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Richard Fung and the History of the Gay Asians of Toronto

Disclaimer: “both GAT and Orientations use a lesbian and gay framework. Since then, sexual and gender identities and the politics around them have shifted and continue to morph as new possibilities become available. Today’s non-heterosexuals are as likely to refer to themselves as queer, non-binary, trans, bisexual and two-spirit”. Richard Fung, 2018
About the Gay Asians of Toronto (GAT) and the Fight for Inclusion

Founded by Richard Fung, Gay Asians of Toronto (GAT) was one of the city’s earliest organizations to represent the queer Asian community. The history of GAT plays an important part in understanding queer history in Toronto.

Inspired by the Third World Conference of Lesbians and Gays, organized by the coalition of Black Gays in Washington D.C. (1979), Fung saw the need for representation of the queer Asian community in Toronto and founded the organization. In 1982, GAT led the Toronto Pride Parade in Grange Park which is located near the city’s West Chinatown despite opposition from City Hall. This choice to start the parade close to Chinatown West was to demonstrate their resolve as a marginalized group where there was immense disapproval from many in the Asian community. GAT strived for inclusivity, creating a network for their members to feel belonging and a place to support one another.

With overlapping social struggles of race, expression of identity and acceptance, GAT brought attention to the many issues queer Asian Canadians face regarding intersectionality. The organization has collaborated with many different queer community groups in the city such as Zami, the first queer Canadian group for Black and West Indian folk, Khush, a collective of queer South-Asian men and women and what is to be known as Asian Community AIDS Services who are still active today. These organizations all revolve around the same mission of representing queer Asian Canadians.

“As gays, we have to fight for our rights in the straight society, but Asian gays, like black gays, Jewish gays, sexual minorities, and the handicapped among us and every other minority within the minority have other battles to face as well.”Alani Li, GAT member

Gay Asians of Toronto Newsletter Image circa 1980s
Source: The Arquives
About Richard Fung

Richard Fung, the founder of GAT, is an artist and professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) for Integrated Media and Arts. His professional work includes an extensive and acclaimed list of films showcasing the intersection between identity and culture. Since GAT continued to become increasingly active during the 1980s to the early 2000s, as an artist, he explored these themes of culture and identity through documentary. Being born in Trinidad with a Catholic upbringing, the merge of many factors of his identity have been the subject of his films. The range of topics he has touched upon in his work have involved colonialism, immigration, racism, homophobia, justice in Israel/Palestine, men in porn and more.

“The social and racial hierarchies my mother had been brought up with were already crumbling, in a formal sense, by the time I came of age. These hierarchies of race and class, though not so fixed or monolithic, persist today. The tape looks at the two of us; it’s about place, people’s place in society.” Richard Fung, In My Mother’s Place (1990)

With his debut independent film Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1986), Fung captures the different lives of 14 queer Asian individuals experiencing racism, sex and the troubles of expressing their cultural identity. The film travels through a series of interviews with those belonging to different Asian backgrounds and a glimpse into their daily living experiences being queer

Richard Fung’s Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1986) Source: Richard Fung

“Fung made Orientations as a pioneer project to counter the complete absence of video or film documentary on gay and lesbian Asians. As such, he describes it as an “educational tool,” and its straightforward style foregrounds the sensitive, articulate people whose interviews make up the bulk of the video. Fung admirably avoids whitewashing his subjects and presents them with contradictions intact to avoid stereotyping the minority he wishes to liberate.” (Cinema Canada,1985)

Richard Fung’s Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians (1986) Source: Richard Fung

In another acclaimed film depicting Fung’s relationship with health, Sea In The Blood (2000) becomes a personal documentary following his living experience navigating through his late sister’s fatal illness and partner’s first symptoms of AIDS. The tension of kinship and self identity are themes that become explored throughout the film. The dichotomy between these two themes demonstrate the heavy pressure the queer Asian community is under when it comes to traditional values. The film takes viewers through the implications of the AIDS epidemic and acceptance of an ailing family member.

“In the 1970s, lesbian and gay activists mostly saw themselves outside, often in opposition to, the state. But with the success of gay rights and the urgencies of the AIDS crisis, much LGBT organizing and infrastructure have since become tied to government funding and foundations. Today, anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia education, peer counselling and even community development have largely shifted to AIDS service organizations (ASOs)”. Richard Fung, 2018

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