In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, the Diverse Elders Coalition is featuring stories relevant to AAPI older adults (their successes, their struggles, their history) during May. A new story will be shared every Thursday with additional posts shared throughout the month. Be sure to visit diverseelders.org regularly during the month of May.
By Dion Wong
Dion Wong is a 69-year-old Chinese gay man. Retired since 2002, Dion was a middle school teacher for over 34 years in San Francisco and was married in Canada in 2006 to his partner, Benjamin Aquino, Jr. They have been together for 18 years. Read his experience as a gay Chinese man and his views on the broader older LGBT AAPI community.
As an older Chinese gay man, what do you think are some common issues you (and your community) face?
Personally speaking, I do not have many issues faced by many in the elder gay Chinese/Asian community. My partner and I are financially secure, have two homes (one in the East Bay and another in San Francisco), relate well with each other, have an extensive support network and have good health. On the other hand, many older gay Asians have not come out of the closet because we were raised in an era where being gay was not accepted. Furthermore, Asian-born and even some American-born Asians, feel they have to conform to the straight stereotype because Asian culture imposes a strong group consciousness; it’s difficult to act different from the “norm.” The closeted gay Asians, of course, may tend to avoid calling attention to themselves and thus be reluctant to access services that provide assistance to seniors.
How would you say your life is as an older Chinese gay man?
As an older Chinese gay male, I personally find life is wonderful because I am true to myself.
I do, however, realize that this may not be true of many gay Asian males because we are of the generation that feels compelled to adhere to the “norm”; that is, to get married and have children to carry on the family name. Perhaps it’s my personality, but for many years I haven’t felt any pressure to “conform” to societal expectations.
In researching for this article, I had a difficult time finding older Asian American or Pacific Islander LGBT people (especially woman) to speak with. Do you find that this community is visible? Why or why not?
I am not surprised by your inability to find many, if any, LGBT Asians to speak to. Go back to my previous statements. Most Asians of my generation felt they had to follow what their families and peers expected of them. Because of the Asian culture’s intensive need to “belong,” they would rather sublimate their real selves in order to “fit in.” I think the need to be accepted overcame their need to be themselves.
How do you think the Chinese community (or larger Asian community) views LGBT people? How do you think the LGBT community views Chinese and the larger Asian community? How do you think both communities view aging?
The Asian (and Chinese) community’s view about LGBT people is a conservative one; that is, why can’t they do what others do. This conservatism, however, varies in degree depending on the age and Asian national ethnicity involved. In a sense, they (at least the older generation) do believe being LGBT is partly a personal choice. Also many Asians do not think of individuals as such but each person is part of a larger extended family. Thus, it would be somewhat selfish of an individual to break away from living a “normal” way of life and bring negative attention and shame to the whole family. Conversely I think the general LGBT community does not really understand the Asian community because some of our values are quite distinct, in particular in regard to family values. I can’t count the number of times non-Asian gay men mentioned that gay Asian males don’t seem to like other Asians romantically, which in my experience is not true. For example, my partner of 18 years is Asian. I have also been asked why Asians are so close to their family members. In regard to aging, the general Asian viewpoint is that it is inevitable and a part of life… so why fight it? Of course, most try to remain healthy but Asians don’t seem to resist aging as much as other do. This, however, depends again on the generation involved. Younger American-born and/or raised Asians do tend to have the same views of aging as others do.
As an older Chinese gay man, do you feel that you belong to an LGBT community? As a gay man, do you feel a part of the larger Chinese community?
I feel very much a part of the LGBT community, which is why I joined GAPA (Gay Asian Pacific Alliance) and for ten years coordinated the 35+ group in holding monthly meetings all over the Bay Area. This group still continues to be led by another gay Asian man. I also am part of the Chinese community, although oriented towards the Asian-American branch of it. We must remember that Asian-Americans and immigrant Asians are really two somewhat separate societies divided by language and culture. My thinking is more North American than Asian. While I can speak Cantonese (a Chinese dialect), I speak English better and tend to think in it. Only when I am spoken to in Cantonese or when I am in China does my linguistic orientation shift slightly towards Cantonese. When I converse with a non-LGBT Chinese, I do not mention my gay identity unless it’s implicit in the subject. I do this because sexual orientation is not something that creeps into every conversation and I don’t want others to misunderstand LGBT people. If I feel there is enough time to explain, then I would explain in depth what I think.
What else would you like to share with me that you think the public needs to know?
The LGBT and non-LGBT public should see the LGBT Asian community is composed of many individuals, each with his/her own personality and viewpoints rather that a stereotypical mass. The points above are only broad generalizations and very few members of this community will fit every single characteristic. They must also keep in mind that the Asian LGBT community is made up of many national groups, each one with its own culture and views. Furthermore those born and/or raised in the USA are different from those who immigrated here. Another point is that the generally conservative views of sex and strong group consciousness mean that many Asians still remain in the “closet.” We need to reach out to those individuals by letting them know there are many other Asians with their sexual orientation.
Dion’s story originally appeared in SAGE Story. SAGE Story is a national digital storytelling program for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) older adults. The purpose of the program is to strengthen the storytelling skills—and draw on the unique life experiences of—LGBT elders to diversify the public narratives on aging, long-term care and LGBT rights. SAGE Story is led by Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), and is made possible through the generous support of AARP Foundation and The Ford Foundation.
The photo used with this SAGE Story is from GRIOT Circle.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.
READ OUR OTHER AAPI HERITAGE MONTH STORIES: