Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Grand marshal a voice for press freedoms


Grand marshal Helen Zia continues to speak out on press freedoms. Photo: Bill Wilson
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Helen Zia, one of this year's Pride Parade community grand marshals, has spent her career as an award-winning journalist and author speaking out for press freedoms around the world. Recently she joined in a rally and vigil on the steps of San Francisco's City Hall to demand the release of two Bay Area-based television reporters jailed by North Korea.

The out lesbian has also been a fierce advocate for LGBT rights, particularly in the fight for marriage equality. This past Monday, June 22, she served as the keynote speaker at the state Assembly's second-ever Pride celebration.

In 1997, Zia testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the racial impacts of the news media, according to her bio in this year's local Pride guide. Last year she was one of only two out people to be selected an Olympic torchbearer when the sport event's eternal flame made its only U.S. stop ahead of the Chinese-hosted Summer Games.

Despite calls from Chinese dissidents and supporters of Falun Gong, a religious group labeled a cult by former members and outlawed by Chinese authorities, Zia defended her participation in an op-ed piece in a local newspaper.

"Unfortunately, the calls to boycott the Olympics and to label everything about China as evil can only serve to isolate China and the United States from each other," she wrote. "China is not a monolith, and blanket condemnations of China and its people are as simplistic as blaming all Americans for the U.S. human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Attitudes such as these hark back to the Cold War days, when the United States and China were completely shut off from each other. ...The world will be safer if China, the United States, and other countries can address human rights and other critical issues in the community of nations and peoples, not in isolation."

Prior to the Olympic torch run, Zia had been in Shanghai in early 2008 doing research for a new book as a Fulbright scholar. She had previously traveled to Beijing in 1995 as part of a journalists of color delegation to the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women.

At a press conference announcing her selection as a torchbearer, Zia said she "was very honored and humbled by the idea of even carrying the torch. I think the Olympic spirit and the Olympic vision of bringing people of the countries of the world together is really the whole point."

She added that she is a human rights activist herself and that the Chinese people should not be judged by their government's actions.

"Having lived there, I know the people of China really should be separated out from the government of China. The people of China are really excited about the Olympics happening in China," said Zia.

According to her Wikipedia entry, Zia was born in 1952 in New Jersey to first generation immigrants from Shanghai. She entered Princeton University in the early 1970s and was a member of its first graduating class of women, states the entry, and was among the founders of the Asian American Students Association.

She was executive editor of Ms. magazine and co-wrote the book My Country Versus Me with Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee detailing his being falsely accused of spying for China. She also authored Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, which was a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. It also gained worldwide notoriety after former President Bill Clinton quoted from it in several speeches.

Zia used an appearance on a live C-SPAN broadcast in the early 1990s to come out publicly, and ever since, has been a vocal advocate for LGBT issues. In 2004 the northern California chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association honored her with an Excellence in Journalism Award for her balanced and accurate coverage of the LGBT community.

Last June 17 the Oakland resident and her partner, Lia Shigemura, were one of the first lesbian couples to wed in the state. They had San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera officiate their ceremony at 8:54 a.m. inside his City Hall office. A crush of media documented their marriage.

It was the third commitment ceremony for the women, who became domestic partners in 1993 and then married each other in 2004 when the city first began marrying same-sex couples during what became known as the "Winter of Love."

After the city sued the state that year to overturn California's anti-gay marriage statutes, Zia filed a declaration with the court that described why it was so important for the Asian American women to be considered each other's wives rather than mere partners.

"To both of our families, my Chinese American family and Lia's Japanese American family, the bonds of family are critically important. [Marriage] is a bonding of two families, the family of each person in the couple. My mother's inability to say that we are married prevents her from sharing with many of her friends the pride and joy and sense of connection that she would have if our union were recognized as a marriage by society," stated Zia in the declaration.

Her argument was born true at her wedding ceremony last summer when her mother, Beilin Zia, watched the last of her six children marry and declared, "I am a very happy, proud mother now."

After voters last fall passed Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriages in California, the women became a party to the lawsuit filed by Herrera and various other cities and municipalities with the state Supreme Court seeking to overturn the anti-gay measure. In December last year Zia expressed disappointment that she and Shigemura were one of the few non-Caucasian couples involved with the case.

But she also told the Bay Area Reporter that the legal team had a very short deadline and "they tried the best they could to get a broad sweep of our communities and show that we are everywhere."

The court ruled this past May that voters had the right to pass the measure, but at the same time, the seven justices left standing the 18,000 marriages that took place between same-sex couples as valid.

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