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My best friend, Chris, called me on the phone the other day to plan our birthdays this year. You know your best friend is excited when he trades his businessman decorum for the ever-so-ubiquitous gay male "hey gurl" talk. We have been friends since the late 1990s, when we met while in college in San Francisco. Chris is Thai-American and I am Vietnamese-American, and we share the unique cultural context of the gay Asian American experience. He is now a successful real estate broker, and I am a filmmaker.
Shortly after Chris and I first met, we went to a youth retreat together at the Asian Pacific Wellness Center in San Francisco. It was there that we were encouraged to speak our minds about the horrible inequality of being a racial minority in the gay world. I don't remember much, but I remember that it was a gabfest with lots of crying -- not from me, but from the more mature men who had experienced discrimination firsthand. They talked about gay bars in the '70s in the Castro that had signs or bouncers, or both, that stated, "No Asians."
In many ways, these signs still exist but have moved from the velvet ropes of the clubs in the '70s to the gay Asian man in America. It is an unfortunate birthright that one must experience being exoticized, objectified, and/or ostracized by gay culture in some way, shape, or form in the constant struggle to be validated by mainstream gay culture.
Fast-forward 20 years later. At a recent launch party for Daniel Magazine in Hollywood, which celebrates the accomplishments of gay Asian men, I looked around at luminaries like Allan Brocka, a Filipino American director, and Evan Low, a member of the California State Assembly. I felt pride in my peers, but this sentiment felt overshadowed by remarks I had just read by actress Rose McGowan, who had recently said, "Gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so." I wanted to shout, "Rose, I hear you loud and clear," and further assert that in addition to sexism, racism is alive and well. An equal sign is often used as a symbol for the LGBT community, but I believe a pyramid is a more appropriate image. And at the top of the social hierarchy stands the idealized gay white man, and it will probably never change.
This past year, I made a feature film called Big Gay Love about a chubby gay man overcoming discrimination to look for love on his own terms in the image-conscious gay world. The promotion of Big Gay Love has taken me all over the United States and opened my eyes to the gay community in vast and varying ways. But for some reason, it has connected with straight women as well. Gay men and straight women alike approach me after the film for one of two reasons. First, they think I made the film because I must have gone through a significant weight transformation. Or alternatively, they believe that I must have written the film for them. After hearing these remarks, I couldn't help but have a Carrie Bradshaw moment, wondering, Did I transpose this experience of race-based dating into weight-based dating? For isn't the basis of dating all boiled down to one simple principle? We want someone to love us for who we are and not the thousand masks we put on for the world.
I wrote and directed Big Gay Love to deliberately counter the view that there is a standard of beauty in the gay world. My hero, played by Gayby's Jonathan Lisecki, is very much what the mythologist Joseph Campbell would call the "hero with a thousand faces." Upon meeting his love interest played by Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Nicholas Brendon, the movie upends the ideals of race, class, and conventional beauty. Specifically, I wrote it for gay men who have a very rigid definition of beauty and have felt "lesser than," because they feel like they cannot live up to that standard. It is sad that too many gay men, and gay men of color, believe they are lesser than their idealized counterparts. Consequently, they compare themselves to nearly unattainable images perpetuated by the gay press. Conversely, when you are a person of color who has conventional Western features coveted by the mainstream, somehow, it gives you a pass. But deep down, you know that the semblance of your physical self does not represent the complete you. And at the end of the day, even the most beautiful person in the world does not know what it is like to be happy if they do not know who they are and what they stand for as a person. So what's a gay boy to do in hopes of finding love in the great big gay world? You must learn to be yourself at all cost.
It will take you a long time, but one day you will wake up to learn that coming out isn't about coming out at all, but at its core, it is about coming into yourself. Some people come out and let that single identity envelope them. That is why I believe one's race and unique culture is not a hindrance, but an asset.
My cultural context is different. My family and I came to the United States from the ashes of the atrocity of the Vietnam War. My father's village was blown to smithereens during the Tet Offensive in 1968. A decade later, I was born in Saigon. My first memories of the world around me took place on a refugee boat fleeing for America. We made it on our own terms. It took me nearly up until this point in my life to reconcile with that, but I have taken my family's strength, industriousness, and resilience to be my life motto.
When one is in one's 20s, it can be extremely hard learning what love really means when you take your cues from the pages of gay magazines or from watching American romantic comedies. The gay world can often feel shallow and flashy. It wasn't until I went to Vietnam upon making my first feature film that I realized what love really meant. One night I had gone to a Vietnamese pop concert in Saigon and was stranded by my social butterfly friends only to have a mutual acquaintance, Mark, offer me a ride home on the back of his Vespa. That ride turned into a five-hour trip through the city looking for a coffee shop that was willing to take us in to talk until the sun rose. We talked about the residual effects of the Vietnam War and what we were going to do to change our generation. Before I knew it, my life had changed forever. By morning, my entire world was in synchronicity, and I felt like time and space disappeared. In short order, he had obtained a scholarship to go to graduate school and joined me in America. But after nearly four years he missed his homeland. In my heart, I knew our relationship had to end, but it still changed my life. And there will be no other like it, because it taught me so much about loving my culture and myself.
It is only through heartbreak that I have learned these things:
1. Do not fall in love with an ideal. Fall in love with a person.
2. Real love is not about finding happiness. Real love is about finding meaningfulness. Happiness is ephemeral, like sex. It is a selfish emotion and it doesn't last. But meaningfulness is a lasting thing because it is expressed in giving rather than taking.
3. In the dating world, most will see you for your looks. Only a select few will see beyond that. Know the difference. Someone who sees your ethnicity as a novelty will likely not stick around to understand the complexity of your humanness. Without a deeper foundation, you've got very little to stand on.
4. Do not see beauty based on the Western paradigm, but through the prism of your own cultural roots. Especially as gay men. Create your own culture. Build your own language.
5. Last and most importantly, you have a say in the narrative of your life. Know yourself. Love yourself. Be yourself. No can love you until you learn to love yourself first and foremost.
As I remind myself what love means upon writing this article, I hope that you go out there and find your Big Gay Love.
RINGO LE is the writer and director of the film Big Gay Love, coming to TLA DVD on December 2. He can be reached on Twitter @ringole or Facebook at www.facebook.com/ringole.