Min Fuh Teh discusses the challenges of being Asian and gay, highlighting health promotion initiatives for Asian gay men in Australia.
‘Do you have girlfriend?’ ‘When are you getting married?’ From both my own personal perspective as well as through interactions with other Asian gay men, it is not always easy being Asian and gay. Ask us whether it’s hard dealing with cultural and family expectations you will get a definitive nod – these two topics complicate our already bumpy road towards self-acceptance.
Connections to family and community are our life raft but also keep many of us living behind a mask for fear of losing the support of friends and family – or worse still – the risk of reactive ostracism and homophobia from our whole community. We yearn to love and be loved, but upon reaching out to the other men, we commonly experience a sense of disconnect – coming up against a wall of covert discrimination based upon racial and cultural differences, and sometimes, our very own internalised states of homophobia.
Of course, this is in no way a justification of privileged status of victimhood or heroism. Nor is it intended to be a blanket representation of the experience of being Asian and gay – that would be an oversimplification of the diversity of our lived experiences and the resilience and resourcefulness of individuals within the group. It is clear, however, that living as a minority and overcoming marginalisation and discrimination are major life challenges for most Asian gay men. Crucially, this presents us a starting point to unpack the barriers we face in addressing HIV prevention with Asian gay men.
A minority within a minority
A useful way of framing the challenges faced by Asian gay men is the concept of a minority within a minority.1 On the one hand, Asian gay men exist as racial minorities within a predominantly Anglo-centric or Western-constructed gay community, where cultural marginalisation and racism are a constant challenge. On the other hand, we are also a minority in our predominantly heterosexual ethnic community, tiptoeing between cultural norms and gender roles. We constantly navigate between racial discrimination from the gay community on the one side, and homophobia from the ethnic community on the other.
With all this in mind, one must then ask how can HIV health promotion respond to the needs of Asian gay men, when our lived experiences are so complex, with life challenges and demands on the individual to cope and survive being a priority often surpassing HIV awareness?
At the crossroads: HIV health promotion and the Asian Gay Men’s Project
Annually, gay men account for 70–75% of new HIV notifications in NSW.2 Data from 2005–2009 indicates that notifications from Asian men who have sex with men have steadily increased during this period, sitting at 13.8% for 2009.3 This makes gay Asian sex with men a priority population for HIV prevention.
The Asian Gay Men’s Project works with Asian gay communities in HIV and sexually transmissible infection (STI) prevention. The project facilitates health capacity building through community development and peer education approaches and initiatives. Working through ACON’s Community Development Unit, the project complements work done by other HIV health promotion projects that target gay men.
In particular, the Asian Gay Men’s Project engages heavily with migrant and recently-arrived Asian gay men, as well as second generation individuals from over 10 different countries and cultures. It is at this crossroads of culture, sexuality and health that the Asian Gay Men’s Project sits. In addressing HIV/STI prevention, the project engages with Asian gay men through community building and peer education in a culturally appropriate way.
It is crucial to acknowledge the general apprehension that exists within the Asian gay community about discussing HIV/STIs. The stigma surrounding this is compounded by the fact that HIV and/or health promotion initiatives that target a perceived health inequality within the community can pathologise the community’s experience and foster a sense of victimization.
As a result of the shaming and ‘othering’ of HIV, another barrier exists: the ‘It does not affect me’ attitude.
This attitude can be fed by other life challenges such as work and money issues, attending university, finding accommodation, finding love, dealing with family expectations, and coping with other inequalities associated with marginalisation. All these issues take precedence over HIV. Therefore, effective health promotion needs to move beyond just talking about HIV/STIs; programs must deal with a wide range of personal experiences, life challenges and needs.
The Asian Tea Room project and culturally-appropriate HIV health promotion
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