CAMD Scholar Mary Muromcew ’22 Investigates Identity and Belonging as Queer Korean American

Exploring the question, “Who are my people?”, Mary Muromcew ’22 discussed identity and belonging in her Community and Multicultural Development (CaMD) Scholar Presentation, “Sticky Belonging: Hegemonic Gazes and the Taming of Queer Asian American Identities,” held on Monday, January 18 over Zoom.

Through research on how queer Asian Americans navigate belonging in the State, the Asian American community, and the LGBTQIA+ community, Muromcew discussed how identity is rooted in whiteness and heterosexuality. She also explored how legal strategies in these “Places of Belonging” further ostracize queer Asian Americans.

“I want to draw your attention to this quote that I chose by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. ‘It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.’ So, this presentation does focus on the belonging that queer Asian Americans grapple with, but my hope is that you’ll view this presentation thinking about your belonging even if you’re not a queer Asian American,” said Muromcew.

In the early stages of her research, Muromcew focused on a struggle she experiences; as a queer Korean person, the moments when she feels most Korean are when she does not feel as queer, and vice versa.

“So, I was looking at how can political and civic engagement be a measurement for that? Then my faculty advisor, [Molly Engel, Teaching Fellow in English], said, ‘What you’re researching and what you’re wanting to talk about is just belonging in general,’” said Muromcew.

Muromcew investigated the concept of conditional belonging within American society by examining the modern-day prejudice against Asian Americans and derogatory association of the LGBTQIA+ community. Muromcew divided her presentation into three sections based on law, race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Cecilia Chung, a transgender LGBTQIA+ and H.I.V./AIDS rights activist, was central to Muromcew’s work. 

Muromcew was able to interview Chung, and explored how Chung’s own experience of “belonging” within both the queer and Asian American community had their own intersections. In the presentation, Muromcew played an audio clip of her interview with Chung, who talked about the feeling of fundamental disconnect that can come from being queer or H.I.V. positive in Asian American Communities. 

“Our job is to grow up, get a good education, marry well, raise our own family, and give our parents grandchildren. That’s what we were taught. That was our path. So being queer was already one mark against us and anything more than that almost seems unbearable. I think that things have changed since then because now even queer couples can adopt children, which kind of satisfies the idea of giving our parents grandchildren. So it’s not as difficult to disclose that part of our identity. But the H.I.V. part comes with a lot of unknown so it’s still very difficult for some of us,” said Chung in the interview with Muromcew. 

Muromcew explained how Chung’s experience exemplified her research into conditional belonging, and how identity can be suppressed by both familial and social pressures, but also how the “hegemonic gaze” also reinforces the political status quo. 

“Cecelia is kind of talking to us about another pressure or reason to tame your identity if you want to belong in the Asian American community, where she talks about doing so will be more palatable for your family members. I think human desire to find belonging within your family is really strong and Cecelia is just showing us that there’s a huge reason to just go along with it.” said Muromcew.

Muromcew continued, “We can also see that the hegemonic gaze of this place of belonging is a white, homosexual person who adheres to heteronormative values such as marriage. It reinforces the hegemonic gaze of the state…Then we can think about how the hegemonic gazes in the Asian American community and in the LGBTQ+ community are intersecting and how both are reinforcing the power of the state.”

Muromcew discussed Andrew Yang, an Asian American candidate in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Race, and his insider access to the Asian American community as a straight, cis-gender man. According to Muromcew, he used language that cemented the image of Asian Americans as entirely foreigners by encouraging them to assimilate, embrace, and, in his words, “show [their] Americanness in ways [they] never have before.”

“Many Asian Americans were really upset about [his language] because [Yang] really encouraged assimilation with his language like, ‘we should show our Americanness’, ‘we should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans.’ I’m asking, ‘What do you mean? What do you think it means to be American if this is the language you are using to describe it?’” said Muromcew.

She continued, “His language is also really reflective of rhetoric used in the World War II era, where when the Japanese Americans were taken to the internment camps, community leaders would encourage Japanese American men to enlist in the army to show their Americanness. So, a century later, he’s still using the same language. It’s ridiculous.”

Hailee So ’22 also found Yang’s message to be ironic, noting that assimilation opposes the definition of a “melting pot,” which is often used to define the best qualities of America. So connected this language from Yang and pressure to assimilate to her experience of moving to the United States from Japan at 12 years old.

“[Muromcew] talked about how a Japanese shop owner had to put up a sign that read ‘I am an American’ in front of his shop the day after Pearl Harbor. I felt like I had the same kind of experience, on a much lower level of severity and intensity. When I moved to America at the age of twelve to a junior boarding school, I kind of had to show my American-ness when I came to America due to racial exclusion. And there was always this concept of a perpetual foreigner that I had to overcome through assimilating,” said So. 

Muromcew concluded her presentation by showing photos of San Francisco Pride events in the late ’80s and early ’90s. When Muromcew first saw one photo of Asian Pacific lesbians at the 1989 San Francisco Pride Parade, she was struck by a thought that it could have been her if she lived in that time period.

“This is a photo from the 1993 San Francisco Pride. We see people from a gay and lesbian South Asian organization marching, and it’s just so beautiful to look at while thinking about what this means. It just fills me with so much joy to see…that these are my relatives, these are my ancestors,” said Muromcew.