Pictured Karl Kimpo. Photo by Kirk Williamson
When Karl Kimpo moved to Chicago last year, the first thing he did was search out the local gay Asian and Pacific Islander group.
'I was looking forward to doing some community outreach work with GAPIC, Gay Asian Pacific Islanders of Chicago,' he said. 'But when I got here I discovered that the group no longer existed.'
In fact Kimpo, an HIV Project Coordinator with the Asian Health Coalition of Illinois, said he was shocked to learn that there was no community group for gay Asian and Pacific Islanders at all.
'There are other cities in the U.S. that are much smaller yet they have been able to sustain a queer Asian and Pacific Islander space and organization,' Kimpo said.
Although Chicago has a fairly large API population, ( 4.3 percent of Chicago is API compared with 3.6 percent nationally ) , it has no exclusively gay API organizations or social spaces, whereas cities such as New York and San Francisco have several gay API organizations and even bars which cater exclusively to gay APIs. [ There is Asians and Friends Chicago for Asians and their allies. ]
After feeling frustrated with the situation, Kimpo decided to team up with his friend David Amarathithada, another administrator in the HIV health field, to start a gay API group in Chicago.
'I was never too involved in Asian or queer culture, but Karl was heavily involved with both things when he was living in Ohio,' Amarathithada said. 'He sparked my interest and we started to talk about forming a group.'
Kimpo, who is of Philipino descent, said gay Asian Americans find themselves in a unique situation because they are a double minority He said they face difficulties that are unique to the Asian community.
'The family unit is very strong in a lot of Asian communities,' he said. 'There's a notion that you have to represent your family's reputation, which is a big contributing factor for a lot of gay Americans to stay in the closet.'
Amarathithada, who is of Laotian decent, agreed. 'Asian cultures are very communal in nature,' he said. 'There's such a strong emphasis on family and tradition, so it's hard to come out as an individual.'
On the other hand, Kimpo said that once gay APIs do come out they face discrimination and a lack of representation within the gay community.
'It's very difficult to fit in, because the gay community [ of those who are out of the closet ] is so predominantly Caucasian,' he said. 'Asians in general are starved for positive images of themselves in the media, and this is especially true of gay media.'
Kimpo also said being a gay Asian male can be difficult because many gay men, including Asian men, say they are only attracted to white men. 'A lot of guys will say 'I'm not attracted to Asian guys, but I'm not racist.' I remember times when I was young, looking into the mirror and thinking my nose would look better if it were shaped like my white friend's who lived down the street. Now, when I look back on those times, it's hard to say I wasn't subjecting myself to my own internal racism. I was ashamed of my own cultural features of my face,' he said.
Amarathithada said he felt setting up a gay API group was important because it would help gay API men counter stereotypes.
'Queer APIs are perceived as submissive or effeminate,' he said. 'We're often perceived as sex objects and not as thinking, breathing, educated queer API men. I think that we don't challenge others with this perception, and we sometimes feed into it. That's one reason why we wanted to start the queer API group, so we can erase this myth and challenge this sexual perception.'
The group's first meeting was held in October at Soul Café in Edgewater. Around 20 people attended and Amarathithada said he was surprised by the high turnout.
'I honestly thought we would get a lot less, just because I didn't know how big of a queer Asian community there was in Chicago,' he said.
Kimpo, however, said he was not surprised. 'Chicago has been without a gay API group since 1998,' he said. 'Chicago has reached a critical mass of gay and lesbian APIs, and we saw that in the high turnout. We had a former member of GAPIC there, the New York co-chair of GAPINY [ Gay Asian and Pacific Islanders of New York ) , and a former member of AQUA D.C. [ Asian Queers United for Action, based in Washington, D.C. ] .'
I Li Hsiao, who moved to Chicago from Taiwan in 1980, attended the first meeting and was excited by the group's mission. 'I think it's important because gay Asian people need to know that there are other queer Asians out there,' he said. 'It's also important when they come out to their parents, because they can say 'look, there are other Asian people who are queer.''
Amarathithada said he knows that there is a great deal of work ahead.
'It's very challenging to try to organize APIs because we don't have one common theme, like a queer Black group would have because of their race, or a queer Hispanic group would have because of language. We don't have a defined culture, language or heritage, because we all come from different backgrounds.'
The group will soon have a mission statement, choose an executive board, and come up with a name. Anyone interested in learning more about the group should e-mail Opmik75@gmail.com .