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Unformatted text preview: 452 Sexuality MAIDEN VOYAGE: Excursion into Sexuality 5 0 and Identity Politics in Asian America Dana l’. Teleagi The topic of sexualities—in particular, lesbian, gay, and bisexual identifies— is an important and timely issue in that place we imagine as Asian America. All of us in Asian American Studies ought t be thinking about sexuality and Asian American history for at least two é‘ifig'éfig reasons. ‘4’}; _ 7w, . One, while there has been a good deal of talk about the “@fegsity” of Asian American communities, we are relatively uninformed abOut Asian American subcultures organized specifically around sexuality. There are Asian American gay and lesbian social organizations, gay bars that are known for Asian clien- tele, conferences that have focused on Asian American lesbian and gay expe- riences, and . . . electronic bulletin boards. tering primarily to gay Asians, their friends, and their lovers. I use the term subcultures” here rather loosely and not in the classic sociological sense, mindful that the term is somewhat ina c e ince gay Asian organizations are not likely to view themselves as a (lain! st%§i{:ure within Asian America any more than they are likely to think of thetnselves as an Asian American subculture within gay America. If anything, I expect that many of us view ourselves as on the margins of both cogmuni- ties. That state of marginalization in both communities is what E332 essay and makes the issues raised in it all the more urgent for all 0 us—gay, straight, or somewhere-in-between.. . . . ‘ To be honest, it is not clear to me exactly how we ought to be thmking about these organizations, places, and activities. On the one hand, I would argue that an organization like the Association of Lesbians and Gay ASIans (ALGA) ought to be catalogued in the annals of Asian American history. But on the other hand, having noted that ALGA is as Asian American as Sansei Live! or the National Coalition for Redress and Reparation, the very act of including lesbian and gay experiences in Asian American history, which seems important in a symbolic sense, produces in me a moment of hesitation. Not because I do not think that lesbian and gay sexualities are deserving ofa place in Asian American history, but rather, because the inscription of non«smight From: Russell Leong, ed., Asian Amt-man Smiling: Dimension aftbe Gay Minivan Emu-mac. (New York: Rourledge, 1996), pp. 2145. Reprinted by mom. Dam: l". ergi 45 3 sexualities in Asian American history immediately casts theoretical doubt about how to do it. As I will suggest, the recognition of diEerent sexual prac- tices and identities that also claim the label Asian American presents a useful opportunity for rediiriking and reevaluating notions of identity that have been used, for the most part, unproblemarically and uncritically in Asian American Studies. The second reason, then, that we ought to be thinking about gay and lesbian sexuality and Asian American Studies is for the theoretical trouble we encounter in our attempts to situate and think about sexual identity and racial identity/QM attempts to locate gay Asian experiences in Asian American his tory render us “uninformed” in an ironic double sense. On the one hand, the field of Asian American Studies is mostly ignorant about the multiple ways that gay identities are often hidden or invisible within Asian American com- munities. But the irony is that the more we know, the less we know about the ways of knowing. On the other hand, just at the moment that we attempt to rectify our ignorance by adding say, the lesbian, to Asian American history, we arrive at a stumbling block, an ignorance of how to add her. Surely the quickest and simplest way to add her is to think of lesbianism as a kind of ad hoc subject-position, a minority within a minority. But efforts to think of sexuality in the same terms that we think of race, yet simultaneously different from race in certain ways, and therefore, the inevitable “rev ation” that gays/ lesbians/ bisexuals are like minorities but also different Sign gli'efliiamconclu— sive, frequently ending in “counting” practice. While many minority women speak of “triple jeopardy" oppression—as if class, race, and gender could be d 'senta gled into discrete additive parts—some Asian American lesbians could fil‘fifilil' dl' d ‘_1 d d _ rig yc aim qua rup e Jeopar yoppression c ass, race, gen er, an sexu ality. Enough counting. Marginalization is not as much about the quantities of experiences as it is about qualities of experience. And, as many writers, most notably feminists, have argued, identities whether sourced from sexual desire, racial origins, languages of gender, or class roots, are simply not additive.1 NOT COUNTING . (I? A discussion of sexualities is 40/6: ht with all sorts of definition‘f fillings. What exactly does it mean, s‘gvxiiizalities? The plurality of the ter ln’é'fl qhun- settling to some who recognize three (or two, or one) forms of sexual identity: gay, fifght, bisexual. But there are those who identify as straight, but regu- dw‘iin hmdebm, and, of course, there are those who claim the - idengg gay! mitten-usage in heterosexual sex. In addition, some people idenufi’mmwbmdo not annually Mummmmm 454 Semlity 9 Wills who claim ce ] acy as a sexual practice. For those who profess a form of sexual identity that is, at some point, at odds with their sexual practice or sexua de- sire, the idea of a single, permanent, or even stable sexual identity issdgh m and inaccurate. Therefore, in an effort to capture the widest possible range of human sexual practices, I use the term sexualities to refer to the variety of practices and identities that range from homoerotic to heterosexual desire. In this essay, I am concerned mainly with homosexual desire and the question of what happens when we try to locate homosexual identities in Asian American history. fly I? M: £1.15 age?! Writing, speaking, acting . ' 1512 a backdrop of lotus leaves, slid- ing shoji panels, and the moun . us of Guilin. Amid the bustling enclaves of Little Saigon, Koreatown, Chinatown, and Little Tokyo. Sexual identity, like racial identity, is one of many types of recognized “difference.” if marginali- zation is a qualitative state of being and not simply a quantitative one, then what is it about being “gay” that is different from “Asian American?” The terms “lesbian” and “gay,” like “Third World,” “woman,” and “Asian American,” are political cartegorkies that serve as rallying calls and personal flaffirmations. Inkbfiiibat‘e a ligfi'iese identities we create and locate ourselves in phrases that seem a familiar fit: black gay man, Third World woman, working-class Chicana lesbian, Asian American bisexual, etc. But is it possible to write these identities—like Asian American gay—without writing oneself into the corners that are either gay and only gay, or, Asian American and only Asian American? Uni-Ali's Trinh T. Niinh~ha put it, “How do you inscribe dif— ference without ii} Email-1”; into a series of en horic narcissistic accounts of yourself and your \iirii‘kincl?”2 IF“ It is vogue these days to celebrate difierence. But underlying much con~ temporary talk abOut difference is the assumption that differences are com— parable things. For example, many new social movements activism, including those in the gay and lesbian movement, think of themselves as patterned on the “ethnic model.” 3 And for many ethnic minorities, the belief that “gays. are oppressed too” is a reminder of a sameness, a common political project in moving margin to center, that unites race-based movements with gays, femi- nists, and greens. The notion that our differences are “separate but equal" can be used to call attention to the specificity of experiences or to rally the troops under a collective banner. Thus, the concept of difference espoused in identity politics may be articulated in moments of what Spivak refers to as “strategic essentialism” or in what Hall coins “positionalities.” But in the heat of local political struggles and coalition building, it turns out that not all differences are created equally. For example, Ellsworth recounts how differences of race, nationality, and gender, unfolded in the context of a relatiwly 8.an environ— ment, the marshy classroom: ' - -- Daria K Takagi 455 Women found it difficult to prioritize expressions of racral privilege and oppression when such prioritizingthreafenedto perpetualetheir genderop- pression. Among international students. both those who were of color and lhosra who were While found it difficult to IOlfi their voices with those of U.S. students of color when it meant a subordination of their oppressions as people living under US imperialist policies and as students for whom English was a second lan- guage. Asian American women found it difficult to loin their voices with other students of color when it meant subordinating their specific oppressions as Asian Americans. I found it difficult to speak as a White woman about gender oppression when l occupied positions of institutional power relative to all stu- dents in the class. men and women. but positions of gender oppression relative to students who were White men. and in different terms. relative to students who were men of colou‘ The above example demonstrates the tensions between sameness and differ~ ence that haunt identity politics. There are numerous ways that being “gay” is not like being “Asian.” Two broad distinctions are worth noting. The first . . . is the relative invisibility of sexual identity compared with racial identity. While both can be said to be socially constructed, the former are performed, acted out, and produced; of- ten in individual routines, whereas the latter tends to be more obviously “writ—- ten” on the body and negotiated by political groups.‘ Put another way, there is a quality of voluntarism in being gay/ lesbian that is usually not possible as an Asian American. One has the option to present oneself as “gay” or “les- bian,” or alternatively, to attempt to “pass,” or, to stay in “the closet,” that is, to hide one’s sexual preferencef‘ However, these same options are not avail- able to most racial minorities in face—to-face interactions with others. As Asian Americans, we do not think in advance about whether or not to present ourselves as “Asian American,” rather, that is an identification that is worn by us, whether we like it or not, and which is easily read 03' of us by others. A second major reason that the category “gay” ought to be distinguished from the category “Asian American" is for the very different histories of each group. Studying the politics of being “ gay” entails on the one hand, an analy— sis of discursive fields, ideologies, and rhetoric about sexual identity, and on the other hand, knowledge of the history of gays/lesbians as subordinated minorities relative to heterosexuals. Similarly, studying “Asian America” re- quires analysis of semantic and rhetorical discourse in its variegated forms, racist. apologist, and paternalist, and requires in addition, an understanding of the specific histories of the peoples who recognize themselves as Asian or 456 Sexuality history on the other, the particular ideologies and histories of each are very diiierentfi In other words, many of us experience the worlds of Asian America and gay America as separate places—emotionally, physically, intellectually. We sustain the separation of these worlds with our folk knowledge about the family—centeredness and supra-homophobic beliefs of ethnic communities. Moreover, it is not just that these communities know so little of one another, but, we frequently take great care to keep those worlds distant from each other. What could be more different than the scene at gay bars like “The End Up” in San Francisco, or “Faces"in Hollywood, and, on the other hand, the annual Buddhist church bazaars in theJapanese American community or Fili- pino revivalist meetings? 8 These disparate worlds occasionally collide through individuals who manage to move, for the most part, stealthily, between these spaces. But it is the act of deliberately bringing these worlds closer together that seems unthinkable. Imagining your parents, clutching bento box lunches, thrust into the smoky haze of a South of Market leather bar in San Francisco is no less strange a vision than the idea of Lowie taking Ishi, the last of his tribe, for a cruise on Lucas’ Star Tours at Disneyland. “Cultural strain," the anthropologists would say. Or, as Wynn Young, laughing at the prospect of mixing his family with his boyfriend, said, “Somehow I just can’t picture this conversation at the dinner table, over my mother‘s homemade barbecued pork: ‘Hey, Ma. I’m sleeping with a sixty—year—old white guy who’s got three kids, and would you please pass the soy sauce?" 9 Thus, “not counting” is a warning about the ways to think about the re- lationship of lesbian/gay identities to Asian American history. While it may seem politically efficacious to toss the lesbian onto the diversity pile, adding one more form of subordination to the heap of inequalities, such a strategy glosses over the particular or distinctive ways sexuality is troped in Asian America. Before examining the possibilities for theorizing “gay" and “Asian American” as nonmutually exclusive identities, I turn first to a fuller descrip- tion of the chasm of silence that separates them. SILENCES The concept of silence is a doggedly familiar one in Asian American history. For example, Hosokawa characterized the Nisei as “Quiet Americans” and popular media discussions of the “model minority” typically describe Asian American students as “quiet" along with “hard worldng" and “successful." In the popular dressing of Asian American identity. silence, hfii’funcfioned as a metaphor-for the mmdauveand positive imagery‘ofm' ig-minorities. 'culturally intelligible'yfli‘a- Dam K Takagi 45 7 More recently, analysis of popular imagery of the “model minority” suggests that silence ought to be understood as an adaptive mechanism to a racially discriminatory society rather than as an intrinsic part of Asian American culture.'0 If silence has been a powerful metaphor in Asian American history, it is also a crucial element of discussions of gay/ lesbian identity, albeit in a some- what different way. In both cases, silence may be viewed as the oppressive cost of a racially biased or heterosexist society. For gays and lesbians, the act of coming out takes on symbolic importance, not just as a personal affirmation of “this is who I am,” but additionally as a critique of expected norms in so- ciety, “we are everywhere.” While “breaking the silence” about Asian Ameri- cans refers to crashing popular stereotypes about them, and shares with the gay act of “coming out” the desire to define oneself rather than be defined by others, there remains an important difference between the two. The relative invisibility of homosexuality compared with Asian American identity means that silence and its corollary space, the closet, are more ephem~ eral, appear less fixed as boundaries of social identities, less likely to be taken- for-granted than markers of race, and consequently, more likely to be prob- lematized and theorized in discussions that have as yet barely begun on racial identity. Put another way, homosexuality is more clearly seen as constructed than racial identity.“ Theoretically speaking, homosexual identity does not enjoy the same privileged stability as racial identity. The borders that separate gay from straight, and, “in” from “out,” are so fluid that in the final moment we can only be sure that sexual identities are . . . “less a matter of final discov- ery than a matter of perpetual invention.” 12 Thus, while silence is a central piece of theoretical discussions of homo- sexuality, it is viewed primarily as a negative stereotype in the case of Asian Americans. What seems at first a simple question in gay identity of being “in” or “out” is actually laced in epistemological knots. For example, a common question asked of gays and lesbians by one an- other, or by straights, is, “Are you out?” The answer to that question (yes and no) is typically followed by a list of who knows and who does not (e.g., my coworkers know, but my family doesn’t . . .). But the question of who knows or how many people know about one’s gayness raises yet another question, “how many, or which, people need to know one is gay before one qualifies as ‘out'?" Or as Fuss says, “To be out, in common gay parlance, is precisely to be no longer out: to be out is to be finally outside of exteriority and all the exclusions and deprivationssuch outsider—hood imposes. Or, put another way, to be out is really no marine-inside the realm of the visible, the speakable, the Returning some 458 ermir'ty seems that topics of sex, sexuality, and gender are already diffused through discussions of Asian America.” For example, numerous writers have disclosed, and challenged, the panoply of contradictory sexually charged images of Asian American women as docile and subservient on the one hand, and as ruthless mam-hari, dragon-lady aggressors on the other. And of course, Frank Chin's tirades against the feminization of Asian American men has been one reac— tion to the particular way in which Asian Americans have been historically (de)sexualized as racial subjects. Moving from popular imagery of Asian Americans, the people, to Asia, the natiOn, Rey Chow uses Bertolucci’s block- buster film, The Last Emperor, to illuscrate what she calls, “the metaphysics of feminizing the other (culture)” wherein China is predictably cast as a “femi- nized, eroticized, space?“ That the topic of homosexuality in Asian American studies is often treated in whispers, if mentioned at all, should be some indication of trouble. It is noteworthy, I think, that in the East major anthology on Asian American women, Making “fives, the author of the essay on Asian American lesbians was the only contributor who did not wish her last name to be published.'6 Of course, as we all knOw, a chorus of sympathetic bystanders is chanting about homophobia, saying, “she was worried about her job, her family, her com— munity . . .” Therefore, perhaps a good starting point to consider lesbian and gay identities in Asian American studies is by problematizing the silences sur- rounding homosexuality in Asian America. It would be easy enough for me to say that I often feel a part of me is “silenced" in Asian American Studies. But I can hardly place all of the blame on my colleagues. Sometimes I silence myself as much as I feel silenced by them. And my silencing act is a blaring welter of false starts, uncertainties, and anxieties. For example, on the one hand, an omnipresent little voice tells me that visibility is better than invisibility, and therefore, coming out is an aflirm- ing social act. On the other hand, I fear the awkward silences and struggle for conversation that sometimes follow the business of coming out. One has to think about when and where to time the act since virtually no one has ever asked me, “Are you a lesbian?” Another voice reminds me that the act of com- ing out, once accomplished, almost always leaves me wondering whetherI did it for myself or them. Nor only that, but at the moment that I have come out, relief that is born of honesty and integrity quickly turns to new uncertainty. This time, my worry is that someone will think that in my coming out, they will now have a ready—made label for me, lesbian. The prospect that someone may think that they know me because they comprehend the category lesbian fills me with stubborn resistance. The category lesbian calls up so many dif— ferent images of women who love other women that I do not think that any One—gayonsttaighte—conld ' ' ' latenesfindmethmnghtlm category Dana I’T Tckdgi 45 9 alone. No wonder that I mostly fin...
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