Some of us just want to get off in peace — is that too much to ask?
One evening, while one of us was mindlessly browsing through a steady stream of headless torsos hoping to find Mr. Right Now, or maybe even Mr. Right, we had the misfortune of stumbling upon a profile belonging to an elderly white man whose description read “Not interested in Asians.” His profile text, which is not uncommon on Grindr, triggered a deeply rooted wound.
“Not interested in Asians” sounds like what Congress wrote in the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred East and South Asians from migrating to the United States. “No Asians” sounds like what the Supreme Court wrote when it decided to enforce Executive Order 9066, pursuant to which Franklin Roosevelt imprisoned Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. “No Asians” is what Department of Homeland Security agents say when they detain Desi people at airports and border checkpoints across the United States. It also happens to be what gay white men routinely say to express their sexual disinterest in the entire Asian population — with the occasional (and equally problematic) exceptions: “You’re really hot for an Asian” or “You don’t even look Asian.”
All manifestations of racism hurt, and this manifestation of racism that white gay men have very poorly disguised in the form of a negative sexual preference is especially painful because it is perpetuated by gay and bi men against other gay and bi men. Our own community that so passionately and militantly demanded, fought for, and won the legal right to love equally to our straight counterparts is steeping in a well of racism, and we are unwilling to even name it as a problem. Instead, we lazily slap upon it the label of “preference.”
But just because something is a preference doesn’t mean it can’t be racist. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. No matter how you slice and dice them, the statements “whites only” and “no [insert any nonwhite racial group]” will never not be racist. We agree that these statements are indeed expressions of a preference, but that is not all that they are. Our sexual preferences are shaped in part by a myriad of cultural (e.g. beauty standards directly promoted through film and television roles that are cast almost exclusively by white actors), biological (e.g. coercive sterilization and eugenics programs that affect the health and birth rates of communities of color), and historical (e.g. see above, and also slavery, which manifests in BDSM — yeah, we went there) inputs. Our sexual preferences aren’t just our own; they are culturally, biologically, and historically constructed. We must therefore be critical of whence they came and where they are going. Especially when expressed en masse, these (non)preferential expressions have the insidious tendency to create a hostile atmosphere that is unwelcoming, threatening, and disturbing to the queer men and young boys of color against whom such (non)preferences are directed. Racial minorities experience higher rates of substance use, homelessness, unemployment, and mortality from HIV and AIDS than our white counterparts. These aren’t coincidences.
And even if they are just preferences born in some abstract, acultural, ahistorical, unaffected vacuum, we don’t need you to like our bodies or the colors of our beautiful yellow, red, and brown skins. We don’t even need you to want to sleep with us. That’s not what this is about, so don’t flatter yourselves. What we need is for you to have the basic decency and respect to not publicly advertise your racism in a community e-space that we are all entitled to access. We deserve to be able to use the same apps that you use without being reminded that even after escaping the barbaric destruction of our motherlands at the hands of your grandfathers, we are still unwanted here because of our perpetual Orientalism. Reading over and over that we are not desirable because of our membership in the largest racial group on the planet is psychologically and spiritually injurious. Every time we accidentally stumble across a profile of another ignorant white gay man who feels the need to express his supposedly harmless sexual preference along the lines of “whites only” or “no Asians,” we experience pain.
And it is not just our pain that we seek to vindicate. We write and we fight to make the world a better place for the young gay East or South Asian boy who hasn’t yet come out of the closet. For the young boy kicked out of his parents’ home for getting busted with gay porn only to be thrown into the streets of some Boystown where he will soon learn the painful lesson that his survival depends on how well he can be assimilated or fetishized or both. We’re trying to save him from the devastating heartbreak of realizing that the gay community he’s been busting at the seams to live and build and play with — the one that should be there to embrace him upon being rejected by the blood family that was supposed to love him unconditionally — is “not interested in Asians.”
SINAKHONE KEODARA is is the founder & CEO of Asian Entertainment Television, Inc. HUSSAIN TURK is a civil rights and immigration lawyer in Los Angeles.