LONDON — Racism exists within the LGBTQ community and gay Asian men, who are often grouped together by the term ‘Gaysian,’ are often being fetishized — in a similar way to how Asian women have been perceived by the general public — and underrepresented in Western society.
Asian creatives who work in the fashion industry are increasingly voicing their concerns and demanding change regarding how they are perceived and how they should be represented within the community and in popular culture, especially after the outbreak of the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S. following the killings of George Floyd and many other Black people at the hands of white policemen.
“I don’t like the word ‘Gaysian’,” said Alex Po, cofounder of Ponder.er, a Hong Kong-based brand that aspires to redefine modern masculinity. “It’s a combination of two stereotypes. It’s a fetishized term to group Asian people who are gay together in white-dominated societies.”
“I acknowledge that we like to label ourselves, as if there aren’t enough labels going around in society. While sometimes it can be fun, like a harmless joke, looking at it as a bigger picture, it could be problematic,” he added.
Jamie Gill, chief executive officer at Roksanda, who is gay and of Indian background, said the term ‘Gaysian’ is not politically correct. “Gay Times once grouped together all leading LGBTQ+ BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] people, and they called it the ‘Gaysian Issue,’ which I just thought was not the best way to celebrate what we have achieved,” he said.
Their sentiment is echoed by Georgie Ichikawa, head of creative and design at Puma Japan, and chairperson at Mr. Gay Japan, an annual pageantry event that aims to increase visibility and positive connotations for gay people in the country.
“I do not want to be called ‘Gaysian.’ I am myself and I am Georgie. Yes, I am gay and I am part of the LGBTQ+ community, but I do not need to have an extra label attached to myself other than that. It is a term that is created to group us, and not in a positive way,” he said.
That’s also why Ichikawa started Mr. Gay Japan, to champion individuality and diversity.
“I started this with a group of friends and my partner around three years ago. By creating this platform, we are able to give voices to Japanese gay people to speak up about their own experiences and also able to get them some media attention. Even though some people might want to put us in a category for Japanese gay people, each one of us is different and we all face different issues living in Japan as a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” he said.
Yu Masui, a Japanese fashion writer who is known for gender-fluid street style, said the idea of gender is historically more fluid in Asia. Being a man doesn’t require many traits commonly seen in Western gay culture, such as muscles or a mustache.
For example, there was a movement of androgynous dressing back in the late Nighties in Japan. Even straight men were wearing tight-fitting T-shirts and had feminine hair cuts. Nowadays, it’s still much preferred for male idols in China and South Korea to be clean-shaven and androgynous.
“They were called ‘Femi-o [o means man in kanji character.]’ So it was not so difficult for Asian designers or even students to bring strong genderless concepts in fashion, such as Moto Guo’s kawaii style or the more arty style as seen in Xander Zhou’s male pregnancy a few seasons ago,” Masui said.
Across the Pacific Ocean, Haoran Li, cofounder of New York label Private Policy, who has been living in Manhattan for over a decade and is a regular on the dance floors from downtown Manhattan to Flushing, is frustrated by the under-representation of people like him in mainstream culture.
“Not only are Asian gays underrepresented, but the image of the Asian male is also underrepresented. It is really hard to find a major Asian male image in media and popular culture. We should definitely work on this, and see where the problem is. And this is also what our brand stands for,” said Li.
“We did a full Asian cast show back in 2018 during London Fashion Week to show the diversity within the Asian community overseas. That was an emotional show for us. Also, we did an ‘Asian Family Dinner’ project in New York during the last fashion week to truly show how important family as an element is in Asian culture,” he added.
The brand has also collaborated with New York-based party Bubble T, a party that celebrates Asian queer visibility, on multiple occasions.
“We celebrated and hosted the Lunar New Year party in the Museum of Chinese in America in New York back in 2019. I think events like this really brought the community together. We embrace Asian culture and our own identity through the events and we were happy that we saw people from different backgrounds come to enjoy and experience progressive diversity,” Li said.
HBO Max removed “Gone With the Wind” last week for its untruthful portrayal of slavery. Li pointed out that films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “The Good Earth,” “Ghost in the Shell,” and many more are equally problematic.
“They have given negative stereotypes to Asian images. These historical backgrounds really resulted in some terrible consequences. Such as the stereotype we often heard that ‘Asian men are not attractive.’ And this also resulted in a lot of self-hate and doubt within the community,” he said.
“On dating apps, you can see there are people who would say ‘Asians to the front’ or more often ‘No Asians.’ Instead of being individuals, sometimes I think I am fetishized by people. And this was really damaging for me in my early 20s,” he added.
Junting Zhou, a filmmaker in New York whose work on how his family in China dealt with the coronavirus outbreak was recently featured in The New York Times, agreed that Asian gays are terribly misrepresented in the U.S.
“Few people know that just 100 years ago, it was still in the American law [The Chinese Exclusion Act] to prohibit Chinese men working in the country, and they can’t become citizens through marriage. The U.S. government also encouraged the emasculation of Asian men through media to desexualize them. Unfortunately, today the gay culture still inherits this racist tradition of emasculating Asian men. ‘Gaysian’ is a category that limits the expectation and possibility of what we can be. I feel like I am at the bottom of the food chain in New York. I am definitely more popular in China,” Zhou said.
With Ponder.er, Po and his business partner Derek Cheng, wants to defy the stereotypes.
“There is always a stereotype of gay Asian men being overly dramatic and feminine. Can a gay Asian be masculine? I feel the media says no,” Po said: “That’s why we are trying to break the stereotype of Asian gay men. Men don’t have to be masculine, playing sports, strong and tough, but it’s OK to be fragile, vulnerable, but not exactly feminine.”
Cheng added that, “We have built our brand based on ourselves, growing up as two ‘soft’ and ‘nonmasculine’ boys by the stereotypical social standard. Our designs are often based on breaking down and remixing classic men’s wear. It’s our way of telling the world that if masculinity is a quality a boy or a man needs to possess, we definitely need to widen the definition of that word by now.
“In the most recent concept film we did, titled ‘Unsettled Shell,’ we brought together creatives to talk about the topic of gender and identity. A few of them have mentioned that modern masculinity is about being confident, and embracing your vulnerability and authenticity. If you avoid wearing pink because you are scared of being called ‘gay,’ how masculine are you?” he said.
Having lived in London for almost 10 years, Cheng observed that there is a huge percentage of gay Asian men who are only interested in white males.
“I feel like it has something to do with how aesthetics are represented in the media, even more so in the East. If you go to Thailand, for example, you can see billboards everywhere featuring Caucasian or mixed models; you seldom or never see models with darker skin, not to mention that a lot of Asians have the mind-set of white skin equals wealthy and pretty,” he said.
“A lot of people from BAME backgrounds in the LGBTQ+ community all share one challenge growing up: self-hate. Looking up at big screens in the cinema thinking ‘I wish I had bone structures like Henry Cavill or Timothée Chalamet.’ It’s sick that we are in 2020 and we are still being fit into these ‘inferior’ boxes, whether being put into it or self-initiated,” Cheng added.
“I remember going into a huge gay club in New York when I was interning there, there was this Asian corner where the Asians gathered. This is a question I ask myself a lot as well, is it our problem? That we love to stick together, or are ‘Gaysians’ really less accepted in the gay circle? It is a bit of both, I think,” he said.
Thomas Villeneuve, a French gay man who has lived in Guangzhou, China, for 15 years and is an organizer of the city’s Pride events, shares similar sentiments. He said the rules gay Asian men imposed on themselves, and how they form Asian-only, tight-knit groups, can be hard for people like him, who are willing to learn more about them to truly get to know them.
Pressure from the traditional family values also stops a lot of Asian gay men from being their authentic selves, Villeneuve observed. “Even if the mainstream media have a great gay Asian men representation, as long as their parents are not, it will be hard,” he said.
Speaking of positive media representation, Marc Ma, a Shanghai-based fashion producer who spent his early 20s in Paris, said, “Bowen Yang appearing on ‘Saturday Night Live’ was a turning point for gay Asian men in recent memory. The last gay Asian man that had good media visibility in the U.S. was probably BD Wong.
“SNL is very white, frankly speaking, even it has a diverse cast. So when I saw Bowen become one of the permanent cast, I felt a bit touched. But, of course, he would still do the impression of Kim Jong-un or whatever, but still, it’s a start,” he said.
Zhou said another good example in the media for having a positive portrayal of Asian gay men includes the documentary “All in My Family” on Netflix, by Hao Wu. “It is about his experience of dealing with his Chinese parents when he chose to have kids as a gay Chinese father,” he said.
Other works that showcase the complexity of gay Asian men include Ang Lee’s film “The Wedding Banquet,” “Farewell My Concubine” by Chen Kaige, “Happy Together” by Wong Kar-wai, and “The River” by Tsai Ming-liang.
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide, the gay Asian community has been showing support for fighting systemic racism in society and speaking up more.
Private Policy, for example, launched a T-shirt fundraiser project with Billy Porter, Tan France, Bowen Yang and Chella Man in order to raise money for the homeless LGBTQ community.
Li thinks gay Asians need to speak out and share their stories more in order to break the stereotype. “A lot of us feel shy and do not like to speak out, but we face bullyings in real life as well. Our future is in our hands,” he said.
Ichikawa joined the Black Lives Matter Tokyo march last Sunday in solidarity with the movement. “I am a believer in equality 100 percent. Without Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman leading the march at the Stonewall Uprising 50 years ago, our LGBTQ+ rights, what we have achieved, would not have happened,” he said.
“The only reason why Asians are so misunderstood and have never been paid enough attention in the West is that we are too soft,” said Ma. “We compromise too much and are too modest and too shy. So not only the white but also other races would think that we are muted. The Asian vote is not even a thing for the presidential election, so who cares if Asian lives matter or not?”