Willy Wilkinson (far right) is married to Georgia Kolias (second from right) in a ceremony led by Assembly Member Mark Leno (left) and San Francisco City Assessor Mabel Teng (second from left) at San Francisco City Hall on 12 February 2004.
Asian American Trans Perspectives on Same-Sex Marriage
[This is the complete transcript of a conversation about same-sex marriage among three transgendered Asian Americans (Pauline Park, Willy Wilkinson and Jessi Gan) by conference call on 18 June 2005. The dialogue was published in an abbreviated version in AmerAsia, the leading journal of Asian American studies, as: “Pauline Park and Willy Wilkinson: A Conversation about Same-Sex Marriage,” Amerasia Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2006, pp. 89-96, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press.]
As the issue of same-sex marriage has sparked recent public attention and debate, the discussions seemed rarely to take the perspectives of transgender people into account. They have been even less concerned with the relation of the politics of same-sex marriage to the lives, and the political aims, of Asian American trans people. This cross-country phone conversation, held on June 18, 2005, provided an opportunity to reflect on how the same-sex marriage debate has affected our politics, and our lives, as Asian American trans people engaged in political and community work. Because Asian American transgender people have highly diverse views and experiences, all of us strongly emphasized we were speaking only for ourselves. Our comments represent only a few perspectives, and should not be taken to represent a larger community.
Pauline Park, Willy Wilkinson, and Jessi Gan collaboratively edited a transcript of the relevant parts of our conversation. Jessi transcribed the conversation and coordinated the submission.
Willy Wilkinson is an award-winning writer and public health consultant who works to increase LGBT cultural competency among health and social service providers. Since the early 1980s, Willy has organized API queer and transgender communities, and has chronicled API queer movements in various media sources. Over the past decade Willy has worked on a number of public health research and community programs serving the transgender community in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is currently the Health Care Access Project Manager at Transgender Law Center in San Francisco.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, the first statewide transgender advocacy organization in New York, which she co-founded in June 1998. Pauline led the campaign for passage of Int. No. 24, the transgender rights ordinance enacted by the New York City Council as Local Law 3 of 2002. She served on the working group that helped to draft guidelines—adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in December 2004—for implementation of the new statute. Pauline also serves on the board of directors of the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund.
Jessi Gan is a doctoral student in the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A Bay Area native, she graduated from San Francisco State University a few months after the city began conducting same-sex weddings. Jessi’s work emphasizes intersectional trans politics, and she is currently researching histories of transgender people of color.
Jessi: In 2004 I was living very close to where the whole same-sex marriage thing was happening, in San Francisco, near the Lower Haight, so it was five or six blocks away from City Hall, where a sea of couples were getting married. I was in school at the time and there was a lot of interest in the weddings at San Francisco State; it’s always been a very activist campus. Two of my professors at the time were getting married in the ceremony. I was really happy for them and it was exciting to see all this change happening. My feeling was just of all this happiness for all the people that were getting married. I knew at the time that I didn’t want to get married because, well, I’m young, and at the time I wasn’t even living with my partner—we started living together later on, but we weren’t living together. Also, for us, it’s not clear-cut as far as whether same-sex marriage would apply to us because we were born as different genders but now identify mostly as the same gender.
Pauline: Willy, what do you think? I’m interested to hear what you think.
Willy: Okay, I appreciate that! Well, I was in Oakland with my wife Georgia and we got married. We’ve been together now for ten and a half years, and we had originally gotten married with our family and friends back in ’98, but a little bird told me to go down there on day one. So, we actually went down there on February 12th, 2004 in the morning, and no one was there—I wrote about this in my piece in the Chronicle. It was interesting because we were perceived as a straight couple when we went to the front office trying to figure out where we should go to get a marriage license, and the person was just matter-of-fact, “Oh yeah, go down to Room 160” or whatever it was. So we went down there, and it was kind of like, “What’s going on? Is this really happening?” I ended up going outside City Hall for a minute, seeing Lyon and Martin getting interviewed in front of the news cameras, after having been married, with Kate Kendell of NCLR. And it was like, oh my God, you know. This is for real! This is really happening! [Laughs.]
As it turned out, we ended up being the first couple that was married in a public ceremony; they’d had a few private ceremonies. And then, Mark Leno was doing a press conference on the Marriage Nondiscrimination Act, AB 1967, named after the year that federal restrictions on interracial marriage were lifted. So we came into this room, and someone yelled, “We have our first couple!” It was after all the drama about trying to get the license, it not printing out, then not being able to do it because the forms needed to be changed, and all of that sort of thing. Which, if it had been “bride and groom,” really we were fine with that, but we know that legally that would not have been upheld. Because we are bride and groom. So they did “first applicant” and “second applicant” data, we got through all the paperwork, and we walked into this other room where they were having a press conference.
I’ve never experienced that sort of thing, where you have a whole semicircle of cameras and reporters around someone. It was all of the local and national and global networks. He was doing this press conference. Mabel Teng, who has been a great hero of this whole process—she was the assessor in San Francisco—she said, “Hey, do you mind getting married on TV?” And we’re like, “Uh, okay!” At that point I started to feel nervous, like oh my God. It hadn’t really hit me, what we were doing and what this was really all about. I think you don’t really know until you’re in the emotion of it, of, oh wow, we’re getting married! [Laughs.] In City Hall! With Mark Leno and Mabel Teng, who both married us. They were so open and sweet and genuine as they read the language they had written for the ceremony. The funny thing was, it was so traditional in a certain way like you’ve seen it a thousand times in the movies. But every word felt so real to us in that moment. Like this is so meaningful. At the end I had this moment of being terrified that they were going to say something gendered like “wife and wife,” but they didn’t, they said “spouses for life.”
The clips of couples getting married were on TV, they were on all the news channels, people all over saw them, and they continue to get played, every single time they talk about same-sex marriage in the news. What’s interesting about that is, I’m having conversations with people I never expected to have conversations with about same-sex marriage. People on the street, people I run into, my mechanic, the person who works at the post office, or someone in an elevator. So that’s kind of interesting, how it’s been this incredible public education opportunity. What was so fantastic was every single day for a whole month, turning on the news and us being top of the news. That was really great, seeing them on TV, everybody’s out there kissing and hugging and crying, all that stuff. [Laughs.] It was so powerful. And it was this sort of magical time where we were normal and we were respected. There was so much love, the spirit of what was happening in San Francisco, the fact that people who worked in the assessor’s office were working day and night and weekends—I mean, that first weekend that so many people got married, over that three day weekend, and continuing on for the rest of the month, how hard they worked to create this too. And the excitement of people jumping on planes, the way it caught like wildfire, just people were calling up their sweeties and “Hey you want to do this?” So that was great, that was really exciting.
What was interesting around the gender issue was—this is the part that I feel is hard to get at. There were a lot of trans people—or maybe they did not all identify as trans, they were people with different identities—but there were a lot of gender-variant people who got married. And we don’t usually see them on TV. We don’t see people like me on TV. That wasn’t a part of the news story. No one was talking about our gender variance, but our images were there, so there was this visual image of us. Yet most stations had a logo with two guys in tuxes or two women in a wedding dress—those little figurines you put on top of a wedding cake—with the rainbow colors. So after all the years that we’ve worked to get the media to say “LGBT,” all of a sudden it was just “gay gay gay.” There was no recognition of LGBT anymore. And that felt odd.
When I wrote this piece in the Chronicle, it was this piece about my experience and also the experience of my parents as an interracial couple. They got married shortly after the anti-miscegenation law was repealed in the state of California. So they had their own struggle, and I have mine, to get married and to have my relationship valued under the law. So I wrote this piece drawing those parallels. Really, we got over the interracial issue, we can get over this, is basically what I’m saying. The thing about it was that I just cold call sent it to the Chronicle and they accepted it right away. I was able to get it in and that was really exciting. They didn’t touch it very much in terms of the editing, which was great. But the interesting thing was what they did with the title. And I didn’t have a perfect title either, but they certainly didn’t use my title. They used something that objectified me. Because it was a first-person piece, they spoke about me in the third person rather than a title that came from my perspective.
So it was, “Family Values:”—which was a term I thought was a little cliché—“Lesbian Newlywed Breaks Barriers Just as Her Parents Did More Than 50 Years Ago.” When I initially saw that title, which they didn’t run by me or anything, it was just something I saw when everyone else saw it, I was really disappointed that they used that terminology and they used the female pronoun for me, and that it was characterized in such a way. I know the media is usually trying to simplify things for people to understand. So the idea of gender variance or different identities around gender is not something they want to include when they’re saying “this is a story about lesbians that got married.” [Laughs.]
And ultimately I got over it, but at the time I was really disappointed because that was not how I wanted to characterize my experience. And yet I didn’t have a perfect way to really do that. [Laughs.] Because I identify as a third-gendered person, and I do navigate between the lesbian and transgender communities. A lot of my experience has been in the lesbian community, and legally and socially I am often perceived that way. But also so much of my work and where I’ve lived so much has been in the transgender community. But I’m not a transsexual. So my story is a little bit more complicated. Anyway, these were some of the things I experienced around the trans issue and the media and public perceptions.
Pauline: I was surprised to see that title too. [Laughs.] I thought, “Hmm, that’s strange.” The article was great. I have many thoughts about this subject, and it’s a big topic here in New York as it is in San Francisco. Here in New York, both at the city and the state level, there’s been a lot of major action recently. Interestingly enough, it was an Asian American judge, a Chinese-American woman named Doris Ling-Cohen who wrote the decision in favor of a same-sex couple who brought suit against the city of New York. So I think that’s worth pointing out. Also there’ve been other things. There is both a same-sex marriage bill and a state DOMA bill pending in the New York state legislature. Neither of them is likely to pass anytime soon, in fact I don’t think either will pass anytime in the next three or four years.
Meanwhile there are two mayors who have been making news, three if you count Mike Bloomberg. Mike Bloomberg, as mayor of the city of New York, appealed Judge Doris Ling-Cohen’s ruling, so it’s now working its way up to the appellate court. That infuriated the LGBT community here because if he hadn’t, he could easily have let her ruling stand, in which case the clerk of the city of New York, Mr. Robles, would in theory have been legally compelled to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Bloomberg made this ridiculous speech in which he said, “I personally am in favor of same-sex marriage, but I’m going to do the LGBT community a favor by appealing this,” claiming he was doing us a favor because it would bring the case to the appellate court sooner and that’s where it needs to be dealt with. Which is ludicrous and it was a complete whitewash of the real situation. The other two mayors, there’s a mayor of New Paltz, who’s a Green Party member, Jason West, who’s straight—New Paltz is a college town, SUNY has a campus in New Paltz—Jason West started to issue marriage licenses, which caused an uproar and he’s actually now being prosecuted for a misdemeanor for issuing false marriage licenses. There’s an openly gay mayor of Nyack, which is the county seat of Rockland County, who has also very much been involved in the fight, and he’s also started taking up the cause on behalf of same-sex marriage, it’s a huge issue here in New York.
My own personal feelings are the following: It is a very controversial issue needless to say, and there are all sorts of feelings and sentiments in the community. And while I share the radical queer and feminist critiques of marriage as an institution, at least as it has developed in the past several centuries, which is largely within the patriarchal and misogynistic institutions of property, I also feel very strongly that we have no alternative as a community but to engage in the fight. Now that the battle has been engaged, we have no rational choice but to engage in this battle for the hearts and minds, as well as for legal protection and full equality under state and federal marriage law. Even if the queer community were to walk away from this issue, which I don’t think the community will and I’m certainly hopeful will not happen, it’s not like the religious right is going to go away or drop this as an issue until they get constitutional amendments in every state and a federal one as well.
I think there are several things that we have to take into account. One, and this is something I think of particular relevance for Amerasia and the API community, is that marriage can be a vehicle for partners and same-sex couples who are non-citizens to gain citizenship. When you consider the small percentage of people who are successful in their political asylum applications, and when you consider how LGBT people are being persecuted in many countries around the world, both by the state and/or by society, I think that is a not at all small consideration in considering the issue of marriage, the question of immigration. For both political asylum and the larger immigration issue I think it’s important that we get same-sex marriage because there are many people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, who would benefit enormously from same-sex marriage being recognized at the federal level as well as the state level.
The other thing I would suggest is this. Marriage and transgender rights, to my mind, are really the two hot-button issues right now in national public discourse, and clearly marriage is a big one but I think transgender rights is a somewhat distant second in terms of what could be termed litmus tests for elected officials and politicians and how they view our community. Pretty easy in cities like New York, San Francisco, L.A., if you’re a moderate to liberal Democrat to support gay rights, non-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation. That’s pretty uncontroversial. Marriage is a very different kettle of fish, and I think moderate to liberal Democrats are now scrambling to try to find a firm footing, because when civil unions were first institutionalized in Vermont, that was a radical thing. Most people seem to forget that. It wasn’t so many years ago when the notion of civil unions was really a radical notion. Now, of course, for same-sex marriage activists, civil unions are kind of a half a loaf and second-class citizenship. Most same-sex marriage advocates and activists I know are demanding full marriage equality under law.
So I think support for same-sex marriage, for candidates for public office, frankly is what separates the sheep from the goats. That and support for transgender inclusion in law. Those are the two tricky issues for politicians seeking support of the LGBT community, of LGBT political clubs, particularly LGBT Democratic clubs. I think we can judge the sincerity of politicians in part—I think not entirely but in part—on how they respond to questions about these two issues. I remember attending a meeting of the Stonewall Democratic Club, of which I’m a member here in New York, last year for a candidate for City Council from Brooklyn. Very progressive white woman. And she was fine on all the issues, all the questions that we raised, except when it came to marriage. She got very nervous and sort of hesitant, and said, “Well, I’m just not there yet.” People were clearly disappointed. But to my mind, it showed me that she simply didn’t get it, that full equality under law really means full equality under law. I think marriage is a touchstone issue. Of course George W. Bush and the religious right have been very assiduous in trying to confuse people and muddy the waters by conflating civil marriage with the religious institution. We haven’t had much help unfortunately from Hillary Clinton and other mainstream Democrats who have also engaged in discourse that clearly conflates the two as well.
So I think for all that marriage in some respects has its limitations, and certainly has a historical legacy which is mixed to say the least, I think my own view now is that we have to as a community commit to the struggle for marriage equality. But, with a huge caveat, but at the same time, each individual activist and each individual organization has to decide for themselves what their priorities are. I’m not actively working on marriage. I am focused primarily on transgender rights, in all of its various manifestations. I will say that though I support marriage and fight for marriage equality, I also resent the implication in certain quarters that we should all drop everything that we’re working on now, and every queer activist should just work on marriage.
Jessi: I think when we think about same-sex marriage there’s sometimes the question of which community do you see yourself a part of. For instance I know some transsexual people who very much don’t feel a part of the queer community, because of their identifications or their history as far as who they’ve associated with. It’s always felt to me that there’s a split between those trans people who feel they’re under the umbrella of the queer community and those who don’t.
But, some of you guys might know about the Real ID Act, it was just passed by the Congress. I think it was signed by President Bush; it basically makes it really hard to get or change your ID. As far as I’m concerned that’s a really big issue for transgender people, at least those who need to change their IDs at some point. But I was very disappointed when the Real ID Act was a big issue for transgender people as well as immigrant rights people, because undocumented immigrants would have a harder time getting identification, but I saw no interest on the part of the mainstream LGB organizations like Human Rights Campaign. I don’t remember seeing a press release come out of them, even though same-sex marriage was given a lot of attention.
Pauline: I think that’s a really good point, Jessi. I think there’s two specific reasons why transgendered people should feel invested in the marriage issue. One is that many transgendered people get married heterosexually and then transition, and so the question of whether those marriages are null and void when one partner transitions legally as well as physically, is very much an open question in most states and jurisdictions. The second issue that you sort of implicitly raised is this. I think it’ll be virtually impossible to define marriage in such a way as to exclude all transsexual and transgendered people. So the concern of a lot of people I talked to, a lot of transgender activists, is that if and when a federal marriage amendment that is politically viable is crafted, a definition might be added to that amendment that defines sex and/or gender. 
Willy: Right. Because they’re going to say, “What’s marriage?” Marriage is between a man and a woman. And then, “What’s a man? What’s a woman?” And then everyone’s screwed. I think people are not talking about that so much. Or it’s more of a hush-hush conversation that’s happening within the transgender community.
Pauline: Right, because a lot of activists don’t want to draw attention to it, which I think is prudent. But unfortunately I think that definition could have broad implications for transgendered and gender-variant people well beyond the issue of marriage. It could in theory, worst-case scenario, write into the U.S. Constitution a definition of gender that is the sex assigned at birth in a rigid way that would have a potentially devastating impact on anyone who wants to transition legally, or even gender-variant people who may not necessarily want to transition legally and physiologically but whose ID may not comport with their gender presentation.
Willy: Absolutely. That would be a huge loss. As far as I understand, everything has to be evaluated case by case and state by state around what the definition of gender is, right?
Pauline: There is, as far as I know, no definition of gender in federal law.
Willy: But it comes up in case law. For people getting married in Texas, there have been cases where they’ve defined gender within those cases based on birth sex for the purposes of marriage, right?
Pauline: Well, Littleton v. Prange is a legal precedent in the state of Texas, and defines gender in relation to birth sex regardless of— You know the case of Christie Littleton, she was a post-op transsexual who had gotten a change of legal sex designation in Kentucky before she moved with her husband to Texas. So Littleton v. Prange unfortunately has set a bad legal precedent by establishing in Texas state case law a definition of sex and gender which is really as restrictive as you could imagine.
Jessi: I guess my concerns with the same-sex marriage debate are that I’d like to see more attention focused in the national media on issues such as trans youth, homeless trans people, health care for trans people—poverty, HIV, and poor living conditions for a lot of trans people. And also issues like how class, race, and economic status figure into the different conditions of trans people.
Pauline: Yes, I agree. But I think a reason why marriage has become such a hot issue is because marriage and family recognition issues really represent a commanding height of moral authority in society. They shouldn’t, but they do. So that’s why the “M” word raises hackles and provokes such intense emotions. I don’t think the community as a whole asked to put marriage at the top of the agenda. It started with just a few same-sex couples in Hawaii nearly 20 years ago. That got the ball rolling in Hawaii, and then we saw similar things going on in Vermont and then civil unions, and pretty soon it spread from state to state. It’s taken on a life of its own. And of course both the Republican Party and the religious right have used the issue for their own ends, as some people who credit or blame the issue of same-sex marriage for the outcome of the 2004 presidential election. And it’s certainly obvious to me that Karl Rove used the issue to very cleverly tune up the right-wing media machine and fundraising machine.
Willy: I agree. It has really taken on a life of its own, and there’s no turning back, really. I think it’s extremely exciting, though, that so much has happened in so little time. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen that civil unions would just be seen as crumbs just a few years later, and that we’ve been able to envision the possibilities of us actually gaining full equality. I think that’s what the experience did for me in San Francisco. Because I was so used to second class or third class—whatever you want to call it—status that I never could have imagined our marriage could be validated under the eyes of the law and we could be treated with the same respect and dignity as heterosexual couples. I think that’s kind of what you do with marriage equality is that, it’s certainly not the most important issue, it’s taken up a lot of space in terms of the right-wing attack and in terms of the work we have to do. But fundamentally it’s this idea that the crumbs are not really good enough because we do deserve full equality. We deserve all that. And that as long as this is denied us, this basic civil right, then we’ll never be seen as equal, and we won’t be able to get anything else.
So I think it’s something around this very fundamental—like you say, it’s supercharged for so many people—but it’s this real basic human right that I think a lot of us in the LGBT community have had to get in touch with, the ways in which we’re just so used to not being equal. So yes, I agree that we need to be talking about so many other issues, but I think there’s something very compelling about seeing same-sex couples on TV, smooching all over the country, whatever, that has both elated us and completely freaked out the conservative folks, and that’s much more compelling than talking about homeless trans youth or whatever. People don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to look at those realities. They don’t charge people the same way. People can turn their head and not think about that kind of stuff.
Pauline: I think you’re exactly right, Willy. The huge irony here is that marriage, which in some ways is a very conservative institution, nonetheless has set off a struggle for legal equality with really radical potential. I think the religious right would not be so freaked out, as you put it, energized, mobilized to defeat same-sex marriage, if they didn’t realize this is in fact such an important symbolic issue as well as a practical issue. You’re right, we have all, in various ways, internalized second-class citizenship. I think what marriage did was shake up the community in a way, and people saw for the first time the possibility of full legal equality, which is a very radical step, which we’ve never had in this country before. If we were to achieve same-sex marriage in this country in the next ten years, it would be a quantum leap. And so much would follow from that, I think, that doesn’t directly relate to marriage.
But let me say this. I totally agree with you, Jessi and Willy, that we have to talk about other things like homeless transgendered youth and such, but I actually think this does relate indirectly. It is true that a lot of the couples who have been showing up at City Hall in New York and San Francisco and elsewhere represent the more privileged elements in our community, gay and lesbian middle-class white couples. True. But, there are a lot of more disadvantaged people in our community who could in fact benefit from marriage rights. If you think about health insurance, for example, is often tied to marital status.
The lack of health care, access to adequate health care, and even the lack of health insurance among transgendered people is just appalling, and in fact Willy and I are both working on the issue of transgender access to health care in San Francisco and New York. And if we were to have same-sex marriage, I bet you there are a lot of transgendered people who would benefit in terms of enhanced access to health care.
Jessi: That’s true. Right now I’m moving to Michigan and the health care there is different as far as there’s less knowledge of the needs of trans folks. Nevertheless, if I bring my partner there, we’ll still both get a certain amount of health insurance coverage, because of the terms of the university’s contract with the graduate student union. In other situations, or places, it would only be linked to marital status. So in that sense it’s very important. I feel that while same-sex marriage is important, there could be more interest in other issues. I want to not ignore same-sex marriage, but also expand the notion of what we’re all fighting for. Like pushing the coalition that’s working for same-sex marriage to think about improving health care for trans folks and including transgender people in anti-discrimination provisions. Looking at bathrooms, and trans people engaged in street sex work. I’d like to make sure all that is also given space in this.
Willy: I think that in California we definitely are seeing so many gains in other areas as well. And really, no one could have predicted that we would have so many anti-discrimination protections in so many jurisdictions around the country for trans and gender nonconforming people. If you look at just the past ten years or past five years. I recognize that people feel there is this lopsided attention and drain of resources to marriage equality, but at the same time we’re also gaining so much. Every time I open my e-mail, there’s a new victory—there’s a lot going on. Wouldn’t you agree, Pauline?
Pauline: I think so. We have made enormous progress in the last ten years. I mean the transgendered movement is just progressing at a rate that I think is probably faster than the gay and lesbian movement in the 1970s and the 1980s. Even though we’re behind in so many ways, in terms of both legal rights and also socioeconomic status, I think we have made tremendous progress and are continuing to make tremendous progress. And it’s important to recognize that as well.
Willy: Yeah. I agree. In terms of socioeconomic status, there’s still so much work to be done. But legally, we have made phenomenal progress in recent years. For example there are less opportunities for us to get thrown out of public accommodations and so forth. Unfortunately a lot of those local protections are well, not exactly symbolic, because they’re enforceable in a civil case, but most counties don’t have a local enforcement mechanism. Meaning that even if you have a nondiscrimination ordinance, there’s not necessarily the structure for one to proceed with a claim. Like in San Francisco we have the Human Rights Commission, so if you get jacked up, as I was in a public accommodation, you have a place to go and you don’t have to hire an expensive lawyer, and you can pursue that claim. Whereas in Alameda County, we have a nondiscrimination ordinance but there’s no real system for pursuing that. And I think for the most part, people aren’t going to be able to navigate the system or hire an expensive attorney to pursue it. But these local ordinances are excellent education tools and in California we also have the statewide measure. It’s important that people know it’s absolutely illegal to discriminate against people based on gender identity and expression and that they will be dealt with under the law.
Pauline: I’m looking at the latest statistics, there are currently 77 jurisdictions that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. Sixty-one cities, 10 counties, and six states, including California, Illinois, Maine, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and New Mexico. Both the Maine and Illinois state legislatures passed inclusive LGBT rights laws that included gender identity and expression as well as sexual orientation. Last year, eight jurisdictions adopted transgender rights legislation, including two in New York: Tompkins County and the city of Albany; NYAGRA played a significant role in getting the Albany city transgender rights law enacted. So we’ve made enormous progress: 2003 and 2002 were both banner years, we got 16 jurisdictions in 2002. And 15, two of which were states, California and New Mexico, in 2003. So that is really extraordinary movement forward I think, and even though there’s a hugely long way to go, I’m optimistic long-term. I think law is a weak tool of social change, but it’s a significant, important, and necessary one. My philosophy with regard to NYAGRA, my organization, is to use law as an educative tool to help educate people on issues such as violence against transgendered and gender-variant people, while at the same time getting laws enacted so that we are protected. I think it can be a very constructive dynamic if it’s used strategically.
Jessi: Can I move the conversation to ask what you guys feel about, how does being Asian American or API fit into all this?
Willy: Well, we were talking before about the immigration issue as it relates to marriage. Do you know the case of the Filipina transsexual woman who came here and was almost through the process with the INS, and then sort of got comfortable and came out to the INS officer, and then everything went awry at that point? The point being that there are API transsexual folks who are trying to immigrate through marriage. As APIs we have this legacy of discrimination directed at us based on immigration and based on interracial marriage. So I think same-sex marriage as we’re looking at it today is part of this long line of discrimination that has been directed at the API community throughout history in this country. I think it’s important for us as APIs to view it within that context.
Pauline: I was at APICHA, the API Coalition on HIV/AIDS, maybe two years ago—Sunny Shiroma runs a group called TAPA, Transgender Asian Pacific Alliance—and the group has almost all recent Asian immigrants. One of these transgendered women was from Thailand. She would like to marry her American boyfriend. She is in fact a post-op transsexual, but in Thailand they will not change the legal sex designation on your birth certificate, even if you’re post-op. And the U.S. government will not recognize what they consider a same-sex marriage. So even though she’s a post-op transsexual, and in most states if she were a U.S. citizen, she could marry her boyfriend legally.
Willy: Is that so? I thought that no matter what, on a federal level, it’s not as clear-cut for transsexuals to get married.
Pauline: Under state law, in most states, if you get a change of legal sex designation, and you’re a U.S. citizen, then you can in theory legally get married.
Willy: Under state law, but not under federal law. OK.
Pauline: But if you are a non-citizen, even if you become naturalized, if you were born in an Asian country and that country doesn’t recognize a change of legal sex designation on your birth certificate, then you could be stuck and unable to marry, even if you’re recognized in your chosen sex by the U.S. government. I’ll give you another example. In Korea there was a big to-do, I think about two years ago, because a transgendered woman got a change of legal sex designation on her birth certificate. The media made a big thing of it, and the government of the city of Seoul, the capital, decided to change the rule so no one could get the legal sex designation on their birth certificate changed.
So if you were born in Seoul and come to the United States, even if you’re naturalized, the U.S. federal government and presumably the state government would expect you to change the legal sex designation on your original birth certificate. Which would be up to the city of Seoul. Those kinds of policies could prevent a considerable number of transgendered people, even those who are post-op transsexuals, from getting married in the United States.
Jessi: I wanted to bring up, it’s seemed sort of strange to me how, there was this protest by Asian American churches against the same-sex marriages that were happening in San Francisco, and that was juxtaposed in the media with Mabel Teng, the San Francisco assessor, being publicly supportive of same-sex marriage—
Willy: And Minna Tao, her right-hand person, who was doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work.
Jessi: Right, and the API community, along with other communities of color, has often been stereotyped as being homophobic and transphobic.
Willy: It’s interesting because Pauline, you brought up the judge who’s Asian American, and we had these really powerful Asian American leaders here in San Francisco. Mabel Teng was really the face of what was happening. The mayor, of course, but she was really making sure all of this was happening on the nitty-gritty level of what they needed to do at City Hall. She was there, throughout the weekend, working day and night on this issue. And so was Minna Tao, who is an Asian American lesbian. And in Oakland we had Danny Wan, a gay council member, and Jean Quan, another council member, who were also on TV saying “we have to do this in Oakland.” We had all these Asian American leaders that were on the side of same-sex marriage.
And yet, at the same time, what was it, 7,000 Asian Christians that rallied against same-sex marriage in April of 2004. And we had our response in August 2004. It was a disappointing turnout, and then of course the Chronicle took pictures of two white lesbians and that was what they said about that rally. [Laughs.] But it was an Asian American response. We turned out on this windy, freezing August day, at the same park in the Sunset where the Christian people had rallied, to show support for same-sex marriage.
Pauline: I think clearly there are both more conservative and more progressive elements within API communities. For example the Korean Christian churches are among the most right-wing and homophobic elements in the community, but there are also very progressive elected officials. Here in New York City, there are only two Asian American elected officials, if you can believe it, and one was just elected last year. The first Asian American elected in the state of New York was John Liu, and he supports same-sex marriage. The second, Jimmy Meng, a Chinese-American businessman who is a rather conservative Democrat, hasn’t yet stated a public position on it, although I doubt that he supports same-sex marriage.
I think one of the problems is the same-sex marriage debate has been framed in terms of relatively affluent, middle-class, white gay and lesbian couples. And that’s one of the reasons why George W. Bush was able to use this issue to his advantage in the presidential election campaign of 2004, because many in API, African American, and Latino communities mistakenly believe this is an issue for privileged gay and lesbian white couples. So I think it’s important that our community articulate a different narrative. Willy, you’ve actually been part of those efforts in San Francisco. There are LGBT Latinos here in New York and elsewhere who are trying to articulate a pro-same-sex marriage agenda.
As long as it’s perceived as being about privileged white people getting more privileges, it will unfortunately be an effective tool for divide-and-conquer by those right-wing elements in the Republican Party who want to capitalize on the issue. That’s why it’s really important to put an Asian, a Latino, a Black face on this issue, so it’s more accurately perceived as being something that involves everyone, even if certain elements clearly may initially benefit disproportionately.
Willy: That’s great to hear that Latino folks are being so visible in New York City. Here in San Francisco, it’s primarily Asians that are the most visible people of color on this whole marriage equality issue. There are some Asians who will be there at every event in their wedding garb, standing on the floats. [Laughs.] We had the marriage equality float at the Chinese New Year parade for the first time this year. I was there when we marched as a lesbian and gay contingent for the first time in the Chinese New Year parade, without incident, in 1994. It wasn’t like what the Irish folks went through in New York City. No one had ever submitted an application to be part of the parade, and someone did, and it was accepted without incident. And also the lead plaintiffs in the San Francisco case, Cristy Chung and Lancy Woo, are both Asian. The case is called Wu vs. Lockyer. I think we have really been out there and visible.
Pauline: Also the Japanese American Citizen’s League was the first Asian American organization to endorse same-sex marriage.  There are two other things I’d like to mention. One is, there is in fact a tradition of same-sex coupling in pre-modern Asian societies. Although clearly these are not contemporary LGBT identities, there is a homoerotic as well as a transgender tradition. In China, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia, other Asian societies. In fact the most common term in Chinese for gay, is a reference to the emperor’s male lover. So as I like to say, it’s not just that we’re here and we’re queer, we have been here and we have been queer for over 2000 years. We’ve just forgotten about it.
Willy: Yeah. Those experiences or those behaviors have been going on forever in Asian and Pacific Islander communities in their own contexts, with their own terminologies. That’s the thing. I think people really understand this stuff on a visceral level. When they get caught up in the Americanized view, or the terminology, that’s when people run awry. But I think on a visceral level people understand it because it’s totally indigenous to our cultures.
Pauline: In fact there’s a book on Tokugawa Japan which has a reference to Korea and a tradition of so-called boy-wives in Korean villages in pre-modern times. Clearly this is different from contemporary LGBT identities because there is usually a class and age differential. But having said that, it was a same-sex couple that was essentially recognized as a married couple in Korean village life.
The other thing I would like to stress when we’re talking about APIs, is that marriage laws have been used to exclude Asian Americans from immigrating to the U.S. Like the Chinese exclusion law, where when the Chinese started to come in significant numbers to California, they passed state and ultimately federal laws that precluded these Chinese men from bringing their wives. So that, coupled with a history of miscegenation laws, are a context that we have to stress when we educate people within APA communities about same-sex marriage. That marriage laws have been used against heterosexual Asian Americans.
Willy: Absolutely. You can’t bring your wife and you can’t marry anyone of a different race when you’re here.
Pauline: And that took place in the 1850s and 1860s and led to a long history of exclusion.
Willy: We’ve talked about a lot here, and it’s great. What I was worried about was, “What is the API trans perspective?” [Laughter.] And I think that we’re showing the reality that we have much to say about many issues, and we do represent our own API trans perspective on all of these issues.