How Can Gay Asian Men Conquer Internalized Inferiority?

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Aug 29, 2010

Last week, the first of this three-part series addressed anti-Asian bias and racism within the LGBT community -- particularly how "sexual racism" (in the terminology of gay activists) manifests itself for queer Asian men within an alpha male-obsessed dating pool. Facing a gluttony of derogatory stereotypes and misconceptions, many gay Asians struggle to find confidence, a community and romantic connections.

While gay Asian activists have made great strides in recent years, major obstacles to progress remain firmly entrenched in the LGBT community. Only some of them may include the external influences of the broader community discussed in part one.

Owing to the power of years of anti-Asian bias within both the LGBT community and society as a whole, the feeling of being "less than" has been directed inward for many gay Asian men. This makes organizing for change all the more challenging amid such internalized racism evident, as well as the language barriers that can impede outside acceptance of this vast and varied sub-community within the gay world. In this article, we more closely examine how these "internal" obstacles' impact on the experiences of gay Asian men.

Note: In the interest of coherence and brevity, our story focuses on men within the Asian and Pacific Islander (or API) communities whose heritage takes root in Eastern nations of the sprawling continent including but not limited to China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Queer men from other parts of the continent, as well as women and transgender people, encounter social stigmas and experiences largely unique to their identity groups, though some overlap is to be expected. Still, for the purposes of this article, I have restricted myself to the Pacific Rim and Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand), which does not include ethnicities of the Indian Subcontinent.

Obstacles to Organizing
The community -- gay Asians and Asian-Americans in general -- was galvanized by an offensive Details Magazine article titled "Gay or Asian?" in 2004, which managed to equate being an Asian man stereotypical feminine gay qualities. After that protest, which was successful in getting the men's magazine to admit blame, queer Asian men bolstered their efforts nationwide to combat anti-Asian racism and bring their sub-community together.

Groups like New York's Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), Chicago's Asians and Friends, and dozens of others have flourished in their efforts to foster a safe space for gay Asians engaging with their heritage in a queer-positive, non-fetishized ways.

GAPIMNY has been particularly hard at work as of late. They've initiated a project earlier this month to collect reports of discriminatory nightclub admissions policies, which spokesman Jason Tseng says are "on the rise" as some club promoters seem to fear a "white flight" from their clubs when men of color begin to show up.

The group's goal is to ultimately bring the reports to the owners and managers of clubs that have discriminated against Asian men. The group also has made inroads of garnering queer visibility in mainstream Asian spaces by participating in this year's the Lunar New Year parades, held in the traditional urban Chinatowns.

"The Details mobilization was a big move for us in the Asian community, because we have tended to shy away from being overtly political," Tseng told EDGE. "But I think it's important for queer Asian men to be connected with other queer Asian men for that sense of critical mass and having that safe space to meet, check in and support each other politically and socially."

But organizing is not necessarily easy for a sub-community that's been deeply "programmed" to feel inferior, according to Angel Abcede, spokesman for Asians and Friends Chicago, a group that sponsors gay-targeted monthly dim sum events and other gatherings. He said a lot of work has yet to be done in undoing the internalized racism gay Asian men experience.

"A lot of these issues are self-imposed because you have to accept you're not good enough for someone else to have any power over you. You can enslave yourself to these vestiges or you can do things that will start and break them down," Abcede said. "I think we can pull out of this, but we have to do so actively and with commitment. A lot of us are glamoured and don't understand that. We're living under a spell."

What Attracts a 'Rice Queen'? (& Vice Versa)

One dimension of that spell is what Tseng describes as the "paranoia" he's felt attempting to cultivate a romantic attachment with an Anglo that doesn't feel steeped in exoticism -- the notion that some men, described as "rice queens" in the gay world, are only interested in dating Asians as part of a sort of geisha man-on-man fantasy. It's a paranoia so pernicious he says it can contribute to a competitive feeling toward other gay Asians as well.

"It's a very difficult line to walk to find a partner who is not a fetishist, overly attracted to your culture or race to the point where it supersedes the other characteristics of your person and it can be really exhausting emotionally," Tseng said.

"That air of suspicion can not only directed toward white or non-Asian men, but it was also directed against other Asian people in terms of who would be able to snag the one-in-a-million white guy who is non-problematic and genuinely interested in you," he continued.

"Even the men who say they like Asian men usually like Asian men for all the wrong reasons -- the stereotypes of gay Asian men being more submissive, a docile femininity," admitted Chong-suk Han, a leading researcher of anti-Asian racism within the LGBT community. "So it's not a great honor for these sorts of guys to say they 'prefer Asians.'"

The feeling of being in competition with other men also makes it difficult for many gay Asian men to build friendships and bond with each other, and ultimately manifests itself in the choice of many to avoid dating other Asians.

Patrick Cheng, an assistant professor of Historical & Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who writes on queer API issues sees a direct linkage between that choice, the broader LGBT community's cold shoulder to people of color and the feelings of inferiority many men internalize.

"We take in this message that we're not as good or attractive and it gets translated into feeling bad about ourselves or preventing ourselves from seeing other APIs as being attractive too," Cheng told EDGE. "When the message is sent that the queer API community is just not welcome or is not as attractive, you have to de-program yourself from everything you've learned."

The Language Barrier
Language also presents an important factor in organizing efforts for queer Asian men, as the resources offered by the vast majority of LGBT organizations, API-centric groups included, are produced only in English. According to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's 2008 report on LGBT Asians, only 50 percent of survey respondents indicated English was their native language, which means a barrier to pertinent information may also be a factor for many members' ability to connect with a group.

Further, language barriers reinforce the differences in experiences of many gay Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants. It is a matter Tseng said is often not addressed by LGBT groups, many of whom do not have the resources available to produce materials and create programming covering the vast array of languages Asian men speak.

"Gay Asian men who may not necessarily speak English are even more underserved than those who speak the language well," Tseng said. "Not only do you face the obstacle of pure racism, but also the xenophobia of that language barrier and that is often overlooked."

Jonipher Kwong, director of API Equality Los Angeles, a coalition that works toward progress on LGBT issues within Asian communities, also emphasized having strong English language skills is a major factor in many gay Asian mens' sense of confidence within the dating scene and other facets of life.

"Many guys feel the better one's English proficiency is, the better the likelihood of getting a white partner, as if that's the ideal situation," Kwong described. "This poses problems for our self image and feeling of desirability or even what's erotic or beautiful or what isn't. There's a perception that there's glass ceiling here to break through in order to get a job, date and find a partner."

But through the work of groups like GAPIMNY and AFC, not to mention community role models including activist Lt. Dan Choi, actor George Takei and comedian Alec Mapa, just to name a few, gay Asian mens' glass ceiling has been showing more and more cracks in recent years. And while the battle is certainly far from over, it seems our community are stepping in a more progressive direction.

In the final part of this series, running next week, we examine the impact the Internet, and specifically online dating and social networking, has had on gay Asian mens' experiences of racism. Pointing toward possible solutions will be a discussion of what efforts can and have been made by a growing number of activists and allies to create a more supportive environment for gay Asian men.I

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.


  • Robert Shawn White, 2010-08-30 12:09:50

    I love that this conversation is still going. I am a gay black man and this is a subject we have been trying to keep alive for YEARS! It speaks to every gay person of color and we need to really step out of ourselves and evaluate if it has happened to us or if we have done it to someone else.

  • Apollo, 2010-08-30 12:20:20

    I only wish Sigmund Freud was alive; he would probably take a better spin at commenting than me. I agree that stigmatization and racism is a known phenomenon in gay culture, like in any other culture or societies. It is wrong and efforts need to be made to create an accepting atmosphere for everyone. However, I hope that we won’t come to the phase where one would use the concept of race to force (coerce) someone into having sex with him!!! I am not trying to contradict anything in the above article, but I would like to give another perspective. I have seen an Asian dating a Caucasian, Caucasian a Caucasian, Black a Caucasian, Latin a Caucasian....etc; however, I cannot think of any instance (!!!) where I have seen an Asian dating or being a bf with another Asian. Why is that so? Freud would have a simple answer. It’s the size of the penis. We can talk about honor, tolerance, virtues and values as much as we want; we can paint whatever color we want over the big white elephant in the room; the fact though remains, although penis size cannot drive the entire relationship, it is an inevitable component of it. A versatile guy (at least based on what I have seen and heard so far) typically likes a penis of certain proportions; while size preferences vary, statistically seen, longer and thicker penises are in higher demand than shorter and thinner. Asian population have statistically seen smaller penises than Blacks, Caucasians and Latinos; and many guys want to go for the "Safer bet" from the start; that may be the reason why they avoid Asians (as a date or relationship). The bottom line is I hope that we won’t start using race to launch a personal vendetta to get what we want.

  • , 2010-08-30 13:34:27

    Phil, Two points: 1. I am a Vietnamese American and was in a relationship with a Chinese Canadian for 8 years. 2. Guys of all races have big and small penises

  • BB, 2010-08-30 14:10:07

    Anon 13:34: If you’ve been a gay man for any length of time, you’ll realize nobody is talking about individuals. We’re talking about statistical probabilities. And given just how utterly shallow most MTM sex is (that is the non-marryin’ kind)one is NEVER going to be able to eradicate these kinds of sexual biases. Casual gay sex is TOTALLY about the physical and whereas the standard leftwing gay man will stand around harumphing and pontificating about the evils of racism(as does this article) in point of fact, racial bias in partner selection is part and parcel of pickup sex and cannot be politically corrected.

  • mltngunmtl, 2010-10-10 02:28:27

    All here that has commented, except for Blackvulvan & Anon, has kind of missed the point of the issue this article is shining a light to... whatever the "statistical data" (btw outdated) shows this isn’t about a measuring contest! Having it become one in this comment section just goes to show the superficiality of the queer community... regardless of penis size, the issue of racism, external & internal, has a major impact on the interactions with and among People of Color! The obsession with size is used as a tool to continuously oppress the API community, and does not answer the major issues. Sexual/Physical preference isn’t the problem, but exorcising, objectifying, demeaning, and discriminating sentimentality is. Size preference does not answer reasons why API men are emasculated publicly, and it does not answer why API are desexualized when obviously they are. and just something for fun... lets play with stats... if APIs are so emasculate & nonsexual why is it that they are the most populous of all communities? (current stats btw) They aren’t having an issue with too little... so is this just a way to try to counter an inferiority complex of those with less?

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