Photo courtesy of https://www.facebook.com/pg/thetaskforce/

Shattering the Shame

Navigating assimilation and appropriation, and being my authentic self as a queer AAPI woman

by Taissa Morimoto, Policy Advocate at the National LGBTQ Task Force.

I spent most of my life pretending to be someone I am not.

I often found myself having to carefully choose which parts of my identity I presented, rarely existing in a space where I comfortably felt all of who I am: a queer East Asian-Brazilian American woman.

Growing up in a predominately white, middle-class neighborhood meant that assimilation was necessary for social survival. Assimilation is a different experience for each person, but for me, it entailed not eating during school hours, feeling pressured into laughing at racist jokes, and not engaging in perceived East Asian stereotypical interests. Assimilation essentially took the form of misdirected hatred towards myself.

For too long, I was deprived of important parts of my culture because of comments made by classmates and because I feared being bullied. When I indulged in parts of my own culture, I was ridiculed and shamed. Yet as white people began to appropriate and immerse themselves into East Asian culture, it was considered en vogue. This trend continues tirelessly.

Chinese American food blogger Clarissa Wei said it best: “In a weird turn of events, people were making money and becoming famous for eating the things I had grown up with and had been bullied for.”

The internalization of shame of my identity grew significantly when I came out in high school. I experienced even more instances of microaggressions, though the form of harassment shifted from being bullied to being eroticized as an East Asian woman and fetishized as a queer woman. While walking down the school hallway holding my girlfriend’s hand, boys would yell at us, egging us to kiss in front of them.

Despite the ongoing harassment, once I came out as queer, I immersed myself in the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, I experienced microaggressions from white LGBTQ people as well, from whom I would get questions such as, “Do you speak Asian?” and comments such as, “You are going to be my new best friend, the Cristina Yang to my Meredith Grey.” Instead of challenging them, I put up with their ignorance because I believed they were supporting me in ways my East Asian community never had.

Many queer AAPI growing up or living in the U.S. have felt like they don’t quite fit in with any group.

Although I consciously chose to be a part of a community that I felt was largely ignorant or racist, the alternative was choosing a community that I felt was largely homophobic. I did not feel like I had meaningful options.

My experiences are not unique. I know I am not alone in feeling that my identities clash with each other throughout daily life. According to a national survey of LGBTQ Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), 89% of respondents agreed that homophobia and/or transphobia is a problem in the broader AAPI community and 78% of respondents agreed that AAPI LGBTQ people experience racism within the predominately white LGBTQ community. Many queer AAPI growing up or living in the U.S. have felt like they don’t quite fit in with any group.

It is likely that I would have never recognized how similar my experiences were to others if I had not attended the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in 2017. During the day-long racial institute for LGBTQI AAPI people, I sat among some of the most beautiful, brilliant people. I realized that, in a single day, I had met more queer AAPI people than I had met in my entire life. And, contrary to what I had been taught my entire life, I realized that I can choose my family.

The National LGBTQ Task Force staff at Creating Change in Philadelphia

And this is exactly what Pride Month means to me — celebrating myself and the people whom I love, the similarities among us, and our infinitely diverse stories. The portrayal of a monolithic AAPI experience is dangerous and isolating. For decades, it led me to believe that I did not belong to the AAPI community — that my experiences were too dissimilar and not relatable. But, meeting so many queer people with rich histories and experiences at Creating Change inspired me to live authentically.

Pride Month is about shattering the shame and becoming my authentic self, even if it often runs amiss with feelings of familial obligations and expectations that have been instilled in me. It is about coming to terms with the fact that I will always love my biological family, who does not accept a huge part of who I am. But, I am tired of feeling as if I must choose one part of my identity over another.

As is the case with many AAPI folks I meet, pride is not a feeling I accept easily because I grew up believing I was never enough. “Do better” was the mantra by which I lived, always striving to become that someone I never was and will never be. But, I know now I am better than that someone. I am here and I exist, and I am me.