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Racism and Homophobia: A Reflection on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 25, 2017

Taissa Morimoto with National LGBTQ Task Force Holley Law fellows in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I spent most of my life pretending to be someone I am not.

I often found myself having to carefully choose which parts of my identity I presented, rarely existing in a space where I comfortably felt all of who I am: a queer East Asian-Brazilian American woman.

Growing up in a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood meant that assimilation was necessary for social survival. Assimilation is a different experience for each person, but for me, it entailed not eating during school hours, laughing at racist jokes, and not engaging in perceived East Asian stereotypical interests. Assimilation essentially took the form of misdirected hatred towards myself.

For too long, I was deprived of important parts of my culture because of comments made by classmates and because I feared being bullied. When I indulged in parts of my own culture, I was ridiculed and shamed. Yet as white people began to appropriate and immerse themselves into East Asian culture, it was considered en vogue. This trend continues tirelessly. Chinese-American food blogger Clarissa Wei said it best: “In a weird turn of events, people were making money and becoming famous for eating the things I had grown up with and had been bullied for.”

I heavily relied on my being Brazilian to combat the assumptions and stereotypes I experienced daily. When people asked, “What are you?” or “What language do you speak,” I told them I was Brazilian and spoke Portuguese. I would briefly revel in the satisfaction of their disappointment with my answer and their lost opportunity to discuss their trip to Japan or show off the two Mandarin words they know. They proceeded to do so anyway.

The internalization of shame of my identity grew significantly when I came out in high school. I experienced even more instances of microaggressions, though the form of harassment shifted from being bullied to being eroticized as an East Asian woman and fetishized as a queer woman. While walking down the school hallway holding my girlfriend’s hand,  boys would yell at us, egging us to kiss in front of them.

Despite the ongoing harassment, once I came out as queer, I immersed myself in the LGBTQ community. I did everything I could to do all things queer. Unfortunately, I experienced microaggressions from white LGBTQ people as well. Among LGBTQ white folks, I would get questions such as, “Do you speak Asian?” and comments such as, “You are going to be my new best friend, my Christina Yang.” Instead of challenging them, I put up with their ignorance because I believed they were supporting me in ways my East Asian community never had.

Although I consciously chose to be a part of a community that I felt was largely racist, the alternative was choosing a community that I felt was largely homophobic. I did not feel like I had meaningful options.

My experiences are not unique. I know I am not alone in feeling that my identities clash with each other throughout daily life. According to a national survey of LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islanders (API), 89% of respondents agreed that homophobia and/or transphobia is a problem in the broader API community and 78% of respondents agreed that API LGBTQ people experience racism within the predominately white LGBTQ community. Many queer API growing up or living in the U.S. have felt like they don’t quite fit in with any group.

It is likely that I would have never recognized how similar my experiences were to others if I had not attended the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in 2017. During the day-long racial institute for LGBTQI API people, I sat among some of the most beautiful, brilliant people. I realized that, in a single day, I had met more queer API people than I had met in my entire life. And, contrary to what I had been taught my entire life, I realized that I can choose my family.

The portrayal of a monolithic API experience is dangerous and isolating. For decades, it led me to believe that I did not belong to the API community – that my experiences were too different and not relatable. But, meeting so many queer people with diverse histories and experiences at Creating Change inspired me to live authentically.

For me, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (AAPIHM) is about celebrating those differences. Though most API have experienced racism and microaggressions, our experiences are infinitely diverse.

AAPIHM is about shattering the shame and becoming my authentic self, even if it often runs amiss with feelings of familial obligations and expectations that have been instilled in me. It is about coming to terms with the fact that I will always love my family who does not accept a huge part of who I am. But, I am tired of feeling as if I must choose one part of my identity over another.

AAPIHM is about how my identity has shaped my experiences growing up in the US. I want to celebrate it by acknowledging the racism that still exists in this country. For me, AAPIHM is about learning our collective history in this country and using it to become a better advocate. This year, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is about coming home to myself.

thumbnail_taissa-morimotoBy Taissa Morimoto, Policy Advocate, National LGBTQ Task Force.

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