Identity

Queer Asians Refused to Be Left Out of Lunar New Year Celebrations

“Our first year we used a lot of euphemisms like ‘rainbow family.’ But now we want people to know exactly what we are: a queer Asian contingent.”

by Eveline Chao
Feb 7 2020, 7:27pm

Eveline Chao

Christine tears up every time she tells the story: the 20-something was marching in New York City’s Pride parade last summer with Q-Wave, a group for lesbian, bi, queer, trans, and gender-variant people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Someone said to her, “Hey there’s a girl crying over there, you should go hug her.” Christine ran up to an Asian woman who appeared to be in her early 20s.

“I asked her what was up, and she pointed at a sign that said, ‘I am an Asian lesbian and I respect my family,’” Christine recalled. “And she said, ‘You never see that. You never see that kind of representation within LGBT culture.’”

The moment made Christine, who declined to use her full name because she’s not out to her parents, realize how important it was to be in that parade—even though, she confessed, “I hate walking.” That’s why this year, she’s an organizing member of Lunar New Year for All, a coalition of LGBTQ+ Asian and Pacific Islander groups (including Q-Wave, GAPIMNY, Project Reach, and API Rainbow Parents) working to increase queer Asian representation in the annual Lunar New Year parades throughout New York City. On Sunday, the group will celebrate its 10th year of marching in the Manhattan Chinatown parade — a trailblazing moment that both built upon and helped pave the way for other marginalized groups seeking acceptance in the wider mainstream community, by joining in a moment of communal celebration.

When Lunar New Year for All formed 10 years ago, queer Asian groups had already been marching in New York's main Pride Parade for many years. But the coalition’s co-founders felt it was important to be represented within their own community, too. “Our mission statement was to dismantle homophobia and discrimination within Asian communities,” said co-founder Karen Lee. “Because that can lead to acceptance of us.” Still, on the West Coast where Lee grew up, out, queer Asian contingents have been marching in the Lunar New Year parades for decades.

Christine said that many of the issues she and many of her gay friends deal with are especially common among Asian people. Chief among them is the East Asian concept of “filial piety.” The term can mean different things to different people, but suggests an obligation to demonstrate respect to your parents and elders by obeying their wishes, supporting them financially, serving as a caregiver as they get older, and having children within a straight marriage. “These are all things you are raised to do, but reconciling that with your queerness—that’s a challenge that’s very much an Asian thing,” Christine said.

“Some white people will be like, ‘Why do you even bother [with your parents] if they don’t accept you? Why do you do so much for them?’ And it’s like, they don’t get it,” said Christine. She points out that many immigrants rely on their American-born children to serve as translators and go-betweens from a very young age. “It’s like you’re their guide in America; there’s that dependence early on. You can’t just not do that.”

Some Asians also see being gay as something of a white, Western concept. Chinatowner Olympia Moy (a friend of yours truly) recalled that when she came out to her immigrant parents, they initially told her, “You got too much diversity training to be an [residential advisor] in college, to help those gay kids, now you think you’re one of them!”

In 2018 Moy wrote about a certain cultural pressure to keep “private” matters private. She described meeting a Chinese-American woman who said that “between her and her mom, being gay was ‘understood.’” As the woman put it, “My partner comes with me to my parents’ house, we sit at the same dinner table, but we don’t say it. That’s the ‘Chinese way.’” The woman also said that having a gay contingent march openly down Mott Street, in the heart of Chinatown, would be “culturally inappropriate.”

Moy was shaken by those words, because for her, the most painful aspect of coming out to her parents had been them urging her to not tell other relatives—and by extension, anyone else in Chinatown, a hub for Chinese Americans throughout the East Coast ever since its founding more than a century ago. Each year, about 500,000 people attend the famed parade. “Deep inside,” Moy wrote, “I knew that being out at home, in your community of heritage, should not be disrespectful, should not be ‘inappropriate.’”

For these reasons and more, Lunar New Year for All’s battle to make queer Asians visible was a watershed moment. When the organization first applied to the 2010 parade, the organizers “initially showed a lot of interest [but] when we said we were a queer Asian contingent,” Lee recalled, but then the organizers essentially ghosted them.

They set out to whip up support for their cause, reaching out to Asian organizations like OCA Asian Pacific American Advocates and the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, and big-name personalities like the actress Joan Chen, journalist and activist Helen Zia, and Christine Quinn, then New York City’s first openly gay City Council Speaker. They also issued press releases in Chinese and English, did radio segments, and garnered coverage in English and Chinese newspapers both local and national. “It got to a point where the organizers felt a lot of pressure,” Lee said. “Where if they said no to us, they would hear from their constituents.”

Their coalition was allowed in. And not only did they join the dragon dancers and confetti in Chinatown, but they also invited other groups who’d been waging similar battles to march alongside them. Those included St. Pat’s for All, an organization that had been fighting to get into the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Fifth Avenue for nearly two decades, and SALGA-NYC, which after being allowed into the India Day Parade in 2000, had not been allowed back since. Later in 2010, though, SALGA was accepted into the India Day Parade, thanks in part to the experience, resources, and political contacts that Lunar New Year for All was able to share, Lee said.

“Parades in New York City have this heightened sense of significance that they might not even have back in the old country,” said Brendan Fay, an immigrant from Ireland who co-founded the LGBTQ Irish group Lavender and Green Alliance, and spent 25 years fighting to be allowed into New York 's St. Patrick’s Day Parade. An LGBTQ Irish contingent marched in 1991—with New York's first African American mayor David Dinkins alongside them—but was not allowed to do so under their own banner, Fay said, or any banner containing the words lesbian or gay. The alliance was finally welcomed in 2016.

Fay also co-founded St. Pat’s for All, an alternate St. Patrick’s Day parade in Queens that embraces inclusivity. The one-of-a-kind event opens with a remembrance of the Choctaw of Oklahoma (among the first to donate money to Ireland during the famine, Fay said), and features banners of Frederick Douglass, who spent a year in Ireland “speaking up for the starving Irish, and pleaded with the Irish to join the movement for abolition,” Fay said. Through the years, it also has invited Asian and South Asian LGBTQ organizations, and other Asian groups.

“Sometimes I get, ‘Brendan, parades? Really?’” Fay said. “But I have come to understand the importance of community rituals.” When he came to New York, he found himself seeking out other gay people and Irish people. “It’s natural that immigrants and ethnic groups look for our kind, to celebrate our culture. It all comes out of a human need to belong. And that’s at the heart of what parades are about: the instinct to connect, to be part of the human family. If you’re an immigrant, that longing is even deeper.”

In recent years, Lunar New Year for All has expanded beyond Manhattan to march in Lunar New Year parades in Flushing, Queens. Next year, they plan to apply and march for the first time in Brooklyn’s parade in Sunset Park as well.

“I think this year our messaging will be more vocal,” Lee mused. “Our first year we were more timid, so we used a lot of euphemisms like ‘rainbow family.’ But now we want people to know exactly what we are: a queer Asian contingent.”

Which isn’t to imply that there’s been any conflict with parade organizers. The group is invited back every single year since their first parade, Lee said. “There’s never been any issue or break. We’re just part of the community now.”

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Tagged:
NEW YORK CITY
LGBTQ
Asian Americans
Chinese-Americans
queer asian culture