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Political activist helps mark LGBTQ Heritage Month at UIC
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Stephen Sonneveld
2012-10-16

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"If you look at the newspaper reports, the pictures, [it] only reinforces that impression that there are no people of color who are part of the marriage equality movement, there are no queer people in communities of color, and, of course, nothing could be further from the truth."

Helen Zia, political activist and the former executive editor of Ms. Magazine, shared that observation with UIC students Oct. 9 during the keynote speech for the university's LGBTQ Heritage Month. The 55-minute address detailed Zia's thoughts and struggles about intersecting sometimes disparate communities, how small steps can create big change, and the responsibility of privilege.

The faculty at UIC is making a concerted effort to use Zia's example of "diversity within our diversity" in their Heritage programming, as the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) and the Asian American Resource and Cultural Center (AARCC) are co-sponsoring a number of events, from discussions promoting mutual awareness, to the screening of the Detroit hate crime documentary "Who Killed Vincent Chin?"

GSC Director Megan Carney told Windy City Times that the role of the two centers "is to provide opportunities for education around the value of cultural diversity, but also to look for creative solutions to common problems [in order to discern] how do we all work together?"

Karen Su, Director of AARCC, said how meaningful Zia's presence was to UIC, as she was one of the public figures who supported adding an Asian American Studies program there. Not only was the program introduced in Fall 2010, but Zia's tome "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of American People" became part of the curriculum. Earlier in the day, Zia visited a class and students had a rare opportunity to discuss their textbook with her.

Zia had the crowd laughing as she recounted her decision to come out on live television in 1992, but tied it back to her main points that though she was given an opportunity to speak about being an Asian American journalist, she also used the privilege of that moment to combat what was a very homophobic election year.

She also recounted how, fresh out of Princeton, she felt like family with the other activists of color in her neighborhood—until they made it clear at one meeting they viewed homosexuality as "petty, white, bourgeois decadence." Moreover, LGBTQ people did not exist, and were not welcome, in their communities. Zia had never even held hands with another woman, but knowing lesbians among feminist activists was enough to accuse her of being one.

Zia confided to WCT the impromptu kangaroo court had her "terrified" and she could not comprehend "that they were so bigoted." In later years, she confronted her primary accusers. The straight, male Asian activist did not recall the incident, but acknowledged, "I don't doubt it. We were very homophobic then." The straight, male Black activist denies it to this day.

That seminal moment and other experiences were part of Zia integrating her "full humanity" in "a world where there's still this strange, weird bifurcation that many LGBTQ people experience. I could be an Asian-American in this world, and I could be queer in this world, but somehow I couldn't be the same in the same space. [Then and even today] in some quarters, to communities of color there are no queer people. Even as [they] had said it to me, there is still that belief."

Whether it's about sexual orientation, or speaking out about the social progress one wishes to see made real, Zia has learned "that making change in the world is really a lifelong coming out process."


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