Why Gay Marriage Is an Asian American Matter

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When the San Francisco Chronicle ran a Nov. 7 article exploring why Asians were the only ethnic minority to produce a majority of voters against Proposition 8 and its ban of same-sex marriage, a reader commented on the Chronicle’s website: “Why in the world would the Asian American community ally itself with the gays? The Asian American community [has] virtually nothing in common with the gays except maybe being minorities.”

This comment would be cute in its naiveté if we weren’t at such a critical juncture in American history. This kind of dangerously insular thinking has no place in a nation on the brink of tremendous political and social change, ignited by the election of President-elect Barack Obama.

When protest singer Phil Ochs penned an uncharacteristically patriotic song titled “Power and Glory” in the mid-1960s, he also issued a strong admonition for the very same America that he was celebrating: “She’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor.”

By the same token, certain civil liberties may be protected by the United States Constitution, but its strength and true meaning are reliant on whether every citizen of this country is afforded those same rights.

The reason Asian Americans were able to ultimately triumph over discriminatory laws in the last century (the Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-miscegenation measures, etc.) is not because Asians multiplied like rabbits, banded together in overwhelming numbers and steamrolled over injustices. It’s because non-Asian allies recognized the importance of equal rights for all. Strength in numbers was indeed a factor, but those numbers were comprised of people as diverse as this nation.

Likewise, the fight for marriage equality gained tremendous momentum after Prop 8 passed, culminating in nationwide protests this past Saturday, because gays and lesbians were offered the support of straight allies who understand the sentiment Ochs expressed  decades ago. This is not just a battle for gay rights — it’s a battle for the integrity of the United States.

What do Asian Americans and gays have in common, aside from being minorities? Both groups know what it’s like to be discriminated against, both groups have suffered hate crimes and, most importantly, both groups have a responsibility to stand up for the ideals expressed in the U.S. Constitution — a responsibility that rests on the shoulders of everybody who chooses to enjoy the freedoms of this country.

Again, I look to Phil Ochs. In his song, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” he insisted that progressive thinking held little validity if it didn’t lead to quantifiable actions. The lyrics are dated, but the ideas are timeless, as is Och’s use of irony:

I go to civil rights rallies
And I put down the old D.A.R.
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
I hope every colored boy becomes a star
But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal…

I vote for the Democratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I’ll send all the money you ask for
But don’t ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal…

My personal worldview isn’t as extreme as his; I don’t think that being a forward-thinking American necessarily requires active participation in protests, rallies, and other political activities. But it does necessitate that we speak up when injustices fall at our feet and come crashing down on our family, our friends, our fellow citizens.

Additionally, activists do not deserve the type of derision expressed by the Chronicle commenter; they deserve to be understood and encouraged. It’s amazing how a few words of support can have great impact on the morale of those who choose to be on the frontlines of the struggle—those who, on the surface, have little stake in the battle.

When my mother earned her U.S. citizenship papers some decades back, she didn’t know her son was gay. Her support of same-sex marriage all these years later may be because she loves me — but there is no doubt in my mind that her understanding of basic Constitutional principles seals the deal.

Prince Gomolvilas is a playwright whose plays have been produced around the country and in Singapore. He blogs at Bamboo Nation: bamboonation.blogspot.com

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