When does 'different strokes for different folks' slip into racism?
If you've never heard of grindr, ask your local smartphone-owning homosexual for the lowdown. Like some gay hybrid of a GPS, personals section and neighbourhood beat, Grindr pinpoints your location and presents you with photos of nearby men. Naturally, Grindr users all look for different things: hairy/smooth, slim/athletic. Many also state what they're avoiding. "No femmes," say some. "No fat, no old," say others. "No Asians." That last one - "No Asians" - comes up a lot. Which is to say, they're avoiding guys like me.
Setting up a Grindr profile is easy. My rules are simple: my profile will show my bare torso, but not my face - nothing to indicate race. Within minutes, a Caucasian man, whose face I can only describe as vaguely potato-ish, starts chatting to me. He has no username, but his listed age is 31. After pleasant banter, the conversation veers, of course, to my nipples.
Potato: I must compliment you on your shiny nipples. Do you wax?
Me: Ha! No that just comes with being Asian.
Potato: Oh I bet you don't have to grroom [sic] at all do you.
Before I can even respond, Potato sends a rapid-fire succession of messages:
Potato: I'm off to bed / Night / Chat later.
Maybe I'm paranoid, but I have the distinct feeling I've encountered my first case of online race-based rejection. Everything was going smoothly with Potato until I mentioned I was Asian.
"The level of racism with these apps and websites is horrific," says Nic, a semi-regular Grindr user. "One time, someone even had emojicons for Asian and Indian men; he couldn't even be bothered to write the words."
Chinese-Australian filmmaker Tony Ayres has written about Australia's gay scene before: "If you're young and good-looking, you're at the top of the social hierarchy. What I didn't realise was that being Chinese was actually a distinctive sexual category in a racial hierarchy. Asians were behind black and Latino men in the scale of things. White men were on top."
Ayres laughs, adding: "It's difficult to find a way of talking about this that doesn't sound like you're the dick police. Because then, not only are you sensitive, you're dull, too. But obviously, desire is racialised. Whether it's conscious or unconscious, there are exclusions, and people come to generalisations about Asian men: feminine; small dicks."
"Everyone's entitled to their own sexual preference," says Kevin, another Grindr user. "I don't believe in affirmative action when it comes to having sex." Still, Kevin has seen enough online gay profiles with "No Asians" on them that he can't dismiss it, either: "I'm hypersensitive, but that's because I know it exists. Whenever I get snubbed, it's always in the back of my mind whether it's because he's not interested in Asian people. Gay guys put a premium on hyper-masculinity, and part of the reason I'm so body-conscious is because I don't want to be that 'twink' Asian stereotype."
This isn't confined to gay Asian men. "Wesley" is a 29-year-old Chinese-Australian lawyer who was dating a blonde Australian woman before the relationship unceremoniously ended. Months later, Wesley heard through mutual friends that she had said - while drunk - "I love Wesley, but I'm just not geared to being attracted to Asian guys.' "
Chinese-Australian Colin was also dumped by his white girlfriend after nine months. When Colin asked her why, she looked at him blankly. "It's because you're Asian," she said.
I laugh, horrified, when Colin tells me this. "She didn't know you were Asian beforehand?"
"It's not like I turned Asian overnight," he says.
All of this raises potentially ugly questions. Is it true that heterosexual women and gay men don't find Asian men attractive? Asian women don't have the same problem (ask my sisters), so why Asian men?
Dr Michael Lewis from Cardiff University in Wales has surveyed young heterosexuals from all racial backgrounds to monitor patterns of race-based attraction. Lewis's tests revealed a trend where straight men generally considered Asian women more attractive than Caucasians, while black women were left behind. For men, it was the reverse. Women considered black men more attractive than Caucasians, while Asian men ranked lowest. In the UK, census data on marriage parallels Lewis's findings. More black men are in interracial marriages than black women, and more Asian women are in interracial marriages than Asian men.
There are vague correlations in the gay world. In 2008, Australian gay magazine DNA ran a survey touching on who readers found attractive. Overwhelmingly, readers preferred Caucasian men (58.3 per cent), followed by mixed race (15.1 per cent) and Hispanic (10.7 per cent). Asian scraped in at 3.2 per cent. Even Asian readers didn't identify Asian guys as particularly hot.
There are several theories here. one is bio-logical: Asian men are not typically muscular, hairy or tall, biological signposts of masculinity and testosterone. Another is Australia's history with Asia. From the White Australia policy to Hansonism, Asians have occupied a place in the Australian imagination as particularly repellent.
Others point to poor media representation of Asian people, men especially. How many Asian male sex symbols in Western media can you name? Most of us would need to Google actor-model Daniel Henney, Chinese actor Tony Leung, Survivor winner Yul Kwon, Glee's Harry Shum jnr or Lost's Daniel Dae Kim. In Australia, we probably only have one: Home & Away and Dance Academy's teen dream Jordan Rodrigues.
Though DNA's models are often non-Caucasian, there has not been one identifiably Asian cover model in DNA's 146-issue history. "To appeal to the widest audience possible, models have to be pretty generic," says Andrew Creagh, DNA's editor. "In many ways, cover models need to be a blank canvas onto which the audience can project their own fantasies and aspirations."
For Asian guys, that invisibility can translate to tough prospects on the field. When Colin talks to his non-Asian female friends, they often say it's hard to reconcile their teen ideas of marriage and romance with Asian guys. For some, romance or sex with an Asian guy is beyond their imagination. Gilbert Caluya, a young, gay, Filipino-Australian academic, describes an experience where one man at a club literally put his palm to Caluya's face and said, "I don't do Asians." This was before Caluya even spoke to him.
Though I'm Asian myself, I can't absolve myself here. In the past, when I've been asked what guys I've found attractive, the answer was rarely Asian men. It wasn't until I spent time travelling through Asia - in Japan and India, especially - that I found the men beautiful, even ruggedly handsome. Something else changed, too. In Beijing, Tokyo and Delhi, I suddenly became a massive hit in gay clubs.
For all these complicated questions about race and desire, perhaps the answer is quite simple: we all just need to get out more.
FROM GOOD WEEKEND