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i2i marks five years of queer A/PI advocacy
by Micki Leventhal

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While Chicago has been home to organizations focusing on Asian/Pacific Islander ( API ) lesbians and groups focused on API gay men, it wasn't until 2004 that community members got together to create an organization that would serve the needs of queer API individuals across all gender identities.

That group is i2i—Invisible to Invincible—and on Saturday, Aug. 28, members will celebrate the group's fifth birthday with a gala dinner and awards ceremony honoring longtime activist Lola Lai Jong.

According to i2i co-facilitator I Li Hsiao, the organization focuses on a mission of activism, culture and community and currently serves "about fifteen to 35 active members, representing about six nationalities." An additional 30 or 40 community members stay in touch via the list serve. He hopes to do more outreach to the QAPI community in the Chicago area. "I believe it's vital for queer APIs to have a safe space because we can understand each other's struggle in a deeper way, i2i can be a resource and we can learn more about each other's lives," he wrote in an email interview.

Hsiao's priorities for i2i include "immigration reform that's inclusive of queer API; trans inclusion in the queer community and protection under the law; equal rights for all LGBTQ people...including gay marriage; and repeal of DADT." He added that although DADT is a civil rights issue and the policy "is a direct discrimination against people of a different sexual orientation" he personally is against war. "War doesn't solve problems, just increase [ s ] hatred and create [ s ] more problems," he wrote. "I don't believe queers should take part in it."

At the gala, Lai Jong will receive the Community Catalyst award. The Chicago-born Chinese lesbian came out when she was 27 "after a long period of denial" and has spent the ensuing 34 years working on behalf of the lesbian, LGBTQ and API communities. Her long list of achievement include: co-producer of Lesbians of Colors performance group, co-founder of Pacifica Asian Lesbians-Chicago, co-facilitator of the Womyn of Colors Tent at Michigan Women's Music Festival ( 1987-1993 ) ; co-founder Asian American Literary and Arts Society and is a founding member of i2i.

A writer and poet, Lai Jong retired from her carpentry business some years back and currently works in home health care, "taking care of an elder" and accompanying her to Tucson during the winter months. "I've been blowing in the wind for the past 10 years and I'm still looking for a place to land, but haven't quite landed. I'm enjoying life but I'm missing that lively lesbian community that I came out into in Chicago."

When pressed for the top three items on her "bucket list" Lai Jong's first response was "get back to writing. Also, lately I've been thinking about pulling the LOC ( Lesbians of Color ) group back together to do a couple of Elderspeak things. I talked to a couple of them. They're excited."

As an elder lesbian, Lai Jong sees a major need for better dialogue across the generations. "The older lesbians need to find a way to relate to the issues of younger lesbians and understand them and also for the younger lesbians to give respect and listen to what the older lesbians say. Not that the older lesbians know more, but maybe we have something to add or share so that the wheel does not have to be reinvented."

Lai Jong, who once identified as a separatist, is now in a relationship with a transgender woman—an individual she actually dated during her teens and who has come out as a transgender woman. The couple reconnected recently and this new relationship has added to Lai Jong's understanding of the issues, making trans inclusion and rights her most personal and passionate concern.

"I'm almost quoting Toni Armstrong when she talked about how the trans community and the lesbian community are natural allies but we seem to be not understanding each other. I would like to draw a bridge there. When I think of my own ignorance and my coming to a deeper understanding I want to make myself accessible to other lesbians who are struggling with the trans issue, who don't what to be ignorant or insensitive to trans people but need to talk about it, need to be educated and to understand," she explained.

She emphasized the need for both lesbians and transwomen to really communicate around the issue of women-only space. "My lover is a trans woman and I still value women only space. It is a place for us to heal. It is not about exclusion."

"Sometimes lesbians do act in an oppressive way toward trans women," she said, and related a recent encounter when two lesbians working at a hot dog stand were snickering and laughing at her partner. "They acted like straight people do toward lesbians. I was embarrassed for lesbians."

Lai Jong also sees a role for trans men in the dialogue and in helping to educate men and reduce violence against transgender women. "My fantasy is that trans men participate in the liberation work: You know what it was like to grow up as a woman, to be oppressed as a woman—can you bring that to your brothers?"

Despite her assertion that she's "still looking for a place to land," it sounds like she'll be getting back into it very soon.

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