India’s Health Minister is a homophobe

*** PRESS RELEASE ***

TRIKONE condemns Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s homophobic remarks about Men who have sex with Men (MSMs)

San Francisco — Trikone, a non-profit organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of South Asian descent strongly condemns Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s remarks about homosexual acts committed by Men who have sex with Men (MSM) being unnatural. On July 4, 2011, while speaking at a HIV/AIDS conference in rural India, Mr. Azad called sexual acts of men who have sex with men (MSM) “unnatural”. In his speech, Mr. Azad also happened to mention the difficulty in “detecting” MSMs in general population. He went on to say that the act of men having sex with men should not be happening in our country. The Health Minister’s comments caused a massive uproar across the country and drew sharp criticism from international agencies such as the UNAIDS. With mounting pressure, Mr. Azad issued an insincere clarification, accusing the media of taking his words out of context, that he meant “HIV/AIDS” was unnatural and transported from the west.

People across the country and the broader diaspora have come together to condemn Azad’s insensitive remarks. From this unified and unambiguous response, we can confidently say that the nation is unwilling to tolerate ignorant comments towards homosexuality. Mr. Azad has rightly come under fire for his insensitive comments and his issued clarification has done little to throw clear light on his ability to lead as the country’s health minister. Trikone strongly condemns criminalizing either homosexual conduct or HIV transmission. Such antiquated attitudes only curtail the efforts of valiant community organizers in the country, who are working on the ground, adopting grass roots strategies to encourage and establish models of testing and safe-sex practices. The Health Minister’s insensitive remarks concerning homosexuality or HIV/AIDS clearly jeopardizes the gains made in the past decade.

Like our sister organizations in India, we at Trikone have lost our faith in Mr.Azad to lead the country as the Health Minister or provide much needed services to the queer community. His personal judgments and remarks over the last weekend have cast looming questions in his ability to think and lead with clarity and in clear resonance with the medical and scientific community – a Health Minister’s prerogative for governance.
Unless an unequivocal apology is issued by the Health Minister and corrective actions suggested, we demand his ouster.

As organizations in India and abroad continue to work passionately to combat homophobia and educate people about homosexuality, we at Trikone not only condemn Ghulam Nabi Azad’s remarks but also request the Government of India to provide sensitivity training about queer issues on an on going basis to all public servants. We will be happy to put together an advisory panel or provide references if need be.

A solidarity march is being planned in San Francisco, California. On Wednesday, 07/13/2011 at 9 am, members of the Trikone community plan to peacefully assemble at the intersection of Geary and Arguello, a few hundred feet away from the Indian Consulate and our representative will hand over a letter of grievances to the Consulate General.

Contacts:
Harsha Mallajosyula (Trikone Advocacy Director), 408-332-7468,
harsha@trikone.org

The drone attacks in Pakistan are inhuman

One more reason to stop the drone attacks in Pakistanfrom today’s edition of the Guardian UK:

Pakistan’s civilian victims of drone strikes deserve justice

If the US believes in the rule of law, it should not be hindering my advocacy of claims against the CIA for wrongful death and injury

Unmanned MQ-1 Predator drone aircraft

The unmanned Predator drone aircraft: Mirza Shahzad Akbar represents Pakistanis who are suing the CIA and US defence department on claims that they, as innocent bystanders, have been injured or lost relatives in drone attacks. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

I am a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the CIA for killing innocent civilians through drone strikes in my home country. This month, the US state department prevented me from travelling to the United States to participate in a conference hosted by the human rights programme at Columbia University law school in New York City.

I have been granted US visas before and no reason was given by the state department for refusal on this occasion: despite repeated enquiries, we were merely told there was a “problem” with my application. If seeking justice through the law – instead of violence – is the reason for banning my travel, then mine is another story of how government measures in the name of “national security” have gone too far.

Although I have previously held consultancies with USAID, and helped the FBI investigate a terrorism case involving a Pakistani diplomat, my relationship with the US government changed dramatically in 2010, when I decided to take on the case of Karim Khan. Karim Khan was away from home on New Year’s Eve 2009 when two missiles fired from what we believe was a CIA-operated drone struck his family home in North Waziristan and killed his son, aged 18, and his brother, aged 35. Informed over the phone of their deaths, he rushed back to find his home destroyed and his brother’s family – now a widow and two-year-old son – devastated.

Khan believes his son and brother were innocent victims. His brother, who had taken the surname Iqbal in honour of the famous Pakistani poet, was a schoolteacher who had returned to their ancestral village, shortly after finishing his master’s degree in English literature, because he believed education was vital for his countrymen’s improvement. Khan’s teenage son helped out at another government school in the area.

To avenge their deaths, Khan could have joined the Taliban insurgency against the United States. Instead, he put his trust in the legal system. In November 2010, we initiated legal notices against the CIA and the US secretary of defence for their wrongful deaths. Since then, more than 35 families from Pakistan have come forward and joined us in our legal proceedings.

So, why would the US government want to prevent me from discussing these cases at Columbia law school? Perhaps, it is because our legal challenge disrupts the narrative of “precision strikes” against “high-value targets” as an unqualified success against terrorism, at minimal cost to civilian life.

As a lawyer in Pakistan, my experiences tell a different story. A 17-year-old boy named Sadaullah – another victim of the drone attacks – sought my help shortly after we filed Karim Khan’s case. In September 2009, when he was 15 years old, Sadaullah was serving food at a family iftar, the traditional breaking of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, when missiles from a drone struck his grandfather’s home and killed four of his relatives. Falling debris knocked Sadaullah out, but he survived. When he awoke in a Peshawar hospital, he found that both his legs had been amputated and shrapnel had penetrated his eye, rendering it useless. Pakistani media reported that the strike had killed Ilyas Kashmiri, a militant leader. But months later, Ilyas Kahsmiri was seen alive in Afghanistan. It was only a few weeks ago that the militant was reportedly killed in yet another drone strike.

The New America Foundation, a US thinktank, estimates that the drone campaign has killed 35 high-value targets. But for every assassination, it seems a more ferocious and extremist leader has emerged. Thus, Pakistanis continue to be victims of terrorism. Suicide attacks are becoming more indiscriminate and claiming more lives – at least 6,302 have died since 2008, according to news reports.

This chaos within Pakistan makes Karim Khan’s story all the more powerful as a rejection of retributive violence in favour of the rule of law. As they seek investigation, judgment and redress for any wrong done, my clients’ impulses are a testament to how dearly people the world over – and not just in the west – value the principle of due process and the right to plead a cause.

Instead of preventing me from speaking with American colleagues about these legal cases, the US government should support our attempt at justice within the law – even if it disagrees with our view of the facts. Let us debate and sometimes disagree; after all, that is how American justice is supposed to be done.

Austin Chronicle prints letter about “Mikado” and anti-Asian racism

Protests City’s Funding ‘Mikado’

RECEIVED MON., JUNE 20, 2011

Dear Editor,
As members of the faculty of the UT Center for Asian American Studies, we are writing to protest the city of Austin’s funding of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which features performers in “yellow face.” Despite the operetta’s long history and comedic traits, it offers a mocking and offensive portrayal of Japanese society and culture. It is comparable to a municipally supported performance featuring “blackface,” which also uses the guise of humor to mask insulting and degrading representations. We ask that city arts authorities display greater sensitivity and awareness of Asian Pacific American issues in choosing how to allocate public funding.
Sincerely,
Eric Tang
Assistant professor
African and African Diaspora Studies Department
Center for Asian American Studies
University of Texas at Austin

Sign the petition against “yellow-face” theater in Austin

You can sign the petition here (the text of the petition is below):

 

Greetings,

We are writing to protest the City of Austin’s funding of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s “The Mikado” which features performers in “yellow face.” Despite the operetta’s long history and comedic traits, it offers a mocking and offensive portrayal of Japanese society and culture. It is comparable to a municipally supported performance featuring “black face” which also uses the guise of humor to mask insulting and degrading representations. For a brief discussion of how the Mikado misrepresents Japanese society, please view the following [https://newredindian.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/austins-no-place-for-yellow-face/]. Please sign this petition asking that city arts authorities display greater sensitivity and awareness of Asian Pacific American issues in choosing how to allocate public funding.

[Your name]

Spread the word, tell a friend.
as Yum-Yum (center), with Kate Forster (left) ...

Image via Wikipedia

 

Austin is no place for “Yellow-face”

This piece is submitted by Drs. Madeline Hsu, Julia Lee, Nhi Lieu, Naomi Paik, Sharmila Rudrappa, Snehal Shingavi and Eric Tang of The Center for Asian American Studies, University of Texas at Austin

There is a cultural practice called “yellow face.”  It began in the late 19th century as a way to portray Asians in a negative light in drama and fiction in response to the increase in immigration to western countries, greater political tensions between the West and the East, and anxieties about exotic Orientals. Similar to the blackface minstrelsy that emerged out of the white popular culture’s simultaneous fascination and contempt for black life, yellow face is literally the practice of white actors dressing up in stereotypical Asian garb and make-up and lampooning or satirizing Asian cultures and histories for comic effect.  One of the most unfortunate legacies of that anti-Asian racism is the long legacy that it has in mainstream theater and film, so much so that it gets considered one of the hallmarks of humor rather than an odious practice that has long outlived its time.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” stands, embarrassingly, in the tradition of “yellow face” theater.  The plot is a simple one of romance at odds with marriage, but it moves forward, we are led to believe, because Japan has passed anti-flirting laws making flirting punishable by death: burying alive wives, burning others in oil, and on and on.  All of this is carried out by characters acting out debased and absurd tropes of anti-Asian racism: sexual repression and oversexed characters; fantastical feudal laws and tyrannical rulers; violence crying out for western order and morality.  And, to make matters worse, every character is played by a white actor, giving a wink and a nod (and using the familiar “ching-chonging”, short, staccato steps, ridiculous names like Yum-yum and Titi-Poo, and the interminable bowing, which were the bread-and-butter of anti-Asian racism) to the ease of the comedy and simplicity of the caricature.

According to Josephine Lee, professor or English at the University of Minnesota and author of Japan: the Pure Invention, “The Mikado does more than simply use yellow face as a convention; it celebrates its continued privilege.  Yellow face is so ingrained in The Mikado that it is a shock even to contemporary viewers to see anything but white actors in these roles.  What also happens is that there is no longer any responsibility to represent a real Japan, or to acknowledge the presence of actual Japanese (or other Asian) people. This faux-Japan becomes an exotic and imaginary world of the far East that was more familiar to many Westerners than any real Japan could be.”

The decision of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin’s decision to produce “The Mikado” this month at the Travis High Theater without even bothering to offer some historical context for the racial past of the play is a disappointment.  Equally unfortunate is the City of Austin’s decision to have taxpayers pay for the production.  At best this is irresponsible, at worst it demonstrates that racism against Asians is so widespread in both government and civil society that it is undetectable, even in supposedly liberal Austin.

There is a common rebuttal among those who defend “The Mikado”: this is not a play about stereotyping Asians, but about making fun of Europeans who act the fool. It’s really a witty satire about nineteenth-century Britain. In other words, the opera is so over the top that nobody can really take it seriously as a performance that is supposed to be about Japan. But isn’t this precisely the staying power of racism? The refusal to seriously acknowledge blatantly degrading images is precisely what sustains white privilege.

These are not abstract academic points; they have relevance to everyday life. Some of us have children, and on the occasion that one of them is taunted by another child who performs “chinky-eyes,” while other kids erupt in laughter, we are painfully aware that nobody is laughing at the foolishness of the perpetrator.  They are laughing at our child’s expense.

Yellow face, however “lighthearted” and “witty” it claims to be, is reprehensible and damaging to our shared community.  While we adamantly support public funding of the arts, perhaps the city government should choose to fund productions that refuse, or better yet, challenge racist images. (Incidentally, this month’s “Black Arts Movement,” organized by Austin’s ProArts Collective provides such an opportunity: http://www.bamaustin.org/2010/partners.php

We are not calling for censorship. Rather, we are calling-out public performances of racism. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin should take note that other production companies in the US have found ways of performing this opera by addressing if not subverting its racism, by not only setting aside yellow face, but challenging it outright. Austin–particularly its arts and culture community—prides itself on being original, progressive and diverse.  This week’s production of “The Mikado” fails on all fronts.

Things to check out

I just read Anand Teltumbde’s piece in Tehelka about the contradictions of Dalit capitalism in India (a small section of the oppressed are enriched, while the vast majority are left behind):

The pro-elite, neo-liberal policy paradigm over the past two decades has reversed the wheel of progress for 90 per cent of Dalits, who have been facing multidimensional crises. The health statistics place them as the near-famished community; with rampant commercialisation of education, they have been cut off from the quality education; what little land they had is being taken away. With growing power asymmetry in villages between them and non-Dalits, the number of atrocities on them are galloping. To such people, the propaganda about Dicci by a handful of individuals should surely cause annoyance. Unfortunately, thanks to their pseudo-representatives, they no more have an organised expression. But, even their silence speaks.

As part of the debut of her new book, Broken Republic, Arundhati Roy has been in the news again, this time giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal:

“When you have 800 CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary force deployed to fight country’s internal insurgencies] marching three days into the forest; surrounding a forest village and burning it and raping women, what are the poor supposed to do? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Can people who have no money boycott goods? What sort of civil disobedience we are asking them to adhere to?”

I’ve also been really intrigued by the report published by NYU’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, entitled “Targeted and Entrapped” (about the FBI’s attempt to trap young Muslims in terrorist plots by constructing them themselves):

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has targeted Muslims in the United States by sending paid, untrained informants into mosques and Muslim communities.  This practice has led to the prosecution of more than 200 individuals in terrorism-related cases. The government has touted these cases as successes in the so-called war against terrorism.  However, in recent years, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, local lawmakers, the media, the public, and community-based groups have begun questioning the legitimacy and efficacy of this practice, alleging that—in many instances—this type of policing, and the resulting prosecutions, constitute entrapment.

Asian American Graduation Speech

Congratulations to the class of 2011!  What a wonderful occasion to celebrate with you your success and accomplishments and all of the things that lie ahead of you.  Congratulations as well to the parents, family, and friends of the class of 2011.  The joy is yours as well as we mark a milestone in the lives of the students who have worked hard (and will probably spend tonight partying hard) – it is the rapture after all – the world is ending tomorrow, so might as well make the most of it.

Some of you have already walked and others of you will walk tomorrow, but I’m glad that I have the opportunity to share in this occasion with you.  It is both an honor and a privilege as an educator to be able to watch students develop, grow, and mature, to be able to share in the accomplishment of being able to work back up after falling down, and to be able to participate in the discovery of new ideas, to marvel in the creation of new knowledge that every student makes possible.

I want to talk about those things, but I’m going to be a little selfish for a minute and complain, complain about how impossible a task I have tonight.  Asian American graduation poses an interesting problem for the faculty speaker.  Mine will be one of several commencement addresses you will be forced to endure, as one more person drones on and on about platitudes that you are intrigued by but vaguely suspect are hollow and meaningless.  But I have to not bore you in a different way, I suppose that means I have to Asian not bore you.  The problem is that as a genre, even at its best, the graduation speech cannot to do justice to the Asian American college experience.

Part of this has to do with the fact that the genre itself is something of a clichéd formula that goes something like this (if you don’t believe me, write this down and then listen to what happens tomorrow).

I’m supposed to begin with an anecdote, something pithy and wise and incomplete, because you need something to end on – and it helps if people are already invested in the ending at the beginning.  Something like this: when I grew up in Houston, TX I wanted to be a cowboy – the only problem was that I am an Indian and in the politics of the Houston elementary school playground, Indians don’t get to be cowboys, Indians are the enemies of cowboys, even if we were not “those kinds of Indians.”  So I would show up day after day in boots and a cowboy hat (oversized, of course) and hope to get to be a cowboy – but all they ever saw was an Indian.  I hated Columbus as a kid.  See something like that, partly cute but you can sense that there’s going to be some big moral payoff at the end.

Then I’m supposed to cover one of three things.  1) how to succeed (this is usually why they invite important people to speak to you … they have succeeded and at this moment you want to be reminded that you did all of this to succeed so most of us like hearing this).  2) something wise about the real world (you might notice that the real world is always some distant horizon of life altering experience that you have somehow been sheltered from as if you’ve been living on imported oxygen in some colony on Mars).  And 3) Failure (because they also want to tell you how life is sometimes hard and how we all stumble but then this always turn back into a lecture on picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and ultimately, success).  And then I’m supposed to end on the same anecdote that I started with only now it’s a little more interesting.

But this doesn’t work for Asian American audiences.  I’ll use my mother as an example.  My mother is almost always bored at these things, but she pretends to be excited because she’s proud, and because she thinks that she should be interested.  I think much of Asian American life in the US is like this, cultural differences mean that we never really know if the things that other people are interested in are really interesting or not and in our desire to fit in we trust other people’s judgments more than our own.  Why else do Indian boys dream of being cowboys.  I could blame it on Amitabh Bhacchan in Sholay – but I’m guessing no one in this room gets that reference.

But back to mom.  As you can guess, I’ve had more than my share of commencements (I know I don’t look it, but I promise you it’s true) and my parents have been to way too many graduations between my brother (who is also a UT graduate, class of 2000, and UT law school, class of 2006) and me and so she’s something of an expert on these matters.  She told me at my college graduation that she didn’t understand why I needed a lecture on success as I had already succeeded and she had never heard of the guy who was speaking on stage anyway (which was her way of saying that she was proud of me, but all I heard at the time was that she was bored).  At the time, I thought that this was funny, but now I recall that I don’t remember the graduation speech from my college graduation at all but I do remember what my mother said.  Who was that guy anyway?

And so not only do I have the same problem as every other speaker at every other graduation ceremony about not boring you, I have to Asian-not bore you (and not bore your Asian mothers) and give a speech that an Asian mother could enjoy.  I have to tell you something Asian about success, or failure, or the meaning of life.  I have to be Asian-inspring or Asian American-inspiring.  This has to be an act of INSPIRASIAN.  I was going to say InspirASIAN-American but that makes no sense at all, even though it sounds kind of cool.  By the way, that happens to be another feature of most commencement speeches, too, there have to be at least 4 or 5 groan-worthy puns.  I’ll do you the favor of making that my only one.  But more to the point, by very few definitions is a liberal arts PhD what most people mean by Asian American success, so I won’t try to convince you that I know how to succeed, especially since some of your parents are hoping you don’t turn out to be like me.

If it’s any consolation, I gave the commencement speech at my high school graduation and it was filled with lovely platitudes and phrases: journeys taken, roads less traveled, opportunities ahead.  I’m sure people were bored then, too.  I’m sure the Asian American kids squirmed a little, too, because every Asian American child is supposed to be able to accomplish what every other Asian American child has accomplished or only better (or at least this is the stereotype) such that every Asian American kid in school is really Asian American kid 2.0.  This is also the reason why we like Harold and Kumar – even Asians can be potheads, and still be Asian success stories.  And so this story has developed about Asian American kids, that’s part true and part deception.

We like this story, the story about the Asian American kid who succeeds, who wins the spelling bee and is a violin virtuoso, valedictorian and off to medical school or business school, because it confirms in us our own hopes about how our futures will turn out.  The world is a scary place and it is nice to have this source of confidence that culturally or ethnically somehow we are engineered for success and that the world rewards us in some ways as compensation for the ways that it also humiliates us.  Asians migrated to the US in the 20th century, what people called and will probably continue to call the American century, and Asian American experience became the repository of every ambition about the American Dream, coming to the country with nothing, bringing talent, energy, and culture to a new place, and succeeding.  That’s supposed to be the American Dream.  And for some of us it was and is.

But not everyone makes it.  The 20th century was also the century of Japanese interment; of anti-Chinese laws; of Asian doctors migrating and working as cab drivers; of Indian software engineers becoming homeless and deported when the dot-com bubble burst in the Silicon Valley; of sweatshops; and of the worst kinds of Islamophobia.  We like the story about Asian American success because we know that it allows us to deal with the realities of Asian American hardship.  We like the success stories because we know how easy it is not to succeed and how hard it is sometimes to live in this country.

The 21st century is already being called the Asian century.  The rise of China and India as global powers and the continuation of the American war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have meant that the general force of economic and political debate has and will continue to be focused on Asia for quite some time.  And in the 21st century, the story will again be about us, but it could go any number of ways.

It could be the story of Asian Americans moving back to Asia as the engine of economic growth and development there outstrips opportunities in this country.

It could be the story of our cousins living the enviable lives that we wish that we had access to – mine already have cooler cellphones faster than I do.

It could also be the kind of story that it is looking to turn into now: where American power projection is devastating the lives of countless millions in Asian country after Asian country.  And as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan creep eastward, the image of Asian Americans will change, too.  We may no longer find ourselves the mascots of American entrepreneurial success but also stereotypes of alien, foreign, and enemy forces.  This is an all too common feature of American life.  In the 1940s, it was the Japanese; in the 1950s Koreans; in the 1960s the Vietnamese.  In the 1980s this country was preoccupied with the “coming war with Japan” (it’s part of the reason that martial arts films started turning into Chuck Norris movies – because we needed to believe that American ninjas were better than Japanese ninjas … you might notice now how when American men need to prove their manliness they are always fighting Arab men) and things were tough then for Japanese Americans in the US.  Racial stereotypes, doors closed, etc.  The last decade has been about the war on Terror and things have been unbearable not only for people in the Arab world but for Arabs and Muslims and people who look like them in this country.  In two years’ time, you can almost feel it beginning, there will be talk about a coming war with China.

Because the things that happen in this country determine in so many ways the things that happen everywhere in the world (which is another way of saying what starts here changes the world).  And it’s no longer sufficient to imagine that success awaits every Asian American.  What the Asian American experience shows more than anything else is that success and failure are related to another by the strangest of alchemies: that failures breed success, and success also generates new dangers, that both success and failure are ephemeral, that larger social processes are just as important in our lives as what we do in the moment.

The reasons that we are here in some way or another is because what was happening in Asia made what was happening in the US seem more attractive.  In some ways, we are so much the same in the sense that we all come from opportunity seekers.  But opportunities don’t always pan out.  It is telling, for instance, that almost every Asian revolution against colonialism was started by college graduates who were unemployed – who could not get jobs because the economic and social structure of their worlds made it impossible; the most recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are a continuation of that legacy.  This is another story that we might tell about the Asian American 21st century.

Today is a moment of celebration – but it is a celebration of wisdom, maturation, and growth.  And did you see how I got sucked back into the formula – success/failure/real world.  It’s the graduation trifecta.

But graduation is a reflection of your ability not only to demonstrate your accomplishments but also your ability to engage with the world in a more serious and robust way.  But you would be remiss not to think about the dangers as well as the opportunities that are ahead of you.  It is my hope that all of you succeed in the ways that all of you dream of succeeding – you’re Asian American college graduates, after all.  The whole world expects you to succeed in some way.  But pause and think for a moment about Indians and Cowboys and how you are, sometimes, caught in someone else’s story with implications far larger than the ones that you have in front of you, how sometimes you dream other people’s dreams only to have them be impossibly your own, and how sometimes your struggle turns into the most glorious success.  I wish you all so much more than luck – I wish you a better world.