Histories, narratives, and lived experiences of queer and trans Asians in the U.S. have generally been erased, forgotten, or purposely buried [1
]. For example, the lesbian and gay Asian American organizations, Asian Lesbians of the East Coast
(ALOEC) and Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York
(GAPIMNY), led protests against the production of Miss Saigon
, thought by many in these organizations as racist, sexist, and perpetuating the myth of the white man’s burden/savior. The protest of the show in 1991 was also either largely distorted in the news, under-reported, or misreported [2
]. What was more hurtful to gay and lesbian Asian Americans was the decision by the national legal organization for LGBT communities in the U.S., the Lambda Legal Defense Fund (LLDF), to continue to utilize the ticket sales to Miss Saigon
as a fundraiser for their organization. This decision to continue was made despite the fact that both ALOEC and GAPIMNY had raised their concerns over the harmful stereotypes that the show perpetuates directly to the LLDF. Even though ALOEC had been organizing for almost ten years by this moment, the disregard for their concerns reflects the difficulty that mainstream LGBT organizations had in understanding how and why histories of colonialism and occupation, racism, patriarchy, and homophobia interlock. This was also reflected by the minimal and distorted reporting in the news [2
]. For example, The Village Voice
reported the protest as homophobic despite ALOEC’s and GAPIMNY’s leadership, while another TV news reporter asked exasperatedly, “What do lesbians and gay men have to do with protesting Miss Saigon?
] (p. 292). While the show was problematic in several ways for the larger Asian American community, including the decision to cast a white man in yellowface, the concerns raised by lesbian and gay Asian Americans and their participation and leadership were forgotten. When Miss Saigon
was back on Broadway in 2017, The New York Times
reference to the 1991 protests completely left out the participation of lesbian and gay Asian Americans in the organizing and continues to be dismissive of the protests’ demands [3
]. This perpetual forgetting seems to reflect the difficulty in imagining the racialized “other”, in this case, Asian Americans, as queer and trans, implying an underlying dichotomy within the normative imaginings. This absence is similarly reflected within academia [1
] and, as a result, we argue that it contributes to the perpetual circulation of Asian American stereotypes and dismissal of the experiences of queer and trans Asians in the U.S.
Due to this limited interest in queer and trans Asian Americans, the current understanding and representation of their experiences are often limited by the existing structures of power, established norms, and stereotypes. Hence, the purpose of this conceptual paper is to examine the implications of such absences and the limitations that result. This paper also seeks to present alternative methods to re-center the personhoods and subjectivities of queer and trans Asian Americans through and beyond representational politics, especially within the field of psychology. In the following sections, we will begin with unpacking the colonial frameworks that underlie the histories of gender, sexuality, and race in relation to queer and trans Asians in North America. We will then discuss how representational politics is utilized within psychology and its critiques. Following this, we will illustrate how alternative methodologies fit with a desire-based approach to understanding personhood beyond representational politics and pain.
2. Contextualizing Gender/Race/Class/Sexuality/A New Identity Category or How Colonial Masters Conceived the Marginalized Human
Alongside the colonial conquest of geographical space and people, the much more insidious rooting of ideological strongholds has meant that despite the ending of formal colony status for some nation-states in the world, the values and structures of colonial empires persist [4
]. Attempts at “complete” decolonization and deimperialism are difficult because of the persistence of colonial/imperial logics and ideologies that permeate new governing bodies and structures, including knowledge production, in independent nations [5
]. This persistence of colonial and imperial logics and ideologies is understood as coloniality; past relationships between the colonial metropole (e.g., Britain, U.S.) and its colonies (e.g., India, Philippines) merely shifts to a relationality that forms the “sociocultural hierarchy” between European/North-American and non-European/North-American nations [4
]. Because of how coloniality remains fundamental to our thinking and structures “post-colonial” nation-states, systems of power that benefited colonial masters remain relatively unchallenged. These systems are not produced and maintained just by the colonizer, but also with those who were/are colonized illustrating how “formal” colonialism is more than geographical occupation; it is not just about a land grab, but also a mind “grab,” which Fanon refers to as “a massive psychoexistential complex” from the moment of conquest [4
Coloniality impacts the negotiation of personhood as it reflects the persistence of these systems in regulating and policing norms. These norms are established through colonial (white) systems. For example, in a study of Chinese and Japanese immigrants during the turn of the twentieth century in San Francisco, Amy Sueyoshi [8
] illustrates how the American “Oriental” is constructed for white sexuality and gender expressions and behaviors. In the process of creating the cisgender heteronormative white men and women, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were bastardized to fall within narrow definitions of either too sexually and morally loose (Chinese) or too sexually or morally conservative (Japanese) and inapt at adopting to “American” culture. Because whiteness becomes the norm for which dominant systems of power (e.g., race, gender) are established, these structures that maintain white supremacy contextualize the tensions that emerge in performing normativity for survival while simultaneously resisting. The pervasive ways in which coloniality continues to invade the mind and body of the colonized subject are also seen through Lugones’ comprehensive characterization: “The long process of subjectification of the colonized toward adoption/internalization of the men/women dichotomy as a normative construction of the social—a mark of civilization, citizenship, and membership in civil society—was and is constantly renewed” [9
] (p. 748). This process of coloniality is an active process of reduction and subjectification that is invested in dehumanizing; this process “turn[s] the colonized into less than human beings” [9
] (p. 745). Hence, the colonial project is not to civilize or to turn the “Other” into a human, but to maintain hierarchical relationships that privilege white cis-heteropatriarchy.
Furthermore, intertwining racialization with the gender system, Lugones illustrates how “the gender system is not just hierarchical but racially differentiated, and the racial differentiation denies humanity and thus gender to the colonized” [9
] (p. 748). In the process of racialization, the colonized is assigned a sex but not a gender, as the gender system, which hierarchically structures “man” as the norm in relation to the dichotomized “woman,” operates on the notion that the gender category “man/woman” is possible only for the civilized, i.e., “white/colonizer.” This inherent construction of gender prescribes the multiply oppressed colonized individual as a living species closer to animal than human within the colonizer’s structures of power. Hence, the colonized subject cannot have a gender because they are firstly a racialized other. Because the racialized other can only be visible to the state by mimicking prescribed gender and sexuality norms, deviance from these established norms jeopardizes recognition and the promised access to membership into civil society. Hence, efforts towards representational politics and assimilation into a “melting pot,” especially for multiply marginalized folx, such as queer and trans Asian Americans, become an impossible project that replicates colonial violence through the perpetuation of dehumanizing processes.
In addition, Puar elaborates on how the racialized other becomes an object in the discourse of white (wo)manhood. Her framework also elucidates how homophobia is attached to the racialized other [10
]. While her work is based on the normative construction of the cisgender Muslim man and his relationality to Islamophobia and homonormativity, her larger framework illustrates the function of homonormativity and the foregrounding of homophobia over other systems of oppression (racism, misogyny, and imperialism) applicable broadly to queer and trans Asians. This foregrounding, according to Puar, creates the discourse of U.S. sexual exceptionalism that privileges white bodies and justifies state-sanctioned violence on the racialized and gendered other [10
]. In doing so, this discourse also limits the experience of homophobia to white cisbodies only. That is, cis-homonormativity constructs the racialized “other” as inherently homophobic due to their “tradition” and “backward” cultural norms, and therefore as perpetrators of homophobic violence. Not only does the racialized “other” become the scapegoat for homophobic violence, but this discourse also aids in the dichotomization of race and sexuality, where the subjectivities of queer and trans Asian Americans are erased. It is this purposeful division that produces explanations for LGBTQ+ Asian Americans as having an “unhealthy sense of self” within the frames of U.S. sexual exceptionalism [10
]. Queer and trans Asians disappear in such dichotomies, i.e., not white enough to be queer, and not cis-heterosexual enough to be Asian [11
]. This dichotomy is also seen through the reports of the 1991 Miss Saigon
protest noted above. Despite the fact that the protest was led by lesbian and gay Asian Americans, The Village Voice
reported it as a “more-p.c.-than-thou gay-bashing” [2
] (p. 287). As Yoishikawa reflects, “When lesbian and gay people of color criticize the white gay male establishment, they are ‘gay-bashing.’ This implies that one must be white to be gay” [2
] (p. 287). Similarly, the LLDF’s decision to not withdraw from using the show as a fundraiser despite ALOEC’s and GAPIMNY’s protests demonstrates the marginalization of queer and trans Asian Americans within the mainstream U.S. gay rights project. Both of these moments reflect the dominance of the dichotomizing discourse and the difficulty in conceptualizing the subjectivities of multiply marginalized folx—not being able to understand why the protest against a racist, sexist, and imperialistic production was also important to queer and trans Asian Americans. The Village Voice’s
report also expertly maneuvered away from the critique of the white savior colonial complex and reduced it to the action of homophobia from the Asian American community.
This dichotomy is also reflected in the construction of queer and trans Asians within psychology, as it often (re)produces the Asian culture and community as the scapegoat for homophobia, implicitly signaling the white U.S. culture as a sexually liberal space, affirming the discourse of U.S. sexual exceptionalism. If Lugones’ framework articulates how the colonized subject is denied their humanity, then Puar’s framework of U.S. sexual exceptionalism provides the explanations for the dichotomy of sexuality and race. Moving through the psychological literature will exemplify their concerns and illustrate the importance of foregrounding decolonializing approaches in understanding multiply marginalized lives. The next section elaborates these points.
4. Centering Personhoods and Subjectivities
Because of the ways in which personhood, as understood by conventional psychology, privileges WEIRD individuals and their communities, those who fall outside, including queer and trans Asian Americans, are often regarded as the anomaly. This mode of reference allows for the perseverance of deficit-centered and conflict-centered research studies while maintaining conventional psychological science in the savior role. That is, conventional psychology can remain unquestioned as providing a solution to the problems experienced by queer and trans Asian Americans. By focusing on the damage experienced by marginalized communities, it allows for the clever maneuver from colonial master to savior without having to examine the very structures of oppression that were put in place, thereby absolving colonial masters from their creation and allowing these structures to persist unexamined. To move towards approaches that consider the full humanity of queer and trans Asian Americans, we believe we have to begin with taking seriously the long histories of coloniality and power and their impact on conventional psychology’s configurations of identity categories and their limited applications. This will also allow us to address the limitations of representational politics that rely on the state to recognize and hail their subject, often through their deficiency compared to WEIRD norms. In the following section, we propose the importance of addressing decolonial critiques in psychological studies and the reconsideration of alternative methodologies that will allow for queer and trans Asian American subjectivities to be taken seriously.
4.1. Thinking through Decolonial Frameworks in Psychology
Focusing on relationalities beyond individuals and systems of power moves the focus from representational politics to the “repertoire of strategies, regulatory practices, and instrumentalities” that links the state to bodies [33
] (p. 672). Colonized subjects, as Lugones notes, “take up, respond, resist, and accommodate to hostile invaders who mean to dispossess and dehumanize them” [9
] (p. 748), illustrating a much more complex web of relations between resisting and oppressing. This active process that animates the fractured locus of the colonized subject draws attention to how colonized subjects have to navigate systems of power, often for survival “where the “sides” of [their] locus are in tension, and the conflict itself actively informs the subjectivity of the colonized self in multiple relation” [9
] (p. 748). Making sense of the self through this framework reflects the complexities of identities that move beyond how one is hailed or fits within an existing categorical structure.
This process of holding onto this multiple sense of self, not for the goal of reconciling into a whole (hence, fractured), then allows us to look at power and personhood through the gap produced between resisting and oppressing. That is, we are able to speak to the constant negotiation that marginalized folx are made to navigate between resisting and being oppressed; it is an active relationship rather than a static application. By recognizing its active process, we are able to then address how colonial legacies and “traditional” cultural norms are constantly influencing each other [16
] and shaping the subjectivities of queer and trans Asian Americans. For example, in Liu’s critical narrative analysis of interviews with queer Asian American women, she reflects how the experience of patriarchy and negative attachment they feel with Asia also provided them with the ability to “evaluate the racial and gendered encounters they experienced across contexts and recognize the similar dynamics of regulation and control in the new place, instead of finding the West or the whitening queer space to be their savior” [11
] (p.189). Rather than the reductive, essentialist binary of East vs. West that defaults to the West as offering liberatory gender and sexual roles [10
], these decolonial approaches to the coloniality of gender provide a useful way to unpack how gender, sexuality, and race are coded and made legible within the different gender systems. The production of a subject is the result of understanding how the politics of identity and social movements connect with and to structures of power and institutions through the context of imperialism [33
]. This is also explored in Evelyn Blackwood’s work on West Sumatra tombois, which expands upon work on trans identities as they have been conventionally defined by the West [34
]. Defining tombois as a site for which gender expressions “exceed or transgress normative gender categories” and possibly outside understandings of transgenderism within the U.S. and European context, Blackwood suggests that tombois are a “culturally defined, ideologically constructed category of ‘man’ through everyday practices of performing masculinity […and] inhabit multiple and seemingly contradictory positions” [34
] (p. 456). Blackwood’s work connects expectations of masculinity and gender to culture, signifying their contingency. It is in this contingency that space opens for different readings of gender and sexuality, focusing on social interactions and cultural contexts rather than just how they differ from norms.
The tensions in queer subjectivities and Asian American belonging offer opportunities to consider the position of diasporic subjectivity that embraces the “concurrent processes of alienation from and attachment to both the U.S. and Asia and a sense of collective consciousness with others who share similar histories of colonialism and racialization” [11
] (p. 179). Through a critical narrative analysis of her interviews with two queer Asian women, Liu suggests that their experiences have contributed to the organization of their multiple identities that connect personal traumatic and healing events to structural forces [11
]. This analysis also aligns with Lugones’ proposition of seeing the colonized subjects through their fractured loci without moving towards a reconciliation [9
]. Through Liu’s participants, she concludes that the embodying of queerness, not just as a sexual identity but as a narrative structure, is a strategy of “mourning against the colonial splitting of spaces and subjects, the erasure of history, and the segregation of communities” [11
] (p. 189). By refusing to be hailed by the normative identity categories, the attention on the subjectivities of queer and trans Asian American persons exposes the uneasy gaps and tensions produced by the U.S.’s color-blind sexual exceptionalism and the pressure of assimilation through Asian American communities. Unlike the AAPA’s construction of identity that conceives sexuality and race as disparate categories that present an irreconcilable difference, queer is more than a label for an individual’s sexuality [35
]. Manalansan argues that queer should be considered as pivotal and constitutive to the understandings of all Asian American experiences, that is, queerness operates through the messiness of complex identities. This is similarly adopted by Liu and observed in her participants’ narrative [11
]. Because Liu moves beyond queerness as a sexual identity but instead to “examine queerness as a narrative structure that makes the multiplicity of participants’ identities intelligible” [11
] (p. 183), it shifts the approach to understanding a multiply marginalized individual’s personhood.
Centering queer and trans Asian American personhoods in this case is not about the reconciliation towards the whole or the acceptance into either queer or Asian American communities; rather, what is offered is the moment to consider how the investment in being the “good” Asian/queer is a futile gesture. Indeed, Liu asks if the melancholia experienced as a queer Asian American is actually better understood as a “refusal to ‘feel better’ under the current condition of neoliberal hegemony” [11
] (p. 181), therefore rejecting the need for or desire to assimilate or integrate within the larger society. Her approach also demonstrates the limitations of a deficit-centered approach in research work, as it does not ask what causes the “deficit” or the traumatic experiences, nor does it question if the non-deficit state is an ideal or possible position for the queer and trans Asian American. Liu’s work also demonstrates how psychological studies with multiply marginalized communities can look when they address the complexities of colonial and imperial histories and center the experiences and analyses of these individuals. Because the goal is no longer assimilation within existing hierarchies, this allows for an entry into dealing with how the colonial past continues to sustain current racialized and gendered subject relations [9
]. Allowing her participants’ narrated experience to guide the approach to understanding queer subjectivities, Liu’s work opens up the space for thinking through the structural and the personal as intimately intertwined. Without being tied to the desire to “fix” what is wrong, and reframing the orientation towards social, mental, and physical well-being, studies like Liu’s [11
] allow us to ask if it is important for queer and trans Asian Americans to assimilate into the established hierarchies, what is at stake when the goal is no longer assimilation, and what possibilities open up when assimilation is no longer the goal.
4.2. Alternative Methodologies
The recent re-investment in qualitative methodologies in conventional U.S. psychology is a good start, as it allows us to begin to move away from just positivistic approaches to understanding identities. However, if it does not also interrogate the WEIRD and colonial roots in the work, it runs the risk of replicating existing power relations, as observed in feminist psychology [22
]. Qualitative methodologies, such as critical narrative analysis as it was employed in Liu’s study or oral history interviews, can allow us to better center the personhoods of our participants [11
]. When these methodologies are integrated with decolonial frameworks, they also call for a re-examination and re-negotiation of researcher–participant relationships. For example, to center the personhoods and subjectivities of queer and trans Asian Americans, it is not enough to just include them within the data, but to also consider that the role of “expert” may not belong to that of the researcher. It is not enough to say that they are narrators and co-constructors, but to apply these dynamic shifts within the project from “data collection” to “analysis.” This shift challenges the scientific method popular in conventional psychology and adds to critical approaches [37
]. Tuck’s desire-based research framework can help with “understanding complexity, contradiction, and the self-determination of lived lives” [30
] (p. 416). This is contrasted against research that typically focuses on marginalized communities’ trauma and harm, which reduce their humanity to pain/victimhood. Methodologies that consider the personhoods of multiply marginalized folx through their own contexts are crucial to psychological work that seeks to tie the personal with the structural. Together with Tuck’s [30
] call for a desire-based research, these approaches that situate a different form of relationality and consider narrators more fully beyond objects of analyses provide a way to practice decolonizing work and to intervene in existing psychological literature.
In addition, oral history approaches can help with resituating power away from the researcher to “power that grew out of reflections of personal experiences” [38
] (p. 372). This reframing is helpful to see oral history projects as dialogues between narrator and interviewer, and also to question the role of the interpreter. With this working frame, the relationship established during interviews rejects the conventional relationship of the expert researcher and the naïve participant [39
]. In addition, some approaches to reporting oral history data have suggested that the full transcript be integrated in the main body of the paper rather than the appendix [40
]. By doing so, this invites the readers to understand the recounted events as they were constructed during the interview, and emphasizes the context and temporality that are important to interpretations. While dissected texts are important to answering the researcher’s question because they allow for a close reading, this approach risks decontextualization and returns the narrator to the position of object. Adopting a method of reporting that forefronts the full transcript first further affirms the importance of centering our narrator’s personhood and supports the shift in researcher–narrator dynamics.
The work of interpretation cannot just take the interviews as “raw data”, but must also consider the narrator’s own nuanced analysis from the context of their lives [39
]. The work of interpretation by the interviewer/interpreter has to account for and acknowledge (barter and negotiate) the narrators’ perspectives rather than dismiss or discount them as non-experts. Such an approach allows space to reflect on the knowledge produced through the intersubjective relations and to address some of the power asymmetry, therefore addressing the fact that knowledge production is a biased process rather than hiding behind a facade of objectivity, as is typical of the scientific method. Oral history emphasizes personal context alongside a recounting of an event [40
]. Personal reflections and how folx remember their experiences move oral history beyond “historical accuracy,” thereby speaking to a more complicated process than a simple recalling or retelling [38
]. Because the process of doing an oral history is a “collaborative generation of knowledge” between the narrator and interviewer [39
], it also makes explicit the relationship dynamics. For example, Liu’s [11
] relationship to her participants allowed for certain assumptions to be made and shared. These assumptions form a shorthand for the knowledge that is being generated through the interview, which can also sometimes make interpretations opaque at times if the shared assumption is not clear. However, her relationship allows for a certain level of trust and rapport to be built, and it is likely that a different interviewer, one who is not associated with the organization, will not be able to elicit a similar response. Rather than being seen as a drawback, these forms of relationships make the process of knowledge production more transparent and also provide space for confronting the structures of power that permeate the interviewers’, narrators’, and interpreters’ lives and dictates how knowledge is (co-)constructed.
Emphasizing the importance of listening to the individual, Dana Jack [39
] invites interviewers to understand the nuances that make up the narrator’s life while also contextualizing these experiences with the larger cultural narratives. Because the process of oral history is highly collaborative and results in a co-created narrative, it also becomes important to understand the positionalities and stakes of the different actors. The subjective positions and various ethical concerns should be lain out as much as possible. Yow agrees that it is in the awareness of “our biases and preconceptions, the limitations of our experience and preferences [that] bring us closer to an understanding of how we influence our research and interpretation, whether it is qualitative or quantitative” [40
] (p. 5). By recognizing and reflecting on how we shape the project, we are being more truthful to the potential biases that appear in our work.
Current approaches in psychology have not done enough to consider the personhood and subjectivities of queer and trans Asian Americans. Personhood has to be conceived beyond the limits of representational politics, which requires a re-orientation of the locus of self, especially for those on the margins. As such, identity labels and categories that are limited to the subjective level are insufficient in explaining and seeing the marginalized individual’s personhood. Because of the risk of being deemed as “deviant” by the state, policing non-heterosexual sexuality within racialized communities, such as the Asian American community, reflects the normative script of U.S. sexual exceptionalism [10
]. Conventional psychology has failed to address these larger colonial and imperial histories and relations, and is therefore limited in its intersectional approach. Those who are multiply marginalized, like queer and trans Asian Americans, continue to remain excluded and made invisible. In addition, despite the best intentions to consider social well-being, psychology’s struggle with understanding identities as intertwining discourses and subjectivities that are constantly flowing and shifting, as well as the fixation on damage and deficit, continues to limit its ability to address the structural problems that impact the lived experiences of those on the margins.
We suggest that a decolonizing shift is necessary to address the concerns of multiply marginalized folx and to return their full humanity by centering their personhoods in research. This approach resists reduction of participants to just data and also requires a thoughtful consideration of the relationship between researcher and participant. The current reliance on representational politics for those on the margins will not get us to understanding one’s full humanity, but only perpetuates existing structures of oppression.