Asian America’s (Gender)queer Origins: The Connective Power of Knowing Our Histories

When San Francisco began issuing same-sex marriage licenses in 2004, Chinese American churches formed a vocal contingent of the anti-queer backlash. Within a few years, however, Asian American communities experienced a transformative shift in attitudes about TLGBQ1 people.

By 2008, the percentage of California-based Asian Americans who opposed marriage equality dropped from 68% to 54%— a shift that far outpaced the general population.

To achieve this cultural transformation, Asian American organizations –including API Equality-LA, API Equality-Northern California (now Lavender Phoenix), and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – conducted community education campaigns. Tracing the role of gender norms in anti-Asian racism, they showed how the nuclear family was designed to exclude not just queer and trans people, but also communities of color.

In other words, TLGBQ Asian Americans rallied their communities and shaped collective politics by exploring their entangled, lesser-known pasts.

Such conversations are currently being threatened with widespread censorship in many U.S. public school classrooms.

PEN America reported that, in 2022, 36 states introduced 137 bills “to legally restrict education on topics like race, American history, gender, and LGBTQ+ identities in K-12 and higher education.” Such policies not only deny students crucial knowledge of their pasts and potential futures, but can also impede their understandings of how they fit into the world and how they might relate to one another. This is not an accident of censorious policies, but a deliberate consequence. White supremacy thrives on division and on isolating the multitudes that it harms.

The success of these API organizations, however, demonstrates the power of talking to our own communities—of seeking out and sharing knowledge about the pasts and futures that connect us.

Asian Migrants as Gender and Sexual Deviants

Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, a combination of migration laws, marriage regulations, and gender and sexual norms perpetuated anti-Asian discrimination in the United States.

The Page Act of 1875, supposedly written to prevent “lewd and immoral” women from entering the country, resulted in the general exclusion of East Asian women—particularly Chinese women. The Marin Journal, a California newspaper still operating today, captured the attitudes of the time when it described Chinese women as “prostitute[s] from instinct… and degrading to all around [them].”

Drawing from this narrative, public officials accused Chinese women of spreading disease and vice among white men. For this presumed sexual perversion, Chinese women were effectively barred from U.S. entry, and men in San Francisco’s Chinatown came to outnumber women by 21 to 1.

Between the Page Act, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the 1924 “Asiatic Barred Zone,” Asian women were shut out of the country. Meanwhile, anti-miscegenation laws prohibited white women from marrying Asian men, and non-white women who married Asian men had their citizenship revoked.

Asians remained ineligible for U.S. citizenship until the 1940s and 50s, when piecemeal legislation slowly eliminated race-based prohibitions on naturalization. Until then, alien land laws prevented non-citizens from owning property, operating largely as anti-Asian policies without having to explicitly address race.

The still-pervasive stereotype of Asian men as asexual and effeminate arose in these many decades that Asian men were prevented from marrying, from entering male-dominated professions, and from owning property.

These legislative restrictions also created Chinese “bachelor societies,” which violated traditional family structures and thus appeared fundamentally queer. Arguments for Chinese exclusion then emphasized that Chinese people “lacked recognizable, respectable family forms.”

In other words, Asian people did not and often could not form the nuclear family that models conservative “family values.”

Public perception conflated queerness and disease in a way that still happens in contemporary politics. Government officials blamed Chinese people (and their presumed perversity) for smallpox and syphilis outbreaks, even as infections primarily afflicted white populations.

The xenophobia that fueled anti-Chinese hatred mapped onto other Asian communities, despite disparate cultures, histories, and countries of origin.

The “yellow peril” stereotype, which portrayed Chinese laborers as invaders threatening to replace white workers, adapted quickly to include Japanese Americans and Korean Americans—even as Korea itself struggled under Japanese colonialism.

Japan’s perceived military power in the early 1900s amplified white American anxieties, which then manifested in derogations of Japanese people’s “lack of family values and morals.”

Even though South Asians initially arrived in much smaller numbers than Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinx people, 1910 headlines decried a “Hindu Invasion” of “dirty” and “unassimilable” migrants.

These views of Asian Americans, built on Asians’ supposed violations of gender and sexual norms, incited horrific violence.

In what’s described as the largest mass lynching in U.S. history, nearly 500 people descended on Chinese Americans in Los Angeles, dragging residents from their homes to be hanged in gallows downtown. In other cities, Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian residents were driven out by the hundreds.

Many of the stereotypes underpinning these actions endure in present-day representations. The asexual, “weak” Asian man remains a common trope in mainstream media, as does the sexual objectification of Asian women. COVID-19 inflamed century-old conceptions of Asian Americans as bearers of disease, and fears of migrants “replacing” white U.S. Americans continue to inspire violence.

In tracing these attitudes from the late 1800s to today, TLGBQ Asian Americans demonstrated how contemporary queerphobia extends the politics that once targeted cisgender and heterosexual Asian Americans.

Their storytelling brought together sixty-three Asian American organizations, who all signed an amicus brief supporting marriage equality. The conversations then “opened the door” for future relationship and movement building.

As an approach to TLGBQ justice, same-sex marriage is still likely more obstructive than liberatory; it relies on (and reinforces) a heteronormative institution to access fundamental rights. However, the connections that Asian Americans made in the early 2000s toward marriage equality led to more expansive initiatives for racial justice and ecological justice.

As with TLGBQ communities, “Asian America” (as much as it can be said to exist) is full of conflicts, failings, and renegotiations. It is also a community created by and for collective power.

Inspired by the Black Power Movement and the American Indian Movement, student activists first used “Asian American” to describe multi-ethnic political alliances that demanded better living, working, and learning conditions.

In other words, both “TLGBQ” and “Asian American” are identities made by the promise of connecting across difference. They are named with the knowledge that community is not preordained but is made and sustained by choice.

In this world of escalating ecological and political crisis, I hope that we continue to choose one another—and a future that honors our interdependence.

Notes
[1] Following Monica’s lead, I’m using TLBGQ rather than the more common LGBTQ to emphasize the historic exclusion of trans folks from broader “LGBTQ” politics.

V. Jo Hsu is an assistant professor of Rhetoric & Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. They are the author of Constellating Home: Trans and Queer Asian American Rhetorics, and a Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project.

Stories for the Futures We Need

Introduction from Managing Editor V. Jo Hsu

Earlier this year, an editor for a major news publication rejected one of my drafts with the comment: “Actions are criminalized, people aren’t.” 

It was around February 2022, after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott instructed Child Protective Services (CPS) to investigate parents of trans children for “child abuse.” Referencing Dorothy Roberts’s research, I explained that the child welfare system criminalizes Black people and that Abbott’s directive would lead to the further endangerment, separation, and persecution of Black families. 

Not that I care much for grammar policing, but the Oxford English Dictionary agrees that people can be criminalized, providing as its first definition: 

1. To turn (a person) into a criminal, esp. by making his or her activities illegal.

Oxford English Dictionary Online

Regardless of language rules, however, the editor missed my point (and I had failed to convey it to her). Despite conventional thought, white supremacy criminalizes people. In the US, Black students compose 31% of public school-related arrests despite being only 16% of the enrollment. Black students are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students, and also three times more likely to fall back into the juvenile justice system the following year.

As I hope would be obvious to readers, these statistics are not due to any unique actions taken by Black students– they are because the same actions that are often innocuous for white youth are treated as criminal when enacted by Black children.

Similarly, much of the recent legislation works to criminalize perfectly mundane behavior if it is undertaken by trans or queer people and/or people of color. In Florida, teachers have been instructed to remove photos of same-sex spouses from their classroom, even though photos of heterosexual families remain acceptable.

By accusing LGBTQ folks of being “groomers,” conservatives are attempting to link all trans and queer people to criminality. @libsoftiktok, the influential Twitter account that doxxes LGBTQ teachers and administrators, frequently shares otherwise mundane images of LGBTQ-inclusive language or material. These posts do not need to provide any explicit argument, assuming (unfortunately correctly) that readers will interpret anything queer or trans as inherently perverse.

When the account shares stories of trans and queer teachers simply identifying as trans and queer in front of their students, the comments fill with accusations of “grooming,” calls for firing the teacher and school board, and calls for arrest. 

This outrage is not about any particular action; it is about portraying LGBTQ people as inherently persecutable.

I tried explaining this to the editor, who dismissed my every idea as “too complicated.” Though I was allowed only 800 words for the article, she wanted me to define fairly common words like “cisgender.” In her feedback, she asked that I provide further evidence of transphobic attacks and expressed confusion at the remark that Black and trans communities are not independent of each other– i.e. that Black trans people exist.

The editor was, like most editors in the United States, cisgender, white, and heterosexual. She may also be correct that most readers may require a definition of “cisgender” or may live in such a way as to not understand that people are criminalized for who they are. 

By the time I added all the definitions and explanations she needed, however, I had no more room for a substantive argument. I had spent too many of my allotted 800 words asking my audience to see beyond a sharply divided gender dichotomy and begging readers to care for trans lives. There is something uneven about requiring these explanations in a generalist publication that references Christian liturgy and sacrament without definition, assuming and perpetuating a particular readership. 

This is how cisgender “innocence” stifles trans voices.

It forces us to start every conversation arguing for what is freely granted to others: the understanding that trans people’s self-understandings are valid, and that we deserve access to health care and employment and community. We replay the same tired conversations about how pronouns work, why trans people are far more likely to be assaulted in public bathrooms than to perpetrate assault, and how many major medical organizations support gender-affirming care

I’m tired of reiterating that puberty blockers have been prescribed to cisgender children for decades. I’m tired of explaining that forcing an adolescent through an unwanted puberty, too, is a choice– that withholding treatment is not a neutral action, but an endorsement of harm. I want to write from a place where our dignity is not up for debate– where our lives, our self-knowledge, and our creative potential are a given. I want to have conversations about how many trans people still struggle to access health care, safety, and shelter, even before the newly restrictive legislation. I want to talk about how medical models still enforce cisnormative, white middle-class expectations for gender, and about how we pursue futures that address the needs of all trans people.

Transgender identity, for me– despite all the transphobia– is rooted in hope. So many of us have to dream up and then build the lives we are denied. And, despite everything, we achieve the so-called impossible. I am, through the love of beautiful, generous communities, living an adult life I could never have imagined. 

I suppose this is where I should introduce myself: I am a professor of Rhetoric & Writing, LGBTQ studies, and Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m also first and foremost a writer– rather, a storyteller. Stories are how I’ve always made sense of the world and how I find and forge connections with others. Right now, trans people– trans POC in particular– need more opportunities to tell our stories, to hear one another’s, and to build lasting relations that will carry us through so much racist and transphobic hostility.

Despite this year’s onslaught of anti-trans legislation, mainstream media has remained largely silent on the topic, leaving Fox News to shape much of public understanding about trans people. When other outlets have covered the laws that limit our lives and life chances, they’ve often failed to speak with actual trans people. Throughout the record-breaking numbers of anti-trans murders in 2021, mainstream news spent a total of 43 minutes in the entire year covering these attacks. 

Monica Roberts said it best: “We must take the lead in writing, producing and telling our own stories.” When Dee Dee Watters invited me to join TransGriot, I could not say yes quickly enough. The original TransGriot gave me a glimpse of what trans creativity and community could look like– long before I felt safe and strong enough to say I was trans.

I am excited to see what we – the trans inheritors of the world Monica made possible– can do with the platforms and communities that she built. I hope to hear from writers and readers across a vast spectrum of experiences. I hope we connect to and listen and learn from one another. 

It’s not that I won’t do “Trans 101,” anymore or that I won’t write to cis audiences. This explanatory work is important, particularly given the minimal coverage that mainstream media has given to trans voices. If, however, every time we talk about trans issues, we have to define gender, have to justify our experiences, have to explain– again– the validity of our identities and our deservingness of care, we will never have the space and time to articulate, let alone build, a world where we are genuinely free.

I want spaces where the complexity and richness of our experiences and ideas can be honored. I want to amplify the diversity of voices among us and write to and with communities interested in the hard work of witnessing “complicated” experiences. I cannot wait to meet more of you, to listen to your stories, and to discover how we, as a trans community, can better care for one another and for the futures we need to flourish.

10 Trans APA Changemakers You Should Follow

My birthday lands at the beginning of June, when “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month” transitions into Pride. I’ve joked that this must have been a sign– that of course I would turn out incorrigibly trans and queer. My actual relationship with all these identities, though, is a bit more complicated. 

I grew up in the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” without any trans or queer role models. To my recollection, I was the first person forcibly outed at my high school. My story has the predictable pages of absence, loss, and rejection, which I won’t recount because you know them– because loss, rejection, and isolation are the stories we know of trans life, especially trans POC. 

TransGriot has never shied away from pain, but it has also explored the many different forms that healing might take. With this relaunch, I want to keep an eye on trans possibility and imagination, and on the joy that comes with community and care. 

This post is a little late for Pride month, but like many other QTPOC, I never felt like Pride was for me. At least, not Pride with the Capital P– with the parades of conventionally attractive (usually cis) white folks, the rainbow-tinted merch from major corporations, and the notoriously inaccessible venues and events.  

In the spirit of celebrating trans brilliance and innovation every damn day, here are 10 APA trans artists, activists, and worldbuilders whose work taught me to fight for more than the scraps we are given and whose journeys continue to guide me:

1. ALOK

Alok Vaid-Menon in a denim jacket, from a 3/4 view. Their dark hair is streaked with red and brushed high away from their face. They're wearing heavy gold earrings and a floral shirt.
ALOK

A writer, performer, public speaker, and comedian, ALOK uses their many talents to explore conditions of belonging and alienation. Their work illuminates the racial, colonial, and ableist histories that inform Western gender norms, navigating complex topics with nuance and clarity. They share accessible “book reports” on some of these histories on their Instagram, which have provided models for some of my students’ assignments. You can also catch them on Facebook, YouTube, and their webpage.

2. Tita Aida

Tita Aida has built a long career advocating for HIV/AIDS awareness and Asian American and transgender folks. She’s played a critical role in destigmatizing HIV/AIDS among trans and queer Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and continues to lead as the Director of Programs and Community Engagement at the San Francisco Community Health Center. Writer Celeste Chan has written a fantastic profile on Tita Aida for Hyphen Magazine, and you can find Tita Aida on Twitter.

3. Kay Ulanday Barrett

Kay Ulanday Barrett in a tan blazer, one hand on a microphone, another reaching out toward the audience. They're on a stage, speaking animatedly.
Kay Ulanday Barrett speaks at a poetry reading at the Western Washington University Perfoming Arts Center on Thursday, April 18. (Photo by Julia Vasallo)

In their own words, Barrett is a “disabled Filipinx-amerikan transgender queer” poet, performer, educator, and cultural strategist. Their poetry and their activism provide brilliant examples of gender dynamism, crip wisdom, and revolutionary masculinities. These are two of my favorites among Barrett’s poems; I revisit them every time I need a long, slow breath. When my crip, trans body feels like “carnal waves collapsing,” I follow their voice to the shore. Catch Barrett on Instagram or on Twitter, and keep up with their work on their webpage.

4. Keiva Lei Cadena 

Keiva Lei Cadena in a denim jacket with one hand on her cheek, smiling at the camera.
Keiva Lei Cadena

A leader in HIV activism, Cadena is the Director of Harm Reduction Services at the Kumukahi Health & Wellness Center and serves on the steering committee for the Transgender Law Center’s Positively Trans program. She draws from her experience as a Native Hawaiian trans woman living with HIV to dismantle HIV stigma and to bring culturally-informed health education and care to her communities. In this fantastic interview, she reflects on the role of cultural understanding in achieving better health care, and she speaks on the interpersonal and communal connections behind her work. You can find her on Facebook or on Instagram

5. Kris Hayashi 

Kris Hayashi in a dark suit with a blue shirt and red tie. He stands with his arms crossed, smiling at the camera.
Kris Hayashi

With over two decades of movement-building experience, Hayashi has been at the forefront of justice-based movements for trans people. He became Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center in 2015, and has since led the organization in combatting trans detention and supporting trans and queer migrants. Kris writes about the limitations of trans visibility and the power of showing up for one another here. His social media presence is through the Transgender Law Center, which you can find on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

6. Janet Mock 

Janet Mock on a white backdrop. She's standing at a 3/4 view and looks sideways at the camera.
Janet Mock [Photo credit: Juston Smith]

Someone who probably needs no introduction, Mock’s influence pervades trans media and activism. She has written two memoirs, helmed three award-winning television shows (Pose, The Politician, Hollywood), and continues to carve out more space for trans voices and experiences. She writes thoughtfully on the role of television and representation in creating trans futures here. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her webpage

7. Jian Neo Chen 

Jian Neo Chen in a dark denim jacket, standing in front of a bridge and a large body of water.
Jian Neo Chen [Photo Credit: Billie Chen]

A leading scholar in trans, queer, and Asian American studies, Chen models scholarship guided by love and service for one’s communities. You can hear them speak on trans of color aesthetics and the futures they’re building on this podcast episode. As someone in trans and Asian American studies, I’ve admired the ways that all of Chen’s work pulls us toward more comprehensive ways of understanding and caring for one another. You can learn more about Chen on their faculty page and/or follow their Instagram

8. Emmett Schelling 

As Director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas, Schelling has had an impossibly demanding year. The ACLU’s Chase Strangio profiled Schelling and his thoughtful, compassionate leadership when Schelling was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2022. Keep up with TENT’s activities via Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

9. Kai Cheng Thom 

An author, performer, cultural worker, pleasure activist, and NB Chinese Canadian trans woman, Thom is one of the thinkers on community-building and compassion whose work transformed my thinking (and feeling). If you read nothing else this month, might I suggest Thom’s essay on neoliberalism and trans liberation? Find Thom on Twitter or on Instagram, and learn more through her webpage

10. Willy Wilkinson 

A black and white photo of Willy Wilkinson. He wears a dark button-up shirt and is smiling at the camera, before a white backdrop.
Willy Wilkinson

A writer, speaker, and public health advocate, Wilkinson has a deep history building community with and agitating for trans, Asian American, and HIV+ communities. A groundbreaking figure in trans Asian American history, he was the first Asian and first transgender community health worker to conduct street-based HIV education and crisis interventions for sex workers and drug users in San Francisco. His autobiography, published in 2015, reached me like a beacon of light. It was perhaps the first proof I found that transmasc Asian Americans existed– that I was possible. As an MPH, Wilkinson also writes compellingly on cultural competency. Find more of his work on his webpage.

[Note: I was unable to reach those on this list without photos. If you would like me to add yours (or remove your name from this list), please do contact me.]