I sit down with Dino Duazo, who is one of the longest active members of the Gay Asian Pacific Alliances’ (GAPA) men’s choir and organization. He is an avid HIV activist who has worked tirelessly to advocate for the health of positive queer Asians Pacific Islanders, as well as an active supporter of the arts.
He relays his experience being positive as a queer Asian man, his experience as a part of GAPA, and his thoughts on how youth can uphold community endeavors.
What does Queer mean to you?
Anyone who does not want to be constrained into the box of heteronormativity can be considered Queer, including Allies.
What did Queer mean to you?
Being different. You're not constrained to being straight. You can be anything you want to be. Back in the 80’s when I was growing up, Queer always had a negative connotation to it. But now that I think of it, I’ve always embraced it because it’s like embracing your difference and you're not stuck to any label. You can create who you are.
And is this rooted in just sexuality?
In part, but I think it can apply to all aspects of your life. Like your viewpoints, ability to question, and being open minded.
How were you different?
I felt kinda isolated growing up being gay. I came out when I was 14 and I felt like I had to keep that aspect of myself secret even though I was sexually active. So, I feel like it was just being different and having the awareness that I was different from an early age.
How has being a person of color and Queer shaped your experience?
It always seemed like two different things. I existed in two worlds, my Filipino family and social circle and my Queer side. It was something I explored sexually with my different partners, so at the time it didn't feel an intersection between the two identities until I got involved with GAPA, who helped open up my perspective and made me realize that these two identities did not have to be separate but can actually be combined. Coming to that realization was very empowering to me because now, I can combine all those aspects of my personality.
When did you get involved with GAPA?
From the beginning! They began organizing in the fall of 1987. A friend actually introduced me to the group. I’m a very introverted person, but even more so back then. A friend brought me to the first meeting and just being around all these Queer Asian men who, wanted to make a difference, just set a lightning bolt off in my head. I just felt the urge to get involved with this. And it really helped me blossom and grow, personally. It was just a really eye opening experience and that’s why I've been involved all this time.
When I was in my early 20’s I went to gay pride for the first time. Being young and out, I was really excited to go. There was actually this convention called, Contingent that’s supposed to represent gay men. I was really excited to attend thinking I would be represented there, but to my dismay only handful of Asian guys attended, the rest being White gay men. And I was so disappointed to see that. So, when I joined GAPA I was really excited to see a bunch of Asian men who were taking the forefront in leadership, not just existing as yet another accessory, but as the driving force for the organization.
What kind of activism were you involved in with GAPA?
I was more involved with the social and cultural aspects. I believed in the political activism and organizing aspect but, I found myself more interested with the arts and cultural aspects of community as well as the social aspect, which helps build community. Arts and culture are both really important in terms of looking at and embracing your heritage as well as promoting it.
I feel like I accomplished this form of activism through grant writing. I write grants for the filipino theatre company and other API (Asian Pacific Islander) theater companies, which is how I promote API voices that are not necessarily Queer, but is tied to Queerness in terms of promoting the voice of the ‘other’ especially in mainstream American culture.
Besides the cultural stuff, I promote an API voice through multimedia. I’ve put together shows where we include other guest artists. I was one of the organizers for the GAPA pagent, a drag show, which seems trivial, but I thought was really important. The show had deeper meaning for Queer API men to live with pride and without shame, to be who they wanted. This really resonated with the community and I love how much it’s grown today.
I’ve also curated different galleries and created a newsletter for GAPA. Sometimes it felt like nobody read anything, but I felt it was important to draw from these stories as a resource, and I was really proud of that. I thought it was really important.
How has existing within the intersection being POC and Queer changed your outlook now that you are over the age of 50?
I still feel like I’m an outsider. Which, I feel, has stressed the importance of being aware and speaking out; however, I feel like I’m running out of the energy to do it. I feel like it’s more on the younger generations to kinda step up. At the same time, I feel like it’s important to have older folks share their perspective of what they went through, what works and what doesn’t, as a point of reference.
In your opinion, what are the most central issues affecting the Queer community today?
The political climate. There were so many advances for Queer rights and in everyday life. But now, there seems to be a push back, our position is more fragile than ever. So, it’s more important to keep pushing and fight for you rights. The Trump administration has proven extremely dangerous not only because he's incompetent, but also because he’s emboldening a lot of hatred and giving voice to it.
What were the greatest issues in the Queer community?
AIDS was one of the biggest issues. I am actually HIV positive, but fortunately it hasn't affected my health to a great extent. I did know a lot of people who died however during this time.
How were you affected by HIV?
When I found out, I had already joined GAPA. It was very shocking. I contracted the virus in 1988 when I was 27, and kept thinking to myself that I would surely be dead by the time I turned 30. But, I didn't use it to define me. I refocussed my energy toward living my life as fully as possible and to be as productive as I could while I was still able. But, like I said, it didn't affect me very much. I was fortunate however, because there were people in GAPA that I knew who passed away.
How was GAPA involved during the AIDS epidemic?
GAPA was very proactive within the community by addressing the needs of Queer API people. They were instrumental in creating the GAPA community HIV project, a project geared toward providing resources and education to gay asian men, which began to proliferate. Even then, the founders were struggling to find ways for the project to be funded by non-asians. The groups we reached out to who were fairly unsupportive and even condescending to API people with HIV. Their response was to pass out brochures about HIV rather than help fund direct services.
The concerns of Asians were being readily dismissed while the voices of White gay men were looked as more important even though Asian men had a high contraction rate and were literally dying in front of my eyes.
How have your experiences shaped you into the person you are today?
I suppose they made me a more active person in terms of leadership. I became very proactive within GAPA leadership which was attributed to the fact that I saw the action needed within the organization for it to succeed. You know, It’s not enough to complain, it’s important to find what kinds of solutions can we come up with, and what can we do? Make a difference rather than sit back and complain.
Do you feel welcome within the Gay (Queer) community?
I’m fairly introverted, meaning I tend to keep to myself. So, I really think I found my outlet with the GAPA men’s chorus because through that, we get involved with the greater Queer community as well as the Asian community, because we perform events all around the world. So yes, through reaching out and making connections, I do feel welcome. However, still, a lot of people still don’t know very much about us. When GAPA was starting out, it was really important to establish our presences as Queer APIs. But, I think the Queer API community over the years has become a lot more disseminated into the “broader” community meaning, there was no longer a dire need for GAPA. But I think, the past year, especially with the political turmoil, kind of underscores the need for an organization like GAPA, which promotes advocacy of and for API voices which, I think, still has an impact. In terms of feeling welcome, we live in a bubble. So, just being here (in San Francisco) makes me feel safer, but the conditions we experience here are not the same as the rest of the country.
How have other people helped you realize your identity?
So many people have crossed my path. It’s good to know that I’m a part of a larger community. It helps to know that there are people who have gone through the same experiences. I will say, I am closest to the GAPA chorus though. I have been involved since its inception in 1989. I’ve always viewed it as a support group. We meet every week and eventually you end up creating bonds with people, all of whom have helped me become the person I am now.
How do you feel you are treated by Queer youth?
I think one of the greatest strengths of the Queer community is that it is very intergenerational. It’s not a big deal to have intergenerational mixing. In the chorus for example, we have many members in their early 20’s interacting with people in their 60’s. We all share a common bond and purpose at least in the choir. I don't go out to clubs and bars anymore so, I don't have that perspective as to how younger people would treat me. On a dating level, It might be different. But, on a community level, I don’t think age is a big deal.
How can Queer youth step up and further community?
It’s a huge responsibility to throw on Queer youth. But, it all depends on individuals, those who have the drive, responsibility, and interest to drive change. And I think it’s important to identify them and support them and provide resources they need. While I do believe it’s everyone's responsibility to drive change within the community, I think it’s especially important for Queer youth to participate, because they’re going to have to live through this for the rest of their lives. So, it’s in their own interest to step up and make a difference. But, like I said, it depends on individuals to do that. And you can't always expect people to be politically active or vocal if it’s not where their strengths or interests are. But, if there are other people willing to do that then it’s important to support them. Also, activism takes different forms. It’s not always marching in the streets. Just being there and being a part of the community has value as well.
What should the relationship between Queer youth and elders look like?
I feel it’s an equal partnership. Some people offer more or less, or focus on different aspects. But, bottom line people step up and contribute and give as much as they can and I don't think age is a determinate. I mean, as an older person, you have more experience, but I also think that it’s important for people to experience things on their own. You have to make mistakes and learn for yourself. You can have the experiences of older people as a resource, but I think there is value in going through an experience for your own.
We'll return with more installments of Alex's ongoing project. Stay tuned.