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6 Extraordinary Women Of Asian And Pacific Island Heritage

This is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and six strong, prominent women in the community are providing a feminine-focused editorial counterpunch to the wave of anti-Asian hate that is still sweeping the nation and the world. The Covid-19 pandemic did not cause the animus that has targeted people of Asian heritage, but it did reignite centuries of oppression, racism and prejudice.

The first woman to step forward in this endeavor was queer athlete, global LGBTQ advocate and ambassador Amazin LêThi, She connected me with actress, writer and producer Rain Valdez, who is transgender, as well as cisgender straight actress Chantal Thuy, who plays the bisexual superhero Grace Choi on TV’s Black Lightning. Queer comedian, actor, musician and LGBTQ advocate Margaret Cho also made time to share her thoughts and insights.

Although we weren’t able to connect in person, I felt it was important to include the voices of both Sen. Tammy Duckworth and award-winning producer, transgender rights activist and model Geena Rocero. Their thoughts are represented here as well, through their recent statements and efforts to counter hate against Asians, Asian-Americans and those with Pacific Island heritage.

Q. Being a woman, Asian-LGBTQ, and someone in the public eye as an athlete and global ambassador, you have already faced so many challenges — but there are also opportunities to educate by being such a strong advocate for all those groups. What can you tell readers that will help them overcome challenges and seize opportunities to educate and advocate?

Amazin LêThi: “Sports really saved my life. I was bullied continuously as a child for being Asian and looking different. Although people didn’t know I was from the LGBTQ community, they could see something was very different about me. I found my voice through sports, and that lifetime of sports had given me this immense sense of joy as well. We struggle so deeply, particularly if we’re from a minority background in terms of being out, feeling accepted in a world that’s always trying to push us in a box. That’s not for us. It’s important to realize that the journey that we are on in life, whoever we are, that we don’t have to do it alone. There’s always a support network, even if it may not seem very clear at that point in time. There are always people that you can reach out to or people that you don’t know, like me, who are there to champion you and support you and to make sure that sport is welcoming for everyone.

Q: What is it like to have these two intersecting identities — Asian-American and transgender — that you have to contend with in terms of prejudice?

Rain Valdez: “What most people don’t understand about me is that when I walk into a space, more often than not, if a Black trans woman is not present, more often than not, I’m the most marginalized person in the room. I’m constantly working on tricking myself into thinking that I belong, because I’ve just been so conditioned to believe that I don’t belong because of my transgender identity, and also because of my Asian-American heritage. People are very quick to want to speak down to me. There’s an immediate superiority complex when someone doesn’t know who I am, and that’s challenging because I’m no longer in my 20s. I’m a grown woman and I shouldn’t be spoken to a certain way.

“Another thing that sometimes goes against me is I look really young and I sound really young. People just assume that they can walk over me or speak over me or that I don’t have an opinion or that I haven’t done anything, They underestimate me. And I keep getting put in these boxes of mentorship. I don’t I have anything against the idea of mentorship, except for those who think because I’m a mentee that I have less value than someone who is a mentor, and they have more value to offer, where in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I have a lot to offer as an Asian-American trans woman.”

Q: What are you doing to improve the lives of Americans of Asian and Pacific Island heritage and what more needs to be done?

Chantal Thuy: “There’s been an enormous rise in violence against the AAPI community, particularly towards elderly AAPI members. Beyond donations, rallies and speaking out about it, I sometimes am at a loss as to what needs to be done for this violence to stop. There is hate and ignorance about ‘others’ that has existed in America for a very long time. As a Buddhist, I strive to transform my own mind and uproot negativity. But how can we connect and transform people who are outside of our own echo chambers? This is a question I think about often. But for now, I have found that connecting, learning from and supporting local activists and community leaders who are doing the daily, grinding work of implementing change on municipal levels is one of the most valuable things I’ve done this year.”

Q: How do you respond to the unconscious bias that people have against both Asian-Americans and Pacific Island Americans? And is there any response to that kind of unconscious bias?

Margaret Cho: Unconscious bias is something that’s really in our collective idea of who an American is, and also what presence Americans and Asian-Americans have with each other. There’s a huge contribution that Asian-Americans have brought to America that has really gone ignored. We also receive the brunt of anger and frustration as ‘other,’ even though we’ve been here for a really long time.

“I think it’s a very strange disconnect to think of ‘American’ as just being white or just being of European descent, because it’s a really limited view of what Asians are, what Americans are, what our country is. I mean, this is a nation of immigrants, and the idea that we’re not allowed to be in that status as immigrants and really be fully part of the nation, is really ludicrous.”

Q: How do you use your voice, on your podcast and when you are on stage, to represent the lives of Americans of Asian Pacific Island Heritage? What do you do to make them more present or more represented?

Cho: The show that I’m doing as a podcast, it’s my show, it’s Mortal Minority. And it’s really all about the current rise in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and also an historical view on hate crimes against Asian-Americans as well as crimes perpetuated by Asian-Americans. So it’s a very much like a historical view on Asian-Americans and crime and moving away from the idea of being a ‘model minority,’ which I think is really a disastrous myth and a way to set us against other minorities in a way that’s not fair. So I think it’s really destructive.”

Cho’s podcast is available on Apple, Spotify and Acast.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also addressed the “model minority” concept in a recent interview with CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes:

Q: Nancy Cordes: “What is it that people don’t understand about discrimination or hate crimes against Asian Americans in particular?”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth: “Number one, they don’t recognize that it exists. Also, The myth of the ‘model minority,’ that we’re well-off and we don’t need any help, that we’re not targets, and Asian women are seen as submissive and weak.” As Cordes reported, Duckworth is known to use sharp language in denouncing that stereotype as a lie. “I think it’s 23 years in the Army!”

Q: “Is that why you said, ‘Fuck Tucker Carlson’?”

Sen. Duckworth: “It is! He went after women in the military. I spoke up for my sisters-in-arms. I would do it again.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) was the only U.S. Senator to vote against the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act, a bill aimed at addressing the spike in hate crimes against Asian Americans attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. It is now on Pres. Joe Biden’s desk, as NPR reported. Sen. Duckworth is one of only two Asian-Americans in the U.S. Senate, the other being Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who introduced this bill. Here’s what Sen. Duckworth said about this significant measure.

Sen. Duckworth: “After a year of unfathomable suffering and rising hate crimes against the Asian American community, passing the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act in the Senate sends a strong and resolute message that our entire nation is committed to ending AAPI hate. I’m proud to have helped Sen. Hirono introduce this important legislation to strengthen our enforcement of existing hate crime laws and support victims of this senseless, misguided violence. It is long past time to break the cycle of discrimination against Asian Americans and I will continue working to make this legislation law.”

Sen. Duckworth is someone who also speaks out against all forms of discrimination faced by marginalized Americans. In March, she endorsed the Equality Act and applauded Pres. Biden for reversing the Trump-era ban on transgender military service:

Sen. Duckworth: “If you are willing to sacrifice for our country in uniform and you can do the job, you should have that opportunity — no matter your gender identity or sexual orientation. Our national security, our military and our entire country are stronger when they are more inclusive and I applaud the Pentagon for taking action on Trans Day of Visibility to eliminate discriminatory and hateful policies against our transgender troops. The new rules from the Biden administration will enable these brave servicemembers to be their most authentic selves and receive the support and care they deserve to help them contribute and succeed.”

Duckworth recounts her journey from pilot’s seat to Senate seat in a new memoir, Every Day Is a Gift.

Geena Rocero, the first out trans Pacific Islander ever selected as a Playboy playmate, was given control of the magazine’s social media for a day in March, to use her voice to support the AAPI community:

As she told Forbes.com’s Melissa Jun Rowley in 2020, the former pageant queen in the Philippines became a TV producer in 2014. That’s the year Rocero made history with a now-viral TEDTalk revealing her transgender identity.

Since then, she’s been using her platform at her production company, Gender Proud, to create programming that elevates justice for the transgender community.

Geena Rocero: “Being a producer in and of itself is power, because for so long transgender stories or transgender people have always been looked at in media, especially the way we’re being represented as sort of the butt of the joke, or we’re not believed as the women that we are. It’s always predicated on the idea that you have to prove yourself that you are the women that you are instead of just, ‘Let’s just tell our story as women and what we go through.’”

In addition to her campaigns against AAPI hate, Rocero is an intersectional activist. She has called on the U.S. mainstream media to do more reporting on the number of Black trans women being murdered in the U.S. Already, at least 25 trans and gender non-conforming people have been murdered in 2021 for being who they are, according to the the Human Rights Campaign.

Rocero: “It’s not widely covered, but it’s happening and it is an epidemic. The American Medical Association have said that. They were quoted and they released that statement that there is an epidemic for black trans women.” 

LêThi spoke with me about another kind of intersectionality: Being an Asian woman and being in business.

Amazin LêThi: “I do a lot of work with businesses around these conversations. It’s also about making sure that our stories are shared and what that means, being Asian in business. And then, talking about our leadership in action, and what that looks like for business leaders to be able to then hire Asian women, who then can have some kind of fast track to executive level. Because until you can see yourself, it’s very difficult to know who you can be.

Q. What message do you want readers to take away from this conversation?

LêThi: “Don’t be afraid to stand in your truth and be unapologetic in who you are, because going against the grain is what makes your different sparkle in the world. I think that when you’re Asian and when you’re an immigrant and you feel like you’re different, you always want to conform because society is telling you to conform. But we will never be happy when we’re like that. I show up now as myself. I’m unapologetic. I’m an Asian queer woman. You get what you see. And I’m so much more successful now than I did by hiding bits of myself, because it just felt like 100 tons on my back, constantly. And I’m so much happier as as well. Don’t be afraid to show up as yourself, because I think the most important person that you need to love right now is yourself before anyone else.”

Valdez is now working on a second season of her YouTube series, Razor Tongue, and while it’s not autobiographical, she told me it is representative of her experiences.

Rain Valdez: “When I wrote it, I wanted something that, if I took away the fact that I created it, I wanted to watch something that would inspire me or my friends to speak up for ourselves, or stand-up for ourselves in the moment.

“A lot of times Belle represents that voice in our head when it’s 30 minutes later and we’re in our car. I’ve always had those moments: ‘Oh my God, this is what I should have said.’ I’m driving home and I didn’t get to say what I wanted to say. And so I want to inspire people to just take the time and be present and just say the thing that’s on your mind.

“I think what I love about Belle is that we’re showing a different kind of narrative, a different kind of story that isn’t stereotypical, that she’s not quiet and meek and she’s not necessarily the book smart science geek or whatever. She actually has a strength about her and can stand up for herself and can stand up for other people. And so I wanted to show that part of her because I think people inherently expect us to be submissive and expect us to be grateful. And because we’re grateful, we should be content. That’s always bothered me that we should be grateful to have this job, or this position. Well, of course I’m grateful. But that doesn’t mean that I’m content and how I’m being treated at this work or being perceived as.”

Q: To those cisgender white male business leaders who don’t really get us, but they see that you are in media, they see that you’re a success, and they are learning not to judge you by your cover, based on this interview. What would you say to them? They are the movers and shakers.

Valdez: Fund every trans queer project that lands on your desk. Fund it. Don’t question it. Just give it money. Don’t ask any questions. You’re not going to get it. It’s not for you to get, but eventually you will. That’s what I would say, because there’s a lot of hesitation in financing queer art and projects, because we don’t have that ‘proof of concept,’ right? We don’t have that big name. Well, there isn’t a big name for this until you create opportunity for us. Just fund it. Just finance it.”

Chantal Thuy makes her last appearance as Grace Choi on TV’s “Black Lightning” next Monday, May 24th at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The CW, when the show airs its final episode after four seasons. Thuy has been active on social media promoting the series, her bisexual character, and messages of support for the AAPI community.

Q: Being a woman, Asian-American, and someone in the public eye playing an LGBTQ character, you have already faced so many challenges — but they are also opportunities to educate by being such a strong advocate for all those groups. What can you tell my readers who are LGBTQ that will help them overcome challenges and seize opportunities to educate and advocate?

Chantal Thuy: “To take our pain and challenges and use them to foster compassion and help others that are going through the same experience is the greatest gift our suffering can give us. To feel and be seen as ‘other’ has always plagued my experience growing up, but I’ve learned the importance of finding communities that love and support you, and to lend support to all communities that may be disenfranchised. There is a great truth in the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. “

Q: May is dedicated to celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage. How will you celebrate your heritage?

Thuy: “I am celebrating my heritage this month by signing up for Vietnamese classes so that I can improve my writing and reading abilities! Language, food, culture amd religion are such important components of my heritage and these are some things I want to celebrate so that I may never lose them.”

In a recent episode of Margaret Cho’s podcast, she talks about the fear she experiences every time a stranger approaches her on a sidewalk, and the microaggressions that are also part of anti-AAPI hate: Questions like, “Where are you from?”


“No, where are you really from? What kind of Asian are you?”

In another episode, she discusses the murder of a modern-day Christian missionary, overlooked by most of the mainstream media:

Q: Do you think that there’ll be people who will say, ‘It’s not very funny.’ After all, people are dead. People are dying from the pandemic, but you’re making fun of Covid-19 and Asian-American hate? Aren’t you basically making us look at this stuff?

Margaret Cho: “Yeah, I think comedy or humor and laughter is really about hope, because it’s like this intake of breath. Laughter is an intake of breath to ensure that you’re going to survive the next moment. And so it’s about survival. I think humor is really utilized by people who deal in difficult professions, whether that’s first responders or anybody who deals with a lot of death and sadness. They really have a very acute sense of humor. And it’s because they have to cope a lot. And I think that this pandemic and all of this anti-Asian-American hate, it’s really important to talk about and important to find a way to laugh about it. There’s a way to overcome it. And that, I think, is where humor becomes really key.”

Q: Is there anything that you do, or anything that you think people should do, this AAPI Heritage Month?

Cho: “Honor and recognize the heritage, understand where we come from and where we lie in the story of America. Chinese workers built the railroad, which made it possible for the whole country to connect after the Civil War. We had such a huge part in bringing the country together, and yet we’ve never been acknowledged for it, to acknowledge our real presence in America and understand that we’re all different, from different places in Asia.

“But we all make up all of this country. And the reason why we are here is the reason why everybody is here, to make America America. This moment is really about change and that change happens faster because we have a way to connect with each other that’s faster than ever. We can change, and we can change for the better, and I believe that this world will be so much better when the pandemic is over and we all come back together again.”

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