Editor’s note: Doreena Wong is Policy Director of Asian Resources, Inc, a social service agency in Sacramento. She has also served as the Director of Health Access for Asian Americans for Advancing Justice – LA and senior attorney of National Health Law Program (NHeLP). In 2005, she was founder of API Equality-Los Angeles whose mission is “empowering Asian and Pacific Islander communities to achieve LGBTQ, racial, and social justice.” This is transcribed from a Zoom interview held on 10 July 2022.

My Chinese Heritage

I don’t know what generation I am. I was born in 1951 in San Francisco’s Chinatown. My father, Raymond Quong Wong (1916-2012), came from the Guangzhou area to attend UC Berkeley in 1941. He studied agricultural economics, and his intentions were to finish graduate studies and return to China. But the communists took over China in 1949, and he could not return. Actually, my grandfather was born in the U.S. and a citizen. My grandfather, Wong Hung Jee, published one of the first Chinese-language newspapers in San Francisco Chinatown. The paper was pro-Guomindang. I remember when Grandfather passed away; they had a funeral parade for him in Chinatown.

As agricultural economics is not very applicable in California, my father had a hard time finding work. He couldn’t even get a job as a bank teller in San Francisco Chinatown. He started his own business. He was very friendly and became an insurance broker for the small businesses in Chinese America. He was part of Lee, Wong, and Leung on Waverly Street. Mom worked as the office administrator. My mother, Bernice Lee Wong (1919-2008), was born in San Francisco.

When I was two years old, our family moved to San Mateo, the ‘burbs. I am the youngest of four children. Although my parents spoke Mandarin, Cantonese, and English, we started speaking more English. Our parents didn’t want us to have an accent. I didn’t even get sent to Chinese school. San Mateo was then a working class integrated community with lots of Asians, African Americans, and Latinos. When I was thirteen, my father moved us again. He didn’t even tell my mother! We moved to the more affluent Millbrae.[1] We were the first non-Whites in that neighborhood in 1964. I heard later that San Francisco Giant Willie Mays had wanted to move into the neighborhood, and they wouldn’t let him. I was the only non-White student in junior high at that time. It was a traumatizing adolescence. I didn’t understand why everyone was so unfriendly. Was it because I was no fun? Was I too shy? It was not until much later that I realized the other kids couldn’t relate to me, the “other.”


When I went to UC Santa Cruz, I really woke up. This was 1969! In the 1969 commencement, imprisoned Huey Newton was given an honorary degree by the students. After the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State shootings, UCSC had student strikes and anti-Vietnam strikes that shut down the campus for much of the Spring of 1970. What a political awakening! The Asian American Political Alliance had a branch at UCSC led by Shelley Wong; she is a couple of years older than me.[2] I was completely influenced. I became aware of being Asian American; I came to understand the political ramifications of the Vietnam War; and I saw these strong Asian feminists. And I was just a Freshman! Those were exciting times.

UCSC then had less than 10% Asian population. After that first year, activities died down a bit. The book Our Bodies, Our Selves was first published in 1970; I joined a group that talked about the book. UCSC had their first Women’s Studies class in 1971. I finished with a bachelor’s in biology in 1974.

I returned to the Bay area, living near 16th and Church which was a mixed neighborhood. I was getting training to be an x-ray technician. The women’s movement focused on Consciousness-Raising groups or CR groups. The mantra was “the personal is political”, and we were opening up and sharing our experiences with each other. But I didn’t feel that comfortable as most of these feminists were White. I couldn’t relate. Where was my story? I thought maybe if I organized an Asian women CR group, I would find a safe space. There were other CR groups of women of color in the Bay area.

At this same time, I was trying to come out as a lesbian. I had fallen in love with my college roommate earlier. But I had not even been able to come out to myself. It took me a long time. Growing up, I had never known an Asian lesbian or gay, or even a White lesbian or gay. I watched my first gay parade in 1976. I thought there was something wrong to have feelings for another woman. I didn’t think it would be acceptable to my parents, but of course, they would never even talk about sexuality. In truth, I was out in the community a long time before I came out to my family. It wasn’t easy.

My parents didn’t really know what I was doing. My father would consistently ask me if I was dating anyone. When I was in my 30s, I remember my mother asked my father to stop asking me about it. He stopped. I wondered if Mom suspected I was lesbian. I guess I was lucky that my older siblings were married. It might have relieved some pressure.

I really wanted a lesbian women of color CR group. I started organizing.[3] I co-founded Asian Feminists or Asian Women Feminist Group in the mid 1970s with Canyon Sam.[4] At meetings, we took turns to share our experiences. Some of it was very emotional. I think for many of us Asian American women then, it was easier to be “feminists” than to be “lesbians”. We were definitely feminists. Kitty Tsui, Canyon Sam, and Nellie Wong went on to Unbound Feet, a feminist writing collective in 1979. We established Phoenix Rising for Asian lesbians.[5] We wanted to create a feeling of community for lesbians, trans, and bi-women.

I volunteered for the Lyon-Martin Clinic on Mission Street in San Francisco. It was established in 1979 to serve lesbians, trans, and other women. I was on their Board. I thought about going back to school to become more of an effective advocate for social change. My partner at the time encouraged me to think about law school. That was such a foreign concept for me; I even worried about my English skills. Could I be an Asian Perry Mason – as Mason was the only attorney I knew? I got into New York University School of Law as an older affirmative action student in 1984. That was the first time I went out of California. I also didn’t know that NYU was really like a private school, and my classmates were from Harvard, Yale, and the like. I was from UC Santa Cruz; they didn’t even have grades when I was in college! There were about 350 students in our class, of which about 20 were of Asian descent. It was a total culture shock.

The good thing was I met my wife, Jennifer Pizer, there.[6] Near our first days on campus, she was right behind me in line to get our student ID cards. We became friends, and then we realized we were both lesbians. We became members of the Lesbian and Gay Law Students group. I was also with the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association.

I had vowed to myself that I would be out in law school and onwards. I had been closeted in parts of my life in San Francisco, and New York would be my new start. I knew I wanted to work in the community and in public interest; I knew I wasn’t going corporate. I joined Asian Lesbians of the East Coast (ALOEC).[7] June Chan was a biologist from Cornell; another member was a writer; there was a nurse; we were from a wide range of backgrounds. Most were lesbians, but some were bi. At that time, there were few trans. Some were fem, butch, dykes… We were in our 20’s and 30’s then. I started meeting with them as one of my support networks. We all need communities. We came to realize that lesbians are in all kinds of places. We were forming a bigger informal network. We organized out of necessity for ourselves.

Organizing for Recognition and Rights

In 1987, I graduated from law school and moved to Washington D.C. I formed another group, DCAL or D.C. Asian Lesbians. We started planning to join the Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.[8] We wanted a contingent, and we wanted to reach out to Asian lesbians from other parts of the nation. For the march, I had about 25 people staying with us! We organized performances and workshops. The Asian contingency was hundreds. New York Times reported 300,000 total marchers; the Washington Post said it was 500,000.

There were Asian women from Los Angeles, women from Chicago, etc. We thought it was time for us to come together without piggybacking on somebody else’s event. We should organize ourselves. The Second March gave us a $3000 grant, and we used it to organize Asian Pacific Lesbian Network (APLN) in 1987. With $3000, we organized a national retreat, the Asian Pacific Lesbian National Conference in 1988 in Washington D.C. There had been previous West Coast retreats. In 1989, over Labor Day weekend at UC Santa Cruz, we had an APLN retreat with over two hundred attendees. This was called “Coming Together, Moving Forward”. Some women even came from Canada and London. We were so excited. We wanted to not be so isolated and build our visibility. We wanted to celebrate ourselves.

We continued. We organized other gatherings. In the 1993 March on Washington, we had another contingent. We had national planning meetings and more retreats. In October 1993, we had a West Coast retreat. As lesbians especially, we used a more collective consensus style of decision-making. We then changed our name to Asian Pacific Lesbian Bisexual Network.

We also felt the need to better represent the South Asians, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups. I remember the Pacific Islander women insisting we support their sovereignty movement; we tried to be inclusive. With time, there were more groups like Gay Vietnamese Alliance; KHUSH, a South Asian group in D.C.; MAPLBN or Mandarin-speaking API Lesbian Bisexual Network; Chingusai of Los Angeles; Barangay Los Angeles (1990); etc. In 1996, Chinese Rainbow Association was founded in La Habra. An earlier group in Los Angeles was the Asian Pacific Lesbians and Gays (A/PLG), established in 1980, but it didn’t last long. In the 1980s, there were more pan-Asian groups just to have the critical mass, but by the 1990s, more people were coming out and establishing different ethnic spaces.

Especially in the early days, women were very intentional about forming their own separate groups. We found that when we were with men, our voices were more diminished. We needed our own space as queer, bi, trans women, and especially as feminists. But over time, the younger leadership is more co-gender. Each generation changes. Some younger women still want a female space. For a while, we organized AQWA, Asian/Pacific Islander Queer Women/Transgender Activists in Los Angeles. That was started in 2004. But perhaps there is less of a need today.

Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), 2011 Los Angeles Pride Parade.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

API-Equality Los Angeles

In 1999, I came to Los Angeles to work for the National Health Law Program and then Asian Americans Advancing for Justice. I helped co-found a co-gender umbrella group, API-Equality. I was co-chairs with Marshall Wong from 2005 to 2017. There is an API-Equality in San Francisco, but we are separate groups with a similar agenda.

In February of 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco ordered that the city-county issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, despite state law. About 4000 licenses were issued before the courts shut it down in March. In April, conservative Chinese Christians held an anti-gay marriage march in San Francisco. There were about 6000 people with printed signs and tee shirts that read “Marriage/1 man + 1 woman” in English and Chinese.[9] There were similar marches in Southern California, mostly in the San Gabriel Valley, led by conservative Chinese churches.

What a wake-up call! We had to do outreach and education in our Chinese American communities. As Asian LGBTQ and allies, we had to be more proactive.

We announced our founding with a press conference. We got support from public officials like Congresswoman Judy Chu, and public figures like actor George Takei. In 2006, we brought an LGBTQ contingency to the Golden Dragon Parade in L.A. Chinatown. We had over a hundred marchers. At first, we didn’t have any signs. But then we got banners. And more recently, we are able to walk in the parade holding hands.

API-Equality is focused on going into our Asian American communities to talk about the importance of marriage equality. We personalize it. We put our human faces, our stories behind the discrimination. We want to change the hearts and minds of people. We can’t just win in court; we have to change attitudes. In our amicus brief against Proposition 8, we had 63 groups sign on. The various Asian American bar associations joined us. We are finding allies in community mainstream groups – even fiscal supporters.

We did not have enough time to stop the November 2008 Proposition 8 ballot. In May 2008, the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, Prop 8 was going to reverse the state court’s ruling. Between June and November, we mobilized many same-sex couples to get their marriage licenses. In November, Proposition 8 passed with a vote of 52 to 48% against marriage equality. Federal courts overturned Proposition 8 in 2013.

API-Equality has many more issues. We want to be represented at the Los Angeles Pride Parade and Festival in West Hollywood. We had fundraising banquets called “Sisters Standing Up for Love”. It was a get-together for lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender women. We recognized awardees like Judy Chu, Julie Soo, Karin Wong, and Jennifer Pizer, my wife. We’ve worked in the schools, with immigration issues, voting rights, etc. The media has a lot more LGBTQ images than before. But Asian LGBTQ is more uncommon, especially women. Ryan Shen – played by Jon Prasida – is an openly Asian gay character on the CW television series, Kung Fu. Many more Asians are out. The API gay and lesbian experiences are more accepted in major metropolitan areas. I’m optimistic. We have more allies.

Asian Pacific Islander PFLAG was another group that started against Proposition 8.[10] These are mostly parents – including many newer immigrants. In 2012, a new support group was established in San Gabriel Valley: SGV API PFLAG.

Since 2021, Sonya Lam is our new Executive Director at API-Equality. We are excited for the next chapter and the new missions for the API Queer community.

[1] According to the 2020 census, Millbrae, south of San Francisco, has a population of 22,000 and is 46% Asian, 28% non-Hispanic White, 13% Latino, and 0.73% African American. In 2022, the median listing home price was over $2 million.

[2] Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) begun at UC Berkeley in May 1968, under the direction of Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee. AAPA was also very influential at San Francisco State College. Ichioka coined the term “Asian American” (instead of “Oriental”) and was the first Asian American studies professor at UCLA in 1969. Gee was editor of Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian American (1976). Shelley Wong is the daughter of Judge Delbert and Dolores Wong, longtime supporters of CHSSC. Dr. Shelley D. Wong is Associate Professor Emerita of Education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

[3] For a more thorough history, see Amy Sueyoshi’s “Breathing Fire: Remembering Asian Pacific American Activism in Queer History,” in LGBTQ America, edited by Megan E. Springate. Published online in 2016 by National Parks Foundation. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/lgbtqheritage/upload/lgbtqtheme-asianpacific.pdf

[4] Third generation Chinese American, Canyon Sam is openly lesbian. She is a performing artist and author of Sky Train: Tibetan Woman on the Edge of History (2009) with a foreword by the Dalai Lama. A short film documentary, A Woman Named Canyon Sam (2011) is recommended.

[5] In 1984, the founding editors of Phoenix Rising, the Asian lesbian newsletter, included Lori Lai, Mae Lee, Susan Lee, Pam Nishikawa, Gisele Phoan, Marie Shim, Doreena Wong, and Zee Wong.

[6] Jennifer Pizer is the Law and Policy Director for Lambda Legal, a national civil rights agency focused on LGBTQ rights. She has been a leader in ending marriage discrimination and anti-LGBT discrimination policies. She teaches at Southwestern School of Law. The couple officially married in 2008 before the vote on California’s Proposition 8.

[7] Asian Lesbians of the East Coast was founded in 1983 by June Chan and Katherine Hall.

[8] There was a 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. But spurred on by conservative Reaganism, the AIDS crisis, and the Bowers v. Hardwick case, the community called for a “second march” with 6 days of activities including the revelation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall.

[9] In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Ulysses Torassa on 26 April 2004, march organizer Thomas Wang is quoted as saying “God created one man and one woman – Adam and Eve. They became husband and wife and the first human family began… We believe any deviation from it will bring disastrous results.” Wang said legalizing same-sex marriage would eventually lead to polygamy, multi-partner marriage, and incest. Dr. Wang is founder of the Great Commission Center International. This agency is different from the Great Commission Church International (GCCI), a large evangelical network. Source: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/SAN-FRANCISCO-Thousands-protest-legalizing-2787641.php

[10] Established in 1973, Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays is a national network with 400 chapters and about 325,000 members.