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Telling New Stories: LGBTQ, Asian American Immigration and Social Justice

June 26, 2014

June is always a special time of year for me. June 12 is Philippine Independence Day and my pride as a Filipino American invokes histories of revolution and struggle. I am also a part of the gauntlet of June LGBT pride celebrations around the country, which gives me opportunity to reflect on the different histories of revolution and struggle, from Stonewall to where we are now when Laverne Cox, a transgender woman of color can grace the cover of Time magazine and model turned activist Geena Rocero can be featured in a 40’ banner in Washington, DC as part of Marriott’s #lovetravels ad campaign to the LGBT community. My work at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) seeks to connect these stories in the context of our social justice work. As campaigns such as “Uncovering Our Stories” demonstrate, the stories we tell put human faces on the issues that we care about and our Pride becomes all the more important as a testament to our resilience in the face of the challenges we have overcome.

One such story is that of my good friend Jose Antonio Vargas, which became very public on the pages of the New York Times Magazine three years ago this month, and is a story that also brings these two prides together. The tale of our “bromance” is documented elsewhere, but it reminds me of the competing burdens his narrative faces. As a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who was on the short track to success in the DC political scene who came out as both as an undocumented immigrant as well as an openly gay Filipino American, his story is forced to stride across nuances of immigration, race, and sexuality, while at the same time, rendering the complexities of identity and advocacy into an easily digestible “sound bite-able” story arc, or worse, into a 140 character Tweet. Jose’s story, my own, and countless other LGBT AAPI experiences from across the nation contribute uniquely to what is increasingly a homogenized and commercialized LGBT Pride Month experience by revisiting and expanding the narratives of both Filipino American and LGBT struggles for justice. These communities navigate multiple identities and steadfastly transcend the simplest terms or the most convenient definitions.

Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I didn’t have a large Filipino American community around me, but my extended family, assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins grounded me in very important lessons of what it meant to be Filipino and what it meant for my parents’ generation to make the sacrifices they made for us. At the same time, the Darwinian hierarchy that the neighborhood kids in our cul-de-sac enforced and maintained marked my brothers and I as different and therefore inferior. The food we ate and our parents’ priorities for us, which did not include the latest video game or bike, were constant reminders of how we did not fit in. As I grew to adolescence I began to realize that I was also different because of the crushes I had on boys instead of girls. This created an additional feeling of “otherness,” one that, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, was being cast as something not just deviant, but deadly.

Many of my friends and colleagues who do social justice work invoke their personal histories as the impetus for their work to make change. But, for me, realizing the ways in which I was perceived as “other” because I was Filipino made me all the more eager to stay in the closet. My otherness made me aware that identities were not as cut and dried as they appeared to be and that the need for fairness lay at the heart of both. I was being judged by two metrics, race and sexuality, yet found wanting in both. This heightened my awareness of how these metrics worked, especially how they work when placed next to each other, and sharpened my sense of fair play, which is what now fuels my work for social justice on these issues of race, immigrant status, and sexuality. As Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single issue lives.”

 

Turning to Filipino American immigration (and by extension, Asian American immigration) then, my work has confronted a central paradox: we debunk the myth of the perpetual foreigner and fight to claim our space as “Americans” even as we recognize the demographics of our community and fight for immigrants’ rights and for those who are newest to our shores. On one hand, stereotypes and overly simplistic tropes of the “Oriental other” have been the boogeymen that Asian Americans have had to overcome and so the reclaiming of our Americanness has been a central theme that has been at the core of the Asian American story. At the same time, the realities of our immigration patterns to the United States reveal a more complex truth in our communities--

That we are both American AND immigrant.

That we have been here for generations, AND currently constitute the largest sector of new immigrants coming to the United States.

That Latinos, who are positioned by mainstream discourse as “the immigrant community,” are 36% foreign born but are contrasted by Asian Americans, whose population is actually 60% foreign born.

And ultimately, that these facts matter, that we matter in the telling of the American immigrant narrative and that finally, we matter in engaging the political debates that determine the shape of that narrative.

Even while all this is at work, immigration in the LGBT community has also been plagued by an oversimplified narrative that, although different in nature, has similarly served to limit the terms of debate around the priorities on immigration. The issue of binational couples and their exclusion from family petitions that straight married couples enjoy was the primary, if not the only, lens through which the LGBT community understood the importance of immigration issues in its political agenda. I’ve written elsewhere that “the perception that too many LGBT immigrants and advocates are left with, even if not intended, is unmistakable--that immigration reform only matters to the LGBT community if it affects those of us who are citizens.” At a meeting of LGBT journalists with immigration advocates in 2010, the limits of this narrow analysis were laid bare, when people only gauged “inclusiveness” of the LGBT community in a comprehensive immigration reform bill based solely on whether it contained the Uniting American Families Act, a provision for binational couples. The broader impacts that the broken system have for LGBT immigrants were not even part of the discussion- such as how we understand how the lack of federal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity creates a double bind when piled on top of insufficient labor protections for undocumented immigrants.

As I reflect on June, I’m drawing inspiration from the stories in my community and committing to telling them in my work to fight for immigrants’ rights and for social justice. More importantly, I’m committing to continuing the fight for social justice not just for specific communities defined by narrow self-interest, but for a larger vision that can give ALL our stories a happy ending.

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Ben de Guzman has been a leading voice for over a dozen years both locally and nationally on a range of issues in the AAPI and LGBT communities, including: civil rights, veterans and immigration policy; leadership training and development; and advocacy and organizing.

He currently serves as the Co-Director for Programs at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA). In this capacity, he manages the policy and programmatic work for the federation of the more than 30 AAPI LGBT groups around the country addressing racism, xenophobia and homophobia. As the National Coordinator for the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE), he ran the successful legislative campaign to achieve payments for and recognize the military service of Filipinos who fought under the United States during World War II. He also serves as a trainer for OCA’s APIAU Leadership 101 program.

He has been quoted in a variety of local, national, and international media, including WAMU, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, HuffingtonPost.com, Asian Journal, ABS-CBN (Filipino television channel), Philippine News, Washington Blade, Metro Weekly, OutFM.org, and 365gay.com. He was published in the current edition of the Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today, and wrote a chapter in Dr. Kevin Nadal’s book, "Filipino American Psychology: A Collection of Personal Narratives.” He also co-authored an article on AAPI LGBT youth for UCLA Asian American Studies Center's "AAPI NEXUS: Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders Policy, Practice and Community."

The son of Filipino immigrants, Ben was born and raised in New Jersey.

 
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