A Blog by Leo Ji Thoughts and scribblings

On personal politics, an academic lecture post

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            When our personal beliefs and social politics clash, are we obligated to speak out, however controversial? How should we draw a balance when our desire to improve the experiences of one group of people against oppression seems to clash with another group's?

When Hak-Shing William Tam attempted to withdraw as an expert witness in the court cast against California’s Proposition 8, he cited concerns for his personal safety, his desire to not be burdened by the judicial process of discovery and his not wanting to defend the case for banning same-sex marriage in California. The court denied his motion:

In his motion, Tam fails to identify a procedure through which he can withdraw as a defendant prior to entry of final judgment against him. Nevertheless, Tam’s burdens as a defendant will be complete upon entry of final judgment. Tam’s motion to withdraw accordingly is DENIED AS MOOT.

Justin Tse, a visiting professor of Asian American Studies at Northwestern University, discussed the involvement of Hak-Shing William Tam, also known as Bill Tam, in the California debate over same-sex marriage. Tse’s argument was Tam’s amicus against same-sex marriage was not motivated solely by a cultural or religious objection to same-sex marriage or discrimination against same-sex partners, but rather his conservatism can be analysed through the model minority framework. According to Tse, Bill Tam saw same-sex marriage as a threat to heternormative Asian American families and their social mobility and ability to access higher classes in U.S. society.

Tse put forward two passions that he sees in Tam’s arguments: first, the passion against social disintegration; second, the passion regarding private space. His desire for Asian American families to assimilate into white America through supporting and upholding heteronormative social structures, like marriage, would fall under the first passion. Same-sex marriage, insofar as it queers the concept of marriage, threatens the fabric of American society that Bill Tam wishes Asian Americans could assimilate into; therefore, his motivations for supporting Prop 8 can be understood as trying to perserve the design of society he wishes for Asian Americans to enter. (The second passion, about private space, centers around differing interpretations of what is public and private and is less relevant here.)

Tam has, in particular, asserted how heteronormative constructions of marriage are important and essentalist to Asian Americans, because nuclear Asian culture meant that Asian American families would not tolerate their children “wondering” if they were gay after learning about same-sex marriage in school. We can recognise how such claims are hurtful and damaging to same-sex couples, and we can also recognise how Tam’s assertions wedge a divide between Asian American communities and LGBTQ communities, and understand how Asian American LGBT people would be particularly torn by Tam’s words.

I ponder this intrepretation because I feel it strikes at a deeper issue: Can I really blame Bill Tam for saying the things that he did? If we do recognise Tam to have a passion against social disintegration and assume he was concerned about the threats to assimilation of Asian Americans in the U.S., then can we really blame him for reacting to what he perceived to be a threat? How should we — including I — respond to people who say hurtful things about one group of people targeted for discrimination out of a desire to help another discriminated group?

By Leo Ji
A Blog by Leo Ji Thoughts and scribblings