Outweek Cover Story -- Back Stories
Updated: Feb 24, 2019
In 1991, Outweek published a cover story on Queer Asian and Pacific Islanders. I was one of the activists featured. How did this happen? What was it like in the 90s for us?
I left my first job after college after being subjected to sexual harassment by a gay boss. It was also around the same time when I frequented the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in the West Village. When I decided to quit my job, my gay boss asked me if I wanted to be laid off or just quit. I was so offended by him that I told him, "I'm quitting." I didn't know what being laid off meant anyway. I didn't know that quitting during a recession without unemployment benefits would negatively impact my credit. I was too angry. I was too naive. Instead, I left and went to Europe.
When I came back a month later, I was unemployed with no idea what I had to do next. I studied International Relations in college, and finding a decent job in that area without a graduate degree was impossible. I started temping like I did the summers of my college years and ushered part-time at the Town Hall. I had some sort of income, but not enough to pay my college loans. Luckily, I lived at home in Jersey City.
Coming of Age as an Activist
The 90s was a dark decade for young gay men. I was not new to street protests because I already did some of that as a college student in Washington, D.C. I started attending groups at the Gay Center (what we called it then) to meet people like me. One group in particular was where I spent a lot of my free time--GAPIMNY. It was a young organization for gay pacific islander men, mostly East Asians really. I also attended MOCT--Men of all Colors Together, mostly blacks really. I also joined ACT-UP, mostly gay white men.
Four people in particular opened doors for me as an activist and writer: Ching-Ching Ni, Mark Collins, Curtis Chin, and Milyoung Cho. I met Ching-Ching at the aforementioned job. She was a young political mind, very self aware for her age, rather argumentative, and often questioned my naivete. She was the one who first told me that I should stop calling myself, "oriental." I did stop, although I didn't know why. Around the same time, I met Mark, who provided the knowledge key to the goings-on at the Center. Without him, I would not have heard of GAPIMNY, much less attended it. It was in a GAPIMNY meeting that I met Curtis Chin. With Curtis, I would eventually co-found a seminal organization, The Asian American Writers Workshop (more on AAWW on another blog). Through Milyoung, I became a regular street protester against anti-Asian violence and police brutality. She was the head of Committee Against Anti Asian Violence (CAAAV). For someone like me who was so politically naive, Milyoung was everything I wanted to be. The protest against Miss Saigon in 1991 would not be the same without her--she was our muse, one with a loud speaker. The early months of AAWW in 1991 were spent at a table provided by CAAAV. We even read at their public events. In all these readings, Veena Cabreros Sud, fierceness personified, reigned. Veena taught me the importance of connection at public readings. All these friends were lamp posts on my dark path. They directed where I went without even trying. I went along, as I didn't have much of a choice because I didn't know what else to do.
There were many others of course that influenced my becoming. What was slowly happening, perhaps due to osmosis, was my departure from my college studies and my rather quick immersion in political activism, both in the Asian American and the lesbian and gay communities, albeit mutually exclusive and completely very distanced from each other. I was always living and surviving in separate realms. Everything happened very quickly.
Four people in particular opened doors for me as an activist and writer: Ching-Ching Ni, Mark Collins, Curtis Chin, and Milyoung Cho.
The Whiteness of Gay 90s
ACT-UP was mostly gay white men. The gay clubs in Manhattan privileged the white men types as well. It was the era of the white-t'shirt Chelsea boys. It was easy to get lost in the racism, however subtle. Gays of color knew what we were being subjected to at gay bars. Being ignored was not coincidental. But because we were so isolated, we took the experience as darker part of the "gay culture." Through GAPIMNY, I became aware of racialized (and racist) labels such as Rice Queens, Sticky Rice, Dinge Queens, Salsa Queens, and Potato Queens. Being able to name and identify the racism was empowering. It was as if I was naming my monster within. I owed that time to GAPIMNY. Our regular rap circles was enlightening, my introduction to brotherhood of some sort, a safe space, a healing. Most of all, I learned to speak. I learned to speak up. Up.
The word "community" was a misnomer. There was so much divisiveness within and outside these so-called "communities". Even GAPIMNY, which was mostly East Asian, had issues around inclusion. But most of all, it was white racism against POCs that pushed many of us to take action. We shared the same stories and frustrations. AIDS was rampaging through people of color communities as well, but since ACT-UP was mostly a white gay male voice, many of my peers who were dying from AIDS were silenced. So much for Silence=Death.
There is a lot to process from that era. It was mind blowing coming of age in a maelstrom of political activism. There is also much to write about. With AIDS lurking everywhere, including very personal spaces, most of us didn't have much of a choice. Sometimes I wonder if it was meant to happen--the sexual harassment at work, the unemployment that ensued, the AIDS crisis, and the eventual political coming of age--it seemed like a plot written by someone else, only it was my life. Now, almost 30 years later, I find solace in the reflection. I have kept many of the media articles so I could go back to them eventually.
Organizing would also get me my new job. I would eventually work at the NYC Commission on Human Rights in their newly formed department, the Bias Unit. It would seal my fate as a community organizer. It would localize me. I would say goodbye to my interest in International Affairs. There was no turning back.
Miss Saigon, 1991
Queer Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs--what we said then) needed a door to come out of. We were organizing everywhere. A new South Asian group called SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association) was just founded. With a few thought partners like master artists David Medalla and Paul Pfeiffer, I created Kambal sa Lusog, a Filipino lesbian and gay collective. There was also a new Korean group. Many of us met at GAPIMNY and decided to also organize outside of it. And then came Miss Saigon.
Miss Saigon, the Broadway Show arrived in NYC in 1991, with as much baggage as the Queer API community. I would blog more about this later, but to make a long story short, we were not buying a modern Madame Butterfly show where an Asian woman sacrificed herself for another white man. We were certainly not buying Jonathan Pryce with prosthesis to make himself look Asian. Did I mention all the Asian women were prostitutes? If British West End bought the racism and turned off its color, it was not going to happen on Broadway without a fight. When Miss Saigon premiered in NYC, we were right outside protesting. Many were members of the new Queer API organizations, GAPIMNY and its sister organization, ALOEC (Asian Lesbians of the East Coast). The protests, the uproar, the media. Queer N' Asians finally became visible.
That week, my picture with my placard that read, Asian Women and Children are Not Broadway Props were all over the newspapers. It would appear in Outweek twice, including the one below.
I am certain there is also a back story to Outweek that I no longer remember--like who knocked on whose door first. Outweek had a very political reputation in the 90s. It wasn't like the other gay magazines of that era that seemed more pornographic than anything else. Outweek had something to say. It was the voice against AIDS. It was a thinking magazine that represented those of us in the streets protesting out loud only to be ignored by the straight media. I remember being called by one of the activists (Gene Chang?) featured in the magazine that someone was going to interview me. My interview happened in my office at the NYC Commission on Human Rights. It came out in May, a month before gay pride, the day Queerzilla was born (I will blog about this later). Gay Pride 1991 for us, Queer N' Asians was a big birthday party.
I never came out in my family. I didn't have to. I did send Outweek to a few members of my family, not so much as a statement but rather as a reminder that Queer Asian Americans have come of age. And that was how I began to identify, five years after immigrating to NYC. Eight years later, I would publish my first novel, which would take me to another path in life. For sure, without activism and literature, I would have nothing to ponder upon today.
In retrospect, I'm not exactly sure if my anger/activism was fueled by the sexual harassment I experienced at my first job. It certainly pivoted me toward another life path I was not prepared to take. Although I was always a writer and an artist even as a kid, political activism was never in my book.
I have never returned to foreign affairs since, but sometimes I wonder what life would have been like had I continued on that path. I have not really stopped traveling and living in different parts of the world. I speak four languages now, and I continue to be interested in other cultures. Sometimes I wish I worked in another country, but getting a job abroad requires experience in a field of work I already ran away from after that hapless experience. I certainly am tougher. I certainly have zero tolerance for injustice. Maybe that's the blessing. In my chosen profession in adult education, I meet immigrants on a daily basis. I am still international, albeit domestic. When I look at this article, I am now able to say, what a blessing to have been there, and how I grateful I am to have met these political spirits, and to have them as lights in my personal history.
And if you haven't noticed, I had a massive name change.
Where are they now?
Mark Collins still sends me birthday wishes every year since the first time we met.
Curtis Chin is the writer/director/producer of the documentary, TESTED.
Ching-Ching Ni is the Editor-in-Chief of New York Times in China. We met again at Harvard where we were both Fellows in 2008.
Veena Sud continues to break new grounds in Hollywood. She is the Executive Producer of the Netflix drama Seven Seconds.