Queer Guilt and the Cut Sleeve
When I was an adolescent, my mother told a story about a gay emperor. This emperor, Hàn āidì, reigned from 7 to 1 BC, and was one of history’s first documented figures of homosexuality. The term Cut Sleeve, a euphemism for homosexuality in mandarin, is taken from a famous story where Emperor Han and his lover Dong Xian were napping together. The emperor had to wake up and attend a court audience, but Dong Xian was fast asleep with his head resting on the emperor’s long robe sleeve. Thus, the emperor used a knife to cut off the lower half of his sleeve in order to not disturb the sleeping Dong Xian when getting out of bed. The sleeve left behind an object of selfless affection. This act of love, intimacy, and connection between two Asian men is rarely ever seen in modern depictions of queer love.
During my late childhood, I began to consider how my sexuality and role as an Asian individual played into my position in my community, which was predominantly heterosexual and white. The alienation I experienced has followed me throughout my life, and even today, when I look towards the media, I continue to believe that queer representation still focuses on a singular, white, narrative that doesn’t pertain to individuals like myself. I felt selfish; shouldn’t I be happy that there is finally some semblance of the queer representation that I so desperately longed for when I was younger?
Movies like Call Me By Your Name, Brokeback Mountain, and the majority of movies which focus specifically on the representation of gay men, idealize masculine, almost straight-passing, white men whose narratives do not correlate with mine. According to a study done by the UCLA Social Science Department in 2016, only 3.1% of a data pool of 1352 films featured roles played by Asians, while 78.1% featured roles were played by white actors. This data set alone shows the large discrepancy between the number of Asian roles being offered versus white roles, hindering the potential to tell Asian-centric stories in lieu of Caucasian narratives. Queer people of color (POC) suffer from this constricting narrative, which perpetuates their exclusion from the larger canon of modern queer stories and aesthetics. This maintains the outdated notion that queer POC do not belong in a marketable LGBTQ+ narrative. By inaccurately representing a large subset of queer people in mass media such as films and television, the perception of queer aesthetics will come at the expense of losing its diverse foundations. These foundations instead are replaced by corporate marketing strategies for increasing revenue and generating content for hyper-specific audiences. Call Me By Your Name, for example, focuses on a gay relationship between Elio and Oliver. However, the actors playing both Elio and Oliver are not played by queer actors, but by two white masculine heterosexual men, reinforcing the same idea that other modern queer films uphold: that in order to be an ideal queer man, you must be white, masculine, and heterosexual. This inaccurate narrative of what it means to be queer has ingrained a contradictory paradox within queer identifying individuals, specifically queer POC. Those movies were not for me, but rather a larger heterosexual audience.
Growing up under this influx of unrelatable queer-coded content, I began to distance myself from my actual identity as a feminine, gay, Asian man. I felt alone, surrounded by a community that rarely paralleled me, and coupled with virtually no access to art and media that showed any representation of characters that resembled me. In the United States, ethnic-minority LGBTQ+ find themselves in a double minority, in which they are alienated by the majority of the mainstream, white, LGBTQ+ community of America, while also being turned away for being LGBTQ+ by their own ethnic group. In terms of sexual representation, gay Asian-Canadian author Richard Fung has written that while black men are portrayed as hypersexualized, gay Asian men are portrayed as being undersexed. Fung also wrote about feminizing depictions of Asian men in gay pornography, often focusing on gay Asian men’s submission to masculine White men.  This reduces gay Asian men into a category of an object or ‘kink’ that can be adopted or cast aside, and also actively looks down on feminity as a submissive characteristic. Within the heterosexual Asian community, China only officially removed homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses in 2001. Unfortunately, this perception still affects the treatment of queer individuals as well as their own internalization of their sexuality. In a survey conducted by the organization WorkForLGBT, a non-profit business network for LGBT employees in China, out of 18,650 LGBT identifying individuals, only 3% of males and 6% of females surveyed described themselves as “completely out.” Additionally, around 80% of the participants were reluctant to come out at all due to Eastern cultural pressures and expectations.
The design and research of this thesis have forced me to come to terms with my own guilt around the inherent internalized homophobia I harbor, as well as with the dichotomy of being trapped between two polarizing identities. Due to these conflicting identities, it is impossible for me to meet the expectations my parents set for me when they moved to America: a white picket fence family. As I’ve grown older, I became more aware of the inherent sacrifices my parents made to get me to where I am today as well. From my mother working in sandwich prep to Sears and trying to learn English, to my father working as an electrician while attending college night classes, being the first in his generation to do so.
I know this experience of alienation and dysphoria towards Asianness is not unique to me. I didn’t know that this was necessarily the case until I had the privilege to move to New York and meet other gay Asian men with similar experiences to myself. This is the reason that I chose to focus my thesis on the widespread feeling of alienation that queer Asian individuals tend to feel during adolescence. My thesis aims to bring together members of the queer community – as well as educating allies outside of the community – by creating a garment that is constructed with transcribed stories of queer Asian American men.
I created this project as an intersection of generative design and queer Asian theory with a focus on the concept of idealized masculinity. The first step of this procedure was to interview multiple gay Asian American men. transcribing their stories. I then took the physical text of these stories and translated them into an algorithm of my own design, which would dissect the character tropes and words to assign designs representing well-known Asian American iconography of my own creation. These designs are based on certain qualifications, such as each letter generating a unique image each time it is used in the transcript. The length of the word determines the size of the design, and whether or not the word is a noun, adjective, verb, etc. determines the color of the design. Thus, with each story I put into this algorithm, a combination of designs unique to that story is created. After the digital process of transforming the stories, the designs were digitally embroidered on a robe inspired by the story of the cut sleeve of Emperor Hàn āidì.
I’ve chosen generative design to execute this project because as storytelling has shifted from word of mouth to writing, and more recently to the construction of creative objects such as clothing, the retelling of narratives has shifted from non-physical to physical and back again. Innovations like the Internet, cloud technology services, and coding allow storytelling to transcend reality as we know it, rendering it more widely available than ever. I want to synthesize old-fashioned storytelling through garments and textiles with new school forms of narrative, like generative design, that haven’t necessarily been explored in-depth as traditional forms. Coding and the creation of sewing a garment share a connection as well; both must be constructed meticulously and without error in order to create a high-functioning end product. However, textile generation, unlike coding and generative design, has a lengthy and rich history in a multitude of cultures.
My creation of a design object manifests a support network between queer Asian men, while fostering an even greater sense of camaraderie within our community, a system that I wish I could have given to my younger self. The first-hand insights can be shared with allies outside of this community to publicly tell the stories of an underrepresented group of individuals who have been alienated by people inside and outside of the queer community. I want to represent an array of modern gay Asian men in the way that we proudly exist today. Cut Sleeve is centered around this feeling of guilt: the guilt of having my identities, my Asianess, my Americanness, and my queerness, constantly at odds. Thus, I create something for the Asian child who was worried about acting “too gay” and not able to come out due to cultural stigmas or familial expectations. I have designed something that synthesizes what I want to feel, something that makes me feel proud to embody the effeminate gay Asian man I am.
Boden, Margaret A., and Ernest A. Edmonds. “What Is Generative Art?: Semantic Scholar.” Semantic Scholar, January 1, 1970. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/What-is-generative-art-Boden-Edmonds/5c72e8b18f27a297488328b1b18a32e3e4fb5528.
“China Decides Homosexuality No Longer Mental Illness.” South China Morning Post. Hartford Web Publishing, March 8, 2001. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/55/325.html.
Ding, Qian, ed. “Tolerance to LGBT, Not Easy in China.” – CCTV News – CCTV.com English, July 3, 2017. http://english.cctv.com/2017/07/03/ARTIjsanAx2TBZAZZ6KTazzg170703.shtml.
Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
Eng, David L., and Shinhee Han. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: on the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.
Hunt, Darnell, Ana Christina Ramón, Michael Tran, Debanjan Ryodchoudhury, Christina Chica, and Alexandria Brown. Hollywood Diversity Report 2019. Vol. 6. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA College of Social Sciences, 2019.
“The History of Fabric and Textiles.” NY Fashion Center Fabrics. Accessed December 10, 2019. https://www.nyfashioncenterfabrics.com/pages/history-of-fabric-and-textiles.
Wu, Jean Yu-wen Shen, and Min Song. Asian American Studies: a Reader. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Xu, Weisen, Love in the Afternoon. Photography. https://m.weibo.cn/u/1629800237.