Challenging Gaysian America: An Interview with C. Winter Han

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by Daniel W.K. Lee | @danielsaudade

Following up the excerpt we published yesterday of his new book Geisha of a Different Kind, I asked Professor Han about how drag's transformative possibilities with respect to race, gender, and sexuality and the challenges we face as gay Asian Americans.

In your excerpt, you boldly claim, “gay Asian American drag queens will save us all.” How will they do that and what are they saving us from?

A while back, a number of gay Asian men started a magazine called Noodle. It was a pretty ambitious undertaking and they provided a really good forum for discussing issues of race and sexuality from a queer Asian perspective. Previous magazines that featured gay Asian men were largely run by gay white men and as scholars like Russell Leong have pointed out, were really meant for a white male readership. Because of this, they had a tendency to objectify Asian men for white male consumption.

The magazine was transformational in a number of ways. But the one issue that I had with it was that it took a route to challenging racial stereotypes by buying into the existing narrative about what constitutes “attractive” in the gay community. Certainly, they weren’t alone in doing something like this. I remember that when I was in college, a group of activists started an Asian Male calendar which wasn’t necessarily targeted towards a gay audience to challenge the stereotypes about Asian men being less masculine and less “sexy” than white men. The problem with these things is that they often try to challenge the stereotypes about Asian men by presenting Asian men who fit the model of “attractiveness” that parallel white men. So, men who are taller, men with a particular type of body, etc. In doing so, the underlying message is that “Asian men are hot too” but only because some of us look like, or have bodies like, white men. In that way, it reinforces the larger narrative that white is, indeed, more attractive. So as well intended as these things are, they nonetheless affirm the white standards of attractiveness.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t Asian men who “fit” that model. The real problem is that physical traits routinely associated with Asian men are considered less attractive, less masculine, etc. For that matter, the problem is that a very narrow definition of “masculine” comes to be considered “attractive.” If we really want to challenge the racist narrative that Asian men are less attractive, less sexually desirable, less masculine, etc. than white men, we can’t use the “master’s tools” to do that. We can’t simply put up Asian men who have “white” features and say, “We’re sexy too!” What we need to do is challenge the very definition of what constitutes “attractiveness.” We need to challenge the larger narrative about masculinity and what is and is not considered “masculine.” And perhaps equally important, we need to challenge the prevailing narrative in the gay community that men who fit a very narrow definition of “masculine” are somehow more sexually desirable than men who don’t. We need to trouble the definition of attractiveness that promotes features and characteristics normally associated with white men as being more attractive than features normally associated with men of color.

Asian drag queens do just that. Instead of trying to buy into a western standard of beauty or attempt to behave “more masculine,” gay Asian drag queens embrace the existing narratives about Asian men and use that to their advantage. So in some ways, they’re not only challenging what counts as attractive, but they’re also saving us, fundamentally from ourselves. They’re abandoning the drive to make Asian men desirable by mimicking white men – because, as I discuss in my book, that will never work – and demanding that we redefine what it means to be attractive and desirable. So as odd as it might sound, they’re saving us from ourselves.

In what ways, particularly with regards to performance, have Asian American drag queens been able to use existing narratives on queer Asian Americans for subversive purposes

Studies on drag queens have generally fallen into two camps. On the one hand, some scholars have argued that drag performances simply reinforce prevailing gender stereotypes and norms, thereby reinforcing the gender hierarchy. On the other hand, others have argued that drag challenges gender and sexual categories, thereby disrupting the gender binary, which can be seen as a subversive act. But whatever one’s belief is about drag, most people would agree that a “successful” drag performance, by nature, requires drag queens to draw upon existing cultural narratives about gender. Because of this, I’m not sure that drag is, or even has to be, one or the other. But more importantly, I don’t think that a “successful” drag performance draws only upon existing narratives about gender. Rather, it draws upon narratives about race and class as well. When we examine drag queens using an intersectional lens, we begin to see that narratives about race add a complicated layer to what can be considered a subversive act. In order to be “successful,” Asian drag queens draw on existing narratives about gender, presenting themselves in hyper-feminine ways. More importantly, they do so because they are aware of how Asian men are racialized to be more feminine than white men. Some gay Asian men that I spoke with for my book who don’t do drag found this to be problematic because they believed that Asian drag queens simply reinforced those stereotypes. But I think that people who believe that miss the point and fail to see the very racialized context in which drag performances occur. In the gay community, whiteness and masculinity are the currency of desirability. Unfortunately, the racialized narratives about Asian men are that they possess neither.

In Geisha of a Different Kind, I demonstrate that gay Asian drag queens consciously make a decision to perform hyper-feminine drag in order to utilize existing racialized beliefs about Asian men that they confront in the gay community. Yet by winning drag pageants where beauty and desirability are the criteria for success, gay Asian drag queens challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions about the beauty and desirability of whiteness and masculinity. In this way, gay Asian drag queens challenge assumptions about what it means to desire someone of a particular race.

Decades after the Stonewall uprising, queer Asian Americans are still struggling for visibility within the LGBT community and in society at-large. Though the tactics used by other racial minority groups are instructive, why have queer Asian Americans largely not been able to “break through” in both contexts?

I think the answer to this question will probably be met with a bit of hostility, for a number of reasons. But I want to give what I think is an honest response. To be frank, there are two broad reasons why this is so. One is socio-historical and has to do with the way that “gay” and “Asian” is thought about in the larger imagination. When we think about who is “gay,” we routinely think about white men. This isn’t an accident. Rather, the way that gay media presents what is “gay” equates gayness with whiteness. In my book, I talk about a number of different ways that gay media have equated gayness with whiteness, but the most telling example is an article that appeared in Out magazine titled, “How to Gab in Gaysian.” In the article, the magazine claimed to give its readers a lesson on how to translate Gaysian into English. Clearly, by implying that the readers of the magazine would need a “English-Gaysian dictionary,” the column presupposes that the readers are white, or at least not Asian.

More importantly, the tactic used by national gay organizations to win acceptance has been largely along the lines of presenting gays and lesbians as being “just like” straight people. A part of that strategy has been to present gay couples as being “just like” straight couples. Certainly, gay couples and straight couples are similar in a number of ways. But the gay media, and to some extent mainstream media, have unfortunately presented gay and lesbian couples as having very gendered relationships similar to those often found among, and stereotypically believed to be characteristic of, straight couples. So to some extent, media has presented gay and lesbian relationships as husband and wife relationships rather than husband and husband or wife and wife relationships. Often, when there is an interracial coupling of a gay white man and a gay Asian man in the media, the Asian man is presented as the wife. So in many ways, gay white men are normalized while gay Asian men are other-ed for the purpose of presenting a very heteronormative gay couple.

On the other hand, as Russell Leong has noted, the model minority myth that constructs all Asian Americans as being hard-working, studious, and family oriented, precludes the idea that Asian Americans can be both gay and Asian. So here too, gay Asian Americans are largely invisible in the way that we think about what it means to be Asian American.

But it’s not just outside forces that make it difficult for gay Asian men to gain visibility. Another big issue that I see among queer Asian American men, not so much women, is that too many of us fail to see each other as potential allies and/or potential sexual partners and see each other as “competition” for the affections of white men. Of course, this is deeply ingrained in us through the constant portrayals of white men as being more desirable sexual partners than men of color by the gay media. So a lot of gay Asian men come to see getting a white man as a measure of our own self-worth. In fact, I’ve met a lot of gay Asian men who actively attempt to distance themselves from other gay Asian men as a way of distancing themselves from the stereotypes of Asian men. So they come to see themselves as exceptions rather than coming to see the images and stereotypes as problematic. Certainly not all of us, but a significant percentage of us see the world that way. In fact, many of us have become apologists for some blatantly racist acts committed by gay white men towards gay men of color. And that makes organizing around race to be difficult.

This problem isn’t by any means unique to gay Asian men. There are numerous accounts by gay black and gay Latino writers about the problematic desire for whiteness among gay men of color. But for gay black and Latino men, there is a much larger and visible socializing along race that has the potential to lead to activism. For example, there are some visible social spaces created and maintained for gay black men and gay Latino men outside of the racially fetishized spaces where the intent is for men of different races to come and meet each other. Yes, there are organizations and clubs where that is still the intent, but for gay black and Latino men, there are alternative spaces. We don’t see this so much among gay Asian men. With Asian men, most of the social spaces that are allegedly for us are actually a platform for white men to meet Asian men. I want to be clear that I don’t think that in and of itself is problematic. But what is problematic is that there are no other alternatives. So if the primary goal of social spaces that are allegedly meant for gay Asian men is to meet white men, it further compounds seeing other Asian men as competition.

The good news is that there are, at least, gay Asian organizations that are trying to address this. When I was in Seattle, there were two groups, Q&A and YAMS that did quite a bit to build connections between gay Asian men. For a lot of the men that we reached, it was the first time that they actively socialized with other gay Asian men and these organizations gave them a safe space to voice their concerns. In many ways, they were phenomenally beneficial in that they gave gay Asian men a social space outside of bars and mainstream gay organizations that largely cater to gay white men. But these things are labor and cost intensive and difficult to maintain. Clearly, we’re all socialized in the same way and desire for whiteness, once developed, is difficult to overcome. But at the very least, we need to start recognizing where that comes from and how that privileges white men at our expense. Once we start doing that, we can begin to challenge it.