Re-orienting queer Asian identities, 30 years later

Toronto video artist, writer, and associate professor Richard Fung made the first documentary on queer Asians and racialized queers in Canada. This weekend, he is premiering a follow-up, Re:Orientations, which reconnects with seven of the original participants three decades later.

Richard Fung discusses his follow-up to his seminal 1984 documentary, Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians

Re:Orientations (Inside Out)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Toronto video artist, writer, and associate professor Richard Fung made his first video in 1984 called  Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians, featuring 14 people of South, Southeast and East Asian backgrounds. It was the first documentary on queer Asians and racialized queers in Canada. This weekend, he is premiering a follow-up, Re:Orientations, which reconnects with seven of the original participants three decades later. He wrote this essay for CBC Arts reflecting on the two films and the history in between them.

As we age we look at snapshots taken in our youth, pictures of our family, friends and ourselves. We take stock of our lives and speculate about whatever happened to this or that person, where are they now? We might marvel over the recycling of hairstyles, the inflated price of a pizza, or unforeseen shifts in laws and attitudes. This is the impulse behind my film Re:Orientations, which revisits the participants in my 1984 documentary Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians. This was the first generation of Asian Torontonians to declare their sexuality publicly, and I wanted to find out where they are at, and to see how they're responded to the changes that have occurred over the intervening three decades.

For Orientations, I interviewed 15 men and women of South, East and Southeast Asian backgrounds, most of them in their twenties and thirties. I was a co-founder of Gay Asians Toronto in 1980 and I volunteered at The Body Politic magazine, so I knew the community well. But it was hard to find willing participants.  At that time you could usually count the number of people of colour in any lesbian or gay venue on one hand. And few people were willing to be filmed, because they had no legal recourse if coming out publicly brought on negative consequences. In 1984, sexual orientation was not included in any human rights code in Canada outside Quebec. I sent out word through various networks and I met a few participants after filming had already started, a couple even during the post-production phase.

When Orientations was made, AIDS had only been named two years earlier, and it wasn't until two years later that the term HIV came into use. Orientations doesn't touch on AIDS as I knew of no Asian-Canadians with AIDS. Three of the men in Orientations subsequently died from AIDS-related causes.

Re:Orientations (Inside Out)

Instead of the endlessly growing acronym we use today, the term of the day was "lesbian and gay." Gender transition was uncommon. In fact, lesbian and gay activists distanced themselves from "transsexuals," because the dominant ideology conflated homosexuality and transexuality. Same-sex marriage was nowhere on the political agenda; gay liberation was aligned with sexual liberation and monogamy was deemed passé. The word "queer" was still only an insult.

I remain friends with a few of the original participants but I found it impossible to track down all of the surviving twelve. Some had moved, a couple no longer identified as gay or lesbian, and others declined. Of the seven who do appear in Re:Orientations, almost half had to be convinced at some point not to drop out. This was not about a belated sense of closetry. In one's twenties one is bolder and prone to take chances. In one's fifties and sixties, one might more sensitive about one's life being scrutinized, about being judged. I understand this myself.

The seven people interviewed took very different paths in life. Shortly after the film was made, Tony Souza retired from full time work as the Race Relations Adviser at the Toronto Board of Education, though he continues to be active in social justice organizing. Sylvia Alfonso became a senior manager at a large Canadian bank. Gary Joong continued to work at Canada Post until his retirement. Prabha Khosla moved to Mozambique for a while and now works internationally as an urban planner with a focus on women. Three of the participants are now married, two express opposition to marriage. No one is with the partner they had in the original film.

Re:Orientations (Inside Out)

In 1984, I didn't foresee a career in filmmaking. For me, Orientations was principally a political project. As the predominant images of homosexuals were white, my agenda was to speak back to homophobia as well as to the orientalism that exoticized and excluded us within gay and lesbian communities. I wanted to encourage lesbian and gay Asians to feel less alone and to become involved with community. Three decades ago, community referred to the organizations and handful of commercial venues where one went to be gay or lesbian. The success of our political organizing has meant that people are now freer to live their sexualities and gender identities wherever they are. But this has meant that queers no longer need queer spaces as in the past; even sexual hook ups have moved into digital space.

Today the differences among LGBT+ people are more pronounced and "community" has fragmented. Having only seven of the original participants allowed me to include conversations with six younger activists, scholars and artists who respond to the past and touch on current perspectives and urgencies. There are differences between the generations, but certain concerns — racism, for example —remain surprisingly, distressingly consistent.

Re:Orientations is not the last word on a thirty-year history. In the film I am determined to represent contradictions and to open up questions that face our communities in the future.

Re:Orientations. Directed by Richard Fung. 66min. May 28. 12:30pm. TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto.


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