Ethnicity and LGBT issues: When homophobia and transphobia are linked to race
One of the largest and most diverse groups I know in Metro Vancouver's gay community consists of Canadians of Chinese descent.
Not only are they from various generations, ranging from those who have emigrated from Asia to third- and fourth-generation Canadians, but they also hail from a multitude of countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Fiji, India, the Philippines, and more. They speak a variety of different languages and have different cultural traditions and influences.
Although they identify as Indonesian, Malaysian, Filipino, and so on, they could also be regarded as "ethnic Chinese".
However, this might not be evident to onlookers simply by glancing at them.
What doesn't help is the repeated representation of the local ethnic Chinese community as a homogenous group by the media.
This issue has repeatedly arisen with protests against LGBT initiatives from people who appear to be of Chinese descent. It's also a common issue whenever members of a visible minority group are associated with a particular issue.
Racism repeatedly rears its ugly head in homophobia and transphobia issues whenever individuals involving "ethnic communities", particularly visible minorities, are identified. Even within LGBT communities, racist sentiments are expressed against ethnic groups when gaybashers are revealed to be visible minorities.
Unfortunately, relying upon visual information about identities can be problematic as that's only one part of the story and other, often invisible, information may be ignored.
When gaybashers, for example, are from a visible ethnic minority, it is all too easy—not to mention simplistic and reductive—to associate their actions with their racial identity. Compare this with white gaybashers, who could be recent immigrants, from a particular religious group, or have other ethnic or cultural commonalities. Why are not the same associations made?
Are these gaybashers, regardless of ethnic identity, all from similar economic classes? Similar education levels? Share similar personality or psychological traits? This is information that can't be gathered from armchair voyeurism or by reading their names.
A case-in-point: How many readers were aware that Cheryl Chang, Lord Byng Secondary School's parent's advisory committee chair who is against the Vancouver School Board's gender policy update and has been leading opposition against it, has a Chinese surname but is actually white?
It's also far easier to identify, for instance, an increase in hijab-wearing Muslim females on the street than it is to recognize a sudden influx of homophobic evangelical Caucasian Americans based on visual information.
UBC professor Sunera Thobani once told me in an interview that ethnic communities tend to be identified as more homophobic than the mainstream. She pointed out that it feeds into the racist perception of these groups as being regressive. This bias therefore plays into the idea of these groups as being a threat to mainstream freedom and social progress.
What compounds this problem is that not much media attention is given to individuals from ethnic communities who are fighting for LGBT equality. Often, these individuals remain invisible or less visible than those who are against LGBT issues.
Here are just a few examples of pro-LGBT individuals who are Chinese Canadians and have taken action to speak out in favour of LGBT rights and awareness:
Gary Wong Like other members of the Burnaby School Board, including BSB chair Baljinder Narang, this Burnaby School Board trustee felt so strongly about supporting the board's antihomophobia policy that he risked his position in the face of fierce opposition from parents' groups. Even though he didn't have any direct connection to LGBT communities or people (but had an experiential understanding of discrimination), he became the cochair of the BSB's LGBTQ Committee.
Fiona Chen The Straight's Gail Johnson interviewed her for her article about the Vancouver School Board's effort to update their LGBTQ policy. Chen spoke out about being a proud mother of a transgender child. Even her own 70-year-old mother, a devout Christian, has come to accept her transgender grandchild.
Christepher Wee When he won the 2014 Mr. Gay Canada competition in Whistler, he became the first Chinese Canadian to do so. With experience working in schools as a teacher, he wants to help implement more LGBT programs in schools.
Jen Sung Originally from Taiwan, Jen Sung graced the cover of the Georgia Straight's 2012 Pride issue for her work at Out on Screen with the Out in Schools program and working with gay-straight alliances. She also attended the VSB gender-identity policy hearings.
Darren Ho He launched the Our City of Colours project in 2011 in response to the opposition to the Burnaby School Board's antihomophobia policy. Our City of Colours raises the visibility and awareness of LGBT people in various linguistic and cultural communities to counteract invisibility.
Articles like Douglas Todd's Vancouver Sun blog on May 29 entitled "Ethnic Chinese protest LGBT programs again" don't necessarily help the matter.
Although Todd tries to recognize the plurality of the Chinese Canadian community by using "many" and various qualifiers ("it should be obvious to readers that not all all ethnic Chinese in Metro agree on LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] issues"), he separates the speakers at a Vancouver School Board hearing along ethnic lines. He states that Chinese speakers were anti-LGBT while Caucasian speakers for the most part were pro-LGBT.
He also criticizes the Georgia Straight's Gail Johnson for ignoring "the story's ethnic and religious angle" in her article about the VSB's gender policy hearings.
What's important to question is why does Todd introduce the racial aspect, and repeatedly place emphasis on ethnic Chinese people (and later introduces parallels with evangelical ethnic Koreans) in Canada for this article when the main issue is about LGBT issues? After all, LGBT issues are human rights issues that affect everyone, regardless of race or religion.
What's more, articles like Todd's which only pinpoint groups, often don't provide any solutions or problem-solving ideas about the matter. How can we reach out to these people (regardless of their ethnicity)? How can we help them to understand the other side of the issue? How can we learn to communicate effectively with each other as a society?
Is there a way that projects like Our City of Colours could become more effective in reaching members of various communities (including religious ones) for education and dialogue?
How can more LGBT activists and allies within those communities become more visible and vocal?
Is there a way that media can help to provide means for more constructive discussion? How can the efforts of the individuals like those highlghted above be covered more by local media?
Simply identifying that many opponents of homophobia and transphobia policies are Asian does not necessarily provide any insight into the complex matter, and in fact appears to suggest exclusion. (Yellow Peril, anyone?) Without any understanding or recommendations provided, this approach risks being little more than fear-mongering that is unconstructive to a city whose demographics aren't going to revert to how they were in the past (which, by the way, were maintained by racist legislation that restricted those of Asian descent from living in the city).
If we are to progress as a city, rather than point fingers or scapegoat specific groups, we need to figure out ways to work together in spite of any real or perceived differences.