Editor’s note: Eric Wat, an immigrant from Hong Kong, is a writer, teacher, community activist and friend. His first trailblazing book was The Making of a Gay Asian Community (2002). That was followed by SWIM (2019) and Love Your Asian Body: AIDS Activism in Los Angeles (2022). The CHSSC is indebted to Eric for working as a guest editor – and guardian angel – on this special Gum Saan Journal.
I volunteered as a poll worker for the 2008 presidential election. It was a landmark American event that could (and did!) lead to the inauguration of our first African American president. That was also the year that Proposition 8, the statewide initiative that would ban same-sex marriages in California, appeared on the ballot.
I had wanted to use my Cantonese-speaking skill to help Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Chinese voters to participate in the election. The County assigned me to Northeast LA, and I didn’t encounter my first (and only) LEP Chinese voter until the last hour. He was an older gentleman, dressed in white shirt and gray wool pants – fashion that I recognized from my own father. He was all smiles the moment he walked into the community hall.
His first question to me was how to vote for Obama. Our future president’s name – the only word he said in English – rolled off his tongue easily. I was delighted to show him how to line up the actual ballot on the machine and punch the number that corresponded to the one on his sample ballot. As I was using the Cantonese to translate the technical words that I had practiced, I was feeling the self-satisfaction that even helping just this one person made the 14-hour day worthwhile.
Feeling emboldened, I asked if he was interested in voting on the rest of the items on his ballot. He perked up again. Who was I to deny this nontraditional, probably formerly disenfranchised, immigrant voter his most important civic responsibility as a citizen? I focused on the initiatives because it was easier to describe them than the politicians.
We came to Prop 8. He said he would vote yes. My heart sank.
That night, Obama cruised to an easy victory. Before we finished packing up the polling place, I started receiving celebratory texts from my friends, though Prop 8 wasn’t looking good. I had dinner at a fast-food joint close by a little after 10 p.m. Alone.
For better or worse, every vote counts.
I disinterred this memory after reading the stories in this issue of Gum Saan Journal focusing on LGBTQ+ Chinese Americans. I knew that working to empower the immigrant Chinese community means that I’d be supporting people who don’t agree with me on everything. But knowing it and having it thrown in your face are two different things. Yet I put this episode behind me after my lonely dinner and continued my community work. I persisted, just like the narrators in this issue, who staked their place in their families even when it was difficult.
Writer and filmmaker Curtis Chin, one of the narrators in this issue, recalled working in his family restaurant in Detroit’s Chinatown as a young person. He greeted customers by asking, “Is it for here or to go?” Curtis imagined that it was a question his great-grandfather had asked himself as he left China for the U.S. I think it is the same question many LGBTQ Chinese Americans constantly ask ourselves too.
Even when it feels like we want to go and stay away from families who don’t see all of us, the answer has always been “for here.”
And stay we did. On our own terms, too. We built organizations when none existed where we could bring our full selves. We chose careers to effect social change. We took care of the families before us and started our own. When old language failed us, the writers and artists amongst us created new ways to express ourselves.
Refusing to be rootless, many of the narrators in this issue were able to trace their journeys back two, or even three, generations, blood ties that go back to the turn of the 20th century and across the vast bodies of waters. Queer lineages are a little harder. Many LGBTQ Chinese American young people today still find it hard to locate themselves in a longer history that reflects their sexual and gender identities. This issue will be a part of a remedy for that.