Photos courtesy of ACAS
By BEATRICE S. PAEZ
It’s not easy being gay under the nosy, critical gaze of social media. Not even on social networks designed to facilitate encounters with like-minded communities.
Fellow gay individuals can be just as hurtful as gay bashers in expressing their distaste for others, but on the basis of race, said Meza Daulet, the co-ordinator of the youth program at Toronto’s Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS).
“Cruising” apps, or social networks like Grindr are notorious for their participants’ unfiltered, unrestrained statements of their preferences, he noted. “There are a lot of people who say, ‘No Asians, please.’”
ACAS has been at the forefront of issues affecting the East and Southeast Asian queer community, since its inception in 1994, providing them with services and safe spaces to speak openly about these types of dispiriting interactions.
While it is common practice to list specific preferences in other dating or matchmaking websites, Daulet said people should be more sensitive to the experiences of others.
For many gay youth still caught in the liminal headspace of admitting their sexual orientation even to themselves, “cruising” becomes one way to try on this sexual identity.
“They haven’t come out, but they may want to explore that [identity], and that’s the first thing they see,” said Daulet. “…It has a huge effect on them, that they’re not accepted because of their race or skin colour. Our objective is to build self-esteem and self-confidence.”
As damaging as coming out to the world on social platforms can be to one’s confidence, others are using these public channels to speak out against discrimination, as seen in a video featuring members of ACAS’ Queer Asian Youth (QAY) group.
Five years ago, it would have been unthinkable to expect 10 people to participate in a video, said Daulet. “I remember when I joined this group [in 2008], most of our youth were not yet out and were careful about a lot of stuff regarding confidentiality.”
Produced by QAY and Rice Roll Production, a group that tells stories of the Asian community, the video shows gay youth talking openly about their relationships with their families and peers and moments when they’ve felt excluded.
One youth spoke in the video about how he felt about the culture on Grindr, “I don’t understand why someone would limit a whole race, ethnicity of people. Not one person of all, any Asian descent looks attractive to you.”
Another youth shared his experience living at home with, what he called, a “traditional and strict Chinese family.”
“A lot of the topics I talk about with other people, I would not be comfortable talking about at home, specifically regarding homosexuality,” he said in the video. “I’m always being told by my father that I shouldn’t be hanging out downtown all the time, because he said, ‘there are a lot of gay people.’ My mother’s biggest fear is for me to turn gay or walk on the wrong path.”
These are acts of bravery that often provide comfort to those struggling to seek or gain acceptance. Some gay youth often opt to compartmentalize this aspect of their lives.
“A lot of their fear [of coming out] stems from rejection. Often family is a really big part of their life and they don’t want to lose it,” Daulet said. “Many are also saving face, they don’t want to disappoint their parents.”
But he said there have been instances when parents have shown willingness to understand their child’s situation, and ACAS has connected them with other families for support.
Gaining acceptance is not just limited to the family fold. There’s a whole a matrix of other considerations, including whether one can find unconditional support from strangers who have faced similar situations.
Barriers to participation at other organizations extend to the languages spoken by service providers. ACAS was borne out of the recognition that there was a need for culturally specific services, which could navigate cultural taboos of openly discussing sexuality and sexual health issues, and address language barriers.
Though a large percentage of the members of the youth group that access ACAS services are university or college educated, born or raised in Canada, the group does outreach for Asian newcomers; they conduct workshops on sexual health in their native tongues.
ACAS also partners with Japanese and Korean agencies to hold workshops for international students to discuss how HIV/AIDS is transmitted and play out scenarios that may lead to risky, harmful decisions due to gaps in their knowledge about practicing safe sex.
Raising awareness about sexual health issues is critical for people under the age of 30, given that more than 1 in 4 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in recent years belong to this demographic, according to a report released in 2011 by Casey House, a specialty HIV/AIDS hospital in Toronto.
Statistics specific to the queer Asian community are not readily available, but there are efforts to stem the tide of misinformation, said Daulet.
Daulet and his volunteers are dispatched at gay bars and clubs for outreach; they will often quiz people on their understanding of sexual health and reward them with candy. Most are happy to oblige.
Beyond language, many queer Asian youth reared in Canada sometimes find themselves far removed from the broader white, middle class gay community.
“When they come out to the community, they often feel like they’re not represented,” said Daulet. “What they experience doesn’t really connect with other people’s experiences.”
Much of what is discussed at other outreach venues is centered on common experiences of being gay, less on what it feels to be gay and Asian, added Daulet.
Raising the issue of publicly stating racial preferences on social profiles puts some on the defensive, rather than reaching a new understanding or attempting to empathize, he said.
Part of Daulet’s responsibility is to listen to their concerns and to give them the freedom and support they need to create a safe and open community, especially since for many attending a QAY event or meeting is their first or second exposure.
At QAY there’s no distinction between members and volunteers – everyone is encouraged to pitch ideas to boost engagement and foster community, and can decide on their own level of commitment.
Since it started in 2000, the youth group has grown to become a “more self-organized volunteer group.”
The network of peer support has made many, as one volunteer told Daulet, “feel safe to be gay and Asian.”