I questioned my sexuality for a long time because I never felt like my experience would fit the mold of the typical white queer American. In American media, the queer experience includes the quintessential process of coming out. Films like Love, Simon and But I’m a Cheerleader highlight the struggles of revealing one’s sexuality but few touch on how intersectionality plays a factor. Then, my best friend asked me to watch the 2004 lesbian cult classic Saving Face with her. I went in expecting a silly flick with a cute romance, but instead was struck by depiction of the coming out experience for Asian Americans.
My long overdue watch of Saving Face dismantled my underlying belief that being lesbian somehow undermined my Asianness. Protagonist Wilhelmina, Wil, is both a lesbian and filial daughter, battling with fulfilling the expectations of the model minority myth while also falling in love with openly gay Vivian. Besides her sexuality, Wil is everything my parents could dream of: a successful doctor and devoted daughter to her parents. Yet, both these qualities are undermined when she comes out to her mother: “Ma. I love you, and I’m gay.” Her mother rejects her sexuality, and Wil must heartbreakingly respond that perhaps she isn’t really her mother’s daughter.
In passing conversations with my parents, they’ve made similar remarks. They hear rumors about other family’s children who come out as gay and then assume it is the fault of the parents, criticizing the parents’ upbringing of their children. On one hand, these comments enrage me on behalf of the children that courageously come out. On the other, my heart aches for what my parents will think about themselves when they find out they have a lesbian daughter.
Unfortunately, for many Asian children, the love from parents is conditional. First generation immigrants face endless hardships when establishing lives in America, and pass many of their burdens onto their children. We’re expected to pursue the interests and careers they want. Even when we meet these expectations, it never seems to be enough. I remember a conversation with my father a few years ago when he told me how much harder I had to work than my peers in order to “prove myself” to my teachers, college admissions officers, and eventual employers. These burdens of the model minority myth also extend to who we can love. For Asians that are LGBTQ+, we not only have the pressure of exceeding expectations that can be met by work ethic, but also of who we are.
These factors result in Asian Americans facing deep mental scars. How ought we deal with disappointing our parents who put everything towards us? How do we face the fact that they are disappointed because of who we are?
Without pride in who we are, there is more space for shame. The Human Rights Campaign and the University of Connecticut released a report on 1,200 Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ+ youth. Only 19% of them said they could “definitely” be themselves at home. 61% have experienced unwanted gestures, jokes, or comments and 79% “usually” feel worried, nervous, or panicked. Shining visibility on the LGBTQ+ Asian American identity not only provides a source of validation for these youth, but also prevents these youth from becoming “othered” by their peers.
That’s why LGBTQ+ Asian Americans need far more visibility in our media. According to a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study on Asian American representation in Hollywood, only 3.4% of top-grossing films featured Asian American or Pacific Islander leads, and none of these films even featured an LGBTQ+ Asian American or Pacific Islander lead. Asian Americans face exceeding amounts of shame for being LGBTQ+. Visibility ensures that being Asian American does not mean only being straight, and that queerness does not undermine being Asian American. The HRC study furthers that only 31% of LGBTQ+ API youth received counseling in the past year and 33% of them have been bullied on school property within the last year. Thus, visibility does not mean just having movies like Saving Face, but also having LGBTQ+ teachers, counseling, and staff in our schools, opportunities to showcase the queer Asian Americans in our communities, and creating spaces to support one another.
Ruby (she/her) is a sophomore studying English and Visual Arts at Duke University. As she began to ask more questions about her sexuality, mental health, the environment, and her identity, she found many of these answers in political activism. Thus, she has grown increasingly politically conscious during the past few years. Raised in Chapel Hill, Ruby is trying to create her own space to express views on intersectionality, anti-capitalism, and immigration through reading and writing. In the future, Ruby hopes to take her passions of reading and writing in a career and political direction.
Some of Ruby’s other interests include Korean cinema, vegan food, cutting/dying her hair every two weeks, and music by Faye Webster, Phoebe Bridgers, or Keshi.