Anyone can hold the mantle of "elder". Danny Chung, Mr. GAPA, is a queer Asian man who reflects on his responsibility and experience as a representative of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance. Formed in 1988, GAPA was largely created as a safe space for gay asian pacific islander men to build community, who at that time were a lot more segregated from the broader gay community.
During my time with Danny, he reflects on his experience as a Queer Asian man in a Queer community represented by whiteness, as well as the model minority myth which shapes the perception of Asians in this country and the Queer community. Additionally, he reflects on the generational conflict of coming out, coming from a traditional Taiwanese family whose conception of Queerness is completely foreign. Lastly, Danny enlightens us on how younger generations can improve community by “getting off our fucking phones” and “choosing discomfort”.
What does queer mean to you?
“Anything that is outside of the mainstream. Even though the mainstream changes from age to age or day to day, it’s anything outside of it.”
How has your experience as a person of color shaped your experience as a queer person?
“When I was very young, right before the formative age, A friend of mine told me, in an insensitive way, that being Asian and queer was like having two strikes against me. And for a long time I believed him which created a lot of inner conflict which eventually turned into a lot of shame and self hate by the way I looked; my nose, my eyes, and my lips.
Not my skin color though, since I’m light skinned and was taught that light skin was superior to dark. Goes to show how fucked up the world is, and for that I blame White people.
My self hatred eventually caused me to be more slutty than I should've been when I was younger, and now that I reflect on it, that kind of behavior was so damaging especially for health reasons, or even mental health reasons. You know, I had this mentality where I had to fuck as many people as possible to feel good about myself. And of course, the people I fucked all had to be of a certain type. These people all had to tell me I'm beautiful in order for me to feel like I was beautiful. And even as a model, when I tell people this, they don't believe me. They’re always like, how can you say that?
Has your family been instrumental in making you feel shame?
Yeah, I came out when I was 19. I consider it to be the generally “normal” experience that Gay Asians undergo when coming out. They never tried to send me to a conversion camp or anything like that. My Mom was just really sad when I told her. She cried a lot. Since then, she’s come around. She’s even met my current partner, Nathan, and my ex too. It’s funny, my mom figured out my “type” which is really funny. She’s seen pictures of my ex and was like, Yeah, I know your type. My Dad, however, hasn't come around so much. Which is really normal for fathers, especially coming from patriarchal societies. My father is like a lone wolf, a silent, depressed Asian man. Sometimes I’m quite sad about our distant relationship, but I find the distance is necessary otherwise I’d fucking kill myself. He's a sad and broken man and I don't want to repeat that for myself. From him, I’ve learned to live my life with love and openness.
And you know, I should mention that it’s not his fault he's like this. He came from the trauma of war. He grew up during WW II, and experienced the cultural revolution in China. So, I give him empathy. My brother is also gay, so he has two gay sons which is even more difficult for someone like him to grapple with.
How has your family shamed you for being Gay?
Well, It’s not like they said, you can’t be gay or you should feel shame for being this way. I think the most instrumental way they made me feel shame was by positively reinforcing Heteronormative behavior. For example, they would point out straight couples they wanted me to model and say, “Oh!, look at so and so! look at their daughter, blah blah blah” and growing up as a tall good looking asian man, the expectation is that girls really love you or, “oh my god you're around all these beautiful women when modeling why don’t you date one of them”. Catch is, whenever I spent time with these girls all we’d talk about are boys!
So in short, they positively reinforce the good stuff so you feel so much shame for not living up to their expectation. And it’s not their fault your parents don't know they’re doing that. They don't know any better because of the generational and cultural difference that is not affirming of queer identity.
Do you feel welcomed by the queer community?
Yeah, I feel welcome in spaces with other QPOC. As a gay Asian man, I find myself relating to the struggles other POC have to undergo and I think I find solidarity in that. I feel this solidarity more so in Oakland where most Queer people I see are POC. However, I don't feel as welcomed when I’m in spaces like the Castro, which has become a gentrified tourist destination. Also, spaces like the Castro are only inhabited by Whites and Asians. So, I’m like, where is everyone else? Whenever I have to come to the city, I’m like, Fuck, do I have to be here?”
How have people realized the person you are?
My older mentors; actors, directors, teachers, people I’ve worked under who have coached me have always told me that when you grow older, you're going to live a different life than that of your straight peers. They will eventually get married and have families of their own, so it’s important for you to grow your own. Because when you grow older, you're not going to hang out with the same people. So find your family. And in many ways I think I’ve found that in my relationship with Nathan in addition to my role in GAPA.
I recently went through a divorce with my ex partner. And that was really rough. I had to sell the house, say bye to the dog and all of this other stuff. While I was going through this, the older members of GAPA were by my side helping me through. And that was really helpful. it was so wonderful to have their example and advice when I needed it.
What are the greatest issues affecting the queer community today?
The illusion that Queer Asians, and Asians in general, have made it. Because we are successful in the Bay Area and have made it in terms traversing the wealth gap, or being a part of the normalized group. There’s a sense that the fight is over, which underlies the serious issues that affect The Asian community, Queer Asians especially. What makes me most upset is how Asian people are often the butt of the joke within the Queer community and in general. And what that tells me, is that we haven't made it yet, culturally.
At the same time, I feel like Asians haven't done enough to combat their own oppression because we are comfortable. Most of the labor, in terms of liberation has been done by Black and LatinX people. So, it is important that we not be complicit when we are underrepresented or cast as caricatures and jokes. We still have to achieve cultural representation. And for that to happen, we have to be uncomfortable and say something.
Lastly, I have a problem with how gay politics, gay narrative and gay agenda is turning into White Male agenda, AGAIN. And so again, I blame White people.
And this is what interests me while serving as Mr. GAPA. Addressing and combating the success myth and the lack of representation of Asians within Queer spaces.
How to queer youth treat you?
I feel like I’m watching, because I’m not engaged. I’m old enough to know that the club “moments”, are not really worth my time. And this is no shade on anyone, I love music and dancing, but I don't think the club scene has ever done anything for me. At the same time, I was reliant on it in order to find community, friends, and networking. But now that I’m older, I don't need to be in the scene anymore, I have my friends and my network. But I’m happy to see young people in moments of youthful rage. But all in all, these moments mean nothing. There are a lot of experiences in life that are more meaningful than those perfect moments on the dance floor.
I actually have an issue with the whole bar and club culture in general, because there’s a whole lot more to life than that. At the same time, when you’re gay and in an urban environment, this is the only experience that you can have to connect or express yourself and I just don't think that’s where community should be centered.
How do you think Queer youth can be active in creating spaces outside of the club and bar scene?
When I was younger, living in San Diego, I would hang out at a cafe called the living room in the Hillcrest. And it was amazing! See, Hillcrest is interesting because it’s like an actual community and not just a string of gay bars. There’s a real community presence that is not completely centered around the bars and clubs.
So, I suppose it would be to create community spaces like this that aren’t centered around drinking.
What can Queer youth do to further activism?
Choose discomfort. As Mr. GAPA, I am a representative of Queer Asians. I have to face the reality that I am considered a tall, good looking, relatively masculine, able bodied person. And these statuses are imbued with privilege. And that is an uncomfortable reality of face! My own privilege. And this is what makes White people so uncomfortable! They don't want to face it! I mean, what happens when White people look at the world from the perspective of someone who is female, or brown? Maybe if they viewed reality from this perspective, they would realize that their oppressive behavior and attitude is bullshit! So, I encourage people to be uncomfortable in those moments where it would be easier to be ignorant and quiet.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be a lot more confrontational and straight forward. For example, when I say, “I blame White people”, I’m not trying to be incendiary. I’m literally saying, it’s White people who hold enormous power and influence in world culture and politics. Case in point are Christian Koreans. Why are so many damn Koreans Christians? Like every Sunday, I see flocks of Koreans streaming out of the churches. And this is not because they woke up one day and were like, you know what? I’m going to pray to Jesus. They were indoctrinated by European and American influence.
Even the Chinese school I went to was Christian. I remember attending bible school, and I was like, why am I reading this book with all these White people in it? Why am I reading stories about creation and civilization centered around fucking Whiteness! I am nothing like these people! And I was thinking like this when I was a child!
So, in short, I would encourage younger generations to be more vocal, like I was, and ask challenging and uncomfortable questions.
What should the relationship between Queer youth and Elders look like?
Being aware of how we’re more alike than different would help. Also, getting the fuck off your phones! Especially where Grindr and the like are considered. Don't filter out those who can enrich your life more than sexually. If you don't sit down and have a conversation with someone who's older, than how are you going to know how to navigate life?
Lastly, mentorship opportunities, like this interview, are also really important. I was a part of the It Gets Better Project when I worked at CBS, I mentored Chinese youth in underserved communities, even being a part of GAPA involves youth mentorship.
How do we facilitate the meeting of Elders and youth outside of technology or a structured community space?
Again, I think it starts with unplugging. Get off your fucking phones! I’m not entirely sure what facilitation looks like, but I have an idea. I have a friend, for example, a gorgeous young man who chooses to volunteer his time at a hospice instead of brunching with his friends on Sunday. And I think that’s beautiful that he doesn't fall in line with all the bullshit that comes with being an attractive gay man, choosing instead, to help his community. So, in short, getting off our assess and actually doing something to help each other would be a great start.
Also, and I’ve mentioned this before, the active creation of spaces and activities that don't involve drinking.
What lessons can you provide Queer youth?
I feel like it’s a two a street. Mentorship is not a dictatorship. It’s about active communication and sharing our experiences. In other words, the lessons we can teach each other and being vulnerable in our own experiences. There’s so much I can learn from you, but in order to do that, you have to be present and vulnerable.
Also, try to find ways in which you and I are more alike than different.
Additionally, and this is advice that was passed down to me. That being you is enough. The more you believe that, the more happily you live your life. Once you come to that realization, you’ll have found your inner peace. What more do you need after that?
Lastly, follow your bliss and connect with people by doing the things you enjoy.
We'll return with more installments of Alex's ongoing project. Stay tuned.