The growing number of states legalizing same-sex marriages has many in the LGBT community convinced that full assimilation is inevitable. But as an Asian American gay man, I’m unconvinced that assimilation for the whole LGBT community is inevitable or even possible, nor that simply being assimilated is even desirable.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand why some in the LGBT community are advocates of assimilation. I was shamed, bullied, and occasionally assaulted through a big chunk of my life, most of which was lived at a time when hatred of LGBT people was a sign of moral turpitude. There was a time when I would have given my eye teeth to be considered “just like everyone else.”
As a person of color, I can tell you that homophobia is definitely not a walk in the park relative to racism. And, while there are those who argue that the ability of some of us to hide is an advantage, hiding is its own form of oppression.
Imagine living in fear of being fired or evicted if your boss or landlord finds out who you really are. Sure, you hid well enough to get inside, but without legal protections you can lose everything.
That kind of fear is corrosive. It eats away at you. To combat that fear and the very real discrimination and violence that LGBT people face, many argue we’re just like everyone else, and that including us doesn’t require changing cherished values, institutions, and norms. Fighting for inclusion in institutions like marriage and the military support that argument.
I’ve seen this strategy before, but the group in question was Asian Americans.
Not that long ago, Asians were considered unassimilable and dangerous foreigners. We were subject to exclusionary laws and denied full citizenship. Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. Anti-communist witch hunts targeted Chinese Americans. Anti-Asian violence was commonplace.
When your oppression is justified by the idea that you’re un-American, assimilation to Americanism seems the logical answer. That may be why major Asian American civil rights groups of the mid-twentieth century cooperated with government agencies like the War Relocation Authority (that resettled Japanese internees after WWII) in winning over middle class white Americans to Asians.
Successful assimilation required differentiating Asians from blacks and Latinos. Expressions of outrage over racism were marginalized. Radicals were ignored or silenced. Instead, community leaders presented Asians as model Americans who loved our country enough, even while in concentration camps, that we sent our sons to war in Europe where many made the ultimate sacrifice.
All of this worked, to a degree. But it also failed in a couple of important ways. First, the assimilation of some American-born Asians made us the poster children of American race liberalism – the idea that racism is simply attitudinal, not structural, so anyone can rise to success by assimilating to all-American (read white middle class) values and norms. Following this logic, the more racial disadvantage one suffers through, the more effectively one’s story contributes to the myth of race liberalism. And the more popular the myth, the more effectively it obscures the root causes of racism.
Secondly, assimilation failed to anticipate the changing global context of Asians. As exclusionary immigration laws targeting Asians fell and new waves of Asian immigrants came to the U.S., the community was transformed in a variety of ways, not least of which was through the inclusion of refugees, both of U.S. sponsored wars, and of a rapidly globalizing economy. These new Asian Americans face the challenge of a much more complex and polarized American economy and political culture.
But, to hear the story told today, it’s as if assimilation worked out really well for Asians who are now characterized as a model Americans; less criminal, more financially successful, and better educated even than whites. But, this is just a myth, like so many other racist myths are that told and retold in order to distract us from the obvious contradictions we live with every day. Contradictions like Indian reservations, grossly disproportionate rates of black and Latino imprisonment, the racial wealth gap, racial segregation, and the complexity of Asian American experience.
Behind the myth, Asian ethnic groups like the Hmong, Laotians, Khmer, and Vietnamese are among the most impoverished in the U.S. Many of them live in or adjacent to black and brown communities targeted by law enforcement. As a result, Southeast Asian youth struggling to find their way through poverty and exclusion are often enveloped in police dragnets targeting their neighbors, a situation that inadvertently makes a case for the probability that the low rate of incarceration among more privileged Asian groups, like the Japanese, may have to do with being concentrated in or near less targeted white neighborhoods and little or nothing to do with so-called Asian “culture” or racial characteristics.
Even as a whole, Asians aren’t as successful as some claim. For instance, high Asian median family incomes actually result from having more earners per family, not more income per earner. That status continues to be enjoyed by whites.
In reality, Asian America is made up of multiple, diverse cultural groups that are divided as much by model American stereotyping as by differences in language, class, national origins, and immigration status. Simple calls for assimilation divide us precisely because they obscure the very real differences among us; differences that are, in fact, very important aspects of what defines us, both as “Asians” in America and as diverse peoples of varied cultures and experiences. In a richly diverse community with complex needs that go far beyond simple inclusion, assimilationist strategies draw our bottom lines behind some of our heels and in front of other people’s toes.
The story of LGBT assimilation in the 21st century mirrors that of Asian American attempts at assimilation of the past, at least as LGBT activism is being depicted in mainstream media and touted by some LGBT civil rights groups. Will it work? I doubt it, or at least I doubt it will work to address the root causes of LGBT exclusion and persecution, and fear that the strategy will ultimately be divisive.
Like Asian America, the LGBT community is extraordinarily diverse. Assimilationist solutions fail in the face of this diversity. Moreover, as with racial injustice, the root causes of LGBT oppression are not simply attitudinal, they’re structural. Dealing with structural injustice begins by making these structures visible. Assimilationist strategies make them less so. Moreover, structural injustices rarely fall in the face of divided opposition.