How writing helps LGBTQ+ Asian Americans feel empowered and increase their visibility

Tribune News Service

Fifty years after the Stonewall riots, authors Joseph Legaspi and Tamiko Beyer talk media representation and how writing helps them process and shape the world around them.

Tribune News Service |

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Joseph Legaspi hopes to increase the representation of gay Asian Americans through his writing and non-profit organisation, Kundiman.

Pride is political, and from June 28 to July 1, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, provided a platform for people to reflect on the progression of the LGBTQ+ community. The Stonewall riots were a series of demonstrations by the LGBTQ+ community against police, when they attempted to raid the Stonewall Inn, a popular place for people in the gay community at a time when most places would not welcome them. Within weeks of the riots, LGBTQ+ activist groups began to form, leading to the first gay pride march one year later. 

From a sparse group of individuals to a community of thousands, the queer movement is redefining the status quo. Among them, Asian American LGBTQ+ writers are paving the way for future generations with literature.
“Younger generations are coming out at a younger age, and I think that’s due to having not only books but music and television,” said gay Filipino-American poet Joseph O. Legaspi, author of the poetry collections “Threshold” and “Imago.”
“The representations of gays and Asian Americans are more out there. They are more visible,” said Legaspi.
But is it enough?
Growing up, Lynn Kim, 16, a lesbian Korean American from New York City, felt underrepresented by media and by the books and movies around them.
“Even though we’re not very represented by media or we’re not really out there, we’re still a very big and empowered group of individuals with a lot of stories to tell,” Kim said.
Lack of representation is not the only dilemma Asian American LGBTQ+ writers face. From disagreements over religion to threats of familial excommunication, some Asian and Pacific Islander American writers have dealt with hostility from their families over coming out.
Joseph Legaspi hopes to increase the representation of gay Asian Americans through his writing and non-profit organisation, Kundiman.
Photo: Tribune News Service

“There are facets of Asian American culture that really expound upon homosexuality and queerness,” said Legaspi. “That’s how it was with my family. You are made to feel ashamed to be who you are.”

When Legaspi came out to his mother, who grew up in the Philippines, it put a strain on their relationship for several years. “Her reaction was one of refusal,” Legaspi said. “She said, ‘You can’t be but you can’t be.’ She was telling me that it’s impossible, that I couldn’t be who I am.”
Legaspi said writing has helped him explore his identity.
“Writing is such a personal endeavor. You’re having a conversation with yourself and you want to be truthful and you’re trying to figure out things,” he said. “Let’s say your intent is to write about an apple but as you’re writing it, you realize, ‘Oh, gosh. This poem about an apple is actually about my mother, you know?’ I love that.”
Kim, who has not yet come out to their extended family over fear of cultural or religious backlash, shared similar sentiments about how writing has helped them.
“It’s like therapy in a way, because I’m able to process everything in a more organized way while also being able to express myself.”
But creating the kind of space where LGBTQ+ Asian American writers feel comfortable can still be difficult. That’s why Legaspi co-founded Kundiman, a non-profit institution that is dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American creative writing, according to its website.
“We felt like there was a need for an organization that celebrates the culture and the stories we have, and the stories that we need to tell,” he said. “(Asian American writers) feel very much marginalized and then they come to this space where it’s overwhelmingly Asian American. One thing that they keep saying is that, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t have to explain myself.’ There is this immediate sense of belonging.”
Kundiman helps writers tackle difficult topics not only about their personal identities, but also about the people and the political atmosphere around them.
Tamiko Beyer, Japanese American author of “We Come Elemental,” uses her writing as a tool for social justice. Although, like Legaspi and Kim, she sometimes writes to explore her identity, Beyer sees writing as a way to shape the world around her.
“I’m less interested in voices like ours moving from the margins into the center and more interested in how we write ourselves into a new space,” said Beyer, who lives in Boston.
Beyer said she believes that writing alone can’t make a difference, but the imagination that it stirs is incredibly powerful.
“Writers have this beautiful responsibility to help people imagine a different kind of future and a different kind of way of being on this planet with each other,” she said.
Joseph Legaspi hopes to increase the representation of gay Asian Americans through his writing and non-profit organisation, Kundiman.
Photo: Tribune News Service

Beyer urges aspiring young writers to tap into their creativity and share their perspectives with their peers.

“The world needs your voice and your perspective,” Beyer said. “It’s hard to keep going, you know, when the world kind of tells you that you don’t matter. But I really do believe that young people’s voices and perspectives can be part of shaping the world for the better.”
Even outside of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, reading the works of Asian American queer writers can be a valuable experience because of the unique viewpoints presented.
“I think one of our responsibilities, given that there is this wealth of perspectives that we have access to, is to tap into those perspectives,” said Beyer.
It can also be a way to help people of different backgrounds realize how similar they really are. “There’s no one way of living and loving,” Legaspi said. “We are all people on this earth. By the look of things, we might love differently, but we actually do not.”
Or, as Beyer said simply, reading LGBTQ+ Asian American literature is important “because we’re fabulous”.