant versions of history. For instance, in Strawberries (1979), Noda limns one critical strategy in Asian/Pacific lesbian narratives: to figure forth her own Japanese-American lesbian body through inscribing desire and personal history upon the mirror of her lover's body. Noda writes upon that body both the sweetness of its forbidden fruit and her father's bitterness as a seasonal fruit picker in the difficult years following internment during World War II.

In a similar vein, Tsui re-envisions a myth of origins more specific to her than European genealogies tracing lesbian desire to Sappho. In her poem, "Why the Milky Way is Milky" (1982), republished in Irene Zahava's Lesbian Love Stories, Tsui writes a Chinese lesbian myth of origins that revises the heterosexual Chinese legend of Spinning Girl and Shepherd Boy.

For Woo, writing history in Yellow Woman Speaks (1986) engages her own particular struggles for minority rights in her anti-discrimination suit against the University of California, Berkeley in 1982. Looking back on the history behind Asian/Pacific lesbian communities, Sam contrasts the collective Asian/Pacific lesbian activism of the 1980s with the isolation and loneliness she felt in the 1970s. Published in Zahava's Lesbian Love Stories, "Sapphire" (1989) recalls her momentous first meeting with another Asian/Pacific lesbian.

The Difficulties of Forming Coalitions

Concerns over the necessity of forming coalitions converged in the first Asian/Pacific lesbian anthology, Between the Lines: An Anthology by Pacific/Asian Lesbians of Santa Cruz, California (1987). Writings by A. Kaweah Lemeshewsky, Alison Kim, Anu, and Cristy Chung chart the difficulties of forging alliances across racial and ethnic differences, geographical boundaries, and divisions between lesbian, bisexual, and straight women.

The anthology also features excerpts from Alison Kim's compilation of the earliest Asian/Pacific lesbian bibliography. The call for international coalitions has, in turn, emphasized the importance of alliances between lesbians of color. Chea Villanueva's epistolary novels Girlfriends (1987) and Chinagirls (1991) follow street-smart African-American, Korean-American, Chinese-American, Filipina-American, and racially mixed lesbians whose bonds see them through both dangerous and raunchy escapades.

Most recently, The APA Journal's "Witness Aloud" issue (Spring/Summer 1993) stitches together an impressive array of Asian/Pacific lesbian voices. The title of Indigo Chih-Lien Som's poem "Just once before I die I want someone to make love to me in Cantonese" calls for the need to name desires with a language of one's own.

As Anu's poem "Silence of Home" illustrates, however, the Indian voices associated with home bring pain as well as pleasure. On the other hand, Donna Tanigawa reclaims Hawaii's multiracial pidgin in "Pau Trying Fo' Be Like One Haole Dyke" in order to contest the "standards" set by English and the white lesbian body.

In other works, words take on different meanings when situated against the body of a lover. Meditating on the meaning of "Passion," Elsa E'der writes of conflicting desires for a lover who has survived sexual abuse. Sharing similar concerns with Asian/Pacific gays, Margaret Mihee Choe's "Chamwe at the Club" confronts the internalized racism that makes it difficult for Asian/Pacific lesbians to date one another.

Video and Film Expressions

Gay and lesbian Asian/Pacific artistic creativity blossoms in video and film, media more accessible to marginalized peoples, perhaps, than mainstream commercial publishing. Both the 1993 New York and San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals featured videos by Asian/Pacific artists Pablo Bautista, Quentin Lee, and Ming-Yuen S. Ma. In addition, films by Gregg Araki (The Living End) and Rico Martinez (Glamazon) recently premiered with notable acclaim.

Many of these works are available on videotape from the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA), which also distributes lesbian films, including Ann Moriyasu's Issei Wahine and Eileen Lee and Marilyn Abbink's Women of Gold.


Productions by these talented artists, as well as many others, attest to the ways Asian/Pacific gays and lesbians will continue to gain recognition for their different communities. In 1994, two additional collections brought together gay and lesbian writers: Jessica Hagedorn's Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction hosts a large gay and lesbian presence, and Amerasia Journal published a critical and literary issue entitled "New Dimensions, New Desires."

Asian Lesbians of the East Coast. ALOEC Newsletter. P.O. Box 850, New York, NY 10002.

Asian Pacifica Sisters (APS). Phoenix Rising. P.O. Box 170596, San Francisco, CA 94117.

Chin, Curtis, Gayatri Gopinath, Joo-Hyun Kang, and Alvin Realuyo, eds. Witness Aloud: Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Asian/Pacific American Writings. The Asian/Pacific American Journal 2:1 (Spring/Summer 1993).

Chinen, Margaret. All, All Alone. College Plays. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Department of English, 1947-1948.

Chung, C., A. Kim, and A. K. Lemeshewsky, eds. Between the Lines: An Anthology by Pacific/Asian Lesbians of Santa Cruz, California. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Dancing Bird Press, 1987.

Fung, Richard. "Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn." How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video. Bad Object Choices, ed. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.

Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA). Lavender Godzilla Newsletter. P.O. Box 421884, San Francisco, CA 94142-1884.

Hagedorn, Jessica, ed. Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Hagedorn, Jessica. Danger and Beauty. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Hom, Alice. "In the Mind of An/Other." Amerasia Journal 17:2 (1991): 51-54.

Hwang, David Henry. M. Butterfly. New York: Plume, 1988.

Kaneko, Lonny. "The Shoyu Kid." The Big Aiiieeee! An Anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American Literature. Jeffrey Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. New York: Meridian, 1991.

Kim, Willyce. Curtains of Light. Self-published, 1971.

_____. Dancer Dawkins and the California Kid. Boston: Alyson, 1985.

_____. Dead Heat. Boston: Alyson, 1988.

_____. Eating Artchokes. Oakland: Women's Press Collective, 1972.

_____. Under the Rolling Sky. N.p.: Maud Gonne Press, 1976.

Leong, Russell. In the Country of Dreams and Dust. Albuquerque, N. M.: West End Press, 1993.

Leong, Russell, ed. "New Dimensions, New Desires." Special queer issue of the Amerasia Journal 20:1 (Spring 1994).

Lim, Paul Stephen. Homerica: A Trilogy on Sexual Liberation. Louisville, Ky.: Aran Press, 1985.

Lin, Wallace (a.k.a. Russell Leong). "Rough Notes for Mantos." Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers. Jeffrey Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, eds. New York: Anchor, 1974.

Liu, Timothy. Vox Angelica. Cambridge, Mass.: alicejamesbooks, 1992.

Louie, David Wong. "Pangs of Love." Pangs of Love. New York: Knopf, 1991.

National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA). 346 Ninth Street, Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103.

Noda, Barbara. Strawberries. Berkeley: Shameless Hussy Press, 1979.

Okita, Dwight. Crossing with the Light. Chicago: Tia Chucha Press, 1992.

Tsui, Kitty. Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire. San Francisco: Spinsters, 1983.

Villanueva, Chea. Chinagirls. N.p.: Lezzies on the Move Productions, 1991.

_____. Girlfriends. New York: Outlaw Press, 1987.

Wong, Norman. Cultural Revolution. New York: Persea Press, 1994.

Woo, Merle. Yellow Woman Speaks. Seattle: Radical Women Publications, 1986.

Zahava, Irene, ed. Lesbian Love Stories. Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1989.



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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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