A letter on Market Days

To the organizers of Market Days at the Northalsted Business Alliance:

I write to strongly urge you to consider cancelling, or at least postponing, the Market Days festival this weekend.

Covid-19 cases and deaths are increasing again across the country, and us here in Chicago are no exception.

This pandemic has already taken so many lives from our neighborhoods and our families, and we should not be going forward with events that will inevitably raise the risk to everyone — festival goers or not.

As a resident in Northalsted, I have noticed that many businesses in the area — which include members of the Northalsted Business Alliance — are re-implementing masking and covid-19 vaccine requirements. It is clear that all of us are increasingly concerned about the delta variant, the reports of breakthrough infections amongst the vaccinated population, and the sizable remaining portion of our communities who are unvaccinated, either by necessity or, regrettably, by choice.

I cannot imagine how anyone would consider allowing an event like Market Days to go ahead.

I note that the Howard Brown Health Center has issued a public request for these events to implement strict measures in the interests of public health. And I was appalled to read in Block Club Chicago that Northalsted was planning to disregard Howard Brown’s advice in favor of the city’s, which does allow the event to go ahead.

It upsets me that one LGBTQ pride organization would so cooly disregard the request and recommendations of another, and it angers me that any LGBTQ organization would consider the city’s health advice over those of Howard Brown.

I recognize I am fortunate to not have lived through the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS crisis. But even I respect Howard Brown — an organization founded to care for LGBTQ patients in Chicago when governments and hospitals were failing us — far more than I do for the government of the City of Chicago.

How can we even consider the advice of a city government that has repeatedly fail to deliver on basic social needs — utility disconnection protections, rental assistance, providing homes for the homeless — for so many, including LGBTQ people? How could we prioritize a city government that employs the Chicago police, whose officers harassed us in the past and continue to work in ways that disproportionately affect minorities — including us — now?

This is a city government led by a mayor who has not only been repeatedly criticized for her poor response to the covid-19 crisis and her many policy U-turns after election, but is a government that went to extra effort to cover over its rainbow sidewalk outside city hall right at the end of Pride Month. This city government could not even respect the most basic of performative acts of respect for our identity and community.

How any person or organization could disregard Howard Brown — an organization founded on, and continuing to demonstrate, its caring for us in the LGBTQ community — for the City of Chicago’s advice is beyond my comprehension.

I’m sure we are all keen to move beyond this pandemic and to focus on recovering our community and our businesses. But that does us little good if more of us are sick — or dead.


Leo Ji

An attack on us all

An update

Further news updates since the publication of this post have indicated that the story was fabricated. To abuse our sympathy, loyalty and kindness for personal gain is a grave insult to the many people who work hard to protect and stand up for people like myself, who are at risk of targeted persecution, mistreatment and violence.

Incidents like this means victims of hate crimes and abuse are meant with more skepticism and disbelief exactly when such victims need our compassion and humanity the most.

Jussie Smollett was attacked because he’s gay and he’s Black.

There are rumors flying all around the Internet about the exact events surrounding the attack on the ‘Empire’ actor, which I will not repeat here.

What I will repeat are the general facts already reported by The Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Tribune:

  • that Smollett was walking in the 300 block of East North Lower Water Street at 2 a.m. Tuesday;
  • that he said two people approached him and yelled racial and homophobic slurs;
  • that he was hit and an unknown substance poured on him, and a rope was wrapped around his neck;
    • Earlier reports described this rope as a noose, although Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told the Sun-Times that it was a “thin, light rope” and didn’t necessarily resemble a noose;
  • that Smollett, in a follow-up report to police detectives, said the two assailants shouted “this is MAGA country”.

This was not a one-off occurrance. This was the manifestation of a long-running and low-level, unorganized campaign against queer people and people of color.

This is why LGBTQ+ individuals are sensitive to the portrayal of their stories and their experiences in the mass media. This is why communities of color are upset when their individual and collective sufferings are dismissed or ignored. This is the violence they talk about when individuals from these communities speak up about attacks against them.

Did I say “them”? I mean us. I meant we.

Marriage equality might have become of the law of the United States in 2015, but discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals didn’t end then. The Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1964, but discrimination against peoples of color — especially Black people — didn’t end then.

Our struggle hasn’t ended. The violence against us hasn’t ended.

I cannot tell you how much I dream that one day I’ll be able to kiss the boy I love without the fear that cold, hard metal will crash against my skull because of it.

My first trip to CAPS, then the ER

“Hi, my name is Leo. I’m a student at Northwestern University. And I suffer from serious depression-like symptoms.”

This is part two of my ongoing project to write out my personal history in an effort to untangle the emotional history and stressors of my life. Read Part One: Three, two, one: What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?

To be precise, I’ve never been clinically diagonsed with depression or anixety. No doctor has ever sat down in a white lab coat and said “You have depression” and handed me a little paper slip that says I have this medical condition.

I, therefore, can’t ethically say that I have depression, as that’s a medical condition that should be determined by medical professionals, not myself. But if I am diagnosed with depression, then I would join the approximately 6 million U.S. adults who have experienced at least one major depressive episode but never received treatment in 2016, according to statistics published by the National Institute for Mental Health.

The prevalance of undiagnosed and untreated depression among adolescents is even worse — while 37% of adults aged 18 or older who have experienced at least one major depressive episode received no treatment, that percentage rises to 60% for those aged 12-17.

I’ve heard arguments from medical professionals to not describe depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions as an “epidemic,” because mental health issues aren’t contagious from person to person. I think that’s an unnecessarily nuanced point, but I will defer to the medical experts, but I do believe that it’s far to say the prevalance of untreated depression episodes is a major public health crisis.

Suicide is now the tenth-highest leading cause of death in the United States, according to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s public health agency.

It took five years between when I first thought of killing myself and my first interaction with a mental health therapist.

For the first half of my life, the issue was one of access. Given that everyone — including my biological family members — were threats to my well-being, it’s not surprising to learn that issues of mental health were stigmatised as well. I didn’t know any therapists or counsellors or psychiatrists. I was also a legal minor, which meant that my parents had access and control over all my medical records — including anything I would disclose to a mental health professional. I wasn’t able to access any services to cure and heal my depression, anxiety, stress, fear and trauma without it also being a real threat to my life.

It’s because of this that I am now a little hesistant about issues like the age of majority, because a part of me feels that I was denied adequate medical care by law on the basis of an arbitrary age distinction. If I had been able to control my medical records while under the age of 18 to prevent my parents from knowing what doctors I was seeing and why, then I would have felt a lot more secure in seeking services, and I doubt my condition would have worsened to the point where it has now.

But the way that our legal system works assumes that every family is secure, functional and acting in the child’s best interest, until it’s really really not.

In 2015, though, I boarded a 16-hour flight to university on my 18th birthday. Which meant that from the moment I stepped onto Northwestern’s campus, I was legally in control of my own medical and academic records. That was no longer a reason not to go.

But I still. never talked to Counseling and Psychological Services throughout all of my first year. I thought I didn’t need it.

I thought that the change in environment, the making of new friends, and the fresh challenges of a university curriculum would eventually lift my spirits. I was already feeling really happy from all the excitment, and really supported because of the incredible efforts of my upperclass peer advisors — Geordan Tilley and Michael Stern — who spent over a week leading and guiding me and my group of fellow new students during Wildcat Welcome, the university’s orientation week.

At the time, I didn’t think I had depression or anxiety issues. I thought my situation was just a mood caused by a combination of the biological effects of adolescence, my conservative social environment, and my continued questioning of my sexual identity. When I arrived at Northwestern, having just turned 18, I thought I had messed up all the years of my life up to that point. I was just looking for a fresh start.

Throughout all three quarters of my first year, I dismissed any symptoms that I wasn’t OK as just “transition anxieties.” To a large extent, those were real worries — what would Ben, my roommate, be like? Would I  make any friends? Would I be accepted, welcomed, included? Would I enjoy my classes or end up absolutely hating college life and dropping out? Was journalism the right choice after all?

What I didn’t realise, though, was that these worries were caused by my underlying anxieties. I thought all these new questions were causing my anxieties and sadness.

It turns out it was the other way round.

I had listened to my peer advisors and my resident advisors about all the agencies and departments at Northwestern who could help — CAPS, CARE, the Women’s Center. I filed that information away in case it would be useful in the future, but I thought I wouldn’t ever need it.

I had managed my own life pretty well up to that point, I thought. What kind of help would I possibly need?

My first-ever trip to the emergency room was that summer between freshman and sophomore years.

I was staying in Evanston because I wanted to work over the summer at the NUIT Support Center, continuing my first on-campus job there that I had taken in April. I applied for the job simply because I found myself with some extra time between classes that I wanted to fill with something fun, and Ava, a new friend I was making at Chapin Hall, suggested that I give it a go.

Residential Services closes most of the campus houses as soon as spring quarter ends, leaving a few weeks’ gap between summer residents, like high schoolers on programs, could move in. I knew that it wouldn’t work for me, because it meant that everything in my dorm room had nowhere to go for two weeks as I didn’t know any off-campus friends and didn’t have any family members nearby. (My sister, physically closest, was over 800 miles away in Connecticut.)

So I started looking around for a sublet, and eventually found a then-junior in Medill who I knew through North by Northwestern and through the Knight Lab who was looking for someone to live in her apartment on Clark Street over the summer. She was someone whom I respected and admired, and I thought she was trustworthy, so we set up an arrangement.

This was great, I thought. You can see the apartment from the Support Center. I could walk to work in a minute. How convenient!

I had no experience in handling anything like a lease or sublease. To be fair, I don’t think she did, either. But, as things got closer to the end of spring, there were a bunch of red flags that I missed because I didn’t know what I was looking out for.

First, the terms of our deal changed from what we had agreed, and she told me that I wasn’t subletting from her, but from her roommate. Then, she told me to duplicate the apartment and mailbox keys without informing the property’s landlord. She also took ages to contact the landlord to let them know of their intention to lease to me – and when they finally did tell the property landlord that I wanted to move in, the landlord took so long to process my application and credit check that I still wasn’t approved as a tenant when the quarter ended and Northwestern was kicking me off campus.

I was scared. I panicked. I didn’t want to be living in a place that I had no legal right to be in. To some extent, if I lived there, I would be nothing more than a squatter — and I thought if the landlord did ever visit and found me or my stuff there, I could be evicted and I would essentially be homeless.

I moved all my personal belongings into that apartment and settled down for the night, but I couldn’t sleep. I was terrified that the landlord was going to enter in the middle of the night and kick me out. That weekend, I would stay outside during the day, wondering around the emptied campus and around Evanston simply because I couldn’t stay in the apartment a moment longer than I had to.

I can’t be sure if this actually happened or if it was just a drastic, fear-induced thought, but I was prepared to pack everything into my suitcases and ask to leave it at the NUIT Support Center for a few days if it came to it.

I’m more hazy about these details, but after a few nights’ panicking, high stress and lack of sleep, I called CAPS and spoke to their after-hours counselor and blurted out every detail about what was happening. She listened and suggested that I come in for a visit.

That was how I first visited CAPS.

I’m pretty sure I told NUIT supervisors that I had a medical appointment at Searle, which wasn’t exactly lying, but I also didn’t tell them that it was CAPS.

I met with a lovely therapist, whose name I can’t remember anymore, and we talked for about an hour about my housing troubles — how I was technically squatting, how I didn’t have a legal lease agreement and how that was causing my fears and anxieties. I felt pretty good opening up to her, so when she asked me about other stressors, I talked to her about how I was still figuring out if I was gay, how my parents didn’t accept me, how I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have many friends, and everything.

It was nice. Her sofa was comfy. It was the first time I had ever admitted those struggles to anyone.

She then told me that she wanted to consult other staff members to see what she should do. I agreed and sat on her sofa for a while. When she came back, she told me her plan: We were going to call Evanston hotels to see if anyone had a room where I could sleep for the night.

She started calling hotels. Hilton Orrington? No rooms. The Holiday Inn? No rooms.

The closest availability for that night was in Skokie, near Old Orchard Mall, miles away. I couldn’t make it.

But I was feeling a lot calmer, so when we eventually concluded that hotels didn’t work, I told her that I was feeling better and prepared to sleep in the apartment for a few more nights.

I felt a lot better leaving CAPS than I did going in. I even slept soundly that night.

But about a week later, everything fell apart.

Without my knowledge, one of the upperclass students whose apartment I was living in had entered while I was at work to pick up some things that she had left behind. She had not messaged or called me beforehand, and later I discovered that she had let herself in with her own key after knocking on the door for several minutes.

When I returned to the apartment at night after work, I didn’t know she had been. She didn’t leave a note or send me a message. All I could tell was that someone had been in the apartment, and my things had been moved.

I had my first panic attack.

I remember I was sitting up in bed, perfectly still. I couldn’t move. I was staring at a radiator by the living room couch that was visible through the doorway of the room I slept in. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear my heart thumping like crazy, and all I could think was “oh my god someone was in this room what if they come back at night and what do I do and who were they and are they going to come back tonight and kill me—”

When I could finally move again, I called my CAPS therapist, who had given me her direct line, and left her a voicemail message asking if she had some time to talk. She called me later that day and said that I should come in immediately to talk, and so I did.

She smiled at me like she always did and invited me into her office, and asked me what was going on. I told her what had happened.

She left the office again to talk to her colleagues, and eventually came back and said, “Look, I think you should go to the emergency room.”

I nodded. I had considered it the night before, but ruled it out because I thought it was an overreaction from the emotions and the shock. But if she was suggesting it, then it was probably a good idea, I thought. Honestly, at the time I was so scared and exhausted that I would probably have agreed with anything.

I left her office and called an Uber to take me to Evanston Hospital.

Screenshot of the Uber receipt for my trip from CAPS to Evanston Hospital.

I was there for about three hours. They really didn’t do much — I was just taken in, asked to change, and then doctors and nurses came to run check-ups. My blood was drawn. They asked me about alcohol and drugs. I was given a lot of water. (I overheard one doctor saying he wanted to get a urine sample to test for alcohol.)

I found the entire process to be exceedingly clinical — which made sense, since this was a hospital — but also reassuring. Sure, it was expensive, but I felt like I was being taken care of. I knew that nobody was going to kick me out of the emergency room and leave me to fend for myself. I felt safe.

While I was there, a social worker came in to talk to me and find out what was happening. So I told her everything that I had been spilling to my CAPS therapist only a few hours before: about my housing sublease, about being gay, being accepted, struggling with friends and adjusting. She started our conversation by taking notes in the margins of the paper on her clipboard, but about halfway through, she stopped and just looked at me as I talked.

When I was done, she reassured me that what I was feeling was valid, and then gave me information that made me feel so much better — for example, Evanston law meant that landlords couldn’t just wander in at night and find me there, and had protections for my property even if I was kicked out. She explained that, yes, it wasn’t OK for the other student to just enter without my knowledge or consent, and I had the right to demand the landlord to change the apartment locks. She suggested I reach out to Northwestern’s administrators to see if they could help.

I felt so much better. About twenty minutes after talking to her, a nurse told me to change back to my clothes, and I was discharged from the ER. (I never provided the urine sample, but I did visit the bathroom on the way out.)

Eventually, I ended up taking another sublet mid-summer from another student, and lived in Park Evanston for most of the summer. I insisted that the property management be told and I signed on as a sublessee. For about two months, I was essentially paying two rents. Fortunately enough, my parents wired me some money out of our family savings to pay for it, but the arrangement — along with the $600 bill for my emergency room visit that arrived several weeks later — still wiped out all of my NUIT summer earnings.

Somewhere amidst all of this, Jonathan Sammon gets involved, because I distinctly remember staying at his apartment and crashing on his couch for a few nights. What I can’t remember is exactly when that happens, I’m grateful for it, but I’ll mention Sammon again in the future as plays a further (and greater) role later in my college experience.

I moved back into my campus dorm for sophomore year — this time, living in a single room — a few weeks before everyone else, as I had to join NUIT’s move-in day rounds to check on all the new students and make sure they and their tech were getting settled in.

I didn’t see CAPS again for a whole year.

If you’re in crisis, there are options to help you cope. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. You can visit https://www.befrienders.org for more resources and information about suicide prevention hotlines worldwide.

Three, two, one: What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?

I was 13 when I first thought about killing myself.

I know it was that age only because I remember a specific detail that couldn’t have occurred when I got any older. After my sister, Lisa, moved to college when I was 14, I left the bedroom at the back of our third-floor 3-bedroom apartment, overlooking the fence, and into the larger bedroom that used to be hers.

The fence is an important detail because the I remember wondering how it much it would hurt if the spikes punctured my skull as I fell onto them, and resolved that if I was going to kill myself by jumping off the building, I should try and avoid those spikes.

If there’s one skill that underpins good reporting, at least according to the Medill School of Journalism, it’s the inquisitive mind to ask good questions and whiff out terrible answers. I’ve always had a curious tendency, but Medill trained my question-asking to a laser-sharp focus on people and their motivations. Friends, and interviewed sources, then compelled the other necessary skill — the active listening that now underpins my approach to all relationships.

I’ve always been surprised at how much people are often willing to share, particularly about themselves and their most personal, intimate secrets, if you’re just willing to listen. I often spend time with such people as they spill the truth about themselves — the guilty pleasures they’re too ashamed to tell, the insecurities they fear, and the secrets they regret. It is knowing this — and knowing the consequences if such information were widely known — that I’ve been critical of journalists who treat such intimacy insensitively.

It was my therapist who, during our first session a few months back, asked me to tell my own story. I was taken aback. I didn’t know what to do.

I’d spent every moment of my life up to that point trying to hide the truth about my life story. Now I was being asked to share it.

(Those who know me personally and are scoffing at that claim should recognise that there is a difference between making myself the story and making myself the center of attention. I unashamedly admit I am the latter, but I will ask you to consider how much you really know about me and my life. What’s my favourite food?)

Over the last few weeks, though, I’ve become convinced that this is good for my mental health. I believe that forming a cohesive and consistent narrative about myself will help me understand how my personal history affects me and untangle the mess of stressors and anxieties in my life.

This is part one.

Suicide is not an easy or casual thing to contemplate. Dying is an awfully permanent thing — to decide that the marvels of life are not worth continuing to exist is a serious mental condition.

In all the times I’ve been at high risk for suicide, it’s never been one single, big reason, but rather a bunch of little reasons which added up to make life miserable and nearly unlivable.

I am not alone feeling this way. The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide, a set of published guidelines developed by leading experts in suicide prevention, expressly point out that “Suicide is complex. There are almost always multiple causes, including psychiatric illnesses that may not have been recognized or treated.”

At 13, I knew that something was wrong. I hated myself. I found every day of my life to be a gentle struggle, like pushing upstream against a slow but menacing river. I thought about giving up and just ending my life, then and there, rather than taking on whatever happened next.

But the worst part was probably when I didn’t have anyone to talk to.

There’s no age by which everybody realises their sexuality, but the realisation and formation of a sexual identity are indisputably linked to puberty and adolescence.

I remember, at age 11, attending my first sex education class in primary six (the British educational system’s equivalent to sixth grade). I don’t remember our teacher’s name, but I do remember that she made us chant the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ ten times, out loud, so that the entire class of eleven-year-olds would get over giggling about these terms. (I loved that moment.)

I have hazy memories of watching educational films about ejaculation, fertilization and impregnation, and I feel like we talked at length about primary and secondary sex characteristics — all the girls were told about their breasts getting bigger and all the boys about deepening voices and strengthening muscles. All of us were taught about hair growing in new places.

What I don’t remember learning — and what I realise, now, was probably not a mistake — was how to handle being attracted to other people and what to do if what I wanted to have sex with wasn’t a woman’s genitalia.

Like basically all teenagers, my exposures to the richer senses of sex was through the Internet. I won’t go into any further detail, but I discovered and learned about an entirely different axis to both sex and to sexual pleasure and realised the inadequacy of my formal sex education.

While the Internet could fill in the details about sex that my teachers and peers could not, there was little that even folks on the Internet could do when it came to dealing with the emotions that came along with adolescence.

What do I do when I fall in love with another boy?

The city of Hong Kong, at the southern tip of what is now China, was the only place that I really knew while growing up. I’ve lived in and visited many cities, towns and villages across the world throughout my childhood — courtesy of parents who like to take the family to travel every summer — but Hong Kong was the closest thing that I had to a home.

It’s funny, because my birth coincided with the year that a new Hong Kong began in 1997. The colonial administration handed the city over to China on July 1, 1997, after over a century of British rule. I grew up along with a post-colonial Hong Kong — one of the many signs that my life, however much I wish otherwise, is inextricably postcolonial. (The only good thing that’s happened to me for being born in 1997 was when I got to go to Hong Kong Disneyland for free. It was an underwhelming experience.)

Despite the government advertising Hong Kong as an international, cosmopolitan city, the city is an exceedingly conservative place. (However, it’s a great place to do business.) The city’s populace are firm believers in traditional Chinese cultural values, evidenced when Hong Kong’s laws allow for floor numbers to skip using numbers with a digit ‘4’ (as four, in both the Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of Chinese, sounds like “die”), and the city’s architecture will still include weird features like odd angles and holes to accommodate feng shui expertise, despite the city having the most expensive land in the world.

This has huge implications for members of Hong Kong’s LGBT community, which included me for a while; the Chinese Society of Psychiatry, which is affiliated with the mainland Chinese government north of the Hong Kong-China border, only de-classified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 2001. (The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973.)

While homosexuality might be medically accepted, the idea that queerness is a mental illness, rather than another diversity of humanity, still remains pervasive in Hong Kong and Chinese society.

This line of thinking was not just shared by the general public, but by my own parents as well. My mother has, in no uncertain terms, stated that she believes homosexuality to be a serious mental disorder when I gingerly asked her about it as I first began to explore my sexuality. The anger and disgust that she expressed made me scared and frightened, and I knew that I could never come out to her — at best, she’d disown me. At worst, she might actually kill me.

This is a fear that’s shared by far too many queer children. And it shattered my world to realise that my own mother — this woman who gave birth to me and loved me and took care of me for so long — wouldn’t accept, wouldn’t support, wouldn’t recognise who I was.

I figured out I had to stand on my own. I figured I would always be standing on my own.

It is in this environment that I figured out I was gay and I had to learn how to live with that. The struggle of dealing with society’s stigmas and taboos — the shame of other people’s judgments and mutterings, and the fear you might be attacked, maimed or even killed if you did so much as say you were attracted to someone — was drilled so deeply into thirteen-year-old me that I’m still recovering a decade later.

So, when I began to feel the hormonal urges of sexual attraction toward other men, I didn’t have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t talk about my fears, my shock, my desires to anyone — not to my parents, not to my friends, not even to my teachers, who would be legally bound to share that information with my parents. I had to navigate that aspect of my biological, personal and social development on my own — a frightening prospect for even the bravest and most resilient of teenagers, a category of which I most certainly did not fall under.

Suicide prevention experts advise sharing stories of positivity and strength to help those at risk avoid choosing a terminal path. In the few times I have told this story to others, they’ve always told me about strong and resilient I am, although, in truth, I’ve always felt anything but.

Nevertheless, I survived. Despite my sadness, my crying, the pain in my heart and in my head and the nagging feeling that “maybe this life isn’t worth living after all,” I survived.

I survived my first wave of suicidal thoughts because I convinced myself that life was worth living and I was more scared of dying than whatever was coming next.

There was so much to come in my future, I thought. After all, I was 13. Statistically, the best years of my life were still to come. It was probably a better deal to wait it out and see what happens.

It was a matter of taking it day by day, moment by moment. I tackled each challenge as it came and tried not to let any single thing overwhelm me too much. I watched TV shows, primarily productions from the BBC — relatable sit-coms, especially Miranda, got me through some of the saddest days. I read news articles and listened to streaming radio stations.

The biggest danger was when I had nothing to do, because then my mind would wander and would inevitably fall into a dark pit of some kind. So I threw myself into work, and when I ran out of stuff to do, I created new things to work on.

When it came around to college applications, my admissions counsellors were impressed and mildly shocked at the range of projects and experience I was able to present — even considering how many of my peers were similarly capable or qualified. I’d taught myself several programming languages, could speak either fluently or conversationally in other human languages, had started a bunch of websites trying things in technology, social media, news, journalism and taken over an exceedingly popular and well-trafficked educational resource website. During school productions, I’d often be one of the people called on by staff technicians to run either the lighting or sound boards — once, simultaneously — because I was one of the few who could. One year, I wrote the entire script for the school’s annual play.

People around me thought I was showing off, or playing the college admissions game really well. In truth, it was neither. I wouldn’t be surprised if those things certainly did help my college applications, but I was doing them simply so that I had something to do, so that I could exhaust my body and my mind before going to bed every night so I didn’t have enough energy to think about how awful I felt and how much I wanted to die.

I had to get out of there.

Curatorial statement: How to be a good Asian American queer?

            One of the funny things about the world is that whether you like it or not, you have to live within it.

That’s been a realisation that has struck me and fascinating me ever since.

My exploratory blog posts and academic lecture discussion post have all touched on my own life struggles: How do I be a queer, gay Asian American that has lived so little on what we consider “American soil?”

I called out representation of gay-ness in the acclaimed film “Love, Simon”; questioned how body and biology relate to these critical understandings of race, gender and sexuality through Blade Runner 2049; deconstructed the very notion of masculinity to the point where I felt it could never be redeemed as a healthy concept. Even in my academic lecture post, I questioned whether I could understand and sympathise, if not agree with, someone whose conservative ideologies were directly hurting me and people like me.

There’s a part of me that feels pretty bad about how, for several weeks, I more or less co-opted parts of class discussion and turned it into a group therapy session. I recognise that it probably wasn’t what most people had signed up for when they added the class so many weeks earlier. The pyschologists and therapists I’ve seen tell me about how strong I am and how much I’ve managed to accomplish without help. Well, they’re partly right, but I have the help and support (given willingly or grudgingly) of the people around me in this endevour, and I do wish to thank and acknowledge everyone for putting up with me and giving me the support I was desperate for over the last ten weeks.

There’s probably a reason why research has found that LGB youth are at greater risk for depression and suicide (Centers for Disease Control and The Trevor Project. The data sources used by both did not systematically collect information about transgender young people, so neither the CDC nor The Trevor Project make claims about risks for such people — although it probably isn’t better.). When you feel alone and trapped living in a world — a space, a geography — that explicitly and implicitly tells you that who you are is wrong, immoral, worthless and disgusting and that even those who love you most will reject you when they find out who you truly are, there’s a really good chance that you might decide this world is one that actually isn’t worth living in.

adorable animal breed canine
This puppy has nothing to do with the content of my post, but after the last paragraph, I thought a photograph of a cute dog was necessary. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Here’s a bombshell: I’m not out to my parents. For those of you with the luxury of not having to handle this process, I’ll say what so many other people have said in the past: Coming out is a unique and individualized experience for every individual, and there’s no script — no normative narrative — that tells us what to do. Friends and some family members have either figured out for themselves, had this bombshell dropped on them, or I’ve subtly hinted it in other ways. I’ve always known — no, felt — that there’s a part of me which so desperately wishes there was just some book, some film, some step-by-stsep instruction guide that I could follow on “how to be a good Asian American queer.” (There is, however, a guide on how to be a good journalist covering queer Asian Pacific Islander lives, stories and issues, which made me very happy.)

I think that’s what connects my blog posts: a frustation at the world and a desperate attempt to continue to secure my place within it. For two decades, I’ve wondered around the surface of this planet, trying to find a geography amongst which I could live my life without being threatened by my social environment for being who I am. I’m upset at “Love, Simon” for pretending that society thinks being gay is socially accepted and queer people of color don’t exist. I’m upset at “Blade Runner 2049” for trying to make Orientalism palatable by shifting it onto a non-bio-human character. I’m upset at Hak-Shing William Tam because his actions drove a wedge between Asian American activists and queer activists and implying that queer Asian Americans don’t exist. I’m upset at men because, in pursuit of our own fragile identities of “manliness,” do we really have to be so problematic and can’t we try to do better?

Against this backdrop of seemingly intractable social problems, it’s tempting to pick one identity issue and fight it as identity politics. But I’m not going to be able to freely live any one of these identities unless and until I can live all of them.

In dark times like these, there’s often a silver living, and here, it’s this: for two decades, I’ve wondered around the surface of this planet, trying to find a geography amongst which I could live my life without being threated by social environment for being who I am. I haven’t quite found that space yet, but over the last eleven weeks, I’ve realised I am no longer searching for this mythical land on my own.

Thanks, everyone.

Northwestern students who need support are urged to reach out to Counseling and Psychological Services at 847-491-2151, the Dean of Students Office at 847-491-8430, the Chaplain’s staff at 847-491-7256, and/or Residential Life staff in your building. University faculty and staff seeking assistance may contact the university’s Employee Assistance Program at 855-547-1851. All services are available 24/7.

LGBTQ youth at risk or in need of support may also reach out to the Trevor Project’s LifeLine 24/7/365 at 866-488-7386, and can also reach the Trevor Project via chat or text at https://www.thetrevorproject.org/.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and can also be reached via chat at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

What does it mean to perform healthy masculinity?

            After all, we never really answered this question.

Throughout the last three months, we have discussed, either explicitly or implicity, the concept of masculinity.  We have identified how systems of power are constructed to perpetuate a society that privileges white, cisgender, heterosexual men; we have also addressed how such classifications are problematic and incomplete, and that our notions of what does or does not fall within such identities is blurry at best.

To understand what it means to perform a healthy masculinity requires deconstructing what masculinity means through multiple framings to determine a healthy construction, and I seek to do so by examining the different ways that scholars we have read over the last three months have already done so.

First, I wish to draw a distinction between performing healthy masculinity and performing masculinity healthily. The former requires examining masculinity as it is portrayed and performed in social contexts; the latter requires examining masculinity as it applies to the individual in a way that is not self-destructive. It is possible to argue that the two are interrelated, but I will pass over that discussion here and instead examine masculinity in a social context: How an individual’s performance of masculinity leads to constructions of masculinity, and whether we can construct a healthy masculinity.

We begin with a basic denotation of the concept of masculinity: a set of qualities and attributes generally associated with men. While social traits such as independence and assertiveness are established to be normatively masculine traits, I argue that the concept of masculinity cannot be disassociated from sexual acts: masculinity, as it is constructed within our dominant media narrative, is associated with promusciously and repeated acts of sexual copulation. The 2001 episode of Friends, “The One with the Videotape,” provides one example: Ross Geller’s lack of sexual activity for several months is seen by both himself and by Joey as a problem, and none of the other characters question that throughout the rest of the episode. Ross is seen as failing to be a man because of his lack of sex with women.

It becomes clear, then, how the association of sexual conquest with masculinity can lead to problematic performances. We can replace the heteronormative assumption of having sex with women by attempting to pair masculinity with having sex with men, but even then this leads to many of the same problems, as identified by Richard Fung critically in Looking for My Penis and by Noel Alumit theatrically throughout The Rice Room. A queer masculinity, therefore, requires not only eschewing the male-female sexual binary but also the man-woman gender binary and the power structures that are built within it.

The links connecting sex and power to masculinity remain essential even when we view masculinity through a lens of race and racialized sexuality. Fung recognizes, in Looking for My Penis, the particular portrayal of Asian-ethnic men as bottoms in gay porn, drawing upon the hypomasculinization and desexualization of Asian men and the prevalance of white-centrism in pornography that is meant to be diverse and otherwise “international.”

While Fung identifies the many problems in commercial gay porn that upholds white centrism, he does not go so far to deconstruct how portrayals of a racialized sexual character — the gay Asian porn actor — contributes to the structures that underpin our understanding of masculinity. But we can draw upon his analysis to understand how masculinity is constructed as white-centric: Fung identifies how at least one porn film reframes Asian-Asian desire from a white perspective, and another film with Asian, Latinx and Black characters never depicts two people of color together, but always individually with a white man. We can, therefore, argue that even when examining men in a non-white, non-heterosexual context, we can see the men of color actors described by Fung are not considered masculine and are unable to access the identity of masculinity.

If masculinity is partially inaccessible to non-heterosexual men of color, then we can understand masculinity to be a primarily white, heterosexual and cisgender construction, with a significant emphasis on sexual intercourse with women. A healthy masculinity, then, requires including these understandings into masculinity’s definition of what it means to be a man. But, as Alok Vaid-Menon in Femme in Public and Adrian Tomine in Shorting have demonstrated, a man who demonstrates sensitivity, understanding, compassion and respect for women’s bodies is seen as sensitive, effeminate, or queer. In such a circumstance, then, can we construct a healthy masculinity, or is “healthy masculinity” inextracibly a contradiction in terms?

The cake fight is over but the question wasn’t answered

The Supreme Court’s ruling is impressive legal gymnastics that allow it to avoid answering the question of what wins in a conflict between the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion exercise and the right to equal protection under the law.

But this unanswered question would undoubtedly come up before the Supreme Court again, and it needs an answer. We cannot allow religion to become the method by which individuals and groups in this country can discriminate against people they don’t like.


On personal politics, an academic lecture post

            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?

Do Oriental women have to be Asian or biologically human?

            Much has already been written about <em>Blade Runner 2049</em>. Critics have examined the film through the lens of gender (<a href="https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/01/20/gender-politics-blade-runner-2049/">International Policy Digest, Jan. 20 2018</a>) (<a href="http://collider.com/blade-runner-2049-women/">Collider, Oct. 13, 2017</a>) and the lens of race (<a href="https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/10/06/25457531/race-and-blade-runner-2049">The Stranger, Oct. 6 2017</a>) (<a href="http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/why-dont-dystopias-know-how-to-talk-about-race.html">Vulture, Aug. 4, 2017</a>), with particular focus on how <em>2049</em> follows a trend within the science fiction and cyberpunk genres of using Asian cultural symbols but not including Asian characters (<a href="http://www.slashfilm.com/blade-runner-2049-asian-culture/">Slashfilm, Oct. 12, 2017</a>) (<a href="https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mb7yqx/cyberpunk-cities-fetishize-asian-culture-but-have-no-asians-blade-runner">Motherboard, Oct. `10, 2017</a>). But while there has been some examination of the character of Joi from a gender perspective, I have been unable to find an critique of Joi specifically from the persepective of race.

In this post, I explore the character of Joi in 2049 from a racial lens, arguing that although Joi, portrayed by Ana de Armas, a Cuban actor, is not of Asian descent, we can see the character from an Orientalist perspective.

As Nadine Naber wrote in “Decolonizing Culture”: “Edward Said argued that ‘Orientalism’ is a European fabrication of ‘the East,’ that ‘the Orient’ is shaped by Eupoean imperialist attitudes and assumes that Eastern or Oriental people can be defined in terms of cultural or religious essences that are invulnerable to historical change.” (Arab and Arab American Feminisms, pg. 80) Here, I construct Orientalism along the lines that David Eng, in his critique of M Butterfly, alluded with his identifying of the “lotus blossom fantasy”: Oriental women are portrayed as being submissive, passive and subservient to a (often imperial and white) man.

Joi eptimoizes these traits with her on-screen behaviours. She is first introduced to the audience through a classically patriarchal style: When K, portrayed by Ryan Gosling, returns to his apartment, Joi cooks for him, asks about his day, takes his coat and lights his cigarette; when she realizes this isn’t cheering him up, she switches between several outfits instanteously, asking K which one he likes best. The scene firmly establishes her nature as a hologram and her role as a servant to her male master/owner, an identity that is reinforced later when billboards advertise Joi as an entertainment product and when Luv, who is employed by the company that makes Joi holograms, asks K if he was “satisfied with our product.”

A billboard projection of Joi points at K (Ryan Gosling) in a scene from Blade Runner 2049.

Joi begins as a character confined to the apartment, but through technical limitations rather than socially constructed rules. She cannot leave the projection range of the holographic ceiling track until K presents her with an Emulator, a device which allows her to leave the apartment with K: the first time this happens, Joi and K make it to the roof and it rains, revealing both her breasts and her nature as a holographic projection — then Joi says to K, “I’m so happy with I’m with you.” Later, when Joi suggests breaking off the antenna so her existence will be confined to the safety of the Emulator rod, she says that K will have to protect her — like “a real girl.” Both these examples are repetitive performances of an Orientalist attitude and depicts Joi as subject to and subservient towards K.

The strongest connection with Orientalism can be drawn from the scene where Joi calls a prostitute, Mariette, to act as the physical body for K to have sex with. In this scene, Joi wears a qipao (or cheongsam, depending on your preferred dialect of Chinese), the same as in the film’s promotional materials — and a determinedly Chinese article of clothing. While I will avoid exploring whether or not this constitutes cultural appropriation (as the dispute over an American teenager wearing one to her prom have sparked), it is clear that 2049‘s filmmakers are drawing upon Orientalist ideologies to develop Joi’s character as a subservient pleasure-providing sex product. The fact that she wears this clothing during the most sexually charged scene between K and Joi serves to further validate the notion that Orientalist attitudes are used to construct the character of Joi.

But simply borrowing Orientalist ideals to create a subservient woman-character does not prove that the film is Orientalist or that Joi is Orientalized. After all, the actor who portrays Joi is not ethnically Asian. A full examination of Joi through a racial lens necessitates acknowleging the character’s status as a hologram, and therefore an ontological lens must be utilized as well.

This is perhaps the greatest artistic accomplishment of Blade Runner, both original and 2049: the films force a examination of what human-ness means in a contemporary context. From a biologically essentialist perspective, Joi is not human; she is a holographic projection, dependent upon artifically-manufactured technological products (the ceiling track, the Emulator) to even exist. She can only interact with the world in a limited setting (Joi can light K’s cigarette, but cannot cook food, move a plate, or open a car door) and needs another person to give her physical form so she and K can have sex. Yet K demonstrates both romantic and sexual desire for her, including experiencing a significant sense of loss when she is destroyed by Luv. If we are willing to disassociate the physical body from our sense of what it means to be human, then Joi is as human as any other human being.

Within 2049 — where there are Asian characters are few to none — we can critically examine race as a sociocultural categorization rather than interpreting it as a biologically essentialist category. I therefore argue Joi is “Asian” in the Oriental sense of “Asian-ness,” epitomising the pinnacle of an Oriental woman as viewed from a white colonialist gaze: a fetishized sex object.

Viewers may find the future Los Angeles depicted in 2049 to be largely acceptable — after all, Joi is just a manufactured product. As long as actual human women aren’t being treated as fetished sex objects, everything’s OK. Yet such an attitude merely shifts the problems of white colonialism, Orientalism and issues of race/gender/sexuality relations onto another frame of biological essentalism and a debate on ontology.

We now recognize an intersectional framing of social oppression on the axes of race/ethnicity, sex, gender, nationality/citizenship and more. I will not be surprised if there is a day in the future when discussions of social oppression include bioessentialism, and we fight against the distinction of bio-humans versus others in the same way we are fighting against the socially constructed distinctions of gender, race, sex and identity today.

When a cake is not just cake


I appreciate the argument, but Kenan Malik is presenting a different frame of reality. There cannot be a legal difference between discriminating against a class of people or discriminating against a particular individual, or else we effectively destroy the effectiveness of anti-discrimination legislation. A person who yells “Indians should go back to their own country or be shot” could argue that their attack was aimed at all people of Indian ancestry, not just the person he was yelling at, and therefore was protected under the freedom of speech.

I do recognise the the UK and the US are spare legal systems, and Northern Ireland, as a part of the United Kingdom, does not have a constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech, nor is the UK’s legal system as engaged in ensuring a secular government as the US is. But the case described here has remarkable parallels to Masterpiece Cakeshop, currently pending before the US Supreme Court. We’ll have to see how both supreme courts rule to determine whether these two countries will uphold the hard-fought anti-discrimination protections against LGBTQ+ peoples, or whether these protections will be eroded and once again subject LGBTQ+ communities to becoming second-class citizens.