Sea Gods, Brownies, and Temperamental Men: Asian Pacific Islanders in the Making of a Gay American Identity
In May 2018 GLSEN, an advocacy group for LGBTQ issues in K-12 education, showcased on Instagram eight Asian and Pacific Islander (API) LGBTQ icons for Asian Pacific American (APA) heritage month. They demanded “Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ identities should be part of an inclusive school curriculum all year round” and directed people to their website for more educational resources. In the twenty-first century, organizations, activists, and artists have increasingly sought to validate and highlight the existence of Asian Pacific American queers. API Equality in both Northern and Southern California, independent historians Eric Wat and Alice Hom, as well as photographer Mia Nakano, have all committed to collecting, preserving, and disseminating queer API histories as archival projects, podcasts, and exhibits at museums as notable as the Smithsonian. In a state such as California where Asians and Pacific Islanders can make up more than half of the population in towns such as Daly City, South San Gabriel, and Temple City, it makes sense that advocates would seek to embrace, if not empower, queers in their own communities as the Trump administration appears increasingly transphobic and homophobic.
Amidst this growing movement, however, queer API history still remains less tended in a garden in which “fags,” “dykes,” and “Orientals” garner little attention, particularly before 1960. Many might assume API queers did not exist at all. Historians more likely presume the formation of a modern gay identity was largely a white one that by default excluded Asians and Pacific Islanders. Yet at least one literary critic, Lee Wallace, noted that Pacific Islander same-sex sexualities powerfully informed nineteenth-century western imaginings of masculinity so much so that “male homosexuality as we have come to understood it… was constituted in no small part through the collision with Polynesian culture.” Notably, travel logs by white bohemians exploring the Pacific Rim as well as their own sexualities reveal how they often conflated Pacific Islanders and Asians, in particular Japanese, under the singular category of the “Orient” to advance their own same-sex desires. Without a doubt, Pacific Islanders and Asians centrally informed how white American men discovered their love for other men at the turn of the century. Perhaps then we can also trace the conflation of Pacific Islander and Asia, now understood as API, as having roots in the formation of a modern gay identity.
Pacific Islanders and Asians centrally informed how white American men discovered their love for other men at the turn of the century.
In the late 1860s, Charles Warren Stoddard, a budding but not yet successful poet in his twenties from San Francisco, traveled to Hawaii and happened upon sixteen-year-old Kána-aná in a secluded valley rimmed with tapestries of fern, climbing vines of morning glory, and two exquisite waterfalls. Kána-aná appeared “so entirely tropical – almost Oriental” in a straw hat bound with wreaths of fern and maile and a sleeveless snow-white garment. He studied Stoddard without embarrassment. And Stoddard returned Kána-aná’s earnest gaze, noticing his round, full, “girlish” face; his lips ripe and expressive; and eyes “perfectly glorious – regular almonds – with the mythical lashes ‘that sweep.’” Kána-aná’s smile melted Stoddard into complete submission.
Kána-aná declared that Stoddard was now his best friend, as he was his, and that he must immediately come to his home to live with him forever. He swept up Stoddard on to his horse, mounted himself behind Stoddard, and took him over the sand and through the river to his hut. He then fed Stoddard, “petted [him] in every possible way,” and put him to bed, an enormous Elizabethan era bed with high posts decorated with an abundance of pillows, cushions, and brightly colored chintz hanging from the bed curtains. Stoddard slept little that night, growing “excited” as Kána-aná hugged him “like a young bear.”Stoddard and Kána-aná’s affair in the 1860s embodied the central role same-sex desire played in encounters between the West and the Pacific, even as API same-sex sexualities have largely been written out of histories of Western contact. White writers and artists such as Herman Melville, Jack London, Paul Gaugin, and F. W. Murnau, as well as Charles Warren Stoddard, coveted men of color in the Pacific.
As Stoddard lay in bed the morning after his first night in Kána-aná’s home, he noticed his sleek figure, “supple and graceful in repose.” He dozed off again as he dreamed of taking Kána-aná back to San Francisco and later awoke to a breakfast of fresh fish, poi, and goat’s milk prepared by Kána-aná. Each day that followed, Kána-aná offered something new for his visitor; mutton, chicken, a pile of coconuts, a net full of large guavas or mangoes, or oranges from the mountain above. They spent their days riding canoes down winding streams, adventuring into mountain crevices, bathing in every bit of water at every possible hour, or simply lying near a beach watching a strip a sand on which “a wildflower was nodding in the wind.” In the evenings, Kána-aná would “mesmerize” Stoddard into a “most refreshing sleep with a prolonged and pleasing manipulation” that reminded him of the baths in Istanbul. Kána-aná lavished Stoddard with attention, never leaving his side. Stoddard declared that he had found “true love.” He would never be able to find a soul so faithful nor loving as Kána-aná.
Stoddard would not be alone in his attraction to Native Hawaiians and Japan or the “Orient” as he and his friends called the islands in the Pacific Ocean. Stoddard and his fellow members of the Bohemian Club, a social group originally formed for artists and writers, collected “Oriental” objects if not “boys” at the turn of the century to bring more beauty and excitement to their daily lives. In the 1890s the group enacted the Orientalist musical Mikado at their holiday event, rallied to the theme of “Buddha” at a midsummer gathering, erected an enormous daibutsu at their get-away in Muir Woods, and finally paraded around the statue in what they believed to be Japanese robes. Western writer and Bohemian Club member Joaquin Miller invited specifically young Japanese men who he called “brownie,” “brown child,” and “wee brown man” to come live with him in his Oakland home affectionately called “the Hights.” Stoddard too covered his walls at home with coconuts from Fiji, fans and feathers from Hawaii, and dancing skirts from Tahiti. Others decorated their homes with rice paper lanterns. For these self-declared bohemians who powerfully shaped American literature as well as same-sex sexuality between men, the “Orient” remained central in defining their aesthetic existence.
In 1897, as Japanese immigrant Yone Noguchi slept, he dreamt of his new “love” Charles Warren Stoddard, the same Stoddard who had thirty years earlier caught the eye of Kána-aná. Noguchi, who was living at Joauqin Miler’s home upon the “Hights,” reached out to Stoddard in hopes of finding mentorship as he aspired to become an English language poet. Stoddard, who was too shy to reach out directly, had already heard of Noguchi through Miller. He had been studying Noguchi’s face in a photograph that had appeared in the literary journal Bookman and rehearsed many a letter to him in his thoughts as he waited “impatiently” for the day they might meet. Thus, Stoddard grew more than overjoyed when he received Noguchi’s letter introducing himself. The two immediately embarked on a passionate correspondence. They showered each other with kisses on paper and ecstatically lifted each others’ spirits.
Their attraction to one another grew in the context of growing western interest in Japanese art and culture called “Japonisme,” as well as Japan’s own desire during the Meiji Era to modernize and become a powerful country that could rival the West. To Stoddard, Noguchi’s eyes appeared as “the windows of a temple, filled with the shadow of mystery,” his body made of “ivory,” and his soul like a “jewell in the lotus.”Noguchi likewise played up his youth and innocence, positioning himself as the “most feminine dove” in partnership with Stoddard the “honest sweet gentleman.” Noguchi wrote, “Oh my dear Stoddard[,] [I] being such a Japanese youth I have no experience, I want always certain good advice.” Notably, as much as Noguchi enjoyed Stoddard’s embrace in the face of the more violent racism in virulently anti-Asian California, he simultaneously pushed back against Stoddard’s colonial affection when it became too much. When Stoddard criticized Noguchi as “far too Americanized” in his refusal to send him photographs of himself in his “native dress,” Noguchi noted, “Did he expect me to be another Kana Ana—a little sea god of his South Sea, shaking the spray from his forehead like a porpoise?”
Noguchi, who could easily been called a “lothario” during his time, had an abundance of romantic possibilities with not just older bohemians, but also with fellow Japanese immigrant men as well as white women at the turn of the century. Kosen Takahashi, an illustrator for the San Francisco Japanese language newspaper Shin Sekai, declared himself as an “utmost queer fellow as much as Yone…among all Nipponese” and wrote of how he missed Noguchi’s “warm lips” to his editor Blanche Partington, who herself became flustered, drowning in Yone’s “handsome” looks during meetings. Yone, while engaged to journalist Ethel Armes, would later father his son Isamu Noguchi with another editor Léonie Gilmour, reputed as Alabama’s first historian. As unusually successful Noguchi may have been in terms of romance, his affairs poignantly illuminate how the narrow lens of endogamous heterosexuality with which we have exclusively examined early Asian American history does little justice to the realities of same-sex as well as interracial intimacies that took place in the past.
One particular sex scandal underscored the centrality of at least the imagined Orient, if not actual Asians and Pacific Islanders, in white male circles of same-sex intimacy in the early decades of the twentieth century. In spring 1918, police raided two flats at 2525 and 2527 Baker Street to end a “vice ring” that had been ongoing for two years. Singer Hugh Allan and decorator Clarence Thompson had begun renting the flats and used their homes as a weekend party pad. On the first floor men gathered to sing songs by the piano. Upstairs, men in darkened rooms would engage in fellatio and anal sex, known more commonly as “browning.” An investigation revealed an ever-widening circle of “men of importance” such as businessmen, military officers, and members of the elite Bohemian and Olympic Clubs who the press collectively referred to as the “Baker Street Club.” These self-declared “queers” gathered not just on Baker Street but also at Bert Litle’s house near the corner of Taylor and Greenwich Streets in the Russian Hill District of San Francisco for “musical evenings,” as well as at the ranch home of Edgar Spiegelberg in Hollister, California.
In January 1919, nearly a year after the initial arrests, one California State Supreme Court case radically changed the course of the accused men in San Francisco. In the matter regarding Clarence Lockett and Don A. Gono, the judge threw out all possible convictions of the two men since the crime “fellatio” for which they were being prosecuted was not a word commonly known nor clearly defined. No English language dictionary listed “fellatio” and the term, with its Latin origin, was “unintelligible” to “a man of common understanding.” Prosecuting an individual for a crime not clearly definable was unconstitutional, thus voiding section 288a of the California penal code, which cited fellatio as a federal offense since the word, according to the Supreme Court, was as esoteric as if written “in Egyptian or Mexican hieroglyphics or in Japanese or Chinese characters.” While the Baker Street investigation lingered for two more years, the lower court would eventually drop all the cases, and those who had been sentenced would also be freed due to the Supreme Court’s decision.
In 1921, seven months after the authorities closed the last of the Baker Street cases, a short story by Florence Estella Taft in the Overland Monthly titled “Taka,” detailed a same-sex romance between a white man, Fred Robinson, and his “Jap servant,” Taka. Though Fred already has a wife named Miriam, the two men grow romantically close. Taka devotes his life to Fred, even dropping out of college to serve him, until he kills himself in a frenzied, failed attempt at killing Miriam. While a previously published book titled Marriage Below Zero brought the horrors of marrying a “homo-sexual” to the American public for the first time in 1889, Tafts’ essay in the Overland Monthly may have been the first time that explicit same-sex sexuality became racialized as Asian in narrative fiction.
While Asian Pacific Americans remain virtually non-existent in queer history before 1965, they played a crucial role in how men would form and advance a gay American identity.
The publication of “Taka” months after the close of the Baker Street investigation would be no small coincidence. Accounts of the Baker Street Club suggested an Asian racialization already in process in how whites understood and facilitated same-sex sexuality between men before the appearance of “Taka.” The police’s placement of a “Chinese Servant,” who secretly collected evidence at the residence, could occupy a space of sex between men without raising any suspicion. Testimony additionally detailed how the Baker Street men used Chinese and Japanese art, stores, and lodging houses to facilitate their forbidden intimacies. Tebe Creighton was looking at “some Japanese and Chinese art in the window” along Geary Street when Max Koenig approached him and made a date to meet later. Army Field Clerk M. J. Hughes was also standing in front of a “Japanese Store” around 5 p.m. when the aforementioned Tebe Creighton approached him and asked him if he liked the gown in the window before making plans for a future rendezvous. When Hughes wanted more privacy, he took men to “a place in Chinatown, perfectly safe and run by a Chinese.” Creighton preferred to go to a location on Pine Street just below Kearny, a lodging house—again in Chinatown. As for Walter Schneider, he was lured to 2525 Baker Street to assist with “alien trouble,” a term used to refer to Japanese immigrants. These men, in pairs, also exclusively chose to go to the “Oriental” Turkish or Sultan baths over the more then forty possible non-racialized establishments to bathe in San Francisco. In fact, the very definition of “temperamental,” code for what we may understand as gay today, indicated an appreciation for art and music. And, as collectibles from Japan and China rose in popularity among Americans through the embrace of first Japonisme and later Chinoiserie, a “temperamental” man would most certainly be a lover of Asian objects.
For sure, Pacific Islanders as well as Asians significantly shaped the rise of queer intimacies and community at the turn of the century. As white men explored their same-sex sexual desires they did so through the vehicle of the “Orient” in their conglomeration and commodification of diverse cultures in the Pacific. No doubt, queer women and transfolks also played a significant role in the formation of Asian America community if not white gay identity. In 1899 when the earlier mentioned illustrator Kosen Takahashi longed for Yone Noguchi’s “warm lips,” Ah Yane gave birth to her first child, Margaret Chung, in Santa Barbara, California. By the 1920s, Chung would go on to become America’s first surgeon of Chinese descent, wear mannish attire, and lead many of her contemporaries, including lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow, to speculate that she might be a lesbian. Recently, Literary Critic Jean Lutes as well wrote extensively on the “queer” writing of Asian Canadian writer Sui Sin far at the turn of the century and suggested, at least to this hopeful “queer eye,” that Far may have in fact been “in the life.” Historian Peter Boag, too, discovered a number of Chinese men in the 1890s impersonating women in San Francisco to attract fellow countrymen for sex work. Across the bay in Oakland, Chin Ling, assigned male at birth, dressed as a “handsome Chinese maiden of the better class” to obtain a husband in 1908. Likely, deep-seated misogyny at the time brought little attention from culture vultures seeking to enhance their leisure lives to these seemingly anecdotal incidents that certainly deserve more analysis. Asians and Pacific Islanders would also be impacted by the queer contact, in their gradual inculcation into western codes of morality, as well as the formative impact of how Americans would come to view “native” masculinity and sexuality of APIs for decades if not centuries to come. While Asian Pacific Americans remain virtually non-existent in queer history before 1965, they played a crucial role in how men would form and advance a gay American identity.
Amy Sueyoshi is the Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. She has authored two books Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi and Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American “Oriental.” Amy is also a founding co-curator of the GLBT History Museum, the first queer history museum in the United States and co-chair of the inaugural Queer History Conference 2019 hosted by the Committee on LGBT History.
For GLSEN’s advocacy of queer API icons see https://www.glsen.org/blog/8-queer-asian-and-pacific-islander-icons-who-make-impact-lgbtq-youth. Accessed January 17, 2019. For Asian American demographics of California see https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/map/ca/RHI425217. Accessed January 17, 2019. For the Trump Administration anti-trans and queer actions see https://transequality.org/the-discrimination-administration. Accessed February 16, 2019.
Lee Wallace, Sexual Encounters: Pacific Texts, Modern Sexualities (2003).
Charles Warren Stoddard, South Sea Idyls (1926), 20–21.
Stoddard, South Sea Idyls, 22–24.
Jeffrey Geiger, “Subaltern Looks and the Imperial Gaze: Charles Warren Stoddard’s South Sea Idyls,” Thamryis/Intersection, 22 (2011), 37. The aforementioned Lee Wallace asserted that in fact the most “sexually resonant figure” of the Pacific is that of the male rather than female body whose capacity for “sodomitical pleasure” more clearly registered cultural difference necessary in the very definition of a colonial encounter. Wallace, Sexual Encounters, 1. See also Rudi C Bleys, The Geography of Perversion: Male-to-Male Sexual Behavior Outside the West and the Ethnographic Imagination, 1750-1918 (1995), 77–78.
Stoddard, South Sea Idyls, 24–32.
Amy Sueyoshi, Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi (2012), 40–41, 58, 76.
While Noguchi later in life accomplished a number of noteworthy achievements including founding the English department at Keio University and publishing nearly 100 books, he ironically would become most famous as the father of acclaimed Asian American sculptor Isamu Noguchi whom he had disavowed since childhood.
Sueyoshi, Queer Compulsions, 37–38, 42.
Nayan Shah, Madeline Hsu, and Chris Friday are just a few historians who have explicitly pointed or theoretically suggested the existence of same-sex intimacy among early Asian immigrant communities. Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in North American West (2011); Madeline Y. Hsu, “Unwrapping Orientalist Constraints: Restoring Homosocial Normativity to Chinese American History,” Amerasia Journal, 29 (no. 2, 2003), 230–53; Chris Friday, Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870–1942 (1994).
Amy Sueyoshi, Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American “Oriental” (2018), 151–54.
Sueyoshi, Discriminating Sex, 154–55. Clarence Lockett appeared to be African American.
Florence Estella Taft, “Taka: A Story of the Yellow Man and a Wild Rose Which Would Not Be Potted,” Overland Monthly, 78, (Oct. 1921), 16 19, 66, 74; Sueyoshi, Discriminating Sex, 46.
Sueyoshi, Discriminating Sex, 157.
Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity (2005); Jean M. Lutes, “The Queer Newspaperwoman in Edith Eaton’s ‘The Success of a Mistake,’” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, 29, (no. 2, 2012): 280–99; Peter Boag, Re-dressing the America’s Frontier Past (2011), 148, 149.