Asian Americans and the Struggle for Equal Marriage Rights

Kevin Minh Allen September 15, 2010 Comments Off

Anh Dao Kolbe

With the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1998, Washington state banned marriages between people of the same sex within its borders. The Act was upheld in 2006 by the Washington State Supreme Court after appeals were lodged and oral arguments were heard to overturn the law. But, the fight for equal marriage for same-sex couples is not only an issue for gay rights activists but also for Asian Pacific American activists because gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered persons, and anyone else who chooses to veer from the ‘straight’ and narrow path, are members of the Asian Pacific American community as well.

Helen Zia and George Takai are two prominent living icons in the Asian Pacific American community; both of them also identify as queer – Zia as a lesbian and Takai as gay. Ironically, if they chose to marry each other, every state in the union would wholeheartedly recognize their marriage as legal and confer upon them the rights and responsibilities of any other married couple. However, as it stands now, if they wished to marry someone of their own gender, they could only legally do so in either Massachusetts, Iowa or the District of Columbia.

So far, 44 states have instituted their own so-called “Defense of Marriage” acts in order to ban equal marriage for same-sex couples. One by one, these states have argued that marriage between opposite sexes is in a society’s best interest because of procreation and the raising of children. However, people like Crystal Jang, co-founder of Asian Pacific Islander Queer Women’s Transgender Community, would beg to differ with such a narrow interpretation of marriage. She has been married to her partner of 15 years in California and they are raising a teenage daughter together. Jang wants to impress upon the Asian Pacific American community that the struggle for equal marriage rights for queer couples is aligned with Asian American activism: “Unfortunately, many in the more conservative religious Asian communities view us as different, outsiders or not like them. Unless they have a personal connection with someone who is affected by Prop 8, I don’t think it’s important to them to really think about it. They don’t see the connection of discrimination to their own history…that inter-marriage was not possible in the not-too-distant past and that the challenges facing Asian LGBT people are not too different from what our ancestors faced before us.”

A common misperception in America is that one’s sexual orientation is separate from one’s ethnicity. By allowing these two identities to be divorced from each other, reactionary politicians and majority White LGBT organizations have succeeded in dividing and conquering minority communities to the detriment of these communities’ common goals and aspirations. Either because of homophobia or an unquestioned attachment to traditional mores, conservative leaders and their followers within the minority communities seek to distance themselves from gay individuals, deny their very existence and influence within the community, and ally themselves with legal measures that aim to strip LGBT individuals of their right to equal protection under the law and due process.

Ben de Guzman, co-director for programs at the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) and national coordinator for the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity (NAFVE), pointedly states that “sometimes I don’t have the luxury of differentiating between the communities, but the values of liberty and equality are something both communities share because they are often in short supply for them both.”

Most recently, Washingtonians reaffirmed Senate Bill 5688 in 2009 by approving Referendum 71. The bill ostensibly gave people in domestic partnerships the same rights and benefits as those enjoyed by people in “traditional” marriages, stopping short of legally recognizing them as marriages. Although possibly presenting an economic advantage to Asian American LGBT couples who choose to commit to each other within the state of Washington, it does not address complicated issues of immigration, which may arise unexpectedly.

According to a report issued in 2004, sponsored by New York’s Queer Asian Pacific Legacy Conference, and based on a community survey created by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute and taken by conference attendees, 40 percent of participants thought immigration was one of the most important issues facing LGBT Asian Pacific Americans. Twenty-six percent of participants thought “Marriage/domestic partnership” was one of the most important issues facing the community.

To bring in stark relief the potential importance of fighting for equal marriage on the federal level, authors of a March 31, 2006 article in Seattle Gay News explain, “Asian same-sex partners were also much more likely than white non-Hispanic or black same-sex partners to be noncitizens. Many of these noncitizens are partnered with citizens. Right now the Immigration and Naturalization Service does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships for the purposes of immigration. But at some point in the future the ability to marry and have their marriages recognized by the federal government will assist same-sex binational couples to stay together in the U.S.”

Economic stability, immigration and discrimination are core concerns shared by most everyone within the Asian Pacific American community, no matter with which sexual orientation one identifies.

Anh Dao Kolbe, professional photographer and Vietnamese adoptee, proudly recognizes her multiple identities – queer, feminist, Vietnamese, American, Asian – and mentors younger people, like herself, to educate and empower them to be self-actualized individuals who also see themselves as part of a historical and political ethnic group in the United States. Having once been married in the state of Massachusetts, Anh Dao attests to the great importance of achieving equal marriage rights: “There was a sense of freedom that came over me [when I got married], since equal rights should be a right, not a luxury afforded only to a few. … We live in this great nation of liberty and justice for all, and even though this society is riddled with ridiculous contradictions, it offers some sort of potential for change.”

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