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Asian American Lesbian and Gay Pioneers in Los Angeles

It began with faded photos of protest marches, people holding signs that said “Asian and Gay,” and ended with a pomegranate held up to the light. This is the story of API Equality LA’s event, Asian American Lesbian and Gay Pioneers in Los Angeles, and also, in a way, of the API LGBT community in LA.

The event, which took place on September 15th at the Japanese American National Museum, honored two pioneers of the API LGBT movement: Tak Yamamoto and June Lagmay, who were both founders of Asian Pacific Lesbians and Gays (APLG), the first LGBT group for Asian Americans in L.A. API Equality-LA, an organization that works for the advocacy of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the Asian American/Pacific Islander community today, screened two documentaries about the activists. The documentaries were made as part of API Equality’s Pioneers Oral History Project, which aims to conduct interviews with the earliest API LGBT activists in Southern California, in order to preserve their histories.

“It’s important that [these activists’] contributions not be lost,” said Marshall Wong, co-chair of API Equality-LA. “[And] the other thing we want to make sure is that young Asian Americans [who] are growing up, sometimes questioning their sexual orientation and identity…don’t see the lesbian and gay community as being whitewashed, and that they actually see their own faces reflected in the history books that need to be written.”

Marshall Wong stands in front of JANM's National Center for the Preservation of Democracy

Trung Nguyen, a graduate student of Asian American Studies at UCLA, said, “The event was important because it was necessary to tell the stories of different Asian American pioneers, and it was great to hear from elders in the community.”

During the Q&A session that followed the documentary screening, Lagmay, who currently serves as the Clerk of the City of Los Angeles, said that APLG was anything and everything to the people in it, because it was the first time that they met other Asian Americans who identified as LGBT. According to Lagmay, it was important just to have a support network of people who understood the racial and cultural specifics of being LGBT and Asian American.

In 2005, after a series of anti-LGBT demonstrations led by Asian ministers, API Equality-LA was founded. Its founders felt the need to form an organization that would be able to address these anti-LGBT demonstrations. Wong, who was one of the founding members, said that API Equality’s mission is to outreach to communities that are insulated and do not receive much English-language news. Most of the people who live in these communities have had no exposure to LGBT people, so API Equality focuses on going to Lunar New Year parades and other cultural festivals in order to have one-on-ones with people.

Wong says he has seen change in the years since API Equality-LA was founded. In particular, he shared the story of meeting a family at one of the cultural festivals and speaking to the father, who did not believe in marriage equality. By the end of the conversation, though, the father said that he might think differently should marriage equality come up in the elections in two years.

Lagmay expressed the same optimism at the Q&A session after the documentary screening. Speaking of the way the API LGBT community has grown, not only in the range of sexual identities it is composed of, but in the ethnicities represented, she said, “Your diversity is your strength.” She held up a pomegranate that she had found in her garden that morning, and said that the diversity of the community was like the fruit: there were many different seeds contained within one membrane. Lagmay urged the new generation of API LGBT activists to use this diversity as their strength, in order to push for more change than the previous generation had.

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