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Guest Opinion: Beauty, complexity shape Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ experiences

by Rachel K. Cheng

Rachel K. Cheng, Ph.D. Photo: Courtesy Rachel K. Cheng, Ph.D.
Rachel K. Cheng, Ph.D. Photo: Courtesy Rachel K. Cheng, Ph.D.  

The joy of LGBTQ History Month is the opportunity to share the unique and diverse hxstories and experiences of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ individuals and communities. It is an increasingly globally-recognized celebration, and each year the calls for acceptance and respect of all LGBTQ folx gain further acceptance and respect. Central to LGBTQ History Month is the need for inclusiveness for all of the community, and I intend to feature a few among many moments this month when Asian and Pacific Islander stories have been part of the local and national conversation.

Asian and Pacific Islander experiences as part of the LGBTQ community are beautiful and complex. The abbreviation API is supposed to be inclusive of all races and ethnicities of the Asian and Pacific Islander category and is also potentially reductive of the very different challenges faced by individual groups. Our experiences do often share common threads, such as the importance of family in our coming outs and how our hxstories are often entwined with struggles for equal visibility, justice, and representation. We are not a monolith, and we have the right to have our unique voices, nuanced stories, and multifaceted hxstories told in our own words.

True diversity and inclusion may only be achieved when the heterogeneity of all API folx is acknowledged. This is not easy, as inclusivity requires commitment to the constantly changing political and social landscape as well as accommodating evolution in relevant language and terminology. Inclusivity requires active listening, specifically meeting folx on their own terms, critically engaging with their input, and making accommodations for their needs. A goal for all discussions of API LGBTQ hxstories should be to gain greater cultural competency, which will not only enable better understanding of our stories but also greater appreciation and acceptance.

This year, the opportunity to feature and bring together the multiplicity of voices and experiences from the API LGBTQ community has been taken up by community organizations throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. There are many active organizations with the mission to uplift and empower our voices and increase our visibility, including the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance, or GAPA; Parivar Bay Area; Trikone; API Equality — Northern California, or APIENC; and Asian and Pacific Islander Queer Women and Transgender Coalition, or APIQWTC. The role of these organizations, all of which have active in-person and online presence, is important because they are dedicated and safe spaces for API LGBTQ folx to find, connect, and build relationships with each other. We must feel that we are not alone and finding a place where our voices are heard and our words taken to heart build confidence to come out and to live proudly. This has special importance now as social justice campaigns to stop API hate are in the spotlight of national debate for human rights.

October is also Filipino American History Month, which celebrates the history of Filipino people in the United States from their first recorded presence in October 1587. Among other inspiring celebrations was the recent Echo Location: The Cultural Geopolitics in South of Market by the San Francisco Urban Film Fest in partnership with Filipino International Cine Festival and Bindlestiff Studio, which was at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. This exhibition centered "the experience of two historically marginalized groups essential to the heritage of SOMA: Filipinx and LGBTQIA+ communities," and featured works of visual arts, film, and theatre. Important in viewing the many works involved was the exhibition's call to consider geographic and cultural changes and intersections as SOMA has evolved over the past decades.

Community events this month have had an additional function: spreading awareness and resources for combating COVID-19 as well as continued awareness and education for preventing and managing HIV/AIDS. As we continue to work together to prevent the spread of the COVID virus, many events have moved partially online via Zoom and other platforms to help keep everyone safe and accommodate individual needs. Isolation and misinformation have been the bane of our times, which makes our need for shared community and places of safety and trust ever greater. What we share in challenges, we may conquer by working together in a space of love and acceptance.

Our plethora of unique, joyous, complicated, tender, and hard experiences are meant to be shared in our voices and on our terms. For myself, this was my first LGBTQ History Month as a publically and proudly out nonbinary person. My hxstory is informed by my experiences, education, opportunities, failures, and triumphs. By meeting people like me in safe API spaces where I found myself represented both visually and intrinsically, I now feel like I belong as part of the multiplicity of LGBTQ identities. In this year and those that follow, the diverse hxstories of API LGBTQ folx will continue to be shared, and preconceived notions of who we are will be challenged:: for we are beautiful and complex, and all of our hxstories deserve to be acknowledged, understood, and accepted.

Rachel K. Cheng, Ph.D. (they/them), is a historian, writer, and social activist who believes deeply in the power of nuanced language to communicate effectively in print and online. They are currently the social media director for the GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance, or GAPA.

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