A little more than a year ago, I walked into the kitchen to show a close relative a video I found on TikTok of two men in a romantic relationship. I was drawn to the video because they seemed to be happy together, and because I am a gay man, the representation made me smile. I wanted to share part of that warm feeling with my relative.
So it came as a shock to me when her first comment was that the creator of the video, an Asian man, had gotten with a white man more attractive than himself.
The race of the couple was not something I had focused on at first. And while certainly, my relative might have just been making a simple observation, the creator’s boyfriend was barely visible throughout the entire video, and it was impossible to fully see his face. Meanwhile, the Asian creator was in full view to be swiftly critiqued by my relative, a woman who also happens to be Asian.
My previous happiness had been completely shattered and replaced with hurt feelings and a sense of bitterness. I immediately jumped to the defense of the Asian man, telling my relative that I just wanted to show her the relationship and that the creator of the video was not ugly or unattractive compared to his boyfriend.
While I was exasperated, my relative seemed confused, unaware of why I had become so defensive over her seemingly harmless critique. Little did she realize, her comments about this random Asian man on the internet in relation to his boyfriend only served as a reminder of my childhood.
Before I even entered middle school, I recognized that I was seen as undesirable. Even though my Asian family members were quick to reassure me of my attractiveness, they would also call the majority of Asian men ugly. I remember people around me talking about the unattractiveness of Asian men and their small penises and short stature. And while I wish I could claim that these comments only came from non-Asian people, unfortunately, this stereotypical view of Asian men is pervasive within the Asian community.
The society that influenced my family members also bombarded me with media that dehumanized Asian men by stripping them of their sexuality and placing them into stereotypical roles of weakness and subservience. Friends and other students, while they would often not call me undesirable, would make comments on the appearance and behavior of Asian men as a whole. Regardless of the people around me, I always felt inadequate, ugly and unwanted.
My problems were only further exacerbated by coming into my queerness and accepting my femininity throughout middle and high school. Unsurprisingly, I watched straight porn around this time and only switched to gay porn once I had begun to accept myself. And while watching porn was enjoyable, I felt somewhat empty. The people I observed on screen were nothing like me — they were white and masculine while I was Asian and feminine.
When Asian men are present in gay porn, they are usually resexualized in a way that emphasizes their sexual innocence, cuteness and femininity, as well as their perpetual “bottom” status. In some ways, this mimics the sexualized view of straight Asian women. While I hated the fact that I would rarely see Asian men in other roles, I also hated that I fulfilled some of the stereotypes that surrounded me throughout my life. I hated that I could see myself in these feminine Asian men in gay porn and that I was confined to that role.
While I am naturally feminine and want to play into my cuteness, the option seemed to be stripped from me entirely as a gay Asian man before I could even develop my sense of self. I was bound to be seen as ugly and desexualized by the people and society around me while simultaneously being viewed as cute and destined for sexual exploitation by other queer people behind a screen.
Even though the portrayals of my identity as a fem gay Asian man continue to frustrate me, I have learned that neither my family, my friends, my community or the world determine my identity. That is something that is only meant for me, and while I fulfill some stereotypes, I am still a complete person that can never be captured or forced into a singular idea within someone’s mind. Their perception of me is not the reality of my life and should not deny me my humanity as a sexual, multidimensional human being.
I realize that other people might have similar experiences regarding sexuality and dehumanization, and in some ways, the idea that I am not alone fuels me to live my life entirely as myself. I feel a sense of obligation to help shatter the world’s efforts to strip me of my own personhood and to uplift other marginalized people.
The world doesn’t have to want me in order for me to love myself. While learning to love my identities is a lifelong journey, I will unapologetically embrace every aspect of myself and my sexuality. Perhaps then I can change the minds of people such as my relatives or the people who only view my identities from behind a screen.
Joaquin Najera writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].