In the midst of the excitement I’ve observed (and felt!) around San Francisco from the election of Barack Obama, there is still a lot of remorse and frustration at the passing of Proposition 8. Although APIA’s were seen to be one of the few ethnic minority groups that support same-sex marriage rights overall in polls, it didn’t turn out to be enough to prevent Prop 8 from passing. You can be sure that we’ll be keeping an eye out for actions to follow up and contest the passing of the proposition from our JACL district and other civil rights and community organizations. This fight isn’t over yet, not even close.
As I’ve been reading through pre- and post-election analysis, I found a piece particularly relevant to our community and the struggle against Proposition 8. Here’s Jeff Yang’s interesting article in his AsianPop column in the SF Chronicle discussing similarites and relations between the Asian American and LGBT communities in our local politics. The article includes a huge nod to the JACL for being the first national civil rights organization to publicly support same-sex marriage rights.
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 (SF Gate)
Gays and Asians, not so strange bedfellows
By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
With the 30th anniversary of Harvey Milk’s death approaching and the impending release of a star-studded biopic commemorating the late San Francisco supervisor’s life, Jeff Yang explores Milk’s conviction that the Bay Area’s queer and Asian-American communities were destined to find political common ground.
Michael Wong was flabbergasted. His friend and confidant, newly elected Supervisor Harvey Milk, had just declared his intention to endorse Wong’s political nemesis, an old-school leader of the Chinatown machine. “Harvey, how could you do this?”
“You gotta look at the big picture, Michael,” explained Milk. “If San Francisco’s Asian and gay communities can just find a way to unite and work together, we’ll hold all the cards. Give us 10 years, and we’ll control politics in this city.”
Wong left the conversation so incensed that he didn’t speak to his friend for a month — a silent treatment that ended just before November 27, 1978, when Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered at the hands of a political rival.
From the vantage point of three decades of hindsight, Wong acknowledges Milk’s position as coolly pragmatic – and, in retrospect, absolutely correct. “Harvey was brilliant, and as usual, way ahead of his time. Because back then, in the Seventies, Asian Americans weren’t yet voting in droves. But by the late Eighties, if you had a Chinese last name and were running for lower office in the city, chances are you were a lock to get elected.”
What Harvey Milk had predicted was the convergence of two potent demographic trends. Asian Americans are now well over a third of San Francisco’s population, and between 20 and 25 percent of its electorate. Self-identified lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals, meanwhile, make up about 13 percent of the city’s population and between 15 and 20 percent of its registered voters. Both groups, and the overlap between them, continue to grow — making up what might well be an invincible electoral bloc, if the two could only make common cause.
But over the past three decades, building that political bridge between the two communities has proven to be more of a challenge than Milk anticipated. San Francisco’s LGBT electorate is the most reliably Democratic segment of a quintessentially Blue municipality; meanwhile, Bay Area Asian-American voters have followed national trends, splitting their party affiliation in enigmatic fashion – with about 45 percent registered as Democrats, and up to 40 percent claiming independent or nonpartisan status. On the issues, bread-and-butter Asian-American concerns like immigration and education tend to be low on the list of priorities for gay voters, while conventional wisdom has generally held that Asians skew conservative on social matters, particularly gay rights.
Which makes it all the more striking that, in the first-ever comprehensive poll of Asian American voters, the Rutgers/UC-Riverside sponsored National Asian American Survey, an overwhelming percentage of Asian Americans, 57 percent to 32 percent, rejected bans on same-sex marriage. In fact, Asians are the only ethnic voting group who’ve shown a clear and consistent majority against Proposition 8, the referendum that would prevent gays and lesbians from marrying in the state of California; results of the final Field Poll released on the eve of Tuesday’s election indicated that 51% of Asians intended to vote “No” on 8, versus 48% of Latinos and just 43% of African Americans.
Wed to Rights
That Asian Americans have become a critical swing vote on gay marriage rights may upend conventional wisdom, but it doesn’t surprise organizers. “Our community has looked at this issue in the context of 125 years of California history,” says Tawal Panyacosit, director of the San Francisco marriage rights group API Equality. “We think about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants from bringing their wives to join them in the U.S. We think of antimiscegenation laws that specifically banned intermarriage with Asians. For us, this is a civil rights issue, not a moral one.”
Many gay Asian activists question the conventional notion that Asian Americans are less tolerant of homosexuality than their general market peers. “This isn’t to say that homophobia isn’t a problem in our communities, but many Asians see it more as an issue of privacy than anything else,” says Gay Asian Pacific Alliance co-chair Raphael Buencamino. “This is a group that’s culturally uncomfortable with any open display of sexuality” – gay or straight. “They may embrace their gay family members, they may be fine with things on a personal basis, but they just don’t want to discuss these matters in public. And unfortunately, that gets depicted in the media as intolerance.”
Eric Wat, Los Angeles-based author of “The Making of a Gay Asian Community,” agrees that such generalized portrayals are dangerous. ” First-generation Asian immigrants may say, ‘Oh, there was no such thing as homosexuality when I grew up,’ but when you press them on the issue, they’ll admit they had an uncle who wasn’t married and that everyone understood to be gay. When my friend Alice Hom was doing research on parents of Asian-American LGBT men and women, she told me she ran into mothers of Asian lesbians who’d privately tell her things like, ‘If there’d been an opportunity to openly express this way back home, life might have been different for me, too.'”
But the potential shared space between the gay and Asian-American communities extends beyond a shared interest in defending matrimony. For one, there’s the structural similarity between the two groups. “APIs and LGBTs are both communities that are finding ways to come together politically despite the huge amount of diversity among their members,” says API Equality’s Panyacosit. “Asian Americans encompass 20 distinct ethnic groups and dozens of languages,” while the cultural differences between gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals present a similar challenge to queer identity. (“We have a social divide that means we have to work harder,” admits Buencamino. “I mean, gays and lesbians aren’t an integrated community; it’s not like we’re hanging out at the same clubs.”)
And many of the individuals working hard to forge political agendas within the Asian and gay communities belong to both groups: Openly gay Asian Americans have emerged as key leaders and organizers in issues ranging from immigration reform to the fight against AIDS – and bringing their straight and non-Asian allies together in the process.
“If you go all the way back to 1994, you’ll see that the Japanese American Citizens League was the first national civil rights organization to publicly endorse same-sex marriage rights,” says Wat. “And the reason is that many JACL leaders and active members in places like Southern California were out gays and lesbians. They had strong relationships with straight allies in the organization, and they were able to make the case to them that this was an issue the JACL needed to support.”
It’s something that would have delighted Harvey Milk, who relished his public role as a gay icon but privately asserted the critical need to build political ties with straight colleagues and constituencies. Reached shortly after watching Gus Van Sant’s celebrity-studded cinematic biography “Milk,” an audibly shaken Michael Wong reiterates his belief that had his friend survived, he would have risen to unpredictable heights.
“People think of him now as Harvey the legend, but I was fortunate to know him as Harvey the practical politician,” says Wong. “He would have built that coalition, and who knows where he could have gone. Before Harvey was killed, he’d made a list four people he thought could carry on his work if he died, and one of them was Harry Britt. And do you know what? In 1984, my father, who was a big supporter of Ronald Reagan, told me, ‘I’m voting for the gay boy.’ That’s what my father called Harry Britt — ‘The gay boy.’ But he told me he’d become convinced that the ‘gay boy’ was good for the Chinese. I was floored. I absolutely believe Harvey would have been mayor of San Francisco. And because he was the kind of politician that believed in sharing power, he would have opened doors for other groups too — brought the outsiders in: blacks, Asians, you name it. We would have a very different political landscape today. Very different.”
Jeff Yang forecasts global consumer trends for the market-research company Iconoculture(http://www.iconoculture.com/). He is the author of “Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China,” co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and “Eastern Standard Time,” and editor of the forthcoming “Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology” (http://www.secretidentities.org/). He lives in New York City. Go to http://altreviews.com/cgi-bin/dada/mail.cgi to join INSTANT YANG, Jeff Yang’s biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian / Asian American pop-culture news, or connect with him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1074720260, LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jeffcyang, or Twitter: http://twitter.com/originalspin.
Copyright 2008 SF Gate