Why Metro Vancouver needs an East Asian Canadian LGBT organization
You don't have to look at numbers to know that Vancouver residents of East Asian descent form a significant portion of the population.
But if you do want numbers, here they are: according to the 2011 National Household Survey, Chinese (411,470), Korean (48,425), and Japanese (28,345) people make up 21 percent of Metro Vancouver's population.
Yet within the local LGBT communities, out of all the various queer cultural groups that exist—from aboriginal and Jewish to South Asian and Filipino—there is a glaring empty space unfilled by any publicly visible or prominent East Asian Canadian groups, serving people of Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, or Japanese descent.
That gap has existed since the Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS closed in 2011 after 16 years of providing services in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, and Japanese on issues related to HIV and AIDS.
In June, Malaysian-born Vancouver resident Edward Ho did launch The Dating GAM, a website for gay Asian men to share dating stories and to address issues such as how to handle sexual racism. However, it is an online forum, rather than an in-person organization.
Jen Sung and David Ng cofounded Love Intersections, which raises the visibility of queer people of colour through online videos, and they're also involved with Our City of Colours, which does similar work through poster campaigns.
While both organizations do include content relevant to East Asian cultures, they also cover a wide range of other groups, including aboriginal, European, African, and South American people.
Sung, who is Taiwanese Canadian, thinks it's "so weird" there isn't an outwardly visible LGBT East Asian Canadian organization in the city.
Sung, who formerly worked at Out in Schools, believes that access for East Asian citizens to LGBT educational materials, particularly in schools, is essential for health and wellness.
In particular, she feels that access for older generations, who may have different perspectives on gender and sexuality, is important.
"That's not because where they are coming from or their home country," she said by phone, "but it's that they're already navigating a lot of racism and cultural backlash and discrimination in a city like Vancouver that it's kind of just one thing that may not even be considering just given how much work they have to do just to survive in the city."
Coming out—not to mention Pride parades—are Western concepts, and they may manifest different within Asian cultures than in Western cultures, due to differences on emphasis on group identity versus individual identity. A North American-centric approach to LBGT issues may not be appropriate for everyone. For instance, in some East Asian cultures, the LGBT identity of individuals remains quietly known among family members or close friends but not openly spoken about. While this may seem regressive from a Western perspective, it is often considered appropriate for the social intricacies of countries like China or Japan.
"For me personally, tapping into my Asian identity, it's not just me for me," Sung, who is Taiwanese Canadian, said. "I'm part of a larger collective identity so it's not just me. I think the Western coming out is a very individualistic concept….but perhaps I have other layers that I want to consider like my family...."
Hong Kong–born Vancouver psychologist and author Wallace Wong echoed this sentiment. By phone, he pointed out that Western cultures often place an emphasis on “come out, be yourself, be individual” but Wong says “that may cause more risk” for people of Asian descent.
“They focus more on connectedness," he said in a phone interview. "You don’t want to stand out on your own. That would be considered selfish. The individualism sometimes can be challenging the system as a whole…so a lot of times the LGBT youth can inherit that kind of guilt and shame about 'Look at what I did to the system.' "
He explained that it's not just a dilemma for youth but also for parents and relatives of family members who may be coming out. He said that all involved may feel like they have to choose between belonging to either LGBT or ethnic group communities, and have to give one up in order to belong to the other.
For instance, he said that parents of LGBT children may be wondering "Should I choose my kids or should I choose my community?" as they may anticipate some level of social rejection. "So they also have a lot to lose," he said. "It’s not just learning to accept their kids."
However, due to perceptions of LGBT organizations being white-dominated, he pointed out that if they turn to LGBT community organizations, they may feel that the organizations “may not know about my cultural unique challenges that I face as well as my family may face”.
He added that first and second or later generations can look at things quite differently.
“Parents see that [coming out] as threat already because you’re losing the cultural identity and your core values of the Eastern culture.”
Wong also explained that if ethnic minorities may feel that values are being "pushed upon" them by host country, they may take up a "defensive position".
However, if someone from the same ethnic group is able to clarify things “to let them know what is going on", this can help to address any "power imbalance".
He added that parents of LGBT children also need support and resources as “trusted source for them to turn to” so that they can dispel myths or clarify information.
A combination of misinformation and a lack of information in the Chinese language became readily apparent during the controversies that arose during the Vancouver School Board's hearing about their trans-inclusive updates to their gender and sexual identity policy in 2014.
Among those opposed, Chinese evangelical Christian groups lobbied against the policy update, and misinformation ran rampant within many communities.
Wong, who speaks Cantonese and heard some of the erroneous LGBT information being spread at the time, said there is a glaring lack of accurate, well-researched, and well-written LGBT information in Chinese on the internet, making it easy for Chinese-language speakers to become susceptible to biased opinions, fear-mongering efforts, or jumping to conclusions.
“They have no way to cross-check the information in their language or with another reasonable, credible person from their community to talk about this,” he said.
Educator and social advocate Christepher Wee also said it's not just a simple matter of just translating material. In a phone interview, he emphasized the importance of making content culturally relevant and specific for the target audience.
As Mr. Gay Canada 2014, he said he spoke with many organizations who simply wanted to translate directly from English to another language, such as Japanese, Chinese, or Korean.
"Even though we're all Asians, we come from very different cultures and backgrounds, and very different family pressures, so having content that's just translated doesn't really speak to the person," he said.
In other words, it would be like lumping people from France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Poland, and Ireland all into one European Canadian group versus recognizing the distinct differences between those diverse cultures.
What's more, he pointed out that if individuals can't access services, they may resort to simply remaining ghettoized within their own communities—and then being criticized by the mainstream for doing so.
"They have a hard time finding these kind of resources, I think, of where to go and they end up falling back to the comfort of hanging out with people from China, or people from Korea, and people from Japan, and they form their own kind of support group, and I think that kind of defeats the purpose of why you come here to study English, why you come here on a working visa, or why you immigrated here."
Wee opined that creating opportunities for people of colour or newcomers to participate can help to break closed networks of people in organizations or boards.
"I think every organization should really look at expanding their board and their staffing so that they can better serve our community that's so diverse whereas you go into most organizations, you hardly find people of colour working in those organizations and I think that's a huge disconnect when how do you expect people of colour to approach them when they don't have someone they feel they can identify with there?"
Vancouver-born Love Intersections cofounder David Ng, who is queer and from an evangelical Christian Chinese family (whose parents were supportive of his coming out), told the Straight by phone that when bridges aren't built between communities, understanding breaks down.
“I can just imagine there’s a lot rooted in the isolation that the communities have so the basic information is not being connected to those communities and there’s just a lot of miscommunication,” he said. “We haven’t done a lot of work around the systemic racial issues and so those communities are still very, very Othered, which makes them very isolated and then therefore also breeds the mistrust and misinformation.”
He observed that culturally relevant linguistic resources are necessary for LGBT issues as they often require specialized vocabulary, some of which may not even exist yet.
According to the 2011 census, the three most common mother-tongues (non-official languages) in Greater Vancouver were Mandarin (15.9% of the population), Chinese (non-specific, 13.8%), and Korean (8.5%).
Like Wee, Ng also emphasized the need for not only culturally relevant content but also visual representation.
“If you actually see yourself represented in the material or in the content, then you’re more compelled to actually attend and connect,” he said.
As a positive example, Ng said he was impressed how much of the local Chinese Canadian community turned out to attend frank theatre company's 2016 play Ga Ting, about a Caucasian man who visits the Chinese parents of his deceased gay partner. Ng pointed out that the content was relevant to community and was bilingual (and surtitled).
Ng said he feels there's a broader need to discuss racial issues within queer communities, and thanked Black Lives Matter Vancouver for inspiring that discussion.
Yet when it comes to community discussions or conversations, Sung also pointed out how some East Asian people may find it challenging to participate due to limited English and Asian etiquette. She noted that some Asian people may be caught in cross-cultural tensions that might emerge from speaking in a public forum.
"A lot of the East Asians that I know, their personalities just aren't the kind that want to take up a lot of space or they're very kind of mindful of the people that are around them so…there's hesitation and there's shyness but there's definitely a much more observance nature to East Asian culture, where you're kind of looking around you and being very subtle about things," she said.
Consequently, an East Asian Canadian LGBT group could help to ease some of those tensions and, as Ng suggested, could provide a "safe space" where individuals feel more comfortable to explore sensitive issues.
Wee said that an East Asian Canadian LGBT group could help not only local residents but also immigrants, students, or people on working visa, who may feel freer to explore their sexual identities while away from their home countries.
Several of the interviewees agreed that such an organization could help advocate in specific causes and speak to media, such as when issues like the VSB policy-update debate arose.
As to why such a group does not exist despite the signficiant East Asian population in Vancouver remains open to speculation with no clear or verifiable answers. What is obvious, as Ng, Sung, Wee, and Wong have outlined, is that there remains a need to be fulfilled, and a population that can clearly benefit from the existence of such an organization.