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Historic gathering of queer people of color; event highlights political organizing and artistic endeavors

At a March 6 event during the Queer Asian Pacific Legacy Conference held at New York University, Michael Joseph of Boston joined a small huddle of colleagues from the Boston Queer Asian Pacific Alliance, a support network for queer people of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. Several conference workshops had just let out and the hallway was awhirl with attendees moving to their next activity. Joseph spotted a woman in the crowd whom he recognized from his professional dealings as an employee of a large federal agency. “I know you,” he said. “But it’s so confusing seeing you in this context.” Then, with a smile, he added, “A good confusing.”

Queer Asian Pacific Legacy 2004 was the first regional conference ever held for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Asian and Pacific Americans (APA) in the Northeast. Organized by a planning committee comprised entirely of volunteers, many with affiliations to LGBT and mainstream APA groups, the conference’s goal was to “network, organize, agitate, educate and build capacity.” It sought, in effect, to facilitate connections of the sort Joseph made in the hallway with his colleague.

“The conference drew over 400 attendees from across the country,” said organizer Patty Tumang, who stressed that the planning committee focused on reaching out to “women, transgender folks, youth and South Asians,” since these groups tend to get marginalized within the larger queer APA community.

“We’re part of a national movement, even though this was a regional conference,” she said.

The conference opened on March 5 with a presentation of cultural and spoken-word performances hosted by Tumang and performance artist Rich Kiamco.

At the standing-room only event, performers agitated, amused, titillated and energized the audience with readings, skits and video presentations of LGBT experiences that resounded with the saying “the personal is political.”

Over the weekend, 40 workshops and caucuses were held that addressed a diverse set of APA concerns, such as immigrant rights in post-9/11 America, language barriers and gender identity issues. Workshops also dealt with strategies to help advocacy organizations effectively work with the media, secure funding from foundations, and build community networks.

A common theme stressed by organizers and participants was that LGBT Asian Pacific American communities need to organize around multiple challenges, not just the nexus of race and sexuality.

“Who gets left behind if we say, ‘Here’s the one issue that our communities are going to rally around?’” said Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Audre Lorde Project, the queer people of color community center, during a presentation in a session entitled, “A Queer Asian Agenda?”

Subsequent speakers at the conference’s plenary session forcefully delivered this message.

“I’m really fucking tired of people marginalizing our issues,” said organizer Glenn Magpantay, of Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY). “We definitely want to recognize that there are other issues that our APA LGBT communities need to work on.” He said that queer Asian Pacific Americans battle invisibility in the mainstream LGBT community and isolation within their communities. “All the Asians are straight, all the gays are white, but some us are brave,” he said. Magpantay said that in the light of widespread funding crises at non-profits and other cuts to public funding, the planning committee weighed the pros and cons of proceeding with a conference at all.

“We asked ourselves ‘Do we want to raise the thousands of dollars to put on this conference?’ The answer was: ‘Yes, it’s the organizing that’s important.’”

The plenary session’s keynote speakers were Joo-Hyun Kang, recently named director of programs at the New York-based Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, Urvashi Vaid, author, activist and board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the actor B.D. Wong, who is on the cast of the NBC drama “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

“We have to burst the single issue lavender bubble,” said Kang, adding that “political differences [among us and with our allies] should not be misunderstood as personal attacks. We must be able to critique each other.”

Kang brought up the issue of same-sex marriage, saying, “One of the reasons I always loved being queer is that I thought I never had to get married.” She said that while she supports the struggle for same-sex marriage as a point of civil rights and equality, she feared that it was crowding out multiple other concerns, many of which, such as immigrant rights, are more urgent for queer APA communities.

“Use this platform about marriage to talk about our issues,” she said.

Vaid also addressed issues of immigration, quoting W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939,” which was widely quoted shortly after September 11, 2001.

“Ironic points of light flash out wherever the just exchange their messages,” quoted Vaid, adding, “how do we show an affirming light in the context of today?”

Vaid discussed the need for event participants to speak out on “the reorientation of [U.S.] domestic and foreign policy since 9/11, the Patriot Act and its incredible restrictions on our civil rights, freedom to organize and curtailment of free speech.” These circumstances, Vaid said, “have a profound impact on some of the issues people in this room have been working on.” Vaid talked about the need to “fight homophobia in our communities of origin,” by asking “our families and friends not to be silent supporters but active supporters and allies for us.” When Vaid touched on the issue of “how to deal with patriarchy and sexism in our communities,” the audience gave a resounding applause. “That’s the one unifying pan-Asian factor,” she said. “We can usually bond about how our parents wanted us to be a nice doctor in suburbia.”

B.D. Wong took a different approach to some of the issues broached by Kang and Vaid. “I cannot do what these ladies do,” said the actor. “Ten years ago I would never have thought of coming to a conference like this,” Wong joked. “I would rather have gone to the Barney’s Sample Sale, get a chemical peel, hang out in the steamroom at David Barton’s,” adding “all stereotypes, I know, but you get the picture...”

Wong went on to describe in touching, poetic form, his journey from self-hatred about being both Asian and queer, to what he is now, an out Asian-American father raising a son.

“Marry yourself,” Wong said, as a euphemism for expressing complete self-acceptance. “Delight in deviation, not dilution.”

“Today, I am the normal world’s worst nightmare—a man raising a child with another man that I am not in a traditional committed relationship with, even by queer standards.  Yes, I am the reason the world is coming to an end, folks,” Wong wryly commented. “Am I normal? Trick question.”

Most conference attendees were 20-30-year-olds. As for the challenge of convening Asians and Pacific Americans from a wider age group, Magpantay said, “Eighty-one percent [of Asian Americans] according to the last census speak a language other than English in their homes and we recognize that as a challenge [to community organizing].”

To better address these concerns, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) is currently compiling statistical data on APA communities.

“Asian Americans outside the West [Coast] are only now coming to a political maturation,” said Magpantay, adding, “and I mean mainstream Asian Americans. So queer Asian American organizing is in its political adolescence.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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