Gaysians are having what is hopefully more than a moment in the spotlight.
After decades of not seeing queer Asian Americans in big, splashy roles, Fire Island, from writer and star Joel Kim Booster and director Andrew Ahn, hit me like a boozy punch at an afternoon tea dance. Co-starring Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang and inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the rom-com showcases queer Asian American characters who are snide and funny, sad and tender, multidimensional rather than stereotypes or second bananas. And it’s part of a swelling tide.
Colorful and complex queer Asian characters have been storming the gates of Hollywood, with momentum that has surged over the past few years. Another quiet triumph for me came with Anwar (played by Chaneil Kular) on Netflix’s raunchy and big-hearted Sex Education, where he’s the impeccably dressed and popular gay Indian kid I never dreamed I could be.
And on Shonda Rhimes’ ABC thriller How to Get Away With Murder, there was Oliver, a techie with an active sex life portrayed on network TV.
“That’s something I had never seen,” said Conrad Ricamora, whose fan-favorite guest-starring role was eventually upped to series regular. The Filipino American actor, who’s also a frequent presence on New York stages, considered his libido-driven character both refreshing and productive. “It countered the narrative I had grown up with, that Asian American men were emasculated and made fun of, specifically in terms of our sexuality,” said Ricamora, whose father moved to the U.S. from the Philippines as a kid.
Now Ricamora is playing another romantic lead, as the dreamy and aloof lawyer Will, modeled on Mr. Darcy, in Fire Island, streaming on Hulu June 3.
“It’s a huge victory for Joel to get this movie made, knowing how hard it is for Asian American and gay Asian American men to be seen in this culture at all,” Ricamora told Queerty.
Queer Asian American creators and performers face layered challenges in getting their stories to the screen. Overall, representation in TV and film (a distinction that continues to blur) has increased, with GLAAD studies of both mediums tracking consistent markers of progress. And from blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and Marvel’s Shang-Chi to acclaimed indies like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Asian American characters and creators are increasingly inhabiting the mainstream, proving their stories have both audience and box office appeal.
But pushing past the double barriers facing queer Asian creatives often takes a do-it-yourself determination and an impassioned drive to tell authentic stories.
“Fire Island was really an important project for me, because it’s the culmination of what I had to learn coming up in this industry as a queer person and a person of color,” Booster told Queerty. “You cannot wait around for people to create opportunities for you, especially opportunities that reflect your own experience. You have to go out there and make it happen for yourself.”
For queer Asian creatives, taking stories into their own hands can serve as a corrective to decades of erasure, and to stereotypes that have so often been perpetuated by Hollywood. Movies like Fire Island, and series like Sort Of, from co-creator and star Bilal Baig, are moving the dial and expanding how viewers imagine the lives of queer Asian people. “The industry is full of barriers; it’s hierarchical and systemic,” said Baig, who plays a non-binary millenial of Pakistani descent on Sort Of, recently renewed for a second season and nominated for a Peabody Award.
“We’re just beginning to see some real change because we’re trying to not only center interesting faces but also put them in leadership roles where they get to call the shots and make creative decisions,” Baig told Queerty. “That’s what’s going to change the nature of how these stories are told.”
“You cannot wait around for people to create opportunities for you, especially opportunities that reflect your own experience.” — Joel Kim Booster
Confronting a history of stereotypes
Many queer Asian men can attest to the stereotypes we face even within the so-called gay community, be it that we’re submissive, feminine, exotic, smart, or some combination. These assumptions stem from perceptions about Asian American men long held within the broader culture, rooted in patterns of immigration and discrimination. The same holds true for stereotypes about Asian American women, who have often been hypersexualized by dominant culture.
Due to immigration restrictions and the labor market, the first influx of Chinese arrivals to the West Coast in the 1850s were primarily single men who worked jobs conventionally associated with women, like laundry and cooking. That contributed to broader cultural perceptions of Asian American men as less masculine, a stereotype that’s often been perpetuated by Hollywood, whether in notorious caricatures like Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong or in their absence from romantic leading roles.
Queer men are already seen as less masculine. Throw in these cultural perceptions about Asian American men more broadly, and queer Asian men face a challenging combination.
“Because there’s already this existing stereotype, Asian American gay men are doubly feminized,” said Karen Leong, Ph.D., associate professor of women’s and gender studies and Asian Pacific American studies at Arizona State University. And those stereotypes impact how we’re reflected on screen and perceived by our gay peers.
History also helps account for how Asian American women have often been cast as sexual objects, stemming back to when Chinese women were allowed to enter the U.S. and were often presumed to be prostitutes. “There’s been a highly heterosexuallized image of Asian American women,” Dr. Leong told Queerty, “where even sex between women is often presumed to be in service of titillating straight and mostly white men.”
That’s part of the context that queer Asian American creators have to contend with, whether they tackle such stereotypes directly or not. Dr. Leong points to films like writer-director Alice Wu’s Saving Face (2004) and long-awaited second feature The Half of It, a coming-of-age comedy released on Netflix in 2020, as examples of refreshingly complex stories about queer Asian American female characters.
The Half of It joins a recent wave of visibility at a time when we’re better able to recognize and articulate what that means. Margaret Cho, who also stars in Fire Island, considers how much the context has shifted for conversations about representation in the time since she began her trailblazing career in stand-up and on-screen in the 1990s.
“We’re at a point where we have enough of a sense of place to comment on this idea of invisibility, whereas before, it was very hard to even figure out how to maneuver within that world,” Cho told Queerty. “Now there’s a way to communicate that sense of otherness that feels much more complete.”
New narratives are moving the dial
Hollywood has recently made notable strides in overall representation of queer characters and stories, particularly with the explosion of streaming services and avalanche of content created to fill them. On television, LGBTQ representation is at an all-time high, according to GLAAD’s report on the 2021-2022 season.
In a record-setting statistic, nearly 12% of series regulars on scripted primetime broadcast TV in the 2021-2022 season are LGBTQ. That’s about 50% higher than the percentage of Americans who identify as queer, according to the most recent census data.
And according to GLAAD’s most recent study of major studio films, nearly a quarter of those released in 2020 included LGBTQ characters, a 4% increase over the previous year, and 15% of those characters were Asian or Pacific Islander.
But queer Asian American characters remain a rarity, particularly in leading film roles. A recent study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 3.4% of Hollywood’s top-grossing movies featured Asian American leads and that none of the films studied featured an Asian American lead who was LGBTQ.
Part of what drove Booster first to pursue stand-up comedy and to make a film like Fire Island was that lack of opportunity and Hollywood’s limited perceptions about Asian American and queer characters.
“I was really frustrated with the roles that I was being called in for; 10 years ago, we were not having the discussions about diversity in casting, specifically with regard to Asian people, that we are having now,” Booster said. “I started doing stand-up as a creative outlet, so that I could finally feel like I was telling my story and being authentic to who I was, and not some other guy’s conception of what an Asian person was in a TV show or a movie.”
In the case of Sort Of, Baig’s commitment to authenticity intersected with the evolving cultural context for trans and non-binary stories in particular.
“It felt like conversations about trans representation were finally moving forward and actual listening was happening,” Baig said of the climate when they successfully pitched the series, which was first released on Canada’s CBC Television and is now streaming on HBO Max. “I really don’t think Sort Of would have been made if culturally we weren’t having those conversations,” Baig said, pointing to Laverne Cox and the FX series Pose as influential predecessors.
Baig also noted that the story of Sort Of, about a character figuring out their direction in life and navigating relationships with family and friends, is broadly relatable, even though Sabi is unlike characters usually seen in similar series. “The way the material speaks to a broader sense of universality perhaps made networks feel like it could be something that would resonate beyond niche markets, even though I think we speak to them as well,” Baig said.
Plenty of examples prove that stories centering minority characters can appeal to wider audiences, even more so with the proliferation of streaming platforms and content. Series like Awkwafina is Nora from Queens, and the George Lopez sitcom that ran for six seasons on ABC, show the broad range of series that can catch on with audiences. And Cho considers that reception among viewers has grown more open-minded as well. “Whereas before with my work, a lot of people could come away and say, ‘Well, I don’t get it, because I’m not [queer or Asian American],’ now that opinion is very much looked down upon.”
Cho believes that the more specific a detail can be, the more universally human it seems. “The way that we metabolize it emotionally is always going to be the same,” Cho said. “We get caught up in this idea that we have to have a broad appeal, but really, everybody has broad appeal.”
Moving toward an existence that’s not revolutionary
Though Fire Island features a primarily Asian American cast of queer characters, their racial identity isn’t the story’s focus. Fire Island is an edgy but tender comedy about friendship, romance, and how queer people make both family and enemies of each other along faultlines like class, social capital, and sex. The movie makes keen observations, some of them unspoken, about experiences specific to queer Asian men, like dodging a “rice queen” who fetishizes being with Asian men. But it’s not meant as an instructive lesson in anyone’s unique oppression.
“I love that we just get to exist, and it’s not about us all being Asian American,” Ricamora said of the film. “That’s not to say that we don’t need stories that focus on our racial identity because those definitely need to be told. But we also need to exist in narratives that just deal with everyday human emotions.”
Baig considers there’s an appetite, too, for stories that allow queer and trans people to simply be themselves in a way that doesn’t necessarily center their difference or difficulties. “I think just the existence of Sabi living and breathing every day, and not being completely defined by their trauma was, consciously or not, what our world is ready for engaging with now,” Baig said of their character on Sort Of.
“I think it’s fair to suggest that many stories featuring trans and non-binary characters do absolutely paint real portraits of these lives but tend to include, or sometimes even focus on, the trauma,” Baig said. “We were clear about not wanting to do that.” The result feels like a possible future of representation for people from various marginalized backgrounds, with more opportunities to tell expansive stories that go beyond proving their characters’ humanity or detailing their struggles.
Being able to cue up a movie like Fire Island or a series like Sort Of would have been invaluable when I was trying to figure out my place in the world, and even now, they’re more meaningful than I can say.
“When we see ourselves in the media, we can form a sense of identity and confidence,” Ricamora said. “We’re really moving the needle right now more than any other time that I’ve experienced.”
Working with Cho on Fire Island was a full-circle moment for Ricamora and Booster, who both noted that she was an early role model for them growing up. “I remember seeing her on television when I was a kid, and it was really powerful for me to see myself reflected on screen for the first time,” Booster said of Cho, whose acclaimed comedy specials include I’m the One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O., and who created and starred in the short-lived sitcom All-American Girl.
“Artists like Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang really are just so exciting for me to see,” Cho said, reflecting on the progress of a younger generation of creators. “I feel like I’m really living my Joan Collins life now, getting in on all of these great Asian American projects.”
Forging the path forward will take artists continuing to support each other, more diversity behind the scenes, and concerted investment in nurturing and funding talent. “We need an industry that’s willing to see outside of their own bodies and minds and intentionally support and value the stories of others,” Dr. Leong, the associate professor, said.
On the second season of Sort Of, those efforts include an initiative to recruit trans and non-binary people into five new training positions on the crew.
“We want to make sure that trans non-binary people feel comfortable and prepared to work on our set and that the heads of departments and the crew that’s already been hired are trained to make space for new experiences and voices, and meaningfully collaborate with each other,” Baig said. Ground-up efforts like these are how pipelines are built, and diverse perspectives ascend into positions of creative power.
“I want to be part of opening doors for a bunch of other people,” Baig said. “Then I could enjoy knowing that leaders are speaking through lived experiences to create and produce new work.”