I have never felt so Asian in my life.
I was born in New York City and have never lived anywhere else. Here, I have always thought I could manage to fit in and be like everybody else. I don’t speak Chinese, and I couldn’t use chopsticks properly until I was in college. For most of my childhood and into adolescence, I eschewed feeling Asian — like most Asian-American kids, I just wanted to belong. And since I was born in the U.S., had a name like “Kelsey,” and didn’t have an accent, to me, I was passable. In the past few weeks, I have questioned just how passable I really am.
I am a 45-year-old gay Asian man. I am the son of Chinese immigrants. I am a social worker. I am the CEO of the first HIV/AIDS service organization — GMHC (formerly known as Gay Men’s Health Crisis). I have a partner who is an attorney. I am a competitive runner. That is all part of who I am. Yet in the past few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have felt more Asian than I ever have before. I have read the articles about the increase of verbal abuse and physical violence toward Asian people, blaming them for COVID-19. I have watched news stories with footage of Asian people being spit on, screamed at, and physically attacked. People were afraid to go to Chinese restaurants for fear of “catching” the virus from the employees. A U.S. government leader has repeatedly called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” a racist term that creates division.
This isn’t the first time a group of people that I identify with has been blamed for a virus or disease. In the early 1980s, AIDS was considered to be a “gay disease” and HIV was considered to be a “gay virus.” While much has changed over the last three decades, HIV and AIDS continue to stigmatize men who have sex with men.
Coming to terms with my identity as a gay man happened gradually. Like many, I first came out to my adolescent crush, then to a few friends, then more, then my family, then everyone else. The shame of being gay kept me in the closet, and I dealt with it by denying it, until I was brave enough not to. Because of the HIV/AIDS crisis, I didn’t have many gay role models, not even in media. In my 20s and 30s, I finally learned to be proud of being gay — I joined LGBT social clubs and an LGBT running club, and began working with the LGBT population as a social worker. I went out to gay bars. I marched and danced every last Sunday in June in my adult life. And in 2014, I took on the role of CEO of GMHC-Gay Men’s Health Crisis with much pride. Today, I start every speech I make with “My name is Kelsey Louie, and I am the proud CEO of GMHC.”
When I was younger, I dealt with the shame of being Asian by hoping that my immigrant parents who spoke broken English didn’t try to talk to my friends or by calling myself Asian-American — somehow, that made it more tolerable. But there was no closet to hide in until I was ready to face my Asian identity. It probably wasn’t until my 30s that I started to be proud of being Asian — I rarely felt oppressed as an Asian, so I had a late start in feeling the need to have Asian pride. I now insist on using chopsticks whenever I have the chance. I have graduated to playing mah-jongg with my aunts for hours during holidays. I even taught mah-jongg to my non-Asian friends and my partner’s family in small-town Ohio. Those very “Asian mother” things my mom did that used to embarrass me are now the centerpieces of proud stories I have told my friends over and over.
At GMHC, I am reminded daily of the harmful effects of stigma, discrimination, homophobia, xenophobia, and racism on our clients living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Many lack economic opportunities or experience housing and food insecurity. Others suffer from addiction. Their HIV-positive status amplifies the economic and social disparities that they experience on a daily basis.
Fighting stigma and discrimination is in our DNA at GMHC. We are outspoken against hate speech and prejudice. We form coalitions with other organizations fighting for the rights of people living with HIV or AIDS as well as all LGBTQ people. We tirelessly advocate for changes to public policies that marginalize people because they have a disease or because of who they are.
In this new era of COVID-19, we all have a responsibility to speak out against discrimination against Asian people. We need to shift the discourse that COVID-19 is a “Chinese virus” and call out our leaders when they try to advance a false narrative and whip up animosity toward Asian people. COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate against the people who it infects and neither should we.
The coronavirus pandemic will pass, but stigma can be lasting. Let’s all commit today that we have learned from our past experience with HIV and AIDS and will not allow any group to be blamed for a new disease.
This June, as I always do, I will celebrate being gay, because I love being gay. No amount of discrimination will take that away. But before June, May is Asian Heritage Month, and I will celebrate being Asian because I love being Asian. No amount of discrimination will take that away. I probably won’t march or dance in May, but I will start by speaking out against what I’m seeing happening today with COVID-19.
I have never felt so Asian in my life. And I am so proud of it.
Kelsey Louie is CEO of GMHC.