Statement of Helen Zia to the California State Assembly, June 22, 2009
[Note: Helen Zia was asked by California Assemblymembers Tom Ammiano and John Perez to address the California State Assembly on the importance of recognizing Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month in the state of California during its session on June 22, 2009. Helen and five other LGBT leaders in California were also honored in a special ceremony by the California State Assembly.]
Hon. Madame Speaker Karen Bass and members of the Assembly, I am deeply honored for this opportunity to address the Assembly today on behalf of this LGBT Pride Ceremony and Distinguished Honorees. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Assembly Members Tom Ammiano and John Perez for this great privilege and especially for reintroducing this important recognition of LGBT Pride Month. As the daughter of immigrants from China who barely scraped together a living to support their six American-born children, never did I imagine I would one day be addressing this august body.
Standing here, I have to make a confession – I must OUT myself as someone who was not only born and raised in New Jersey, I am also one of a very few who will admit that I am fond of the Garden State.
Like so many Californians who originate from elsewhere, it was not until I came to the Golden State that I began to grasp the true beauty and bounty of Nature as well as its vast diversity. I moved to California 17 years ago to be with my spouse, Lia Shigemura, and I am still awestruck each day by the stunning landscape of my adopted home state, even when I am simply going to the grocery store, or coming here today. I never felt that way about the NJ Turnpike.
California’s natural diversity is exceeded in grandeur only by the brilliant diversity of its people, who are the true basis for California’s greatness. Indeed, that’s why the struggle for fairness and high-minded principles like equality have been so ever-present here, when so many groups have faced their own struggles for survival and acceptance, from the first indigenous Californians and the subsequent waves of migrants who came west across the Rockies, or traveled north from America Latina, or sailed east across the Pacific -- as the Asian Americans of my own ancestry did. And as I look around this room at all of you, the leaders and lawmakers of California, I see the proud reflection of those stories, the dreams and aspirations of all those communities. In you, I see the diverse peoples who paved the way for all of us to be here.
I’m here today along with these very distinguished honorees because we, too, are part the rich diversity that makes California great. As LGBTs, we too have stories, hopes and aspirations for fairness and high-minded principles like equality, just like you and every other proud Californian.
And I can assure you that LGBT people like us are part of every community that you represent in this Golden State, we are in every small town and home town, of every race, ethnicity, tribe, color, religion, in every zipcode, every voting district.
To some of you, this may be obvious, but as a Chinese American lesbian, an LGBT person of color, I can’t tell you how many people are surprised, even shocked, that people like us exist. No LGBTs in my community! Gay people? That’s a white thing.
Back in the 1980s, as the AIDS pandemic took its tragic toll, the government of Japan tried to stop HIV at the border because they believe there were no gays in Japan. In 1995, when I was a journalist reporting on the International Women’s Conference in Beijing, one of the leading UN representatives from Africa declared that there are no LGBT people in the entire Continent of Africa! One can only imagine the misinformed policies that emerge when political leaders don’t even recognize their own family and community members who are LGBT.
I know this kind of denial from my own life, from the days when I was a young Community Organizer, like our President and many of you. I was organizing to get jobs for minority and women workers in the high paid but exclusive construction trades, and I was organizing in my own neighborhood, which was mostly Asian, Latino and African American. One day I was called to a special meeting. When I got there, my fellow community organizers were sitting in a semicircle, and I was told to sit in the middle. It soon became apparent that I was on trial, of sorts. Floyd, the leader of the Asian American community group, began with, “Helen we’ve noticed that you seem to have a lot of lesbian friends. You know, there is no homosexuality in our communities.” Then Tarik, the leader of the Black group chimed in: “Homosexuality is a symptom of white, middle-class decadence. It would harm our organizing efforts in the African American community to have an organizer who is gay.” Together they chimed, “So tell us, Helen, are you a lesbian?”
At the time, I was young and what we now call “questioning.” But it was clear that if I said yes, my life as a organizer in my beloved community would be finished. “Helen—are you a lesbian?” I hesitated and answered, “No, I’m not.” With that, I stepped into the closet and slammed the door shut. But you can’t hide from yourself forever and I eventually came out as a lesbian. And, by the way, both Floyd and Tarik are community leaders in Northern California – and they now reject the homophobia that they once espoused.
Some of you may think that this kind of thing couldn’t possibly happen today. Unfortunately, the misinformation and sheer ignorance about our LGBT communities is still alive and well with people who know nothing about our very existence, even in California today.
Last year, when Lia and I were distributing Chinese language flyers to support marriage equality, we encountered, time and time again, people who said, “If gay people get married, there will be No more human race, No more people.” I must say that I am still puzzled by this strange logic – so that means my marriage to Lia will cause all the straight people to stop having sex, that they’ll stop having children?
I never imagined that my marriage to my spouse could have so much power to make heterosexuals stop procreating, or that our relationship could lead to the end the human race. We are simply two people trying to make a life together, as family. What could be more simple and more universally human than that?
When I left my job as the Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine 17 years ago to come to California to be with Lia, it was because we knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. One of the first things we did was to file for domestic partnership in San Francisco – when it was one of the few places in California and indeed the entire US where it was even possible to be registered as domestic partners.
Since that time, thanks to the California State Assembly, Lia and I filed for state domestic partnership when that was available. And then we got married during the President’s Day weekend of 2004, and then again on June 17, 2008. Because of all the legal entanglements, last week we weren’t sure if we were celebrating our first anniversary, our fifth anniversary, or our 17th anniversary. And to tell you the truth – it’s hard to feel that we are truly recognized to have a legal marriage when others cannot – it’s like celebrating that we are ALMOST equal.
And even on our anniversary date, we do not reach for each other in public as straight couples do without even thinking, by holding hands or other gestures of affection. Because we are also very aware of the alarming rise in hate crimes against people like us because of perceived sexual orientation or perceived gender. The rise in these hate crimes is national, as we know too well from the several hate murders in the national news lately. But it is critically important to note before this body that the rise in hate crimes against LGBT people is especially sharp right here, in California.
We are talking about murders, physical assaults, rapes, violence inflicted simply because the victims are LGBT. One hallmark of hate crimes against LGBT people is that they are inflicted to cause severe bodily harm – these are not property hate crimes or vandalism. In fact, in California, 100 percent of the hate crimes against transgender people have involved serious injury or death.
Is there a connection between the rise in hate crimes and the level of misinformation, innuendo and incivility? Many experts think so, and as the members of the LGBT Caucus of this State Capitol warned on May 26, when a government singles out one group to treat them as LESS than Equal – who’s next?
In speaking of such things today, my intention is not to change any minds about this law or that ballot measure, it is simply to stand here with my fellow LGBT honorees and to put a face on the laws and policies that you debate, and perhaps to give you a tiny glimpse into our California lives.
Because in spite of the challenges that LGBT people face everyday, we are inspired by the examples of other Californians who have blazed a path of equality and acceptance.
And in spite of the setbacks, we will never cease this effort because there is no such a thing as being “almost equal.”
For no matter what obstacles may come our way, we will work toward the day when all people in California are treated as fully equal human beings in the eyes of the law. That’s a vision that every Californian can aspire to along with LGBT people in every corner of this state, of every color and stripe, every race and ethnicity, every religion and faith. As a one-time New Jersey Girl – now California Girl -- that is my California Dream and I thank you for the opportunity to share it with you today.
Copyright © 2009 by Helen Zia. All rights reserved.
Helen Zia is an award-winning author, journalist, Fulbright Scholar, and former Executive Editor of Ms. Magazine. A second generation Chinese American, she has been outspoken on issues ranging from civil rights and peace to women's rights and countering hate violence and homophobia. Helen and her spouse Lia Shigemura were plaintiffs in an anti-Prop.8 lawsuit. Helen’s immigrant mother also gave a sworn affidavit, which was presented on behalf of marriage equality to the California Supreme Court. Helen is the author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, which President Bill Clinton quoted from Asian American Dreams on two separate speeches in the Rose Garden. Her work on anti-Asian hate violence is documented in the film, "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" and she was profiled in Bill Moyers' documentary, "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience." A graduate of Princeton University's first graduating class of women, Helen quit medical school after completing two years, then worked as a construction laborer, an autoworker, and a community organizer, after which she discovered her life’s work as a writer.