Brace Fellow Leo Peters ’24 Explores Impact of Politics on Desire in Gay Asian Communities

In the fourth and final Brace Fellow presentation of the 2022-2023 school year, Leo Peters ’24 discussed how oppressive social and political contexts shape desire, with a focus on the experiences of gay Asian American men. Peters delivered his presentation, “‘So You’re Gonna Be My Little Geisha Boy Tonight?’ Gay Asian American Men and the Politics of Sexual Discrimination and Desire,” on May 1 in Abbot Hall.

Peters began his presentation by examining the influence of the patriarchy and politics on perceptions of sex and desirability. Presenting sex as a construct of patriarchy, he explores the socially normative expectations of male dominance and female docility. 

“Sex, as it exists in the world, was constructed by patriarchy and thus defined by the eroticisation of male domination and female submission… In America, Asian bodies as a whole have been marked as hyperfeminine. In contrast, Black bodies have been marked as hypermasculine. These gendered racial meanings intersect with patriarchy, which has shaped sex so that we find men who are dominant [and] women who are submissive, erotic,” said Peters. 

Peters continued, “Our sexual preferences are shaped by hierarchy, [and] the question of who is and isn’t desirable … can more often than not be answered by more general patterns of historical and categorical domination, such as colonialism, war, racism, and class domination. In this way, our sexual preferences are not just personal, but political, too.”

Analyzing the origins of the hyper-feminization of Asian men, Peters traced this history back to the first Asian American immigrants in the 1840s. He explained how laws that prohibited interracial marriage and restricted the immigration of Asian women prevented male Asian immigrants from fulfilling standards of heteromasculinity, relating this to the fetishization of gay Asian men.

“In addition to marginalization, gay Asian men also experienced another form of sexual racism: sexual exploitation… Gay Asian men are often fetishized as ‘geishas of a different kind’ by a subgroup of gay white men, who seem to confirm their masculinity through the sexual domination of the feminine other. As a result, gay Asian men in the gay community are often only considered desirable to the extent that they perform hyper femininity and submissiveness. Yet, many gay Asian men reported feeling as though they had no choice but to fulfill the exploitative expectation of men who fetishized them in order to not be completely excluded from the sexual marketplace,” said Peters.

Investigating the liberation of sexual desire from hierarchical political influences, Peters highlighted the importance of change on both a structural and personal level. One part of this solution, Peters described, is to gain a greater awareness and acceptance towards the fluidity of identity.

“One of the more profound things I came across when I was doing research was this idea that a lot of the reason we treat other people who are different than us is because it’s frightening to our own identity when we see someone who is like us in many ways, but also different… And I think that the solution to that has to be being more open to fluidity in ourselves… I think this project has made me more aware of all the possibilities in everyone and including myself, and recognizing that none of us are static objects,” said Peters.

Dr. Kiran Bhardwaj, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, served as Peters’ faculty advisor for his research project. She emphasized the nuances of moral responsibility Peters addressed in his project.

“[Leo] was interested in exploring how sexual preferences can be shaped by oppressive cultural contexts, and whether, in such cases, we can be held as morally responsible for sexual desires that are in line with or even contribute to those contexts. It seems very easy to conclude that we don’t have control over our sexual desires. I think Leo’s central question is one that should be of interest to all of us: could we be responsible for those of our desires that contribute to systems of oppression?” wrote Bhardwaj in an email to The Phillipian.

Attendee Cindy Yang ’26 was initially drawn to Peters’ presentation due to its connection to the fixation on hyperfeminine men in danmei, a genre of Chinese literature that features romantic relationships between male characters. They expressed how Peters’ discussion of desire afforded them a new perspective on sexual attraction.

“I really liked the whole exploration of desire, because I hadn’t thought about all these ways in which social aspects influence your desire. And I guess that’s something to think about next time when you’re thinking ‘this is attractive’ or ‘this is not attractive,’ wonder why,” said Yang.