Loud, and Seen
The Asian and Pacific Islander
Lesbian and Bisexual Women's Movement
Past and Present
© Willie Wilkinson
"When I came out, I didn't have any community," says Crystal Jang, who realized she was a lesbian in 1968 during the San Francisco State University strike for ethnic studies programming. "It was the beginning of feminist consciousness. I never saw another Asian lesbian. When I did, it was in a bar and we did not connect. We didn't even look at each other. You just moved away from each other as far as you could."
Since that isolated time, Asian and Pacific Islander lesbian and bisexual women (APLB) have organized ourselves into a growing, thriving network that spans North America and around the globe. Where once there was little representation of us in the lesbian/gay and Asian/Pacific Islander (API) movements, or in the larger society, we are more present, out, and vocal than ever before. Yet we have surmounted many obstacles to get to where we are today. As Asian and Pacific Islander (API) women, we have survived centuries of cultural expectations that have often served to keep us unseen and unheard. Though sometimes going unnoticed, sometimes earning great respect, the idea of women loving each other is indigenous to our cultures. Yet here in this country, as immigrants or as colonized native people, our lives have been jarred by racism and a larger power structure that has worked to keep us apart. Who would have thought back in the days when we could count each other on one hand, that we would come to boast an enormous global network of women so alike, and yet so different? Who would have thought even twenty years ago, as API American women began to come together to redefine ourselves, that we would rise up and impact the world?
This is not a story about one individual, but the tale of the birth of a movement. This is a story about women, as the bearers of culture, actively recreating who we are and where we stand within our cultural framework and the larger society. It is the story of many different peoples, with many languages and countries to call home, united under a common identity with a common goal. This is a story of both the fierce fight, and the quiet, personal struggle: waking up, looking in the mirror, and asking ourselves who we really are and what we need to survive. The story starts with small beginnings. I am what you call a hapa dyke. Hapa comes from the Hawaiian expression hapa haole, literally meaning "half white", used to describe Asian and/or Pacific Islander people with one white parent. My mother is Chinese from Hawaii, and my father is English, Irish, and Scottish from California. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area determined not to be like the Chinese ladies my mother knew, who tittered and didn't take themselves seriously. When I came out in 1980, I felt like a freak show, people up in my face wanting me to somehow be the bridge for their anti-racism work. In March 1983, at an International Women's Day event, I grabbed Dafna Wu and Aly Kim, who I had just met, and said "Now we are three."
Early the next year at a lesbian event in New York City, a woman looked me dead in the eye and asked, " 'Scuse me, are you an Asian dyke?" After the show, four or five Asian women surrounded me and gave me a flyer with a picture of two Japanese women in Kimonos in a boat. The caption read, "Watch out, we're coming through."
At a party at June Chan's home in New York's Chinatown shortly after, there were Asian dykes everywhere: speaking Cantonese in the kitchen, reading angry poetry on the mic, making out in the bathroom. At the end of the night, three of us took a cab to Brooklyn to crash at Katherine Hall's. There we were, three hapa dykes: myself; Chea Villanueva, who's Filipino and Irish, and Katherine, who's Hawaiian, Chinese and Irish.
As the sun came up, we held each other in a tight circle and found reflection in each other, literally body part by body part. We cried, Chea reminded me. Hapa hands, hapa feet, many hapa returns. I was so excited I couldn't sleep. What I saw in New York City in 1984 was something I had never seen before: Asian and Pacific Islander dykes - creative, vocal, and driven by a collective rage. I knew I had found what I was looking for.
Yet the politicized APLB movement that took off in the mid-Eighties was made possible by the struggles for empowerment and identity that preceded in the Seventies and early Eighties. In San Francisco the Seventies had produced such anomalies as a small Asian lesbian support group, a few out Asian dykes who vocally opposed the anti-gay sentiment of the time, and Unbound Feet, an Asian American women's performance group. Says Unbound Feet member Canyon Sam, "All the Asian American women's poetry was male-identified, you know, long fingernails, Dragon Lady, that kind of stuff. We were debunking and spoofing the sexism in Asian culture [while interweaving] issues of family and community." Sam was among the Asian lesbians who educated Asian community service providers and high school and community college students.
In 1977 she was successful in convincing the Chinese American Democratic Club to vote no on Proposition 6, a statewide initiative that would have provided for the firing of anyone who made positive references to gays, even if they weren't themselves gay.
In the early Eighties the anger of women of color was exploding on the pages of such classics as This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (Persephone Press, 1981). In 1983 Kitty Tsui published The Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire (Spinsters Ink, 1983), one of the first books by an out Asian American lesbian. While the West Coast women were organizing all-Asian lesbian sports teams and socials and licking their wounds from political differences, the East Coast women were just beginning this process.
In 1983 Chan and Hall met in New York City and began organizing Asian Lesbians of the East Coast (ALOEC). ALOEC began conducting workshops educating the lesbian community, and they published a series of three newsletters that highlighted the biographies of ALOEC members, as well as API women in history. A few examples are Qiu Jin, the cross-dressing Chinese woman who organized women in Japan and China at the turn of the century; Queen Liliokalani, who was imprisoned in 1898 for standing up against the American government and fighting the annexation of Hawaii; and the "marriage resisters", many of whom lived as lesbians in a rural area of the Canton delta from the early nineteenth century to the early twentieth century.
During the Eighties, groups were sprouting in other parts of the country as well. In Boston, after publishing an article entitled "Asian Lesbianism as a Political Identity" in Sojourner in 1984, I began organizing Asian lesbians in the New England area. In New York in May 1985, aided by a grant from ALOEC, two Indian women published Anamika, the first newsletter by, for, and about South Asian lesbians. Groups also blossomed in Chicago and Los Angeles. Following the International Lesbian and Gay People of Color Conference in Los Angeles in 1986, a group formed to organize the first Asian/Pacific Lesbian (APL) Retreat. Held north of San Francisco in May 1987, this gathering drew nearly eighty women. Through workshops and presentations, the retreat addressed issues of identity, activism, and history. Chan and Trinity Ordona each presented slide shows that, beginning with pictures of fourth-century B.C. lesbian statues in India, gave us a larger context for ourselves as Asian and Pacific Islander peoples, as people of color in the United States, and as lesbians.
For many, if not all, it was transformative. "I had never seen so many Asian dykes in my life, and I was stunned. It changed everything, everything I stand for, the way I see things. It all started with that one retreat," said Meibeck Chung, who grew up in Denver identifying more with her Mexican side, partly because there was no Chinese community. The sheer numbers and excited energy of this historical gathering gave us a sense of normalcy and a vision of the community we could become. We began a coming out process like never before. Though it took seven years after its inception, we came out with our own 450-page anthology, The Very Inside: An Anthology of Writing By Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian and Bisexual Women (Sister Vision, 1994). First conceived by Tsui, Ordona, and myself in 1987, the project fizzled when, despite a year and a half of extensive networking, we only had three submissions. In the early Nineties, Sharon Lim-Hing picked up the ball, and the project evolved into the thick volume it is today. In the Eighties, I often heard women say, "We're Asian; we're not comfortable with English. I'm a visual artist, not a writer." Somehow that changed as the community grew in the Nineties; we have become more visible in both print and visual arts.
Like other communities, we've had knock-down, dragged-out fights over definitions, inclusion, and who was doing whom. Before the larger Asian community embraced an API identity, we questioned what was included in the Asian/Pacific world. For those of us who do not fit neatly into the full-blooded Chinese and Japanese American category that so dominated the Asian lesbian scene in earlier days, it has been particularly important to define ourselves within a larger context. For instance, we have addressed inclusion of South Asians and Pacific Islanders, and such issues as mixed heritage, adoptees, bisexuality, immigration, class, and geographical region.
The movement has diversified with the help of education, swelling numbers, organized subgroups, and proactive responses to criticisms. Whereas the numbers of South Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Afghani) women were at one time very few, their numbers have grown, and many have taken on leadership roles within the larger APLB community. Moreover, South Asian women, along with their South Asian brothers, now boast a growing, thriving network spanning from small towns to large cities throughout the United States, to Canada, Europe, and the South Asian subcontinent.
Pacific Islanders have historically struggled for inclusion in the larger API community, and the APLB movement is no exception. At the 1993 retreat there was a concerted effort to educate about Native Hawaiian struggles, and a caucus was formed to ensure the inclusion of Pacific Islanders in The Very Inside. The APLB community supports our sisters in Hawaii, where Native Hawaiian lesbians and gay men formed the group Na Mamo O Hawaii to address Hawaiian sovereignty and the same-sex marriage issue. The group continues to remind others that homosexuality was affirmed and accepted in pre-colonial times, and urge the local Hawaiian people to move beyond the colonialized mentality that has so decimated their culture. "We're in a constant process of decolonialization," says group member Kuumea'aloha Gomes, who is concerned that the larger gay community is focused only on gay liberation, not on the liberation of a people. As the APLB community grows, we continue to rethink and acknowledge who we are. Recognizing the issues of youth, transgendered persons, and parents is part of the road ahead. Yet, as folks in the community disappear to focus on other aspects of their lives, and as new folks come onto the scene, we cannot forget how far we've come. We are visible as leaders in progressive movements, API health and social service organizations, and the larger lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community. We are creating our art, making our movies, and publishing our writing.
"We've moved out of the ghetto and into the mainstream," says Hall. And for all the scratches and bruises of the movement, we can operate from the strength of the knowledge that we are not alone. Still, there are others just beginning the process. Says Crystal Jang, now a contact person for Older Asian Sisters in Solidarity (OASIS), "One woman literally called from the inside of a closet...so scared that her husband would find out." It is for these women that we continue.
Chung, C., A. Kim and A.K. Lemeshewsky, editors. Between the Lines: Anthology by Asian Pacific Lesbians of Santa Cruz, CA. Santa Cruz CA: Dancing Bird Press, 1987.
Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, Mayumi Tsutakawa and Margarita Donnelly, editors. The Forbidden Stitch: An Asian American Women's Anthology. Corvallis OR: Calyx Books, 1989.
Leong, Russell, editor. Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay & Lesbian Experience. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Lim-Hing, Sharon, editor. The Very Inside: An Anthology of Writing by Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian and Bisexual Women. Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1994.
Thadani, Gita. Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India. London: Cassell, 1996.Willy Wilkinson is a writer, educator, performer, and longtime activist in Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities. In the Eighties she organized API lesbians throughout the United States, and wrote and edited extensively for and about this community. She is currently organizing API butches and female-to-male transgendered persons (FTMs) as part of the Transgender Program at API Wellness Center in San Francisco. Recent publications include "Remember the Place Where Your Soul Lives: Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome", The Lesbian Health Book (Seal, 1997). A slightly shorter version of this article first appeared in Curve magazine, September 1996.