Monday, October 10, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Asians Hope Poster Gets People Thinking About Homophobia

Dao-liang Chou owns a black T-shirt, which she never wears in the International District. It's got two lavender-colored Chinese characters between a heart. It reads literally, "A woman loves a woman." Simple translation, she's a lesbian.

It's not that Chou, a graduate student at the University of Washington, locks herself inside the closet. Three years ago, she propped open the door by telling her friends and her family. She now attends events like the Gay Games in New York and wears gay pride jewelry.

But there's this matter of coming out in the Asian community that's a little trickier than carrying a sign at a pride event or wearing a T-shirt. Chou, a confident 25-year-old who's second-generation Chinese, is building up her nerves to wear her T-shirt in a place where the characters can be easily translated. That doorway takes a little longer.

A topic tucked away

Like in other cultures, homosexuality in the Asian Pacific Islander community is a taboo, a topic tucked away to save a family's name, or better yet, something left unsaid. Coming out then is like walking beyond the closet door and breaking down a slew of cultural barriers as well.

Unlike other cultures that pose homosexuality as a question of morality, Asians see it more in terms of how it affects the family. Being gay is losing face, which feels the same as the most homophobic remark. In the Asian community, the typical reaction to coming out is: "Don't tell anybody."

But Seattle's Asian and Pacific Islander gays and lesbians want to shatter the silence by introducing an anti-homophobia poster designed to make people talk. The poster, funded by the Pride Foundation and Heart to Art, features a photo taken at the Nippon Kan Theatre of more than a hundred lesbians and gays, their families, friends and supporters. There's a mixture of generations, cultures, sexual orientations and occupations: grandparents, sons and daughters, Filipino, Laotian, blue collar and white collar.

"We want a powerful image and message for the community," says graphic designer Aldo Chan. "We wanted to create something to get people to think about homophobia."

And also to come out. Tomorrow is National Coming Out Day, a time when gays and lesbians are encouraged to come out of the closet collectively.

Poster organizers say they also hope to educate the community on the prevention of AIDS.

The Asian community is still one of the toughest ones to break in AIDS education, says Bob Shimabukuro, director of the Asian AIDS Council.

The poster's message, "Unite Against Homophobia," will be translated into nine languages. The Asian Pacific AIDS Council and the Asian Pacific Islander Homosexuality/Homophobia Education Project plan to distribute 1,000 posters next month. The reaction could be bad or good, it doesn't matter, participants say.

"The first step in dealing with homosexuality is to get the issue out there so people can talk. It's so covered up," Chou says.

Tired of the excuses

Chou came out to her sister, her mother and her friends because she was tired of making excuses for herself.

"I spent 95 percent of my energy figuring out how to avoid the obvious," Chou says. "I'm not in-your-face gay. But I'm in the mode that when I make a friend, I make it known that I'm a lesbian. If they can't deal with it, I don't want them to be my friend."

She waited two years before she told her father, who is more traditional, because she thought he would not understand.

"I told him I didn't feel it was something that I could hide from him. I didn't want to censor it and I didn't want him to find out from others," Chou says.

"He was surprised and scared for me. But he still loved me. It didn't change what he thought of me."

Pat Soon, a mental health specialist, doesn't hide himself from anyone. He strolls along the International District comfortable, confident and openly gay. Get use to it, his attitude suggests.

Soon sports three tattoos; the Chinese character for health, Daffy Duck and a pink triangle. The tattoos, in a way, represent the three cultures Soon encounters: Asian, American and gay.

"Nobody wakes up and says, `I'm going to take one (culture) at a time,' " Soon says. "It's not easy to walk in three cultures simultaneously."

A native of Hawaii, Soon came out to his mother in what he describes as a scene straight from the tearjerker film, "The Joy Luck Club," which is based on Amy Tan's book about Chinese mothers.

Soon recalls there was a lot of crying and a lot of silence; but there was also acceptance, something he didn't expect after growing up in a traditional Asian household. As a naive teenager, he kept thinking he was the only gay Asian in all of Hawaii.

"It's extremely difficult to pull Asians out of the closet. You can't even talk about it," he says.

But talking about being gay makes it easier to be out, Soon says.

Chou is nearing the point where her T-shirt will be just another piece of clothing, something she can wear without hesitation.

"I'm getting there. It just takes time," Chou says.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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