"I'm not racist. I just have preferences." On dating and hook-up apps for gay men, this seems to be a common justification from guys who state phrases like "No Asians" in their bios or while chatting. Now I totally get that these apps are primarily for sex and people have preferences, and blah, blah, blah, but really: How these things are said with such casualness shows the insidious powers of language.
Being so upfront and flip in denying conversation with an entire race is, let's face it, pretty racist. And this isn't just Grindr; online dating sites offer pretty much the same dynamic toward gay Asian men. It's gross how someone could be so upfront about a dislike for a race: "Sorry. You're cute, but no Asians for me." (Sorry, but apologetic openings don't redeem you as a good human being.) Short and to the point with why I wasn't wanted, I started feeling like the majority of guys didn't have any interest in me because I am Asian. Eventually, I became fed up and got off apps, and I continue to put little effort in online dating.
I recall the first few months being app-less, going out more with friends and not looking to hook up, or even find Prince Charming to sweep me off my feet—just interacting with the gay community IRL to see what would or could happen. But even offline here in "progressive" Vancouver, the attitude toward gay Asian men is disappointingly reflective or a result of treatment received online.
The one that still stands out for me to this day was when I met a guy through a friend, who I eventually asked out for coffee. It seemed to go well, and before I knew it, we had spent a couple of hours talking at the cafe. When we were leaving, he said to me that he wasn't looking for anything more than being friends—that he was a "no rice, no spice kinda guy" when it came to intimate relationships. A phrase that is typically used online was said to me in person with such casual bravado, and I was basically left speechless (until after the fact, when I thought of many worthwhile responses.)
This is a very blunt example of how online discrimination can be felt in real life, because as I spoke to other gay Asian men in Vancouver for this story, they all mentioned that even though racism toward Asians is so upfront online, they've felt it in real life on a more subtle, but just as hurtful, level.
For this reason, Alex, a 28-year-old writer and first generation Chinese Canadian, said it makes discrimination more difficult to process and confront. "People are much less willing to voice their 'preferences' for race in person. If anything it's more subtle, more ambiguous," he told me. "I'll be walking down the street, and people will look through me as if I'm not there. No one will check me out. But I'll notice, for example, white guys checking out other white guys."
The ways Asians are treated online directly correlate with Alex's reasons for feeling less desired. He questions his own physical attractiveness in the eyes of white men and wonders if his Asian heritage is what keeps him from catching the eye of other men. "But after being told time and time again online that I'm unattractive due to my ethnicity, I can't help but believe that that's the reason. All the time. Either way, feeling invisible is the norm for me," he said. Because of this, Alex dissociates himself from gay communities, keeping to himself and not going out much.
The other result is feeling too visible for being Asian, or being exoticized or objectified for your race. On dating apps as a gay Asian man, receiving messages akin to, "Looking for azns only, Asians+++," or the most memorable one I've received, "Let me serve your Oriental noodle," are just as much a norm as it is being turned down for being Asian.
Because of this, I was weary with talking to guys in real life, worrying that they didn't care who I was as a person but instead only about how Asian I am. And I found this apprehension to be shared among others. "The digital world really lays the groundwork for what is possible, and people are not afraid to speak out, and from that, we get a sense of self-doubt," Kevin, a 23-year-old art director of Southeast Asian descent, told me. For example, if a guy comes on to Kevin, he admits to also questioning whether it's because he is Asian or if the guy is interested in him as a person, regardless of race: "You question how much he values you, what facets of you he values, and what you're worth is based on."
It's tricky trying to understand your worth as a gay Asian man, or any person of color, when the gay community can be so dominantly focused on the oh-so-desirable Adonis-bodied white man. The way gay Asian men can be spoken to (or ignored) online causes some second-guessing in interactions with (white) men, especially when it comes to being more than friends.
It works the other way as well, where being associated with a gay Asian is seemingly taboo.
I spoke to Daniel, a 30-year-old second-generation Chinese Canadian who works in social justice, who shared his experience of the early stages of dating a man. "When I first started dating my ex (who was white), he asked me, 'What do you think people think of me now that I'm dating an Asian? What do you think people are saying?'"
Daniel adds that there were many occasions where someone he was dating said that he wasn't looking for anything serious, so he would casually date, but then it would be called off, only with the other guy immediately being in a serious relationship with a white guy.
There's no doubt that experiencing online racism affects esteem when apps and websites are out of the picture. All of this is quite intangible, and "it's hard to quantify racist experiences that you encounter in intimate relationships, and from the queer community sometimes. It's just how we feel or are made to feel, really," added Daniel.
The only real obvious proof that can be seen are the toxic messages online ("No Asians," "I'm a no rice, no spice kinda guy," etc.) and how gay Asian men feel discriminated against, exoticized, or ostracized in real life. It goes to show the power of language—how communicating online in brief and toxic exchanges can be detrimental to one's daily life on the street, interacting with people, and so forth.
"The gay community is much like high school, in that it consists of various cliques that seldom interact with one another—in this case, it'd be white and whitewashed gays being the popular, in-crowd, while I'm hanging out with the other Asians," argued Alex. "On a larger scale, I think sexual racism is one of the reasons why the gay community is so fragmented and segregated today."
For all the hilarious and witty ways LGBTQ individuals use language to spread joy and humor to relate to one another, I was—and slightly still am—disappointed with how some gay men can string together certain words without giving a second thought to how they impact others.
Follow David Ly on Twitter.