It’s summer in Montreal, and I am spending what passes as a typical evening in the Village for me – which is to say, I am swirling in the pulsing sea of a gay nightclub, to the heartbeat pulse of yet another Lady Gaga remix. I’ve been a fairly regular clubgoer since the tender age of fifteen and despite the many issues of racism, sexism, and discrimination that are blatantly apparent in the multitude of gay communities that exist from city to city, the call of the Village – any Village, from Vancouver’s Davie, to New York’s Greenwich, to our own dear Village Gai – still holds more than a trace of a siren song for me. Beneath the rainbow banners, I imagine I have agency at last. I can be whoever I want: pretty boy, princess, biker guy, drag queen, mysterious, wild, androgynous, fabulous and fancy-free, femme, butch. Anything I want to be, I can be.
I am looking for sex, for sin. And just as I am riding high on a wave of self-affirmation, full of confidence in my own sexuality, a lean, muscle-bound, shirtless white man sashays up to me, grabs my hips, and whispers in my ear, “Hey baby…I’m really into Asians.”
And this one little sentence is enough to send my self-esteem plummeting into freefall.
The interaction and intersection between sexuality and ethnicity is a phenomenon that all too often falls by the wayside in mainstream discourse on sex – and I’m not just talking about academic literature. Television shows like Queer as Folk and the more recent Glee, chick-lit magazines like Cosmo and Elle, even the music videos of the village goddess herself, Lady Gaga, are all examples of popular media riddled with overt and subliminal messages about sex, none of which address the issue of race seriously.
Instead, media consumers are treated to oh-so-tongue-in-cheek representations of people of colour as typified representations of hypersexual, sexually stunted, or otherwise ridiculous stock characters. Take the recent pop-music prime-time television sensation Glee, for example: the people of colour in the main cast comprise a busty, “sassy” black female, a self-effacing Asian wallflower who purposefully puts on a stutter to keep people at a distance, and a boy who is actually referred to on-screen as “Other Asian.” Not one of these characters is given a functional – or even prolonged – sexual relationship in the first season, while white-as-snow characters Rachel and Finn go through a dramatic exploration of teenage relationships histrionic enough to bore even a seasoned soap opera buff. But then, much of Glee’s humour seems to be slyly aware of the racial marginalization present in the show (“Other Asian”? Really?), so that must make it excusable. After all, where would televized humour be if non-white characters were given complex, nuanced sexual lives? Or full personhood? It’s probably better to leave “Other Asian” in his safe, no-name brand, nonsexual box.
Scratch the surface of racism in television, and one will almost always find roots in real-life institutions. McGill students don’t even need to leave campus. Sinfully Asian – from which yours truly shamelessly stole the title of this article – is a popular eatery on campus that offers a wide range of Asian culinary experiences, from Vietnamese noodles, to crunchy chow mien, to sushi. Don’t get me wrong – I’m as addicted to those fake Chinese dishes as much as the next tom-yum soup guzzling, bubble-tea-swilling person. The name, though, sticks in my throat just a little. Sinfully Asian? Is there just so much Asian in one place that it’s…sinful? “It’s because Asians are exotic and dangerous,” says Medical Anthropology major Lisa Michfield, with a sly wink. “When they aren’t doing math or playing the piano, they’re having great, big Asian orgies and licking sweet-and-sour sauce off of each other. Obviously.” I have to laugh; it’s funny not so much because it’s ridiculous, but because, in my experience, this is fairly close to the way a great deal of the general public seems to view my ethnicity.
What this translates to in terms of day-to-day (or night-to-night) interaction in the bars and clubs of not only the Village or Montreal, but Western urban environments in general, is the marginal polarization of “outside” (translation: non-white) ethnicities. In plain terms, as an Asian gay man, I am all too often limited to certain roles: the non-sexual sidekick to my white friends (I have been turned down for a dance or date by guys who, with great gentleness say, “Don’t be hurt. I’m just not attracted to Asians, that’s all,”) or that of exotic Oriental fetish, a jester in the sexual court of nightclubs, fodder for the rice queens.
That minority ethnicities are marginalized in North America is hardly a new revelation: for years, the concept that I am a member of a “model minority” – the “smart, hardworking Asians” – has been hammered into me, resulting in my now mostly useless skills in the areas of classical piano and mental calculation of five-digit sums. That my perceived personhood, and that of hundreds of thousands of North American people of colour, is limited to caricature and stereotype, is something that every “child of colour” learns intuitively, usually around the age of three.
What is particularly heinous to me, however, is that even in supposedly “safer spaces” like the Village, even so intimate and private a realm as sexuality is still dominated by racism and race-awareness. As queer Canadian-born Asian writer Andy Quan puts it, “How about being Asian and gay without apology, without having to explain myself?”
The marginalization of ethnic minorities is particularly evident in pornography; many porn sites have a specific section dedicated to “Asian movies,” wherein male and female Asian actors “act the role of the mythologized geisha or ‘good wife’ as fantasized in the mail-order bride business,” as cultural studies writer Richard Fung puts it in his paper, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Porn.”
Now, what people watch in their own time doesn’t particularly concern me. What does concern, anger, and insult me is when people in a sexualized space like a bar or club expect me to live up to their fantasies because of the shape of my eyes or the colour of my skin.
Mike George, a McGill student and good friend of mine, gay and half-Asian, takes a decidedly more optimistic stance on what he calls “the whole race shebang”. “If it gets me cute guys, then why should I worry about my ethnicity?” he says. “It’s a part of me, and I’m proud of it. These stereotypes are something that everyone has to work with, and we can embrace the parts that we want to. Of course my sexuality would be perceived differently if I were white – but that doesn’t mean it would be better, or that my freedom is more limited than anyone else’s. Hey, being Asian is hot, and everyone knows it!”
And he has a point. The line between stereotype and cultural self-identification is easily blurred, especially when the word “exoticism” seems to entail desirability. Is it indeed possible to reclaim aspects of the Asian stereotype so that I am sexually empowered, instead of oppressed, by it? Furthermore, is this something that people of colour can or should aspire to?
Writer Tom Waugh points out that the Asian male body is often used in gay porn “in the same way that lesbianism is used in heterosexual porn,” an apt assessment that seems particularly relevant to this question. In pornography then, the perceived hypersexuality of the Asian character exists only as kink, a fetish for the gratification of white males. Extrapolate that fiction to a sexual arena in real life, and the difficulty of using this stereotype of the Asian whore in an empowering manner becomes clear – because my ethnicity is not a kink. The white man who has sex with me and then exclaims rapturously that “you Asians are so smooth” is, in effect, reducing my personhood in the same way that Glee reduces that of Other Asian’s. My name is irrelevant, my sexual experiences meaningless. All that matters is that I am smooth and almond eyed and probably a samurai, and all of this is only important because it pleases him.
It’s kind of hard to derive any empowerment from that paradigm.
“I’d say that ethnic identity and ethnic stereotyping are very different things,” Fung wrote in an email interview. “However, these two can often become confused as those of us living in the diaspora can often only perceive our ethnicity in the broadest strokes. I long ago stopped trying to define what about me is Chinese, Trinadadian, or Canadian.” In other words, rejecting the sexual stereotype that people can attach to my body is not equivalent to rejecting my ethnic identity. Moreover, only I can decide what my identity is – and I don’t have to decide if I don’t want to.
So what, then, are people of colour who want to be viewed as complex, sexually nuanced persons to do? What recourse does a little gaysian boy, out in the Village for sex and sin, have?
I’m really into Asians,” says the shirtless white guy. He has put his lips on my neck, and his hips are beginning to brush against mine. I reach up, take his face in my hands. Raise his eyes to mine so that he looks at me, really looks, for the first time. I smile.
“I’m really not into racists.”
I turn around, and this time it’s my turn to sashay – I sashay away.
It’s summer in Montreal, and the club is full of the scent of smoke and sweat. The air tastes like pennies. Once again, I am swirling in the nightclub’s sea, swinging my hips to the heartbeat pulse. Listening to the Village sing its siren song, anything you want to be, you can be, biker, gay boy, princess, queen, sexy, sinful – anything you want to be, you can be.