Research Question: Paul Tran

Thirty queer Asian Americans convened in the Catskills Mountains in 1988. A New York City contingent drove 135 miles north from Manhattan on I-87. The journey took about three hours. But, for some in the car, getting there felt like a lifetime. Being queer and Asian in America during the Cold War was a kind of double jeopardy. Anti-communist paranoia persecuted queer and Asian bodies. Neither visibility nor community was viable under surveillance. The Lavender and Red Scares snuffed out state and non-state actors the federal government thought threatened democracy and the republic’s hegemony abroad. Even the most liberal whites touted a revised eugenicist worldview designed to eliminate the United States’ Yellow Peril.

The Catskills getaway was a retreat from social death as it was the beginnings of a new social life for a group of New York City’s queer Asian Americans. Activists Don Kao, John Chin, and John Manzon laid groundwork for the goals, vision, and structure of an organization dedicated to queer Asian American liberation. They continued discussions throughout what they now call “the Inaugural Retreat” and back to New York City. After months of meetings with constituents and partners, the Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) “came out” at the 1990 Lesbian and Gay Heritage of Pride Parade.

Entirely volunteer-run, GAPIMNY provides social, educational, peer-support, and cultural programming for queer Asian Americans. It works in coalition with community organizations like the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS (APICHA), the Audre Lorde Project, and the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) to organize around issues of race, sexuality, gender, immigration, and health. Running programs at the LGBT Center on West 13th Street, GAPIMNY not only serves the margins of Greenwich Village. It shapes the margins of Greenwich Village history as well.

For example, GAPIMNY led local protest against the Miss Saigon production at the LGBT Center. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund staged the musical at the Center as a fundraiser. GAPIMNY joined with Asian Lesbians of the East Coast (ALOEC) to host teach-ins, educational forums, and large-scale demonstrations against the Lambda production in April 1991. Called “The Heat is On in Saigon” Campaign, GAPIMNY charged Lambda with whitewashing Vietnamese people impacted by the American War in Southeast Asia. They argued the use of white actors in yellow face followed centuries of disgusting racial misrepresentations. Furthermore, GAPIMNY recognized the long-standing impact these misrepresentations engendered in a country desperately trying to convince Vietnam and newly decolonized nations alike that “democracy works” given its progress on domestic race relations. Extensive media coverage documented the arrest of GAPIMNY members and their partners, drawing local and widespread attention, forcing Greenwich Village’s queer and non-queer communities to consider their investments in a certain racial order propagated by the project for U.S. global ascendency. Just one of its many achievements, GAPIMNY successfully linked the struggle for queer Asian American liberation in NYC with struggles for freedom around the world.

My exhibit will investigate GAPIMNY to understand the history of queer Asian Americans in Greenwich Village during the twentieth century. I’m at once interested in the anti-imperial ideologies that led to the organization’s founding in 1990 and the strategies that secured its survival over the past twenty-five years as other similar organizations terminated. I will examine the political, social, educational, and peer-support alternatives GAPIMNY provided queer Asian Americans from 1990-2015, comparing them against organizations working in collaboration or opposition to its mission. Most importantly, I will chart the impact GAPIMNY has had on its individual members and the social landscape of Greenwich Village after the Cold War.

I draw on primary source materials from the GAPIMNY records at the NYU Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. GAPIMNY donated the records in July 2015. The Tamiment Library accessioned them in September 2015. I’m currently working with GAPIMNY, the Tamiment Library, and the NYU Asian/Pacific/American Institute to arrange a public exhibit featuring GAPIMNY materials. The exhibit consists of five displays at the Tamiment Library and a multimedia platform. The GAPIMNY Steering Committee also provided me access to founding documents prior to 1990 and intergenerational interviews with members through the years.

My secondary sources look at twentieth century queer Asian American studies (see David Eng and Alice Hom, Q&A: Queer in Asian America (Philadelphia: Temple, 1998); Martin Manalansan, “In the Shadows of Stonewall: Examining Gay Transnational Politics and the Diasporic Dilemma” The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Ed. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd (Durham: Duke University, 1997)). It also draws from local queer Asian American history in New York City (see Yoko Yoshikawa, “The Heat is On Miss Saigon Coalition: Organizing Across Race and Sexuality.” The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s. Ed. Karin Aguilar-San Juan (Boston: South End Press, 1993) 275-94; Martin Manalansan, “Searching for Community: Filipino Gay Men in New York City.“ Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience. Ed. Russell Leong (New York: Routledge, 1996) 51-64). Finally, it draws from scholarship looking at queer histories in NYC (George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1995); Charles Keiser, The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America (New York: Grove, 2007); Patrick Moore, Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality (New York: Beacon, 2004); Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013)). I’m curious about the ways these “landmark” scholars included or overlooked queer Asian Americans in their accounts of the past. I want to extricate what this erasure implies.

The GAPIMNY exhibit, “Nothing Lost in Translation,” goes on display at Tamiment Library on October 8, 2015. The items I curate will be digitized for this online exhibit, in addition to the multimedia platform that includes dance playlists, interviews, photographs, and primary source documents not yet donated to NYU. I will also seek interviews with GAPIMNY founding members, alongside other secondary sources detailing Greenwich Village’s transformation into the current times.

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