The future of LGBT APIs in politics

  • by Benjamin Leong
  • Wednesday January 11, 2017
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A number of months ago, far before Election Day and the reckoning of Donald Trump's America, a number of my friends were sharing a New York magazine article on their Facebook newsfeeds.

The article identified 10 young Democratic electeds around the country that could be the "next Obama" – a charismatic, visionary presidential candidate that could lead a diverse and tolerant country in 2024. Among them was my friend and Bay Area resident, California Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell).

One of my friends commented – "Gay Asian? More of a lover, not a leader."

Looking back now after the disastrous result of Election Day, it seems petty to quibble over such a comment. It's common knowledge among political circles that Asian and Pacific Islanders that identify as LGBT often face two quiet, but insidious, challenges of discrimination.

As LGBT individuals, they must overcome the social boundaries that come with their sexual orientation – whether that means social stigma from particular voters, or even limitations placed on them by LGBT allies. In San Francisco, it often seems like LGBT political candidates are only considered viable if they run for offices that represent the Castro, or Mission district; but ignored if they campaign in the Sunset, Forest Hill, or the more conservative affluent areas in the Marina and Pacific Heights.

But as Asian-Americans, they also face the perception that the most leadership an Asian-American can demonstrate is the role of "sidekick." It's the same perception that held San Francisco back 160 years before electing its first Chinese-American mayor, even though over a quarter of our electorate is Asian-American. Culturally within the Asian and Pacific Islander communities the norm is to keep your peace and not to "rock the boat." Through historic discrimination and prejudice that the community has endured, most are taught to stay quiet and to adhere to set social norms with fear of reprisals and retributions. As second, third, fourth, and later generations emerge, we must learn to adapt to the new environment and to provide a voice that was once forbidden. America is now the new motherland for most as we are born in the U.S.; we are Americans.

For those who are LGBT Asian Pacific Islander interested in politics and who are civic minded, they have consistently been asked, "Do you represent LGBT values or Asian Pacific Islander values?" The question comes out as if the choice is mutually exclusive, but those values can be symbiotic. I'm a third generation Californian but when you look at me, people assume I am an immigrant. Questions such as "Where are you really from?" are so common that I have memorized a standard reply. When it comes to politics, regardless of how many generations my family has stayed in America, my outside appearance will be considered foreign. Even though our community is diverse, policy makers will always first identify my origins by appearance before noticing my issues. When it comes to me being LGBT and Asian Pacific Islander, the issues grow exponentially as now I have double duty fighting for equality by both orientation and race.

Like most Asian and Pacific Islander women, LGBT Asian and Pacific Islander men and transgender people also feel the combined fetish and objectification within the community. It means that politically, we are perpetually that small, nerdy kid in high school who was always considered last when our classmates were choosing basketball teams. Intellectually, we would be an ideal partner but not for other things that seem to be "sporty" such as being the "leader" or the "cool kid" – always the supporting character, never the lead.

But in Trump's America, it's now more important than ever to push back against these false stereotypes. Not just for the values of diversity, but so we can win. Low is still a top presidential candidate for 2024. He is a prodigious fundraiser, a charming consensus-builder, and a principled lawmaker. If we ruled out Low because of his race and sexual orientation – and our assumptions about what that inferred about his leadership skills or "win-ability" – then our community would be self-defeating one of our most promising champions.

Low is not the only "gaysian" that has the skills and personality to be a standout leader but is held back by unspoken assumptions and bias. There are many political and civic leaders in San Francisco and across the country who could be powerful champions and advocates, if they were only counted and supported by their own community.

In Congress, Representative Mark Takano (D-Riverside) is the first and only LGBT API who serves in the House of Representatives. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) identified Takano as one of the top Democratic "pick up" seats when he first ran for office. In the Georgia Assembly, Sam Park (D) joins Low of California as the only two state elected legislative representatives in the entire country. But even in a city as progressive as San Francisco, we have elected only one LGBT Asian Pacific Islander to the City College Board of Trustees, and he no longer serves on the body. It is worth noting that Georgia, in the center of the conservative South, has elected an LGBT Asian Pacific Islander, while a city as progressive as San Francisco has never elected an LGBT Asian Pacific Islander to the Board of Supervisors or executive branch.

As a community we should be building a pipeline for the future to encourage and support LGBT Asian and Pacific Islander electeds. Prior electeds such as Lawrence Wong, who served on the City College board, and current officeholders such Robert Bernardo (San Mateo County Harbor Commission) and Gabriel Quinto (El Cerrito City Council) have built the foundation for this tremendous work, and their efforts should be continued by future generations.

Within the Asian and Pacific Islander communities, we have built support groups such as Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies, which work with local and national groups to advance and educate the community on upcoming issues and to help develop future leaders, but there is still a lack of support for developing candidates who wish to seek public office.

There are many Asian Americans who are employed in government and politics but few who actually seek and run for elected office. It is time for San Francisco's LGBT community to also look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are suffocating our best talent and future leaders with dangerous bias and unfounded perceptions.


Benjamin Leong is a local San Franciscan working on social advocacy and focusing on issues for the LGBT Asian and Pacific Islanders community. He has served on the boards of API Wellness Center, Rainbow Honor Walk, Gay Asian Pacific Alliance, Stop AIDS Project, and other nonprofit organizations.