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Tim Wang on HIV, the Asian ‘Model Minority Myth’ and fighting dating app racism

Tim Wang, Director of Advocacy and Policy at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health
Tim Wang, director of advocacy and policy at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health (Photo: Supplied)

A mass shooting in Georgia last March, in which several Asian workers at massage parlors were killed, prompted conversations about anti-Asian hate and racism.

It was something many Asian-Americans were already aware of, especially throughout the pandemic. Because of the Covid’s apparent origins in China, and right-wing propaganda blaming the outbreak on Asian communities, there has been a spike in anti-Asian incidents.

Tim Wang is the Director of Advocacy and Policy at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health, one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ-affirming community health organizations.

Queer himself, he has a particular interest in the support Asian-American gay and bi men receive in regards to sexual health and HIV.

Asian-Americans represent fewer HIV diagnoses than other groups. For example, although making up 6% of the US population, they accounted for 2% of HIV diagnoses in 2018.

However, the CDC reports that compared to other people with HIV, Asians were slightly less likely to have received some HIV care. It estimates that four out of five Asians with HIV have received a diagnosis, so there are still some not getting tested.

“I think there are probably a couple of reasons why these specific issues come up in Asian communities, and I think one of the biggest is stigma,” Wang tells Queerty via a Facetime call.

“I can’t speak for all Asian cultures, but I know in my own household, growing up, talking about anything related to sex or sexual health was extremely taboo. We didn’t do it at all. And then also on top of that, talking about anything queer or anything LGBTQ was also very taboo. So that’s something I ended up having to navigate and find out myself because we didn’t talk about it in the family.

“I think that stigma is a powerful barrier that prevents a lot of people from getting tested for HIV or disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity or HIV status or staying in care. I think that’s a really big problem.”

Related: This strapping, gay, Asian American millennial is making history in Georgia’s general assembly

Wang grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He moved to the East Coast for school, before finding health policy research work at the community health center, Fenway Health in Boston. He moved back to Chicago to take up his position at Howard Brown last August.

He says research into Asian American health, particularly sexual health, is lacking when compared to other groups.

“There are a couple of reasons that collecting data on Asian people might be a little bit harder. I think one big barrier is language accessibility. If you’re collecting race and ethnicity data in a registration form or a survey online, if it’s not available in Asian languages, you’re not going to get people responding from a lot of Asian communities for whom English is not their first language.

“I think another challenge with race/ethnicity data collection, is that it can be really hard for Asian people to know how to respond to a race and ethnicity question, depending on what categories are present.

“If it’s just ‘Asian’ … when people see or hear the word ‘Asian’, a lot of the time they only think about eastern Asian people – Korean, Chinese, Japanese. So then for people who are South-Asian, or Pacific Islander, or Middle Eastern, they might not know if they count as Asian for the purposes of the survey or not, or if they should respond as something else.”

Wang believes another stereotype is also at play.

“I think one other thing really prevalent in America that often prevents Asian communities from getting the support they need is this ‘Model Minority Myth’ about Asian-Americans.

“The Model Minority Myth really kind of paints all Asian Americans and all Asian communities as this monolith of high-achieving people who don’t ever complain and don’t have any issues. That’s really problematic because Asian people aren’t a monolith: we’re all different and have different cultures.

“The Chinese community may have different needs and issues than the Korean community, compared to the Indian community, compared to the Cambodian community. And so on and so forth. The model minority myth takes these individual issues and individual concerns that all our communities have, and sweeps them under the rug, and paints this perfect picture of Asian Americans who don’t have issues. It can give the perception that Asian people aren’t at risk of HIV, or don’t engage in risky behaviors.”

Another issue is the general invisibility of Asian Americans in the media. The week I speak to Wang, Billy Porter had just revealed his HIV status. By contrast, a study last month found that 42% of Americans couldn’t name a single, prominent member of the Asian-American community (despite Vice President Kamala Harris being one), let alone someone who was gay or HIV-positive.

Related: Ryan Murphy pays beautiful tribute to Billy Porter after he reveals HIV status

Another study in May (Asian American Pacific Heritage Month) found that between 2007 and 2019, of the hundreds of movies released by Hollywood, only 44 featured a lead character who was AAPI (Asian American or Pacific Islander). Of those, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (who is of Samoan descent) made up a third of those movies.

“That’s a great point. In general, there’s been a lack of Asian representation in popular media, certainly in the United States,” says Wang.

“I think recently we’ve been seeing more Asian representation with movies like Parasite and Crazy Rich Asians, or other different stories that focus on Asians, but that’s definitely very recent. The Asian representation in popular media is very small, and an even smaller subsection of that is queer Asian representation.”

Wang recalls experiencing racism from other queer men.

“I have, and talking to my other LGBTQ Asian friends, unfortunately, it’s a pretty common experience. I know that when I’ve been on dating apps or anything like that, it’s pretty common to encounter people who put ‘No Asians,’ right there on their profile.

“On the flip side of that, something that’s also problematic, and something I’ve also experienced, is people who fetishize Asian people. You have those two extremes: where someone won’t even talk to you because you’re Asian, or someone is only talking to you because they think of you as some sort of sexual object or stereotype because you’re Asian.”

As the world begins to move out of lockdown, and because there are Asian-Americans still resistant to getting tested, does Wang have a message to those who haven’t been for a sexual-health checkup for some time?

“I know that there have been a lot of challenges for people throughout lockdown in terms of being able to maintain their sexual health and look after themselves with everything else going on. I would say getting tested is a form of self-care that’s very important for everyone, but especially for Asian people.

“We’re going through a really difficult period in America with this spike in hate, and the dramatic news we endure on a day-to-day basis. Something really important for us is to take our health into our own hands and ensure we are getting tested, that we know our status.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting tested and knowing your status. There’s nothing wrong with living with HIV. It’s just another way you can take your health into your own hands and empower yourself as we go forward in the post-pandemic days.”

Related: Gay men recently diagnosed with HIV speak out about the stigma they face