‘Living in the Shadows of Exclusion’: LGBT Asian America


Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly
Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

History may forget Asian Americans who are part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer spectrum, according to one historian involved in the LGBT movement.

“History isn’t kind to those who are marginalized to multiple spaces. Your history doesn’t exist in the LGBT history, it doesn’t exist in the Asian American history,” said Anna Eng, a lecturer in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University. “It doesn’t exist if you don’t record it yourself.”

Eng set out to record the LGBTQ Asian community’s history, and directed the documentary entitled “Living in the Shadows of Exclusion.” She screened the hour-long film, which depicts the lives of four Bay Area same-sex Asian couples and their families, Aug. 8 at the San Francisco Main Public Library.

Eng said the film “lends another view of the marriage equality fight,” primarily focusing on the fight against Proposition 8 in California, which outlawed same-sex marriage in 2008 and was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court. Eng herself has experienced marginalization as both a Chinese American and as a lesbian. She moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco to care for her non-English speaking immigrant mother and took part in the landmark 2004 same-sex marriages sanctioned by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Eng said racist immigration laws, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred her family from legal entry into the United States, branding Chinese immigrants as “deviant, immoral and unassimilable,” yet religious Asian Americans repeated this rhetoric against same-sex couples for Prop. 8.

“Historically, ethnic and immigrant communities in this country have relied on religious, missionary and church organizations as a place of refuge and community and have often been dependent on these organizations for their networks of social welfare,” Eng wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. Eng faced that anti-gay rhetoric from fellow Chinese Americans. “It was doubly painful to then have to explain to my elderly mother riding in the car with us, why these people who looked like they could be members of our family were saying such things.”

The film follows four Asian American families who individually faced injustices because of their sexuality and Asian identities: Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado and their twin sons; Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis; Crystal Jang, Sydney Yeong and their daughter; and Kenneth Kaji and the late Ryoji Imaizumi.

The film depicts hardships the families faced in gaining acceptance or even just staying together. Tan and Mercado, who spent 27 years together in America, were surprised to learn that Tan was to be deported in 2009 (While it’s not mentioned in the film, Tan has since received a stay in deportation, and is currently applying for a green card). Gaffney and Lewis  reflect on Gaffney’s own parents, who faced anti-miscegenation laws for being a Chinese and Caucasian interracial couple. Jang and Yeong speak about how they met as Chinatown denizens and the ensuing difficulty they had in gaining acceptance within their community. Kaji and Imaizumi reflect on their love and Kaji’s own experiences being unable to see his previous partner on his deathbed because Kaji was not considered immediate family.

The stories individually focus on the burdens each family faced and ends with the 2013 San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, where many of the film’s subjects celebrated the defeat of Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Those featured in the film, along with a panel of other Asian American LGBTQ activists, discussed their lives and the impact the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage had on them last June. Jang, Tan, Mercado, Lewis, Gaffney and Kaji attended the screening, along with panelists Melvin Fujikawa, a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and a former Evangelical pastor; Rick Oculto, education coordinator at Our Family Coalition; and Ruth McFarlane, director of programs at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center.

Jang, whose marriage is now recognized in all 50 states, said marriage equality has lifted a “huge burden” for her family. Previously, Jang and her partner needed to carry all their paperwork around at all times, in case a family emergency occurred in a state that did not recognize their marriage.

Lewis and Gaffney, who campaigned for marriage equality, said they witnessed the outcome of marriage equality on bi-national couples. “I’m so happy this movie, this movement, finally has a happy ending,” Gaffney said. He recalled seeing a bi-national couple filling out forms to get married after Prop. 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act were overturned.

“They had told me just the week before about how they were afraid to show their love for each other, much less to get a domestic partnership, because it would show intent to stay.”

Lewis said that the 2015 Supreme Court ruling spoke to the dignity that all LGBTQ people deserve, and that the message reaches beyond the U.S., including to such countries as Japan or the Philippines.

Oculto said many LGBTQ families of color with children reside in the the Bay Area, and marriage equality grants those families an opportunity to raise children who will “never know what it was like before marriage equality.”

Challenges, however, still remain. Eng said she is trying to adopt a daughter from China, which does not allow same-sex couples to adopt. She spoke of the pain of having to be “back in the closet” in order to adopt.

Since screening the film in her class on diversity, Eng has received interest for more screenings, especially from churches. She welcomes the opportunities to start a dialogue among Asian American and LGBTQ communities.

As for the film itself, Eng said she had to cut much of the interviews. “We do have a lot of additional footage that we have shot of the families as well as archival footage and historical material we have researched that we would like to add into the film,” Eng said, adding that the film is constrained by both budget and runtime. “However, I do believe there are many important stories and perspectives that we are not able to cover in just one hour or one film and perhaps what is needed is a Part II to these narratives, one that allows us to focus on Asian American transgender families, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander families and perhaps interracial families. Quite frankly there is so much richness of material here, we could really produce an entire series on what is going on in our communities,” she said.

For more information on the film, visit www.ShadowsOfExclusion.com.


Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Aug. 20, 2015 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “‘Living in the Shadows of Exclusion’: LGBT Asian America” misspelled Stuart Gaffney’s name. The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.


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