Ethnicity and LGBT issues: When homophobia and transphobia are linked to race

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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.

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21 Comments

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Gail Johnson

Jun 4, 2014 at 4:01pm

Great commentary, Craig.
I was disappointed to see Douglas Todd be critical of my article for failing to address the religious and ethnic aspects of this debate, given that these fell well outside the scope of my story. And articles typically have word limits in place; a length of 2,500 words was three times as long as my usual health columns.
I see the debate not as one of race or religion but of human beings and human rights.
For the record, I did ask Chang about any possible, apparent, or perceived religious divide, and she said "half" of the people she'd spoken to (and was therefore representing) and who opposed the proposed policy changes were not religious.

Thanks you for this artical

Jun 5, 2014 at 12:00am

Being at the meetings their was a mix of people from different ethnic backgrounds on both sides and Todd ignored this.

Morgane Oger

Jun 5, 2014 at 12:31am

Thank you for the excellent article which echoes the frustrations of several persons I have spoken to on the issue while working with the BC Safer Schools Alliance to support VSB in its work against homophobia and transphobia. It is not helpful to fight oppression against one group by stepping on another. The instinct to tribalize along perceived racial lines is a strong one yet leads mostly to demonizstion of the innocent and to the alienation of potential partners. It is a deeply damaging way to add hurt to a contentious issue that must be called out whenever we see it. It is the responsibility of all of us to work to stop all forms of oppression, not just the ones that affect us individually.

Straight Reader

Jun 5, 2014 at 1:39am

Great piece. Thank you.

David

Jun 5, 2014 at 8:27am

Simply characterizing opposition as "Chinese" is highly simplistic and inappropriate, but to go the other way and not recognize the reality of the situation is burying your head in the sand. Yes, nearly all the speakers at the Byng PAC meeting who opposed the policy were Chinese. Were there Chinese who supported the policy? Yes, there were, but there are things to consider about this situation that relates to the background and culture of the people who oppose the policy. One woman spoke about how she had not even heard of the term "homosexual" in China until she was twenty. Surveys in China show a much lower acceptance rate of LGBT issues, so really, it seems that looking at these realities might be helpful in understanding and addressing why some people come to feel opposed to the draft VSB policy.

Safer Schools supporter

Jun 5, 2014 at 9:41am

I also think the article is very well written. It provides important insights for everyone interested in this current debate and wider human rights issues. One point which should be noted is that the PACIS group itself was the first to frame the VSB policy update as a form of racist attack against Chinese-Canadian cultural norms - even though a number of speakers supporting the policy were clearly of Chinese ethnicity, and some of the most obviously homophobic critics of the policy appeared to be of European backgrounds. I would also add that the VSB continues to fall far short in terms of translating materials into a wide range of languages spoken in our city. This is mainly due to ongoing provincial funding shortfalls and downloaded costs. But the failure to translate important documents such as this policy update has left the VSB wide open to criticism. Surely this has to change.

Aaron

Jun 5, 2014 at 2:10pm

its plainly obvious that the lower mainland is a racist society that likes to use "anti-Chinese" sentiment to prop up debate. Anytime any person of Chinese origin does anything wrong its multiplied by a force of hate. This issue is no different. Canadians are just plain racist and its easy to see. When a Chinese origin young kid urinated into a garbage can, it made headline news. If a caucasian young man does the same in public its accepted. When Chinese protest anything in BC they are condemned (see the issue a hospice near UBC), hatesand major racist comments fly. When whites do the same, it is tolerated, as freedom of expression.
As a Chinese Canadian, this makes me just not want to get involved in local issues because we will always be seen as the bad guy. Thus we retreat to our own communities.

khkw

Jun 5, 2014 at 4:44pm

Great article. Too bad you don't see this kind of work in the mainstream media. Thoughtful, fair, poignant -- no one wants to hear that! More fun to generalize and pick on people. Just like in a schoolyard.

I'm a Canadian born Chinese, with immigrant parents from HK. My spouse is Italian Canadian. We are living in China right now and the issue of intra-ethnic-Chinese generalization drives my kids crazy. They don't really identify as "ethnic Chinese" at all, they go to french school and we speak english at home but it does drive them crazy when Mainland Chinese act the way they do at home, in Canada. HK'rs are just as appalled as Canadians when it comes to the littering, pushing/shoving/queue jumping, spitting and public urination and defecation that is commonly seen in cities like Beijing. They are embarrassed -- essentially on behalf of all Chinese, because they know that "white people" will view all ethnic Chinese as uncivilized. I say all this not to shame those that do all of these things, clearly, they have no shame and it is fully acceptable and commonplace to do all of these things in China -- no judgement, it's their country. In fact, I m not recounting this to be critical, I'm simply reinforcing the point that generalizing is hurtful. Unfortunately, I see no solution and I fear that it will always be done, particularly by the mainstream media.

The big wave of Hong Kong Chinese, that gave "Canadians" the impression that Chinese are hardworking, quiet, polite and smart will give way to the new wave. God help all ethnic Chinese with what "Canadians" will think of us now.

David

Jun 5, 2014 at 11:42pm

There is no "anti Chinese sentiment to prop up debate". That is total nonsense. And thanks for the "Canadians are just plain racist" comment. You really undermine your own views by making your very own insulting generalization about all Canadians. Nicely done, Aaron.

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