Reclaim your seat at the table, and don’t be afraid to set your own table.
As queer AAPINH people, there’s a certain relationship many of us have to the sidelines. Whether it’s conversations at family dinners or discussions around favorite queer movies, many of us don’t know quite where our lived experiences truly fit in. Reclaiming our space as queer and AAPINH is about finding a place in the conversation, even when it feels uncomfortable to speak up.
For AAPI Heritage Month, three staff members of the It Gets Better Project share about their experiences carving out a space for themselves that feels authentically their own.
Kavi — When my parents emigrated from southeast India, they left behind a tight-knit extended family network to live in a single-person unit in the Seattle suburbs. In the face of farmlands and strip malls and Fourth of July parades, they created a space for themselves and helped build a thriving South Asian diaspora community. For me, a closeted Desi teen, growing up meant being surrounded by people every hour of every day, all while keeping in a tightly-held breath — at dress fittings for my mom’s dance recital, at dinner parties every Navaratri, at after-school art classes with my brother’s friend’s mom who grew up thirty minutes away from my dad’s hometown.
I grew up surrounded by warmth and community, knowing that it came at the expense of being able to fully embrace myself as a queer person. For a long time, embracing queerness meant letting go of that network. In Seattle I had three aunties I wasn’t even remotely related to, and yet there we were, eating family dinners together every Thanksgiving.
I had community in my queer friends, but it took a while before I could really say I had family in queerness. Often, the community and acceptance that I longed for in queer spaces would be undercut by the feeling of being drowned out by a singular perception of queerness.
For so long, in either space, I found myself on the sidelines. But I needed more than that in a community. To create my own space was to recognize my own desire not be only heard but fully and meaningfully accepted. I realized in the process that there was queerness to be found in my South Asian network and that there were so many queer people from various backgrounds who wanted their stories to be heard, too. My own found family is a testament to every one of those experiences and a reminder that I was never truly alone in either space.
Building community has formed a connective tissue between my queerness and my Asianness, a process through which I finally feel like I can truly embrace every part of those identities. Almost thirty years ago, my family set out to rebuild what they had lost, to create a community of people who met their needs, in a different way. And here I am today, living my best queer life with a group of people who meet my needs, in a different way.
Jimmy – As a young person, the concept of family was central to my upbringing. There was never any differentiation of degrees of separation. Everyone was simply grandma, grandpa, cousins, aunties or uncles. Weekends were spent around family and at family gatherings. From birthdays, holidays or just random Saturdays, there seemed to always be a reason to gather around food, family and the stories being told.
Growing up as a Filipino-American presented its share of having to balance the way I presented in the world. Life often became a delicate game of learning how to show up Filipino enough in family spaces and showing up American enough in every other social space in my life. At 20 years old I began my journey of embracing my queerness, creating yet another intersecting identity to not only navigate, but balance. At 20, I also realized that my life lacked the queer infrastructure that could connect me to community, creating another silo for my already fractured identity.
In 2019 my spouse and I made the decision to move from San Francisco to Los Angeles. A few days before we moved we gathered our chosen family around our kitchen table for family dinner. In the midst of the laughter and the tears, I was able to take a moment to sit in my own feelings. I was able to reflect on the impact that the core value of family had on my own upbringing and how I was able to carry this with me into adulthood to evolve what my own close knit community looked like.
I realized that these were the people that met me and embraced at the intersections of all of my identities. They embraced and loved the way I showed up in the world without question.
They created and nurtured space for me to grow, learn and take pride as a gay, Filipino-American and in turn, helped me break free from the notion of having to balance these identities. They helped me to fully and unapologetically embrace all of who I am.
Julian – Recently, I’ve found myself having a sense of freedom and joy in who I’ve become and what that’s starting to look like. But, retrospectively thinking, it wasn’t always like that.
Growing up, my Japanese heritage played an integral role in my life. It shaped how I saw things, how I felt things, how I acted and reacted to things. But most importantly, it taught me about community and the importance of family. I have fond memories of family vacations and dinners together, respecting and caring for our elders, and although not explicitly shown, the love and care we all have for each other. When I think back about these memories, I can only think of my family in the highest regard. I have a sense of pride when it comes to my Japanese heritage and all the culture that’s been passed down to me. However, with those fond memories, it also reminds me of how much I used to sacrifice parts of myself to fit in with everyone around me.
I was around 14 years old when I came out as Queer. The pressures of trying to conform to this “american dream” that everyone speaks so highly of plagued me as it became this unattainable goal that ultimately sets you up for failure. I found myself in the same predicament of sacrificing myself for the opinions of others around me. It felt as though I had to put a mask on to be able to fit into my surroundings.
Either I was a Japanese-American one day, or a Queer person the other, always one or the other, never the same person. Everyday interactions became a game of “who I had to be today” and day by day, I felt like I was losing all sense of who I was.
I learned slowly but surely that these two parts of my identity can exist in tandem. The culture I spent so long severing, slowly healed, and the part of myself I thought I killed off started to bloom again. I began to recall those moments of community and family that I cherished so much and used it as motivation to remember who I was. The spaces that once dictated my choice in who I was, no longer bound me to a monolith of an identity. Reclaiming this intersectional space for myself became so important as it grounded me in the realization that I will never sacrifice myself for anyone’s comfort.