[Transcript has been slightly modified for reading experience.]
Welcome back to another episode of The XSP’s podcast! Today, we are going to talk about the recent increase in transphobia within the United States and how that is impacting the Asian community in particular. To help with this episode, we sent out a survey for queer and trans Asian people to fill out in order for us to better learn about this issue through their perspective, so you will be hearing anonymous anecdotes from them about their experiences throughout the episode.
Part 1: General
A record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced and passed by Republican lawmakers in 2023, with over 220 of them specifically targeting transgender and non-binary people. The majority of these bills have worked to ban trans people, but especially trans kids, from accessing gender-affirming care, playing school sports, and using bathrooms in alignment with their gender identity. The rise in transphobia has disproportionately hurt Black trans and queer people, who, we want to note, face heightened violence because of how anti-Blackness and transphobia dangerously intersect in this country. While the LGBTQ+ community has long faced violence and oppression in this country, the rapid increase in transphobia we are seeing right now owes itself to a deliberate campaign by conservative organizations to demonize trans people in order to gain money and political power from big donors and conservative voters who had been previously galvanized by issues, like same-sex marriage and abortion. The emotion around the debate of gender identity is one they’ve successfully harnessed to deny the rights of trans people, and it is especially telling that they are doing this now when a lot more kids are being l exposed to the LGBTQ+ community and are coming out as trans.
Part 2: Transphobia in the Asian Community
When it comes to how this increase in anti-trans rhetoric is manifesting in the Asian community, we are seeing transphobia come from various sources, especially family. The enforcement of strict gender roles is one way transphobia has been perpetuated in our community. By pressuring others to look and act “like a man” or “like a woman,” you are not only solidifying the idea that gender is binary but you are also shaming people for exploring their gender identity outside of what society has told them to be since birth.
One of our anonymous respondents spoke on this experience, saying “Being assigned female at birth, my mom's role for me is to be an educated woman, get married, have kids, as well as be fem-presenting through all of it. As a non-binary individual, I don't connect to a lot of those roles, making it hard for me to come out. Even small things such as dressing masculine or cutting my hair shorter is looked down upon because of family gender roles.”
We need to first unpack the notion that gender is a binary. Gender is not the same as sex, which involves the physical differences between people who are male, female, or intersex, and it is instead simply defined as how a person identifies. It is completely a social construct. The gender roles of masculinity and femininity we might be used to in our households are not inherent to who we are whatsoever, and it’s important that we do not constrict ourselves and others to a gender identity we don’t feel comfortable with or can’t fully express ourselves for who we are.
Religion, but specifically Christianity and Catholicism, has also acted as a source of transphobia within the Asian diaspora. Several of our survey respondents said that their family found community through religion and attending church, but they then found it harder to come out to them knowing the hate and exclusion that is often preached in that space.
When talking about religion and transphobia, we really need to dig into the larger context of this relationship. The recent increase in anti-LGBTQ+ laws on a national but also global scale is tied to the U.S.’ religious right actively trying to spread homophobic and transphobic rhetoric where they can, including our own community.
They have worked incessantly to fuel transphobic laws in the United States and have also poured millions of dollars into funding their ideologies abroad in formerly colonized countries, much like how religion was used as an imperialist tactic when Western nations first colonized Asia, Africa, and Latin and South America. According to an investigation by openDemocracy (British newsite), the U.S. Christian right spent at least $280 million dollars abroad from 2008 to 2019, and we are actively seeing the results of it now with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni having recently signed one of the toughest anti-LGBTQ+ laws in history, which includes capital punishment, in fear of western groups trying to “recruit” Ugandans into homosexuality.
The religious right has done the same and continues to do the same to the Asian community both in the United States and our home countries. They are actively manipulating religion to gain power through fostering division, and we cannot fall into that trap because it does nothing to help us. The idea that being trans and queer is a “white” or “western” phenomenon denies our own countries’ histories of gender and sexual fluidity and forces us to define ourselves by white supremacy and colonization. It’s so important to recognize that a lot of our home countries had embraced systems outside of the gender binary, but colonization actively tried to destroy and erase them as a means of domination and control.
The last point we are going to touch on in terms of transphobia in the Asian community is generational transphobia and the hardships that come with that. To start, we want to share an anecdote by one of our survey respondents who is non-binary and genderfluid: “My grandma, while less versed in the Language Of The Day regarding queerness, has spoken to me on occasion about avoiding being gay and has told me horror stories about queer people. My parents have essentially repeated her words to me, telling me that I need to obey out of respect for my elders.” Respect for your elders is very much valued within various Asian cultures, having influenced our customs and even our language, but it can often come with the fear of disobeying them and the consequences that might come with it. Talking to older generations about being queer and/or trans can take on even more difficulty because of potential language barriers, like not knowing the words for non-binary, trans, or queer in your native language to properly express who you are.
Part 3: Why queerness is awesome!
Seeing the uptick in anti-trans rhetoric in the United States and within the Asian community in particular, our survey respondents said it has brought them a lot of fear, exhaustion, and loneliness because there’s always that underlying feeling of violence when you enter a public space. It does not help that queer Asian people are also often fetishized for their identity because of racial stereotypes, adding another layer of anxiety even in “queer” spaces if they are predominantly white. But it is important to realize that it is not queerness in itself that brings pain, it is the systems of oppression that work to deny trans and queer people their right to live as they want to that does.
In this next part of our episode, we want to share anecdotes of how being queer and trans has brought people in the Asian community happiness in their lives. It is not weird to express yourself outside of what society dictates. It can actually bring a lot of joy if you keep your mind open. One of our survey respondents said that, to them, “Queer existence is joy. If transness was all pain, I could've given up on it and pretended I was cis and made it out alive. It would have been so much easier for me. But people don't realize that transness really is just pure joy. The joy of finding trans people who you can sit with and just *understand* — the joy of finding an outfit that finally makes your body worth living in — the joy of discovering who you truly are -— it all makes it worth it.”
Similarly, another respondent said “I feel so free and authentic and unburdened by the heavy expectations of society. I feel empowered to chart my own paths and build my own worlds. I feel like I have an imagination again.” At the root of being queer and/or trans is just wanting to live and express yourself authentically. It is an identity that has been villainized by conservatives not because it is inherently bad but because it represents a possibility of not defining yourself by the systems of racism, homophobia, and transphobia that many have trapped themselves into.
Part 4: What can we do as a community?
Now what can the Asian community do to better support queer and trans people, especially those in our community? The first step is keeping an open mind and being willing to educate yourself on the issues the LGBTQ+ community is currently facing. If you have queer and trans family members or friends, listen to them and ask how you can better support them. Educating yourself also means decolonizing your own mind through interrogating the biases you might have and understanding the history of gender and sexual fluidity in Asian countries. It has always been a part of history but also our history in particular.
As a community, we should also work together to foster more intergenerational discussions on this topic that is accessible to elders who cannot speak English. As simple as learning and teaching the terms for queer and trans in our native languages to the pronouns we can use, we can bridge the generational gap when it comes to gender-affirming practices in our community. Lastly, we must come to the understanding that political conservatism does nothing to help our community. We cannot buy into transphobia because just like white supremacy, we are submitting to a hierarchy that only works to oppress, not liberate, us and other marginalized groups. It is not about advancing a “woke” agenda but about allowing queer and trans people to live the way they want to.
One of our survey respondents said it best: “The ‘agenda’ isn’t about sex or clothing or bathrooms. At its root, it’s about showing up for the people in our communities with more love, kindness, and care. It’s about being able to exist as we are without fear of violence and advocating for the freedom of everyone else in the world to be able to do the same—to be yourself whatever way that means.”
That is the end of our episode! Thank you guys for listening. We really appreciate you tuning in to learn more about issues affecting the Asian diaspora, and what we can do more, as a community, in the struggle for liberation.