On March 12, in the midst of the rising fervor around COVID-19, I was shocked to discover that a picture of myself and seven of my friends was the cover photo for an article about the virus’s impact on Pride month.
Our Asian-American faces smiled back at me on The Advocate’s front page. I was upset. Many publications have been using Asian faces as the mascot of COVID-19. This has perpetuated and emboldened anti-Asian sentiment in America — people are refusing to be treated by Asian-American caregivers, refusing to eat at Asian-American establishments, with this bias even escalating to a stream of attacks against Asian-Americans across the United States.
I decided to speak out. After I commented on the photo, and retweeted my feelings, it was changed. An apology was later issued. However, it was up long enough to have the impact felt. Whether the incident was intentional or not, it inadvertently fed into the very real anti-Asian prejudice currently being perpetuated during this pandemic.
Anti-Asian sentiment in America isn’t new. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the castration of Filipino Migrant workers by white Americans at the turn of the 20th century, to Yellow Peril post-World War I, all the way up to the model minority myth perpetuated in the mid-'60s to today, Asian-American history has been built on other-ism. In turn, the biases have inadvertently been baked into the queer community as well.
My mother grew up on a pig farm in South Korea. My father was the first of his Filipino family to be born on American soil — the first to go to college. He went to West Point Military Academy and was stationed in South Korea, met my mom, and then left the military to be a computer engineer at NASA in the cornfields of Ohio, where I spent my formative years.
It was idyllic. Half an hour from Cleveland, half an hour from Amish Country. An "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart" billboard six miles outside my hometown. I spent my youth catching crawfish in the creek and going apple picking in the fall — an All-American childhood. But my American-ness was always conditional.
My dad had instilled in my brother and me simple lessons I thought everybody learned: Always wear shoes you can run in. Always wear something you can fight with. Always have an exit plan. I thought we were poor growing up because we never went out to eat. However, years later, my non-smoking parents revealed they were often forced to sit in the smoking sections of restaurants. They shielded our marginalization from us because we were living the American Dream.
Now, decades later, I find myself at an intersection: queer and Asian. And within the mainstream queer community — homogenous, cisgender, white majority — I still feel othered. How quickly will my Asian-ness be used against me to establish hierarchy? How will my power be taken away professionally, at a social gathering, sexually? And so seeing myself reflected back to me in The Advocate, my heart sank. And when I spoke out, the defense and fragility of a majority was swift: "It was not intentional," "They don’t have to get your permission to post this picture," "You’re being sensitive."
The response from many queer Asians was also indicative of our precarious position: "Just ignore it," "You’re making a big deal out of nothing," "Just keep your head down." This speaks to the fundamental disconnect and fracture within the queer community, and the Asian-American community’s place within it.
To get to the place of speaking out, I had to go through my own line of questioning — Am I blowing this out of proportion? Who do I defer to? Who gets to tell my narrative? What are my own implicit/explicit biases that I have against myself?
The first time I remember being targeted for my Asian heritage was in first grade — I was called a Chinese butthole. I was more confused about the inaccuracy. But the continued dismantling of my personhood growing up slowly bloomed into dictating my entire existence. I worked to erase this part of myself that made me different — not my queerness, which I could stow away, but something that I couldn’t hide — my skin, my eyes, my culture. My mother growing up advised us to marry someone white — don’t be with another Asian. It would make our lives easier. By wedging ourselves closer to whiteness, it would shield us from the realities of being different.
However, those protections are always conditional. And the immediate nakedness of seeing myself as the face of COVID-19 whether intentional or not, threw me back to my first grade self — both disassociating from, and at first, minimizing the experience. A dizzying punch, a gaslighting aftermath. So quickly do we see the community cannibalize the marginalized edges of itself from even an "innocent incident" when we speak out. I was comforted by so many who weighed in, but also made uneasy by the casual silence of others.
In these times of uncertainty, fear can bring out the worst in all of us. Sometimes we might not even be aware of how our implicit biases effect vulnerable communities. But now more than ever, disparate marginalized communities must find support in each other. If you see someone being the target of abuse/harassment step in, speak out. Please. Your silence is your consent to the erasure of my personhood.
Thank you to The Advocate for listening, seeing their action, retracting it, and giving a platform to those hurt by it. We are stronger for it.
Nathan Ramos-Park is a foodie, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. He went to Nationals for jump roping two years in a row but hates competition. Yes, he is a Capricorn. Follow Ramos-Park on Twitter @nathanramospark.