Building Intergenerational LGBTQ AAPI Communities
I find myself attending LGBTQ Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) events with less and less frequency over time. At one point, queer AAPI community events made up most of my calendar; now, hardly at all. Part of it is that other activities and responsibilities occupy my time, including family responsibilities. Part of it is that my tastes have changed – I am now much happier spending an evening with a few friends at home rather than going out. And speaking of going out: part of it is my lifestyle has changed. I was recently invited to an event that started at 10:00 p.m.! I mean, who does that?! Oh, right, I did, once upon a time.
And to be frank, part of it is that being the oldest person in the room over and over again takes a toll. I recently went on a search for my AAPI lesbian/bi/trans elders, and I (re)discovered how few of us there are, who are out and over 50. And over 60? Forget it. Like, count-on-two-hands few. Hardly what you could call critical mass.
At the same time, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people who are young, queer, and AAPI yearn for a connection to their elders and their histories, to know that others came before them and they’re not alone, and to learn from our experiences. Current leaders of LGBTQ AAPI groups are reassured to learn that the challenges and schisms they face now are the same ones we faced years and decades ago. OK, maybe reassured and also supremely frustrated.
So then I wonder where my compadres are. Well, they’re probably spending a quiet evening at home, or taking care of household and family responsibilities. Maybe sleeping. And circling back to those challenges and schisms I mentioned, probably as weary of the scene as I get sometimes.
There are inevitable constraints on what kinds of spaces naturally lend themselves to multigenerational participation (event start times, for example!). Our respective interests, frustrations, preoccupations are quite different from each other’s. Our cultural cues sometimes feel worlds apart.
And as with any intergenerational space, opportunities to misunderstand and be misunderstood abound. We each feel that we know better, that we’re right, that the other should listen and learn from us. We each feel the pain and invisibility of ageism.
That said, it’s pretty clear that there’s a desire, on all sides, to have multigenerational spaces. We all light up when we spend quality time with people of different generations. There’s no question that multigenerational spaces support all of us – I’d even go so far as to say we need them for our survival as an LGBTQ AAPI community.
The International Longevity Centre-UK’s “Intergenerational Projects for the LGBT Community” toolkit outlines the many benefits of such spaces:
- Provide a space where young people can talk to older people about common experiences (such as coming out).
- Provide role models for younger LGBT people by meeting older people who are comfortable and confident in their identity and who are simultaneously successful in their working lives and personal relationships.
- Provide a space where any negative generational perceptions can be challenged. Some younger participants in the projects reported that they held negative views of older LGBT people before the projects began. From the perspective of older LGBT people, the projects allow older LGBT people to learn about the diversity of sexual and gender identities that exist among younger LGBT people.
- Help prevent and overcome a relatively high degree of loneliness and social isolation among older and younger LGBT people, by bringing them together.
- Provide an alternative forum for debate and support for younger and older LGBT people to discuss their common needs as service users and the discrimination or barriers they may face in accessing services.
- Provide a space where older people can interact socially with younger people and improve the confidence of older people in communicating with younger people, which may be of particular value given that service providers are likely to be of a younger generation.
- Provide a useful way of bringing different identities across the LGBT spectrum together, where historically projects may have worked with one group in isolation.
- Allow younger LGBT people to learn about LGBT history directly from older people, which can lead to a greater appreciation of the liberties currently often taken for granted, and also highlight the challenges that remain.
- Provide a method for strengthening the visibility of the LGBT community in wider societal terms. Bringing older and younger people together to work on a community project can highlight the diversity, but also the cohesiveness of the LGBT community, to the wider community.
- Help participants understand, construct, and share their experiences of identifying as LGBT.
While it’s heartening to see more groups and communities working to build those spaces (and even a toolkit specifically for this!), few are geared toward the AAPI community. The API Equality-Northern California’s Dragon Fruit Project, an intergenerational oral history project, offers a wonderful place to share our stories, house our legacies, and learn from one another. We’ve also seen other efforts at local levels to offer multigenerational gatherings and learning opportunities.
I’d also promote intergenerational co-mentorship programs, ones that foster what Suzanne Pharr calls “the fundamental belief that we are all people of worth. Its methods are asking questions and listening intently and respectfully for the answers. Where it leads us is toward the sometimes illusive dream of equality and justice – which can contain all our best ideas without requiring an age i.d.” We all can use some retooling of our toolkits, like learning to ask questions and listen intently about how concepts of race and gender have changed over the years and how those changes affect our experiences as people who are L, G, B, T, and /or Q.
Ultimately, my hope is that as we do approach a critical mass of out LGBTQ AAPI seniors, we increasingly build intentional intergenerational spaces, until they’re so organically embedded that we no longer have to work at it or even think about it.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.