Thousands of people packed the Gayborhood on Sunday, looking for good times at the annual Philadelphia Outfest. Attendees meandered through the crowded streets, boys holding hands with boys and girls making out with girls. Numerous booths offered wares, clothing, jewelry and food, while others touted service providers and support organizations. Notable about the scene was the color all around, not just in the balloons and the outfits and the rainbow painted poodles, but color representing people of all backgrounds, black, white, Asian and Latino, nearly as multifarious as the population of Philadelphia itself.
Often referred to as a singular bloc, the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community is already plenty diverse in gender, sexual preference and presentation. Throw race and ethnicity into the mix and things start getting really complex. And while the community comes together for common causes and events like Sunday’s street fair, sometimes members of minority groups that fall under the LGBT umbrella are drawn to companionship and support with other people who have more in common than just not being heterosexual.
“The world’s a very confusing place,” says Megumi Kanada, who identifies herself as a mixed-race, Asian-American lesbian. “I really wanted to be in a group of people who look and feel like me.”
Not only was Kanada seeking a closer group of peers, she wanted a forum to better address immigration rights in relation to LGBT issues, something outside the purview of many mainstream queer groups whose members are mostly native-born Americans. Philadelphia had no existing organization providing exactly what she was looking for, so Kanada and some friends decided to start their own group: Hotpot!, a community designed specifically for queer-identified Asian and Pacific Islander women and more. The full lineup including trans, gender variant, gender queer and gender nonconforming.
Kanada, 24, moved to Philly from the Midwest two years ago. She attended the first annual LGBT Womyn of Color Conference in Philadelphia in April 2009 and found it both welcoming yet wanting, leaving her seeking a place more specifically geared toward Asians. “It was very Afro-centric,” she says. “Understanding my place here I felt comfortable going, but people were surprised to see an Asian lesbian.” Kanada wasn’t alone in her thoughts—at the conference she met Alison Lin, another Asian-American. Together with two friends they met at other LGBT events, they decided to start their own group to better address their needs. “We were having conversations and decided to continue the space,” Kanada says. The result was Hotpot!, founded in June, 2009 as a subgroup of the Queer Philadelphia Asians (QPA) and found online at qpaonline.org/hotpot.php. Hotpot!’s membership, informally tracked, has reached about 25 and continues to grow.
“I’m often asked ‘Where are you from?’ Or ‘What are you?’” says Lin, who isn’t immediately identifiable as Asian from her facial features. “It’s nice to come to a place where it’s understood that’s a complex question and not be asked that right away.”
Another member, “Denise” (who declined to give her real name because she hasn’t come out to her family) says Hotpot! has given her the safe space she lacked elsewhere in her life. Born in the Philippines, Denise says prevailing attitudes in the country frown on discussing sexuality, and the mindset followed her family to America. “People don’t talk about it in the open,” she says. “My family doesn’t know about me being bisexual. We don’t talk about gay issues. In this group, I can be open more.” Denise discovered Hotpot! at the gay pride parade in June when she saw a group of Asians waving flags from their countries of origin. “I thought, they’re holding a Filipino flag,” she says, knowing she had found a like-minded group of people.
Not content to simply offer a safe gathering space, be it at friendly barbecues on Kelly Drive or as part of larger events like the pride parade, Hotpot! strives to become more politically involved. Since many of the group’s members were born in Asian countries, immigration rights are a priority. “There’s almost no conversation within gay communities about immigration,” Kanada says. “We’re trying to figure out ways to create workbooks and educational materials within gay communities to talk about immigration issues.”
In May, Hoptpot! and QPA hosted a panel discussion for immigration topics as they relate to the LGBT community—notably, challenges for people living in Philadelphia without legal status, subject to deportation back to countries where homosexuality may be illegal or considered incitement for rape or murder. Gay men and lesbians are eligible for asylum if they can show that returning to their own country puts them in danger, but may not be aware of the option. Also at issue is that immigration law doesn’t recognize same-sex relationships, in the manner that a citizen can sponsor a spouse of the opposite sex to get a visa and live legally in the United States.
To increase their knowledge and clout on the issues, Hotpot! members attended a National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander conference in Chicago in August, and are raising money to send people to future summits and workshops. “We are currently looking to build bridges and be more active in the LGBQ community (in bringing to light the importance of comprehensive immigration reform) as well as the active immigration reform community (in adding our LGBTQ voices and perspectives),” Lin writes in an email.
Applying their expertise on a local level, last weekend the group took a leadership role at the second LGBT Womyn of Color Conference, facilitating a number of events including a presentation on the intersection of immigration rights, racial justice and LGBT rights. “Our session was incredibly powerful,” Kanada says. “To have a history timeline to figure out the stories we haven’t been able to hear because of how selective story telling is in our country.”
Niche groups like Hotpot! are valuable not just within their own membership, but provide important resources to City Hall as well, says Gloria Casarez, director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Philadelphia distributes federal dollars that get funneled through LGBT groups—most critically, for HIV/AIDS education—and even small organizations like Hotpot!, whose mission doesn’t necessarily qualify them for funding, are still crucial for their ability to reach out to people who might otherwise get left behind, she says. “Groups that reach ethnic communities and gender communities have the best and deepest reach into those pockets,” Casarez says. “No one organization can reach everybody. We have a lot of people and there’s a lot of different kinds of need out there.”
The Office of LGBT Affairs keeps the mayor and city government informed of the needs of LGBT residents and protects them from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.