When dating as a queer Asian man in Vancouver, Justin Saint compares it to playing a video game on the hardest difficulty.
“You still get to play the game, it’s not like you’re excluded, but you have to expect a couple more curveballs thrown your way,” he says, peering through lilac-framed glasses.
Having dated across three continents, Saint says the need for a thick skin is universal “because regardless of what city you go to you’re always going to have those assholes that are like ‘I only date white guys, I only date masculines.’”
Tall and lithe, wearing a brightly patterned button-up shirt, Saint says his comfortability with his feminine side is as much a part of his personality as his love for video games, but, in the dating world, he says he often finds others much more willing to attribute it to the colour of his skin.
Encountering dating profiles with bylines like ‘no fats, no femmes, no Asians,’ isn’t uncommon, according to Saint. Furthermore, there is also the stereotype–which some within the community believe runs both concurrently and yet much deeper than the overt racism–that someone who is Asian cannot be masculine.
“It’s harder for them to do it at the bar because they have to do it to your face and not a lot of guys are brave enough to do that. Which I guess is the main thing about online is people feel they have so much security behind their screen,” Saint says.
David Ng blows on his flat-white, collecting himself before taking a small sip. The 30-year-old boasts a master’s degree in gender and transformation, besides having first-hand experience of being queer and Asian himself.
“I remember when I first started dating or when I first came out, I mean it was the ‘No fats no femmes no Asians.’ It was so common, and this was in the early to mid 2000s. That sort of overt racism, I think there’s been a lot of work around that,” Ng says, citing campaigns like those by the by the Health Initiative for Men.
“On Facebook a year ago, I screen grabbed a message that this guy sent me was, and this happens a lot, is like ‘are you masculine?’ I’m like, but what does that even mean? I don’t hold that much value to my masculinity so that question to me is irrelevant,” Ng says.
He cites a report published by OkCupid which found by examining matches between its users that Asian men were the least desirable to women of all ethnicities. Ng says this is because of societal constructs around masculinity and what a ‘man’ should look like. This view of slimmer Asian figures as the “ultimate feminine bodies,” simultaneously makes Asian men undesirable while simultaneously making Asian women are the most desirable.
“I think that’s one of the challenges that’s not being, and again this is so tough to talk about, how do we talk about race but also understand that the way that we talk about women and the way we understand femininity is also part and parcel of how we treat Asian men and Asian people,” he says.
Fighting through it
“There’s a lot of racism, there’s a lot of shutting people down anonymously. I’m quite comfortable with myself and on rainy days I still feel like ‘whoa, that is really hard to hear.’” Yogi Omar says between sips of tea, sounding more than a little crestfallen. “I can’t imagine if I was 19 and tying to date through dating apps now.”
Now 34, the Indonesian ex-pat runs InspirationAll talent agency in Vancouver, B.C. while also sitting on the board of directors for QMUNITY. With a bright blue streak in his hair and the booming laugh of a man twice his size, Omar just seems like someone with a flair for the dramatic.
Omar agrees with Ng and Saint about the pervasive stereotypes Asian men face about their masculinity. It’s bothersome, but he says he’s made adjustments and won’t let bigotry sour him on romance.
His native Indonesia, like many Asian countries, is still grappling with the idea of homosexuality and its place within the traditional family. The island nation even moved to ban queer dating apps late last year in an attempt to stifle what is predominantly viewed by those in government as sexual deviancy.
“I used to get really, really offended if people say ‘oh you must be a bottom’ and I’m like ‘I have to defend myself,’ and I used to do it a lot more and I think I the last seven years or so I just don’t because I’m like you can call me or say whatever you want to but you don’t really know me,” he says, defiantly.
Omar says he takes comfort, as he always has, in the arts. He first found the transformative powers of the choir when he first immigrated to Canada from his native Indonesia at age 18. The 34-year-old said he not only enjoys the camaraderie of his choir group, but also finds it to be an effective platform for addressing social issues, such as discrimination, through song.
Last summer, Omar’s choir group, the Vancouver Men’s Chorus, gave a performance that fell during the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. He recalls what it was like for his group to face a sold-out crowd with that tragedy hanging over the evening, and the responsibility they felt, being comprised of mostly gay men, to make a statement. They did so with their performance of a song from the musical Hairspray. Chronicling the struggle of African-Americans in their own struggle against oppression.
“I really think I stayed because of the music and I stayed because what we’re singing about and who we’re singing to,” says Omar, who continues to sing in the Vancouver Men’s Chorus today. “Our mandate is to try and promote positive images and positive role models for gay people everywhere.”
Queer voices have something to say
David Ng’s eyes light up when he broaches the subject of Love Intersections, an online forum he founded precisely for facilitating talks about diverse representation and issues of race.
“It’s called Love Intersections because we wanted to talk about intersectionality, we want to talk about love and solidarity building and community building and all of those things but also find a way to engage with these sort of dynamics within the community that inform all of our lives,” he says.”
The website is an online love-letter where posters can share experiences they’ve had which broadened their minds or challenged their beliefs. It’s an organic way of starting the hard-to-have discussions around race and gender that affect everyone.
For example, one intersection of sexuality and culture is within the traditional Asian familial dynamic. A 2012 paper from the University of Minnesota analyzed the reconciliation of homosexuality within the Asian familial structure through the lens of a queer Hmong man, a member of an ethnic group from Southeast Asia.
In it, the principle subject, named Fong, recalls his mother’s reaction to a discovering a newspaper article he wrote about being a queer Hmong man: “She said that it’s an embarrassment for me to write that. She said that by writing that no one’s gonna marry my brothers and my sisters. And they’re never gonna find a husband and a wife because everyone is gonna think that it’s a disease within the family. And if you marry their side of the family their kids are gonna have it, become like me.”
Although the paper focuses on one ethnic group, the paper cites similar reactions to coming out can also be found throughout numerous Asian cultures. Furthermore, it argues that the notion of being “out and proud” is an idea rooted in Western individualism, something that is often at odds with the Asian family dynamic, which involves a collective reputation, linking each person’s standing to that of their relatives.’ But the possibility of discrimination within their families is only half of the challenges faced by the millions of LGBT Asians like Fong.
But Ng cautions against making sweeping assumptions about people’s belief systems or experiences based on preconceived notions. Ng says he has always had the support of his family, even at the most trying of times.
“There’s the: ‘Oh you must have come from a really conservative family. How did your family take it when you came out?’ It’s like, how did your family take it when you came out? I did grow up in an evangelical Christian family. It wasn’t easy but I don’t think anyone coming out is easy.”
Ng says that things like dialogue and more people of colour in mainstream media can help to cut down on the harmful stereotypes, which can be replaced by genuine understanding.
“I mean, those constructions we have are fueled by representations and other people of colour have different stereotypes, but they’re fueled by representation, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to start Love Intersections because we wanted to share the stories of people in the margins and not wait for those representations to be had.”
On Rice Queens
Yogi Omar says he has no problem with discussing his background on dates, in fact, he prizes cultural exchange. But he says where he draws the line is letting the idea of what his culture is supposed to be stand in for him.
When it comes to dates gone wrong, Yogi Omar has his share, but one in particular comes to mind. He says the dating scene in Vancouver is different than in Indonesia–where same sex marriage is not recognized–but that it still comes with its own pitfalls.
It was the week before the Labour Day long weekend. Omar remembers getting a phone call from a recent date he had gotten dinner with asking if he’d like to go sailing.
“I said ‘that’s really cool. I’ve never done that before. That would be really, really cool actually,’” Omar said,” gladly taking him up on his offer.
After accepting and envisioning the day they had planned, a day on the water, circling English Bay with a glass of wine in hand, the dream came to a shuddering halt almost as quickly as it started.
Omar says his date seemed shocked by his answer. Not that he wanted to go sailing, but that he had never been on a boat before.
“And I was like, what do you mean? And he was like the boat. Don’t you people come from the boat? And I was like, when you say ‘you people…’ And he said ‘Asians, yeah,’ Omar recalls. “I find that, a lot of the time, it’s just ignorance.”
But the misrepresentation of Asians like Omar is just as potent in the other direction. ‘Rice-queens,’ or men whose preference is Asians, can also be guilty on relying on stereotypes to reduce their understanding of a complex individual into a simplistic caricature.
They really fetishize me being Asian and everything about me. ‘Oh you’re from Indonesia? It’s so exciting,’ and all that kind of stuff,” Omar says. “It’s more just the insensitivity of it, and that’s part of the reason. I don’t really fit into that shape because a lot of the time people think of me as so ethnic and it just fetishizes everything and it turns out I don’t really like all the things that they think that I like.”
If dating as a queer Asian man is hard-mode in a video game, fetishization might be the last boss.
“The biggest kind of thing I avoid is any guy who brings up race period. Because there will be guys in Vancouver who try to, they’ll kind of try to make conversation to try to bring out how Asian you are. Like ‘hey, that food!’ They’re trying to connect with you but they’re actually pushing you into the other box,” he says.
One time, almost two years ago, sticks out in his mind: Saint stopped by a leather party on the East side of Vancouver with some friends from his drag group.
The bar was noisy and close with the stench of sweat. It wasn’t his scene, but it was a chance to see more of his friends, so he decided to tag along.
The only light to see by came in machine-gun bursts from strobes scattered throughout the venue, but Saint says even the low-lights of the bar, where one could barely see in front of their faces, wasn’t enough to discourage someone from making the comments that have dogged him for most of his life.
“He called me Mowgli,” Saint says, a reference to the dark skinned pre-pubescent protagonist of The Jungle Book. Saint says the comment might have been meant as a joke, but it made him conscious of the box again and how he wasn’t the much sought-after muscular white male. “I’m used to getting called weird names as a cosplayer, but it hit a chord,” Saint says.
When it comes to the future and his optics on dating, Omar refuses to compromise his sunny outlook. And if he should come across any more bigoted dating profiles, he has a slew of retorts ready to go.
“If you talk to somebody and all of a sudden they don’t want to talk to you or they block you, or you say hi and the first thing they say is “I’m not into Asians.” Well ok, I’m not into assholes,” he says, only half-joking. “I feel like the best way to educate people is really just to be the best version of yourself. I also try humour.”
Having recently made the leap from blog to include a film series as well, having screened at over 27 film festivals in the past year, Ng continues to promote ethical cultural exchange with Love Intersections while also fostering discussion about the lens through which racialized bodies are viewed.
“I can only speak for myself, it’s not like I don’t have racist thoughts, but it’s what do we do with them? And how to we work on them and when those thoughts flash by your mind, actually engaging with them and trying to unpack them, not just ‘oh that’s just a preference.’”
Despite the occasional racist comment, Saint says he’s in a good place today. He doesn’t go to those kinds of parties anymore, he’d much rather spend his time with fellow nerds, and people who see him for more than just his body type or the colour of his skin.
His current partner, who is white, makes the point of hearing Saint out on issues of race which he might have never known about otherwise.
“I think it has to do more with the person you’re dating and how understanding they are. I’m grateful with my current boyfriend and I go ‘this happened and I’m upset’ and he goes ‘O.K.’ There’s no lengthy discussion or anything,” Saint says.
And Saint says these days he’s working on mapping out his masculine side, something his partner is integral to.
“For me it’s kind of, just being masculine means being more confident, being more sure of myself. My partner right now, I’m being more aggressive because before I was more receptive, now we’re kind of flipped and that’s been kind of cool to explore,” says Saint.