In the heated debate over gay rights, LGBT APAs caught in a ‘social twilight’ are defining their own meaning of love and family.
By LYNDA LIN, Pacific Citizen
October 15, 2004 – When Vega Subramaniam first met Mala Nagarajan she was thrilled to just find another South Asian woman in Bellingham, Washington. Like many other second-generation Asian Pacific Americans looking to connect with their communities, Vega and Mala were initially just happy in their familiar backgrounds, but their relationship continued to develop until Vega asked Mala for her hand in marriage. When her proposal was accepted, Vega says she “felt her soul sing.”
But their June 2002 wedding day not only signified the beginning of the rest of their lives together, but also the beginning of their own personal battle in the war for same-sex marriage recognition and equality.
Among other rights denied because they are a same-sex couple, Mala and Vega can face legal complications when filing income tax returns, establishing hospital visitation rights for each other or even renting a car. But in addition to these struggles that all same-sex couples in the United States still face, Mala and Vega also had to find acceptance within their ethnic communities.
“Anyone who seemed comfortable with [his/her] sexuality was ‘not like me’ and anyone whom I could identify with culturally did not make me feel safer,” said Vega, about growing up in the Seattle area.
And she is not alone. Generations of APA same-sex couples share similar experiences — in addition to reconciling their racial identities, they also had to fuse their sexual identities into generally intolerant ethnic cultures. Because of this, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) APAs often find themselves having to choose between their ethnic and sexual identities.
In order to participate in the more active mainstream LGBT organizations, Mala said that her South Asian-ness was invisible or deleted. And when Kim Swindle-Bautista decided to come out at the age of 22, she said she had to uproot from her home state of Indiana and move to more diverse California because she did not want to “throw sexuality into the minority mix.”
“Ethnicity does complicate being LGBT because we face multiple bases of discrimination,” said Doreena Wong, a Chinese American attorney who has shared her life with partner, Jenny Pizer, for the past 20 years. “I have experienced the constant questioning of why people have treated me a certain way. Is it because I am Asian … a woman … [or] a lesbian?”
Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, an ordained priest who is also gay, has researched and written extensively on the spiritual lives of LGBT APAs. He finds that many LGBT APAs experience two different forms of exclusion.
“As a gay Asian man, I often experience feeling isolated or excluded from the mainstream gay community. I don’t see my image in our newspapers, magazines, movies, TV shows or what is held up to be ‘sexy,’” said Patrick. “In mainstream media, gay equals White.”
Because of his own painful experiences, Patrick started www.queerasianspirit.org to give LGBT APAs a forum for spiritual counseling.
As the LGBT APA community continues to evolve, the struggle for cultural acceptance and visibility remains fresh. The 2000 census revealed that a total of 19,213 or 1.5 percent of APA households identified as being same-sex. Some say these statistics show that LGBT APAs are becoming more accepted. Regardless, many are defining their own meaning of family.
In June 2004, Mala and Vega successfully sued for gay and lesbian marriage rights in the state of Washington. A few years after their traditional Hindu wedding, the couple was tired of how their marriage was treated as a “non-marriage.” They want to have children together one day, and want to do so in a legally recognized union.
Couples like Lance and Stuart Chen-Hayes, who have been together for almost a decade, are also redefining the idea of fatherhood in the mainstream and ethnic communities. They are registered as domestic partners in both New York City and New Jersey, and together, are raising a 14-month-old boy in a tolerant environment that they lacked growing up.
“We will teach him that he is the coolest kid in the neighborhood for being who he is … multi-racial and having two dads,” said Lance, who is Chinese American. “Being nurturing is not a biological trait assigned to only gender.”
Recently, the American Psychological Association agreed and adopted a resolution in favor of same-sex marriage. They stated that the ability to raise well-adjusted children is unrelated to parental sexual orientation. But despite this, loving same-sex couples continue to grapple with unfair adoption laws that do not recognize their union and persistent stereotypes.
Responding to the need for more same-sex friendly resources, Angeline Acain started “Gay Parent” magazine in September 1998 to dispel the negative stereotypes and empower LGBT couples and their children. Now the oldest, free and nationally distributed publication invites subscribing readers and visitors to its web site, www.gayparentmag.com, for much needed visibility and connection with other same-sex parents.
“When I started my publication, one of my goals was to dispel stereotypes of gay people including the myth of gay men being pedophiles, so they should not be permitted to be parents,” said Angeline, a Filipino American who is raising her adopted eight-year-old daughter, Jiana Acain Eisenberg, with her partner Susan Eisenberg.
Like many other same-sex parents who want to start a family through adoption, Angeline and Susan could not adopt Jiana together from a foreign country. Susan filed the paperwork as a single parent and then Angeline did a “second parent” adoption in order to get around the restriction for same-sex couples. In their household, they teach Jiana to love and appreciate people of all colors and backgrounds.
In the last few months, the debate on gay rights has been fueled by the recent proposal for a federal ban against same-sex marriage and the upcoming presidential elections, but many say more work still needs to be done in order to stir discussion and awareness in the APA communities.
“We still don’t have a place at the table,” said Mala. “Unfortunately, the many white leaders in this [gay rights] movement feel the need to reach white, middle-America and the language the movement uses to characterize the fight only disengages people of color communities.”
JACL Executive Director John Tateishi believes LGBT issues will find its place in the APA community. “We’re in a kind of social twilight zone as Asians in the U.S. Like any kind of social issue that’s difficult for many in society to accept, this issue will evolve only if people are educated.”