CN: This includes some discussion of sex roles and penises–from a Freudian context.
I’d like to highlight an article in the latest issue of AZE that I particularly liked: “Racial Castration and Demiboy Joy“, by Daniel Yo-Ling. It discusses how Asian American men are seen as unmasculine and sexless, and how the common response is to reassert masculinity through heterosexuality.
Now, the unfortunate part is that the discussion is primarily sourced from psychoanalytic theory, so that this whole process is described as an unending loop “between racial castration and rephallicization”. This raises some distracting questions, like, what is even up with psychoanalytic theory, and what about boys who absorb ideas about masculinity well before learning about genitalia, and where do trans men fit into this. But I’ll discuss this aspect of the essay no further, and take the terminology for granted.
The castration/rephallicization loop plays out a bit differently for gay Asian American men, because obviously heterosexuality is not an available strategy to reassert masculinity. In American gay culture, Asian American men are often seen as bottoms–and portrayed as such in porn. That’s the racial castration. The rephallicization response is to point it out, and say that it’s wrong. Author Richard Fung described it as a “lifelong vocation of looking for [his] penis”.
I’ve written about how much I hate the top/bottom dichotomy, but I neglected to mention the whole racialized aspect of it. A memory, unearthed: I was once told that people find me attractive because I’m unusually tall for an Asian man, and so they imagine that I’m that rare beast, an Asian top. Since I’m often perceived as a top, the rephallicization strategy is one that is readily available to me. But a significant problem, is that I disidentify with sex roles.
Yo-ling discusses other writers with different approaches, which reclaim bottomhood or femininity. But the author notes, “I am left wondering to what extent his reconfiguration of Asian American masculinity is available to those of us like myself who are on the fringes of compulsory sexuality.” Yeah, same.
Yo-Ling’s essay brings to mind another famous essay, “What’s R(ace) Got To Do With It?” by Alok Vaid-Menon in 2014. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s probably the most famous essay about Asian American asexuality. Their main thesis is that they don’t feel comfortable identifying as asexual, because of how it aligns too painfully with colonial logics. (And on a second look, I now realize that Vaid-Menon also talks about racial castration, and cites the same book by David Eng.)
Vaid-Menon’s essay has long been an annoyance to me. They’re expressing a viewpoint and describing an experience that people don’t talk much about, that’s fine. But, because the topic is so rarely discussed, Vaid-Menon’s article gets held up as the authoritative perspective on Asian American male asexuality, when it would really be better understood in conversation with multiple perspectives. From where I stand, it looks like Vaid-Menon is invested in a sort of rephallicization approach, and for that reason conventional asexual identity politics don’t work for them. I think there’s truth to their criticism of asexual identity politics, but it’s just so undercritical of the rephallicization approach. Just as Vaid-Menon may feel that asexual identity is not a path available to them, countering racism through an assertive sexuality is not a path available to me.
So where does this all leave us? Where can I find a version Asian American masculinity that doesn’t assume my sexuality? Or for that matter, an ace masculinity that doesn’t assume Whiteness? It’s a search that fascinates me.
But I don’t want a “better” or “more positive” ideal of masculinity. Gender is bothersome enough without creating whole new expressions of it. What I want is more like a postmortem of my Asian Ace masculinity. I want an understanding of the masculinity I already have, and how it has already affected me or hurt me. I want to understand what I am even searching for.