May is Asian & Pacific American Heritage Month. WCT has a special section and articles to mark this date, including by long-time Chicago activist and writer Lola Lai Jong.
Greetings! I've been away from Chicago for awhile, and now I'm back. Today I'm talking with I Li Hsiao, who, with Lance Chen, Pauline Park, and their friends, banded together to form GAPIC, Gay Asian and Pacific Islanders of Chicago, in 1996.
I Li: After a hit-and-run accident in October of 1998, I kinda came out to my parents. They wondered, 'Wow, how come there ( are ) so many men visiting our son in the hospital? And they were all so nice!' ( When ) I got out of the hospital, I live ( d ) ... in my parents' home. That's why/when I came out to them. Of course, as I predicted, they didn't accept it ( very ) well.
My mother thought it was a phase 'That cannot be possible!' [ laughter ] And my father, who is quite well educated, said, 'It's American. It's a Western thing.' I thought, 'Wow, there were queer people in China for centuries—' Chinese people are big on saving face, so they don't report that much about gay people in the papers or other scholarly journal ( s ) . ( This ) made it difficult to come out to my parents.
I came out to my sister years ago, before the accident. She's fully accepting, ( and ) that makes me feel embraced and welcomed... When my sister got married 11 years ago, she didn't change her last name—knowing I'm queer, ( and ) won't have babies.
I realize ( d ) it was quite a shock for my parents. They got their panties all tightened up! [ Laughter ] I think it'll be a slow process for them to accept. Also, I believe two big things: I'm the only son, ( so ) of course, they want me to pass on the ( family ) name. The second thing is, my parents want to save face, so it's impossible, or hard, for them to tell their family that they have a son who's queer.
L: They have their own coming out—
I Li: Yes Yes. I can just see at a dinner party ... it would be a great conversation if they tell their family, 'Oh, my son sucks dicks.'
Coming out is really about one's own comfort with his/her own sexuality. Don't worry about pleasing your parents. The reality is, one will live longer than his/her parents. There's no reason to be in the closet until they pass away. If one is a 'late bloomer', it's a shame to be captivated by fear. My dad recently clipped ( and gave me a ) couple ( of ) articles from the Chinese paper that talked about honor and respect. I feel ( I would be ) —disrespectful and dishonoring if I didn't tell them the truth about my sexuality. I was raised with the principle of honesty. It would be so wrong if I had to lie. My sexuality is a big part of who I am.
I came out to myself, maybe, around 11 years old. I knew I liked boys before I immigrated here ( from Taiwan ) in 1980. The first priority after coming to the U.S. was to learn the language. We went to the Chinese Church because of the language—that was the connection. I did have several flings when I was in high school, but nothing major.
When I went to college ( in Champaign, Ill. ) , I was in deep self-denial of who I was. I was a Bible thumper—Bigtime! —I even thought of going overseas to do summer missionary work in Zimbabwe. I was quite adamant about it. When I told my parents how important it was, my father hung up on me. My mother listened to me on the phone—that's how she became a Jesus Freak ... . There's always a reaction to an action. But it turned out that they didn't give me a visa—so I did this thing called Chicago Urban Project on the West Side. They were very big on social justice, working together with people of all races. I thought, 'Wow, this is how Christianity should be—helping ( the ) people who society might not care for.' I think all people, in one way or another, have their own spirituality that's important to their soul.
One summer ( while ) I was involved with the conservative Christian community, and at home in Chicago, I went to an Escape, [ an ex-gay supportive ] group meeting. There were some ( cute ) gay guys, and some ( very butch ) dykes meeting together. As we were praying, one of the ( guys ) said, 'Oh God, help me not to feel so attracted to this other guy's armpit at the gym [ I thought, what a great fetish! ] '. I ( also ) went to several counseling sessions on how not to be gay. ( After ) my last session of therapy, I was biking back to my dorm, saw this cute guy, and got a hard on. I thought, 'Oh Hell! I guess it didn't work!' [ laughing ] It finally woke me up.
I don't smoke or drink, and the whole gay bar culture is quite big. It seemed safe for me to be involved with Christians—until I realized, 'These people don't like my sexuality, and don't accept me for who I am.' Eventually, I separated from the conservative Christians. I joined the gay/lesbian group ( at college ) , who helped me be more aware of who I was. I worked for a florist for a couple years. Then I moved back to Chicago. I wasn't sure I knew I was queer, but since I lived with my parents at the time, it was kind of like going back into the closet. I was quite eager to move out, and eventually did. I started dating a guy I met from a Reader ad. In retrospect, he was a rice queen—white men who are attracted to Asians only because of their race, which is very limiting.
L: —and makes the full spectrum of who you are invisible. There's so much more to a person than race.
I Li: People should like others for more than their color/ethnicity. I'm fine with people who are rice queens, but first of all, they need to ( acknowledge that ) they are. Secondly, I think it's fine for someone who lusts after others because of how they look, what their body type is. With this guy, I felt like in some ways, he was kind of a culture snob. He tried to box me in. Finally, I broke up with him. That's when I literally bumped into the Radical Fairies. One day, my roommate and I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The ( Radical Fairies ) were having a drumming circle in the park across from the museum, and invited us to join them. They influenced a lot of how I view gender. I feel it's fine to do radical gender bending because, like RuPaul said, 'We're all born naked—without any clothes.' We project gender on clothes ... that men should wear this, and women should wear that. It's been quite enlightening and empowering.
After I kinda ditched my conservative Christian past, ( I thought I had to be ) either gay or Christian. I couldn't see both until this past fall, when I went with a good friend to the wedding of his pastor and her lover. ( I realized ) , 'Oh definitely, you can do both. There's no conflict.' It was so beautiful. The whole service was for two women. 'Wow,' that made me cry. 'This is so right.' I wish lots of people who are really into Christianity or Catholicism would realize there's no conflict. The Bible teaches people to be good and kind. There's no conflict with people being queer. I also met this other queer guy who's Christian, and is now in the monastery. He's going to be a monk. I thought, 'Wow, this is so beautiful that you can still be involved with Christianity. There's no discouragement against who you are, sexually.'
I see that lots of my queer gay friends are also pretty good friends with women, because there's that bond between gay people and women. They can share their emotions and feelings. In the hetero society, boys are not allowed to be emotional—to even cry. They would be called sissies.
GAPIC, which met in 1996-'97, built a community for queer API people so that we could share our stories. We showed the PFLAG video, Coming Home, about queer API's. Seeing stories of other queer API's who came out to their families made it more real. I hope the Queer API Coalition now forming will show this video. We also hosted workshops—one being on Isms—like racism, sexism, classism. The politics kinda came about more because of Lance ( currently in NYC, raising a son with his partner, Stuart ) . I totally agree with him that there's no reason why queer API should have a space at the table, but not be able to voice our opinions about different issues. For example, it's important for us, as queer API, to tell the queer community in general, that 'Yes, there are queer API people—that we exist.' The queer community in general often shines a light on the beauty of the white people. Yet in many ways, I feel ( they treat Asians ) kinda like second-class citizens ... . We're not that visible.
Being Queer and Asian, I feel like I'm a double minority. Then, of course, since the accident—I was in a coma 5-1/2 days, then a wheelchair, a walker, and now a cane—I feel like I'm a triple minority—Queer, Asian, and also disabled. Well, this is a good and challenging place where I'm at. I realize, there must be some other disabled people who are also queer. I'm thinking, 'Wow, who's reaching out to them? And how will they find their outlet?' For me, this disability is only temporary. I keep getting better.
In many ways, I've already surpassed my doctor's expectations. They never told me, 'You will walk without a cane.' ... Of course, they don't want to disappoint their patients. In the physical therapist's mind, they may have a limit of how much I will progress. I think I've passed that limit ... .
A year ago, my friend Lillian offered me this sound therapy, at her clinic in Northfield, called Tomatis—named after Dr. Alfred Tomatis, a French physician who was an ear, nose, throat specialist. He realized that what we hear controls our inner ear, and how we act. I put on earphones and listened to classical music that she tuned to different high frequencies. This stimulated my hearing—my inner ear. I did that for four months. I feel much more balanced. When I first went to Tomatis therapy, I thought, 'What is this? It doesn't seem to do much for me.' After the first session, while I was waiting for a ride, I felt the top and bottom of my right leg connecting. 'Wow! This is magical!' ... In many ways, this makes sense to me; there was no bodily injury ( from the accident ) , only brain injury. Then, I read this book, What To Do About Your Brain-Injured Child by Glenn Doman that said it would help if I did lots of creeping ... more or less setting my brain back to how it was as a baby, so I can have more mobility to stand and walk without the cane. I was using a cane with four legs ( when I finished with physical therapy ) . I feel I've made lots of improvement. It's been maybe a year and a half ... . So, that's my history.
I'm motivated to participate and organize with this queer API organization. I was quite encouraged to see lots of queer API people who are willing and enthused about forming a community so that other queer API people can have something to go to when they need help, or to talk about where they're at. To me, building alliances with lots of other queer Asian people can provide us with courage and support to come out to our parents. ( And, if our parents tell us ) 'It's a Western thing,' we can say, 'No, it's not. There are many queer Asian people. I know some whom you can talk to.' Of course, everyone comes out to their parents in their own time. It would be comforting for queer API's to know there's the support. The whole aspect of community is quite important.
I'm still involved with the Radical Fairies, who, in many ways, created their own space. To me, having a safe space is a place where people feel comfortable voicing their opinion without any deterrents that might influence them to say things in a different way.
It's beautiful to realize there are queer API's —lesbians, gays and bisexuals who are banding together. I totally agree there are times when we need to have separate meetings—where there's only women, or only men, but there are also times when it's definitely possible for us to all meet together. That will facilitate the needs of many, especially in the Midwest, unlike the East or West coasts—where there are many queer API, enough people to form separate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and ( transgender ) groups.
In addition to having a safe space for queer APIs, I also want to say that as a queer API coalition, at times, it would be great to have social events with allies and other people of color ... . It's all about working together.
To me, the Midwest is more conservative than either coasts. But then, in many ways, I realize we are fortunate to know lots of activists in the Midwest who are willing to connect and make it happen.
The QAPI Interim Taskforce is continuing to meet to create a mission statement and choose a name. Interested API LGBTQ&Q can contact David Amarathithdam, firstname.lastname@example.org, cell ( 312 ) 952-9918; Karl Kimpo, email@example.com, cell 216-965-6232; or Michelle Baladad firstname.lastname@example.org, cell 847-899-5172.