Secret Life of Canada

Gay Asians of Toronto were pioneers of diversity in Pride

As Pride celebrations kick off, The Secret Life of Canada shouts out the Gay Asians of Toronto (GAT). Formed in 1980, this organization is thought to be the first LGBT group for non-white queerfolks in Canada.
A scene from Richard Fung's Re:Orientations, a retrospective and follow up on his groundbreaking film Orientations. (Inside Out)

Not every person worth remembering made it into the history books. Each month, the Secret Life of Canada shouts out a Canadian or Indigenous person that has had a lasting impact worth celebrating. These historical figures may not be on money or monuments but their legacies live on. 

Formed in 1980, Gay Asians of Toronto (GAT) would be the first organization in Canada to advocate for LGBT people of colour. One of the organizations founding members, writer and filmmaker Richard Fung, would go on to give voice to gay Asian people in his 1984 documentary Orientations.

Here are five things we learned about Gay Asians of Toronto and Richard Fung.

1) GAT was inspired by a massive rally in Washington

When an artist by the name of Richard Fung went to the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979, he was inspired by the community of LGBT people that had gathered there. 

Many Asian protesters found themselves in a large group for the first time and ended up forming their own delegation at the march. Some of those activists were pictured on the cover of a 1980 issue of the Gay Insurgent journal. 

They held a large banner that proclaimed: "We're Asian, Gay & Proud." 

When Fung returned to Canada, he co-founded GAT with fellow activists Nito Marquez, Gerald Chan and Tony Souza.

2) The group was a safe space for layered identity

Fung, who once wrote that he felt like "a fortune cookie in a tray of cheese Danishes," noted that non-white members of the LGBT community face a double-edged sword: "the racism of the general society as filtered into the gay community and the sometimes-vicious sexism and homophobia of our own 'ethnic' communities."

GAT was a response to these isolating factors. The group provided support services, community and advocacy all with the goal of giving LGBT Asian people a place to fully participate in community.

This social and support service organization became a lifeline for many who had previously struggled to make secure connections.

 3) They once led the Toronto Pride Parade

Toronto Pride formed as a protest response to the 1981 Toronto Bathhouse Raids. In what they called Operation Soap, the police raided gay bathhouses and arrested over three hundred people. Mass protest arose in the Queer community as a result. 

Although seldom the focus, the Asian community was present in those early years. In 1982, Gay Asians of Toronto were chosen to lead the fledgling parade.

It wasn't easy, as at that time the parade was close to Chinatown and they were looked down upon by many in the larger Asian community, but they persevered so they could represent and give voice to their experience. 

4) They had their own publication

A year later they launched their own magazine entitled Celebrasian, which included articles, interviews, dating ads and local news for its community members. The group would continue their advocacy into the 90s and would create an organization to focus on the needs of LGBT Asians with AIDS.

Eventually they would merge with two other organizations to form the Asian Community AIDS Services.

Gay Asians of Toronto disbanded in the 2000s.

5) Richard Fung documented the early LGBT Asian community

In 1984, Richard Fung shot a groundbreaking documentary called Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians.

The film featured  interviews with 14 queer Asian people and looked at their experiences with coming out and rascism they experienced in the wider queer community.

"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," he said. 

Years later, Richard would make Re:Orientations, where he found the same group and interviewed them in 2016 to see how much had changed.

For more on Gay of Asians Toronto and LGBTQ2+ history visit the Arquives.