Opinion & Analysis

One foot out of the closet: Queer Asian identities in NZ

Community advocate and PhD student Sidney Gig-Jan Wong 黃吉贊, a Cantonese-Tauiwi queer man, reflects on his lived experiences as a way to explore the intersection of Asian-ness and queerness in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is an excerpt from his book, Queer Asian Identities in Contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand: One Foot Out of the Closet.

According to the Household Economic Survey for the year ended June 2021, 11.5% of LGBTQ+ adult population in Aotearoa (New Zealand) identified as Asian. 

If we were to bring all these people together, our population would be similar in size to the regional centres of Whakaoriori (Masterton) or Hakatere (Ashburton). 

Despite these positive statistics, Queer Asians continue to experience high rates of discrimination as well as systemic and structural barriers in Aotearoa.  

Vinod Bal, co-founder of Adhikaar Aotearoa and Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network member, and co-founder Dr Cayathri Divakalala recently co-authored the Adhikaar report titled Community is where the knowledge is highlighting the experiences of Queer South Asians in Aotearoa. 

Author Sidney Wong. Image: Supplied

Some high-level themes from the report found that Queer South Asians experience multiple forms of discrimination, erasure, internalised Queerphobia, and pressures from their families. 

The Counting Ourselves survey of transgender and non-binary people in Aotearoa found that Asians were more likely to experience racial discrimination and more likely to experience very high levels of psychological distress [3]. 

Sadly, I can attest to these claims through my experience as a Queer Asian person in Aotearoa and as chair of the Ethnic Rainbow Alliance and the Ōtautahi-based Rainbow services provider Qtopia. 

With the support of Seuta'afili Dr Patrick Thomsen of Waipapa Taumata Rau (University of Auckland), I began to document my experiences as a person whose identities intersect these two often marginalised communities. 

In the book, I briefly share my family history and how we came to Aotearoa. I also share my experiences of growing up in Te Awakairangi ki Tai (Lower Hutt) and my ‘coming out’ experience in Ōtautahi (Christchurch).

However, I begin my journey not in Aotearoa, but in Asia where our Queer Asian ancestors formed their indigenous and traditional views of gender, sex, and sexualities. 

Where my ancestors lived for generations in Southern China, these complex views were mediated through the interaction of Buddhist, Confucian, and Taoist belief systems. 

Some of these views were lost as a direct result of imperialism and colonisation. Where these diverse identities were once well-accepted, the rapid adoption of narrow views on gender, sex, and sexualities has seen an increase of Queerphobia. 

A copy of Wong's book. Image: Supplied

Fortunately, we are seeing positive developments across Asia in recent years with a number of countries decriminalising homosexuality and recognising transgender and non-binary identities in legal documents. 

However, these changes may not have the same positive impacts of ethnic, migrant, and refugee families who have inherited these Queerphobic beliefs when they came to Aotearoa. In his book, From Sleepless in Seattle to I Seoul You: Korean Gay Men and Cross-cultural Encounters in Transnational TimesThomsen described this as the “transnational time warp”.

Now that we are seeing a burgeoning community of Queer Asians in Aotearoa, we should consider how we can reclaim these culturally and linguistically congruent views of our Queer identities. 

This is why in my book I have not restricted my stories to Aotearoa, but also some foundational experiences during my travels throughout Asia. I would like to share with you one of these experiences below.

Sophia and I were sitting on a park bench overlooking the Arabian Sea. She is a journalist based in New Delhi. Like me, she was also a tourist in Mumbai. We met just a day earlier at Lollapalooza. We were both trying to figure out what we could do with our last day in the city. 

“There's not much to do in Mumbai, is there?” Sophia joked, “There's definitely more to see in New Delhi.” 

The setting sun was struggling to break through the dense fog. We watched people put out their laundry on the exposed rocks along the coast. The imposing Sea Link hovered in the distance. It was too late for us to go anywhere at this point in the afternoon. 

A meeting with a queer woman in Mumbai at Lollapalooza was the scene for a conversation about identities across cultures. Image: Supplied

Like me, Sophia was also Queer. I don’t remember when she came out to me, but I think it must've been when we were all crammed into a taxi trying to get back to Bandra West. 

“My family and friends always comment about my Queerness.'' Sophia confessed. “I'm lucky I'm in the position I am now, if I came from a different caste, I wouldn't be so fortunate.” 

“My husband took a long time to process my Queerness.” Sophia continued. 

“Your husband?” I spluttered. 

“It's no big deal.” Sophia laughed at my reaction, “Lots of Queer people get married. It made our families happy. Now, I can live my life. He's hopelessly in love with me. Do you want to see my wedding photos?” 

Sophia flicked through the wedding photos on her phone. 

“I don't think we would get the same reaction in New Zealand.” I told Sophia, “Many of my friends are still ‘in the closet’ because of our migrant family expectations.” 

“Would you like to hear a joke instead?” I asked Sophia. I wasn’t in the mood to talk about double-marginalisation. 

“Sure.” Sophia nodded. 

“One day, one fish told the other fish, the water's cold today. The other fish looked surprised and stopped swimming in its tracks. What's water? the other fish replied in terror.” 

Sophia laughed uncontrollably at my terrible joke. 

“I guess sometimes when we're immersed in a particular way of being, we don't realise until we observe it from a distance.'' I reflected pensively. I watched the waves crash onto the shore. 

“So, tell me about New Zealand.” Sophia asked me curiously, “What is it like being Queer and Asian in New Zealand?”*

These intimate conversations with people from Asia have helped me understand what it means to be a Queer and Asian person. 

The purpose of the book is not to outline a universal Queer Asians experience - there are as many ways to express our Queer ways of being as there are Queer Asians in Aotearoa. 

I hope this book acts as an invitation for Queer Asians in Aotearoa to share their own unique experiences and to celebrate our special relationship with Asia.

This article has been adapted from an excerpt in the book Queer Asian Identities in Contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand: One Foot Out of the Closet, published by Lived Places Publishing.

Join Sidney on Thursday 14 March from 6pm at Te Ara Ātea in Rolleston to talk about his experience growing up in Aotearoa as an ethnic minority and how he has learnt to navigate his Queer identity.

Sidney is a member of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Leadership Network.

- Asia Media Centre