NIKKEI Q: QTAPI Awareness Week

On Saturday, May 22, as San Francisco gradually opened, a modest group of Asian and Pacific Islander queer and trans folks and their friends gathered in June Warner Plaza in the Castro District of San Francisco. The assembly marked the launch of the city’s recognition of the first ever Queer and Transgender Asian Pacific Islander Week, or QTAPI Week. For organizers Michael Nguyen and Nick Large, demonstrating a significant history of queer and trans Asian Pacific Islanders in San Francisco, played a key role in persuading the city to make the declaration.

For the establishments of most heritage months, cultural districts, and public events that celebrate uncelebrated communities, history has played a foundational role in its initiation. Yet, as we sit on the curb slurping on yakisoba, most of us forget about the importance of history at these cultural events. Many more of us may not even be aware of that we even have a history. Queer and trans Asian Pacific American history has faced a similar plight of disregard or dismemberment from its own community, and QTAPI Week hoped in part to raise awareness of our past.

San Francisco for sure has served as a main stage for QTAPI engagement and activism, shaping if not starting several significant moments in American history. In the 1860s, Pacific Islander men formed Charles Warren Stoddard’s understanding of his own same-sex sexuality when he was in his twenties. Native Hawaiian Kána-aná taught Stoddard the meaning of “true love,” “genuine, spontaneous, and unfettered,” while Kahéle taught Stoddard about the rigors of heartbreak — that it was better to surround oneself with “daisies and buttercups” to enliven an otherwise dull life even if it ended in agony. Stoddard co-founded the exclusive San Francisco Bohemian Club, and authored several books central in articulating modern gay American sexuality at the turn of the century.

In the 1890s Issei Yone Noguchi came to the city in hopes of becoming an English language poet and became an influential figure in the modernist movement, all while sharing kisses with Kosen Takahashi, an illustrator for the Japanese American newspaper Shin Sekai. Noguchi simultaneously wrote impassioned love letters to the aforementioned Charles Warren Stoddard and later became engaged to Ethel Armes, known as Alabama’s “first historian.” Armes herself would have preferred to marry a woman rather than a man. Armes broke off the engagement after learning that Noguchi had already impregnated his editor Léonie Gilmour. Noguchi and Gilmour’s son, Isamu Noguchi, would later gain international fame as a leading Asian American sculptor and artist.

San Francisco also became home to Margaret Chung when she moved to the city in 1922 and became the first woman surgeon of Chinese descent, according to historian Judy Wu. Chung would go by “Mike” and drive around in a sleek blue sports car up and down the streets of Chinatown and North Beach, such that poet Elsa Gidlow began to wonder if she were a “sister lesbian.” During World War II, Chung initiated the formation of WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the first time that women could serve in the military in an official capacity. Chung also hosted countless parties for soldiers in her home as “Mom Chung,” all while rumored to be dating vaudeville performer Sophie Tucker, also known as the “last of the red hot mamas.”

Even in the new millennium, histories of queer and trans API activists continue to be rendered unseen. On July 1, 2015, AB 1577 Respect After Death Act took effect in California enabling transgender people to record their chosen gender on their death certificates. At least three Asians stood at the center of the passage of this bill. When trans man Chinese and Polish American Christopher Lee killed himself in 2012, the coroner listed him as female on his death certificate. Troubled by their friend’s mis-gendering, Chinese Mexican Chino Scott-Chung, also a trans man, brought the death certificate to the attention of the Transgender Law Center, which initiated and lobbied for the passage of AB 1577. Three years later, Japanese American Kris Hayashi stood at the helm of the Transgender Law Center as its executive director when the organization celebrated the passage of the bill.

Still, few seem to be aware of AB 1577, a notable act in trans history, and its successful passage as part of Asian American history. As we enter a summer of festivals and celebrations let us remember or re-learn the diverse histories that brought us here today.

Amy Sueyoshi is dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University with a joint faculty appointment in Sexuality Studies and Race and Resistance Studies. She holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA and has authored two books titled “Queer Compulsions” and “Discriminating Sex.” She is also the founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. She can be reached at sueyoshi@sfsu.edu. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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