Sunday, July 13, 2008

A. C., Mixed, Union City/San Diego CA, 20

I approach writing this memoir/grievance with an unquestionable nervousness. Though I have established a reputation among my peers for being a spitfire, the idea of my experience –which relates to none of the previous posted experiences in any way, shape or form – being visible to a greater population was, is, and will always be intimidating. To be truthful, I’ve actually vocalized my concerns time and time again, but I did so to an audience who was disappointingly unwilling to listen. The more I spoke, the more I was convinced that my opinions regarding the Downe subculture were falling on deaf ears. I in fact accredit a fraction of my courage in writing these words to the idea that they will be ignored in tandem with my previous banters.

With this courage came a defeatist attitude – my conviction that nobody would read at one point drove me to believe there was no point in exhausting myself to write in the first place. I had spent years trying to immerse myself in a culture that closed their doors in front of me – so why would they suddenly open and let in a story that didn’t contain the happy Downe ending everyone else’s did? However, inspiration came in Ben Cabangun’s response to a particular grievance, a response to this project overall, which contained memoirs of people I simply could not relate to. Rather than align with the majority and ignore my enraged verse, he encouraged me to elaborate on these feelings through writing them down, and insisted that my stories were just as relevant to his project as those which glorified the Downe subculture.

I’m well aware that, upon reading this, many will slam label upon label against me. It’s an abuse I’m too familiar with, so if you think tracking me down via various networking websites and cursing me out will render me vulnerable, you’re completely out of luck. I’ve developed thick skin over the years and at this point in my life, I’m damn sure that the last thing that can break my spirits are the words of people who are too busy immersed in their own self-commoditization to give respect to the story of someone who didn’t look, sound, or act like them, but did so with pride. At the same time, I’m not asking for sympathy. Endless IMs of “I’m hella sorry” won’t undo whatever damage one might have caused. All I want is people to read, and understand that, as welcoming as the Downe subculture may be to some, it is extremely marginalizing to others, and if people want the Downe subculture to be as open and familial as the past accounts claim it to be, action must be taken to foster progressive change.

I came out to my friends and family during my junior year of high school. My experience was a lot better than most experiences tend to play out, based on other accounts – my parents were receptive and my friends even joked that I was suddenly ten times cooler than before. After coming out, the rest of my high school career felt like heaven: I had been through two relationships, maintained a secure network of friends I trusted, and was on my way to my undergraduate studies at the University of California, San Diego. Throughout this whole experience, however, I hadn’t developed a network of friends who were LGBT-affiliated, and I hoped that through the Downe movement and Downelink.com I would be able to realize this endeavor. It was after doing so, however, that the positive vibes left me behind.

When I first activated my Downelink account and browsed around, the population boggled my mind. I knew that living in a suburb separated me from the rest of the world, but I still had no clue that the LGBTQIA population within the world, let alone the state, was so immense. Upon further browsing, I noticed several other things, such as the remarkable amount of nudity (and consequently high number of friends for profiles with such nudity), the fact that the Asian and Pacific Islander community made up the undeniable majority of active members, and the fact that everyone already seemed to know each other. Most importantly, it didn’t take me very long to realize that none of these people, established in reputation and swagger, related to me at all.

It may seem unfair to equate the Downe subculture with Downelink.com – after all, a networking website can only go so far as to define the community that has formed through bonfires, conferences, and other sorts of in-person mingling – but at the same time I get the vibe that the Downe subculture is Downelink.com. People use it to network because it obviously works to a more convenient level, given the speed and ease at which one can browse through fifty or so photographs. Chatrooms, picture comments, messages and testimonials serve to further eliminate the barrier of physical distance between two people. Given this plethora of options, it would seem impossible for someone to maintain social invisibility and remain excluded from groups. I soon learned, however, that such was most definitely not the case.

I will admit that Downelink helped me get my first date, and that I am very close friends with a boy whom I wouldn’t have met without the website, but the benefits of maintaining my profile stop there. I’ve tried time and time again to network in an honest and progressive manner, only to have genuine messages ignored by man upon man who feels they have license to disregard me on the basis of my visage alone. When I first attempted to align myself with the Downe movement, I unfortunately missed the memo that I was supposed to have activated my Downelink no later than my freshman year of high school if I didn’t already have gay friends, because starting any later is starting too late. Thus, before even activating, I had already made a mistake and was far behind. I also missed the memo that the mere existence of extra fat on my stomach was tantamount to second-class Downe citizenship. Several other things were instantly not working to my benefit – most notably, as a Mixed Asian American, my acceptance in the community became dependent on how hot I looked, and unfortunately for those who fetishize the Mixed Asian American, I was not Sam Milby reincarnate.

Ronald Sese claims that the Downe movement is not subtle racism. I agree; the racism is blatant. The gap between acceptance as an Asian American in the Downe community and a non-Asian American is so outstanding that you could probably fit a stealth bomber in between it. People insist that they want to get to know people beyond color and body-type but interactions and pictures prove otherwise – Downelink materializes the politics of sex and belonging. It’s not my fault that my parents are of two very different ethnic backgrounds. That’s like saying I played an integral role in choosing who my parents fucked – it’s nonsensical. It’s not my fault I grew up in a Bay Area suburb too far away from San Francisco and not in a city as restless as Los Angeles. It’s definitely not my fault that my body isn’t built like an Olympic gymnast – chocolate and ice cream haven’t ever broken my heart, while men have. In terms of talent, I have definitely paid my dues - I choreograph folk dances for Kaibigang Pilipino @ UCSD, enjoy singing, can draw, and I speak four languages. It’s unfortunate that not looking the part of a star has clouded any hope for these talents to emerge within the Downe community. I am just as beautiful, talented, and motivated as any other person who aligns themselves with the Downe movement, though these strengths aren’t necessarily executed in similar fashions. I just wish that this difference didn’t have to create such a separation – but it’s not like that’s my fault.

Outside the online realm, my experiences with the Downe subculture are no more uplifting. I believed that I had maintained a close network with friends at UCSD who had identified with the Downe subculture, until at a semiformal event, when they asked me to photograph their group without me. I had later learned that the group frequently went to GAMeboi, the most popular dance club in West Hollywood for the Downe community, without me. I wanted to believe that they were exclusive for reasons that weren’t as shallow as phenotypic differences; after all, a friend of mine who hung out with them was Mexican American and went with them to GAMeboi on occasion. I soon learned that they were only using him for his car – when another friend returned to UCSD with a car, this Mexican American friend was no longer invited to go clubbing. Another instance involved two friends who I had talked to frequently before they realized how compatible they were with the Downe clique. One had not yet learned to embrace his homosexuality, while the other was just entering UCSD and thus had no opportunity to immerse his self further. I maintained close yet strictly conversational relations with the two, until they both encountered the UCSD Downe community, and from then on, both physical and conversational communication was limited, and despite any close relationships that might have formed through the months or so I spent talking to these people, the two had learned to embrace Downe acceptance in a manner that eclipsed whatever friendships might have developed between us. The interesting thing is, attempts to approach these people individually usually are successful for the most part, but when Downe folk are a collective entity, they refuse to do so much as regard any communicative action on behalf of myself with respect.

I understand that no amount of gym time, tanning, and starving myself will ever get my body to look the way that the typical Downer’s does. That’s fine with me, for I’ve learned over the years how to make my flaws beautiful – a necessary skill that the shallow Downe community is too busy inciting drama to grasp. In spite of this, as much pride as I have in my own physical and spiritual makeup, I cannot deny that I often blame this lack of acceptance to my own insecurity, due to the fact in which the majority of fit, popular, Asian American half-naked men dominate over my ability to vocalize effectively. It’s easy to feel like you’re the one at fault when friends who maintained good relations with you suddenly leave you for better-looking cliques and stop communicating. It’s easy to feel like you’re the one at fault when there’s nobody out there who looks, acts, or sounds like you. It’s easy to feel like you’re the one at fault when nobody is listening. And frankly, I’m tired of the disrespect.

I maintain my Downelink profile, but under “Orientation” I put “Gay” because my experiences have taught me, while being defined as gay goes little beyond homosexuality and stereotypical flagrance, being defined as Downe creates this condescending and self-glorifying aura about oneself that I’m not willing to accept. I have worked too hard for myself and for others to accept a label that would only hold me down (pardon the pun) and make others assume that I am cliquey and materialistic. The only reason I maintain my Downelink profile is to hold strong to my tenet of acceptance, so that, unlike the majority of the population, there can be someone in the midst of the networking chaos who actually lives up to the credo of diversity of which he boasts.

It would be ignorant to assume that the Downe subculture and Downelink.com are both nothing but bad news for the LGBT community, and to assume that these two phenomena did not in any way contribute positively to gay empowerment, networking, and friendships among peers, both Asian and non-Asian. At the same time, it would be empowering to understand fully the reason why cliques form within the Downe community and thus divide the people it seeks to unite. Maybe someday someone at the top tier of the Downe social hierarchy will defy assumptions and take progressive action, but until that day comes, I feel that I’ll constantly fall victim to stereotypes and assumptions as to what my purpose in this community or any community is.