Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Gay Insurgent" Rises from the Ashes

Updated 3 May 2013 adding display on The Asian American Movement from the exhibit.

As if to celebrate May Day 2013, Gay Insurgent has resurrected itself, if only as an image, but the magazine cover is now on display through the mid-June at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., at an exhibit there.  It is a part of an exhibit celebrating Asian/Pacific American month!

Credit: Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis

Credit: Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

The cover is portrayed on a banner, one of 30 banners on display to commemorate the struggles of Asians in America, in the exhibit,  "I Want the Wide American Earth," named from a quote from Pilipino American writer Carlos Bulosan.

The cover on display is from the Summer 1980 issue of the alternative magazine I founded and edited.  That issue celebrated the first Gay and Lesbian March on Washington in October 1979 - and featured on the cover the huge cloth sign, "We're Asian, Gay & Proud," carried by a small contingent of queer Asians who had marched through D.C.'s Chinatown, a historic first, before joining the larger march on Washington.

Credit: Copyright © Daniel C. Tsang
I'm the mustachioed guy near the center of the picture, taken by Steve Nowling, now sadly deceased.  I remember it took me three-months then to grow that mustache!   

The first-ever such exhibit at the Smithsonian is curated by Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, initiatives coordinator at the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Program, and editor in chief of Asian American Literary Review.  The exhibit will run through June 13.  Thereafter it becomes a traveling exhibit, going around the country, including a destination in southern California, the Japanese American National Museum, in Los Angeles, from 14 September to 1 December 2013. [Correction: Actual period from 14 September through 27 October 2013.] Eight colorful posters from the exhibit can be downloaded here.

This is by no means the first appearance of Gay Insurgent in a museum. The Museum of Chinese in America, located in Manhattan, features the same cover in its core gallery (see below) after it reopened and expanded a few years ago. 

Credit: Courtesy Flickr
And KQED, the San Francisco public radio station, featured the cover in a write-up based on the UCLA Asian American Studies Center book, Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, edited by Steve Louie and Glenn Omatsu, in which I write about that historic march and the role of Gay Insurgent in subsequently documenting it.

Below, I have adapted what I wrote, "Slicing Silence: Asian Progressives Come Out," in Asian Americans to make it available to a wider audience, to stir up memories of past struggles, and to bring to the attention of younger readers the progressive history of our movements.

Don Kao (third from left in photo), an activist from New York and I ended up organizing the first gathering of gay and lesbian Asians-at the first National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in October, 1979, the same weekend as the first gay March on Washington. The conference was organized by the National Coalition of Black Gays.

By covering the conference in the magazine, I wanted to make sure that this historic gathering would not be forgotten. Re-reading it, I'm struck by how the cover, now on display in a national museum, stands out: It features a photograph of the nine of us, female and male, some with arms raised, most of us smiling, behind a huge banner: "WE'RE ASIANS, GAY & PROUD." 

Inside was Audre Lorde's keynote address at the conference ("When Will the Ignorance End?") ,  resolutions from the conference, and news accounts after the conference. For example, the accounts reminded me that we had heard solidarity statements from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and socialist compafieros from Mexico. The statement from the Consul General of Nicaragua in San Francisco warmed our revolutionary hearts: "May from your conference be born a movement that identifies, that unites and struggles with the liberation movements of all oppressed people."

It also contained my report on the formation of a "Lesbian and Gay Asian Collective," when several of us at the conference caucused and expressed the need to network after we went back to our respective communities. There is as yet "no statement of principles to guide the group," I reported, but clearly we felt the need to stay connected as gay and lesbian people who shared the "common
experience of being Asian in North America." 

Among the dozen or more Asians in our new "collective" that historic weekend in D.C. was Mini Liu, a community activist, doctor and later (in 1986), co-founder of the Manhattan-based Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. In 1974, as a medical student, she had begun reading Mao, and as she later told an interviewer, "I was just really taken by the idea, the vision of a different kind of society. And that's when, I think, I became more consciously political based on heading for a certain point, not just a general liberal notion of trying to serve other people."

Also reprinted in the magazine was a Chinese American lesbian sister's talk at the conference, Tana Loy's "Who's the Barbarian?" Expressing unity with other people of color, she spoke about what had happened at the Asian caucus meeting: "Somehow, we felt-immediately and immensely in tune with each other, because when an Asian sees another Asian-they run away from each other." She attributed this avoidance of ourselves in part to a "survival response, because for decades of imperialist wars we have been atomic bombed, we have been napalmed; we have been raped; we have been driven to suicide-and we have built this country from the east to the west. And we have been called the barbarian! ...Who's the barbarian?"

She added: "But today we are going toward each other, and we are sharing our strength with each other, and with all our brothers and sisters here today. You know something? We're not that quiet and reserved Asian ....We're not that 'model minority.' Oh no, oh, we're silent, but why are we silent? We're silent, even from each other, by the racism and the sexism that exists in this country, that manifests itself in the fears and frustrations that keep our own people in the closet as Asians and as lesbians and gay men. Many of us cannot even come out for fear of deportation; and yet I know there are many Asians who are going to be out on that street tomorrow, knowing that's a reality in their lives."

She explained: "In our short time together, a support system has evolved from which we have drawn our strength, from each other and from all of you here. And out of this strength we have collectively decided to march together as Asians ... and you can be sure, you can be damned sure, that those who oppose us will hear us, and they will hear us loud and clear."

And indeed they would, as about a dozen of us marched from Howard University in the black neighborhood through to Chinatown and to the mall, behind the banner expressing our pride, an historic first march by openly gay and lesbian Asians.

At the march, we marched joined in solidarity with other people of color, with the indigenous gays and lesbians leading the entire Third World contingent, behind a "First Gay Americans" banner. We listened as one selected to represent our group, Michiyo Cornell, a Vermont-based Eurasian poet, addressed the huge rally at the Washington Monument, on the theme, "Living in Asian America." Her talk was also published in the magazine.

Saying it was the first time such a network had been formed, Michiyo noted: "I am careful to use the phrase Asian American because we are not hyphenated Americans nor are we always foreign-born women and men from Asia. We have been in this country for over 150 years! We live in Asian America…”

She continued: "We are called the model minority, the quiet, the passive, exotic erotics with the slanted cunt to match our 'slanted' eyes or the small dick to match our small size. But we are not. For years Asian Americans have organized against our oppression. We protested and were lynched, deported and put into concentration camps during World War II. We must not forget that the United States of America has bombed, napalmed and colonized Asian countries for decades .... It could rape and murder Vietnamese women, children and men, then claim that 'Asians don't value human life."'

Describing herself as an ''Asian American woman, a mother and a lesbian,'' characteristics that are "difficult to put into a neat package," Michiyo exclaimed that "I know that I live in the face of this country's determination to destroy me, to negate me, to render me invisible." She demanded "white lesbians and gay men" to think about how they repress "your Asian American lesbian and gay sisters and brothers," urging them to address their "white skin privilege." She urged the crowd to realize that "the capitalist system uses not just sexual preference but race and class as well to divide us .. .I would say that we share the same oppression as Third World people, and for that reason we must stand together or be hanged separately by what Audrey Lorde calls the 'noose of conformity."' She urged fellow closeted Asian Americans to come out, asking them to "consider how we become accomplices to our own sexual and racial oppression when we fail to claim our true identities."

The excitement and solidarity we felt that weekend is captured by Richard Fung's report, "We're Asian, Gay and Proud," in the Body Politic, a gay liberation journal from Toronto. His report was also reprinted in Gay lnsurgent. 

Richard (the taller guy in dark glasses in photo), now well-known as the Canadian Chinese (born in Trinidad) videomaker who has pioneered in documenting the gay Asian experience, wrote that "if for many of us it was the first time we had spoken with other Asian gays, we immediately recognized each other's stories." He offered a stinging critique of existing gay society, "organized and commercial,'' is "framed around the young middle-class white male. He is its customer and its product. Blacks, Asians and Latin Americans are the oysters in this meat market. At best we're a quaint specialty for exotic tastes.

Native people aren't even on the shelves." Fung noted, "To make our voices heard, non-white lesbians and gay men have organized." He concluded: "Washington was just the beginning."

Indeed it was. Richard went on shortly thereafter to found Gay Asians Toronto, serving gay Asians in the Canadian metropolis. He had been inspired by Chua SiongHuat (second from right in photo), whom he had met for the first time at the march. A Malaysian Chinese who had graduated from MIT,

"S.H.," as he was affectionately known, had just founded, in the summer before the D.C. conference and march, the Boston Asian Gay Men and Lesbians. S.H. had started the group with two lesbians and another gay man at Glad Day Bookshop in Boston. A member of the radical Fag Rag collective, he also wrote for the first gay liberation newsweekly, Gay Community News.

He was profiled in Richard Fung's "Fighting Chance", a documentary about Asians with AIDS or seropositivity. S.H. remained a strong advocate of seeing Asians as sexual "subjects" rather than just "objects." He would later argue that "there is nothing wrong really with being a sexual object if you can also be a sexual subject." He authored the definitive essay on gay Asians for the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, which came out in 1990. He died of AIDS in August 1994.

Credit: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press
At the time many of us remained active in progressive causes because we sought a radical restructuring of America. We rejected straight depictions of us a psychologically impaired, or as incapable of progressive work. We knew those stereotypes weren't true. We remained activists even when we suffered racism or homophobia, because of this larger goal of changing overall society. And we saw our struggle as part and parcel of people of color ("Third World" peoples') struggles. But in 1979, because similarly inclined individuals were able to meet together, a critical mass was achieved, and we were able to begin organizing publicly as both Asian and gay. That effort continues, because the task of creating a society that meets basic human needs remains unfinished.

I am glad I can see Richard again this weekend where his latest  documentary, "Dal Puri Diaspora" (2012), about his love of dal puri roti growing  up in his native Trinidad, will screen at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Sunday, 5 May 2013, at 12 noon at Directors' Guild of America, 7920 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90046.

For more information about the book, Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment, see the UCLA Asian American Studies Press site. -  Daniel C. Tsang.   Note that some hyperlinks are to licensed resources available at subscribing institutions.


Jonathan Ned Katz said...

Extremely moving. It's important to remember the resistance struggles. Jonathan Ned Katz, founder, co-director,

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