Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Forecasting issues of race

I recently presented my asexuality workshop at the Queer and Asian Conference at Berkeley.  Disclosure: I myself am mixed White/Asian, though I've never considered it a strong component of my identity.

And so, last month I was wracking my brains thinking about how I could adjust my workshop to better appeal to the audience at this conference.  Was there any particular asexual issue which might be particularly relevant to Asian Americans?

I was struck by how little I know about this particular intersection.  I've heard quite a bit about the intersection of asexuality and homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender, feminism, disability, kink, polyamory, and even religion.  But race, ethnicity, and class are so rarely discussed.  Hardly anyone talks about it.  And I am not so naive to think that means there is nothing to talk about.

Every other movement I'm involved in follows the same pattern.  Issues of race are there, but they're invisible if you're not paying attention.  They eventually become visible at the conferences.  I think we're a long ways away from ever having an asexuality conference, but let this be my prediction: there will be issues of race.  We better start predicting what precisely those issues are, so we're not taken by surprise.

Perhaps the best way to predict is to look at what issues of race appear in other movements.  So here's my forecast of issues at the intersection of asexual and Asian, mostly based on what I heard and saw at QACon:
  • Nearly all media representations of queer people are white.  As a result, many queer people of color and their families perceive being gay as a white thing.  Says a mother, "We don't have the gays in Sri Lanka."  There are virtually no media representations of asexuality at all, but as more asexuals become visible, we should keep track of any systematic biases in who becomes visible. 

     This is the group that marched in the SF pride parade in 2009.

    It's not anyone's fault that the group above is mostly (entirely?) white.  But lots of problems are no one's fault, yet they are still problems.  In the future, will asexuality be perceived as a white identity?  Only time will tell.

  • Generally speaking, Asian families treat sexuality as more of a private issue.  For queer and Asian people, this can mean long periods of silence and denial in their families, rather than confronting the issue.  Or families might object to the queer person's being "out".  This is true in my own experience.  On the Asian side of my family, I know that news of me being gay has spread all around, but only one person has actually said anything to me about it.  She was very positive, but objected to the fact that I have a blog.

    In that sort of environment, it might be basically impossible to be out as asexual.  To identify as asexual is to put the focus on sex, which among family is inappropriate.  What's more, it may be harder to discover one's own asexuality.  If no one your the family ever talks about it, what's the reference point to determine that something is different about yourself?

  • Asian families also have certain heteronormative expectations.  You know, getting married and having children.  Being asexual, or any flavor of queer, often conflicts with parents' images of how their children's lives should go.  This is probably true of all sorts of families, not just Asian ones, but it may be the case that culturally Asian families have a slightly different set of expectations.

  • Stereotypically, Asian women are hypersexualized and Asian men are desexualized.  Each of these come with their own set of issues for asexuals.  Asian asexual women might be disbelieved because they conflict with the stereotype.  Asian asexual men might be assumed to conform to the stereotype completely, even if the stereotype is actually very different from asexuality in real life.  Also, sometimes people say Asian men are stereotypically asexual, which is bad because it's using the word "asexual" as a pejorative.
Of course, the issues would be different for other ethnicities, some of which bring serious issues of social class along with them.  Let's hope that future asexual conference organizers don't get any nasty surprises.


drransom said...

While I'm not sure I "disagree" per se, I wonder if you're painting with a bit of a broad brush when you talk about "Asian" families. Americans tend to treat "Asians" as a homogenous group, but Asia has a multitude of different cultures, even when you limit it to Southeast Asia/Pacific Islands, which is who Americans are realy talking about when we say "Asians." Presumably there's a huge spectrum of attitudes about sexuality there.

Do you have data that support your thesis that Asian families in the U.S. treat sexuality as more private than non-Asian families do? Do they really have more heteronormative expectations than non-Asian families? (On average, in both cases.) That's the stereotype, but I worry about reliance on stereotypes.* They're definitely, on average, more homophobic than affluent white liberals (a very gay-friendly demographic group) but I doubt they could possibly have more heteronormaitve expectations than white evangelical Protestants.

I tried using attitudes on same-sex marriage as a proxy, but the most recent survey data only distinguish whites and nonwhites, who support same-sex marriage at about the same rate. I couldn't find any data breaking it down further than that.

I absolutely agree with your point about the presentation of queer identities as white though. Same goes for the presentation of Asian women as hypersexualized and Asian men as desexualized.

drransom said...

To clarify, my biggest concern is that the implicit basis of comparison is affluent white non-evangelicals, who are considerably more gay-friendly than the general population. (Southeast) Asians, on average, almost certainly have much more heteronormative expectations than affluent white non-evangelicals, but calling that a fact about "Asians" is reversing the proper framing.

I have no idea how Asians compare to the general population, especially if you control for class and region. I wouldn't control for religion since religion is one of the most segregated institutions in America.

Plus add in generic concerns about confirmation bias, etc.

miller said...

Those are some pretty good concerns. I'm not really certain how much we can generalize about "Asian" families. But regardless of what the real trends and comparisons are, when you get a queer and Asian group together, this is the sort of thing they want to talk about. They want to talk about how their families have all these heteronormative expectations, and how they're so silent about sexuality. If we ever got a group of Asian asexuals, they might have similar concerns.

Anonymous said...

I think this post is about Asian-American families rather than Asian families in Asia, though I may be mis-interpreting.

The discussion about heteronormative values reminds me of a second-hand story I learned recently. There was a white American woman who lived with her Taiwanese girlfriend and her girlfriend's family in Taiwan. When asked how the family felt about the lesbian relationship, she said that while it was not discussed, it was also not challenged, however she thought that the family acted the way it did because of a special circumstance; the Taiwanese girlfriend, due to a childhood accident, could never bear children. The white girlfriend thought that, because her Taiwanese girlfriend was never going to have biological kids no matter what, her family was indifferent as to whether she was sleeping with men or with women.


miller said...

Yes, I am thinking of Asian American families, not that Asian families in Asia aren't also worth discussing. It was a conference in California after all.

Anonymous said...

Hey. As an asexual who recently came out, and lives in Hong Kong, I thought I might just share my experience with my family. They very rarely talk about sexuality in general - or indeed anything to do with non-hetero-monogamous relationships. I had to purposely steer the conversation towards something related to sexuality (conveniently there was a newspaper article that briefly mentioned the fact that there was an LGBT group in Princeton). Even after I told them about my asexuality (though admittedly I never actually used the term 'asexual', just outright stated that I don't consider myself straight and that I'm not interested in sex) they just kind of ignored it, completely. It's been a week and the issue has just never been raised, at all. It's quite infuriating - it wasn't like they said anything like "oh, okay", they literally just sort of shrugged, avoided eye contact and never talked about it again. Before then my mother often alluded to me or my sister marrying and having kids, but she did respect me when I told her I had no intention of marrying. Given that I live in a fairly tolerant society, and the fact that my mother has a few openly gay friends, I don't think there's that big of a stigma against it anymore. On the other hand, you should've seen how my father's face scrunched up when he talked about a former colleague who entered a lesbian relationship!

Hope that was helpful.