Words by Nathan Kato
“I bet your profile says ‘no fats, no fems, no spice, no rice.’” Connor Walsh (played by Jack Falahee) delivers the lines with venom in one of my favorite scenes from season 1 of the TV series How to Get Away With Murder. He’s in the middle of defending Oliver Hampton (his future husband, portrayed by Filipino American actor Conrad Ricamora) from a couple of other white gay men at a bar, and this does a lot to endear Connor to Oliver.
This line still lives in my head rent-free to this day, but not with the triumph of its original context. It is a reminder of how many gay men do not consider this “personal preference” to be racist, even though you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who puts “no whites” in their dating profile where you’d often see “no Asians” or “no Blacks.”
The release and box office success of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings last year seemed to signal that things are changing for the better. I had personally looked forward to the movie, not only because it was the first time an East Asian American man would be featured as a leading superhero, but also because I had been told that from some angles I resembled Simu Liu, the star of the movie. After spending a year in quarantine unlearning Western beauty standards and coming to see in myself some of the physical traits I find attractive in guys like Liu and Bowen Yang (monolid eyes, a smile that immediately lops ten years off my calendar age), I naively awaited what I hoped to be a surge in attention on Grindr and other dating apps, as more gay men abandoned their anti-Asian preference. In hindsight, I should have been more skeptical about the effects of one film on moving the cultural needle.
Instead, what I was met with was more of the same fetishization and rejection that I’ve always faced, from the overtly racist “I’m not into Asian guys” to the more passively so: “I’m only interested in tall/hung/masc guys.” I have since stopped asking guys who reject me on the apps why they are not into me. This is the disheartening reality of living as a gay man of East Asian descent within a culture dominated by the racist standards of white gay men.
Let me explain.
Based on my observation (and also backed up by sociological studies), white gay men act as the ultimate tastemakers within the gay community. This is not surprising, writer Angela Chen notes in her book “Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex” that “white people typically have more economic, political, and cultural power…[and] are usually given more credit when championing a cause and are more likely to become the figureheads.” Trendy white gay men decide what we should wear, where we should vacation, even who we should thirst over. And while the men deemed hot enough seem diverse at first, with Asian stars like Daniel Dae Kim and Manny Jacinto, they still fall within white Eurocentric beauty standards.
Those narrow standards value men who are tall, well-endowed, and classically masculine, and these establish an unofficial hierarchy of desirability within the gay community. The stereotype is that Asian men tend to be lacking in these prized features tied to masculinity (endowment, facial structure/shape and hair, etc.), while other men of color stereotypically do possess these features, and can therefore be considered more attractive than East Asian men as a whole. The specifics for how different features are ranked are ambiguous, but in my experience, gay Asian men have perpetually been placed near the bottom by all others.
To improve our dismal position within this arbitrary standard, many East Asian men, myself included, become unhealthily fixated on doing whatever it takes to mold ourselves into what others consider desirable, whether that means countless hours at the gym, obsessive calorie counting, protein loading, or plastic surgery. For some, it can mean subscribing to the way other gay men see us, whether that means writing “beta male” in our profiles or even cutting down other men of color. We convince ourselves that maybe a superhuman physique or the sharpest hairdo or wearing the latest trendy clothes will help us escape that undesirable categorization.
But all of this ultimately amounts to nothing—a fool’s errand that degrades us in accordance to racist standards. While many cis white gay men (as well as some other members of the gay community) are insistent that they are doing the work, it is mostly just virtue-signalling by displaying hashtags for Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate prominently in their social media profiles. Sure, they don’t hate gay Asians, they just don’t find them attractive. It’s not racism, it’s “preference.” But this logic falls apart as soon as we question the racist origins of this preference, and why mainstream Western beauty standards conveniently reign supreme (and this isn’t even getting into other issues, such as fatphobia, transphobia and internalized misogyny).
I’m tired of trying to win within this faulty system, or to “fix” it (it’s performing as intended). I think it’s up to the collective community of gay men of color to reject it entirely, to start focusing on and defining what attractive means. Your potential boyfriend shouldn’t need to be muscular, have strong male features, be 6 feet tall, have immaculately styled hair... He shouldn’t even have to be a cis man at all.
Imagining this new future means questioning what features you find attractive, why you find them attractive, and then asking if you can take the time to consider someone who doesn’t fit that mold. It involves some hard introspection and re-inventing yourself, and the results may surprise and delight you. After all, when you start to redefine who and what is beautiful in your eyes, you may start to find more love and appreciation for the most important person of all: you.
Published on May 3, 2022
Words by Nathan Kato
Nathaniel Kato daylights as a biotech engineer, moonlights as a podcaster, and is a perpetual video gamer. He can be found spouting inanity at @kahtonotkayto on Instagram, Twitter, and Twitch.