Welcome back, Academic Feminists! The second in our Summer at the Archives series features Mia Nakano, lead artist at the Visibility Project, a national portrait and video project dedicated to documenting the voices of Queer Asian American women, trans, and gender non-conforming people. Mia discusses her motivation for the project, and talks about both the inspiration and challenges that have cropped up along the way, as well as some of the current and forthcoming events the project is involved with.
1. Tell us a little about the Visibility Project. How did you come up with the concept? Are there any other archival projects that inspired you?
Way back in the day, aka in 2003, I was the founding photo-editor at Hyphen magazine, which is now one of the most widely read Asian American publications in the country. At the time, I was the only out person on staff. I did my best to get to know LGBTQ Asian America (like all of it), and ensure the queer community was represented in the magazine. Before I got to Hyphen, I rarely, if ever, saw API faces or stories in the broader LGBTQ press. And conversely, I rarely saw LGBTQs in API publications.
The summer after I left Hyphen, I spent time with an LGBT human rights organization, the Blue Diamond Society in Nepal and was blown away by the work they were doing. Before I left the states, I couldn’t really find any photos or stories about the Queer rights movement in Nepal. When I traveled to Kathmandu, in 2007, I found out that BDS had managed to get the government to issue “dual sex” citizenship cards for a transgender woman and intersex child. BDS did outreach from the capital of Kathmandu to incredibly rural areas, educating Nepalis LGBT identities, and providing support to those brave enough to come out. The initial invisibility of that community, felt incredibly similar to when I was seeking out stories and contributors for Hyphen. When I got back, I wanted to start a project that would bring the faces of the Queer Asian American Women and Trans* community into the spotlight, because this was my community.
My family and family history inspires me more than any specific project I’ve seen. My mom and grandmother were put in Japanese internment camps, so I had a direct model that civil rights could be taken away at any moment. I also have a deaf sister, who was discriminated against, teased, and treated as “less” as she walked through the world. All of these women taught me the importance of speaking up for yourself and demanding equal treatment. It’s what continues to drive me to do the work I do, and help facilitate my communities’ voices being heard.
2. What are some of your favorite stories so far? Any that have been particularly surprising?
Each person I have the opportunity to speak with teaches me something. There have definitely been some memorable conversations. Lenore Chinn is a 60-something, San Francisco born and raised, Chinese American, Lesbian, painter. She blew me away with stories of how her family received death threats because they were one of the first Asian families to move into the Richmond district, a now predominantly Asian enclave.
In 1982 Lenore moved to the Castro district at the height of the AIDS crisis. It was the year the disease finally got a name, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID. She recounts how the lesbian community stepped up to care for their friends, armed with very little information about the illness. If someone was sick and couldn’t leave their house, they would bring them meals. Such a simple fulfillment of a basic need combined with compassion and activism were how San Francisco was at the forefront of educating the entire country about AIDS, and also the prominent role that lesbians played in all of this, which is often not included in mainstream accounts of responses to the crisis. Programs like food delivery and language translations for HIV/AIDS prevention were born out of the political power of leaders like Lenore who said, “we were only doing what we could. Making sure people were fed and watching after them, because if we didn’t then who would? All of our friends were dying and we didn’t know why. We just did whatever we could to help in whatever way we could. I mean Regan didn’t even say the word AIDS until 1987!”.
3. With documenting a topic that is so close to you personally, how do you deal with some of the more difficult/painful shared experiences that you come across?
Over the past 6 years, I’ve worked with over 120 people, and I usually don’t know them before the shoot. People are given a list of questions beforehand, and I check-in to see if there’s anything I can’t ask. It sets up a safe space. It also leaves the door open for whatever participants want to share. I sit, listen, document, and often reciprocate by sharing my own stories. At the end of a full-day of interviews and photographing, I’m equally exhausted and inspired.
I would say that the painful experiences fire me up to keep doing the work. To move forward, step by step, story by story, and city by city making change in as many ways as possible. I try to keep it in perspective: when I was at Hyphen over 10 years ago, a project like this would have been near impossible to do. There was a lot more negative stigma to being queer, no national organizing of QAPIs, and no social media. Now I can’t keep up with the requests to participate. I’ve probably gotten over 100 requests from people living in cities nationwide. I’d love to be able to say yes to each one; that’s my dream.
4. I know that you have a couple of really interesting projects coming up – what are they? How can readers get involved?
I spend most of my time as a freelance photographer and videographer, and my freelance work funds the Visibility Project. This past summer I worked with the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) on a series called “Uncovering Our Stories”. I produced videos of LGBTQ Asians and Asian Americans who shared personal experiences and struggles around immigration. We want to ensure that Asian voices are included in discussions about immigration reform. You can check out their website to see how you can take action to push for inclusive comprehensive immigration reform.
Right now in Philadelphia, the Leeway Foundation is exhibiting over 30 images from the Visibility Project through October 4th, 2013. I gave an artist lecture in June with three participants from an amazing local organization called hotpot! Philly. Leeway has been a phenomenal support, and is very open to individuals, organizations, or schools coming in for a visit. A couple of educational tours have been given to youth organizations based in Philly.
On August 6th, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is having a pop-up exhibition with the theme of immigration. Visibility Project images and a series of my Tintypes will be featured. I’m so excited about this! It’s getting the stories and faces of the LBTQ API community into a cross-racial exhibit about immigration. Pretty amazing.
In addition to the above linked materials, below you can find more information on the topics discussed here, as well as some of the people and projects that have inspired Mia’s work. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.
The Queer Cultural Center is the largest funder of queer artists in the state of CA. They are an arts incubator and produce the annual National Queer Arts Festival. The website is essentially a 20,000 page wikipedia of LGBTQ artists who have come through QCC’s programming.
Banteay Srei is an East Oakland based youth organization that supports young women of Southeast Asian descent though multigenerational storytelling and cooking, photography,
Queer women of color media wire. Phenomenal online magazine of and by QWOC. One of the things I love about this site is that it’s got an international perspective.
Marsha Aizumi is a Japanese American mother, on the national board of directors of PFLAG, and started the first API PFLAG group in the country. She wrote an emotional, inspirational, and heartbreakingly honest book about raising her transgendered son, Aiden, who co-wrote the book with her.
Mia Mingus is one of the premiere writers in the country whose work delves deep deep into being a queer crip person of color. She is always on point, like nobody’s business.
Kay Barrett, an artist, activist, educator, poet. Queer Pinoy crip spoken word artist.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) a statewide transgender advocacy organization that she co-founded in 1998, and president of the board of directors as well as acting executive director of Queens Pride House, which she co-founded in 1997. Park also co-founded Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997 and served as its coordinator from 1997 to 1999, as well as the Out People of Color Political Action Club the first political club by and for LGBT people of color in New York City, which she co-founded in 2001, serving as co-president of the club from 2007-2010. And she co-founded the Guillermo Vasquez Independent Democratic Club of Queens (GVIDCQ) in July 2002, serving as vice-president from 2002-2004.
Trans API Voices is a youtube channel that has 8 regular contributors who share their perspectives through accessible videos. They each answer the same question and release their responses every 2-4 weeks.
The Asian Pride Project is a multilingual video storytelling project focused on the families of LGBTQ APIs.
The Dari Project published the first bilingual book of stories written by and about LGBTQ Koreans.