As a high school junior and senior in the mid-’90s, my favorite after-school activity was having sex in the men’s restroom of the local suburban train terminal of Naperville, Illinois. I’d tell friends I had to head straight home after school, and while sitting down for a bowl of kimchi stew at my family’s dining table in the evenings, Uhma and Ahpa would ask how my long hours studying at the library were going.
I’d been introduced to Fifth Avenue Station by a married man in his forties who I met in the communal showers of the YMCA. He'd whispered that it was safer there. I followed his car in mine. Inside, the stalls lined the long wall in an orderly row. My guide told me what must have been immediately obvious to anyone with any experience at all, that the stalls furthest from the door offered the most privacy. That was where all the action could be found, and as we pulled our pants up, he let me know the busiest times were between 3 pm and 6 pm on weekdays, when most men were on their way home from work in the city. I figured out on my own that tapping my foot beneath the stall divider signaled interest.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that an eager, hairless, heavier Asian guy was far less appealing than, say, the blond-haired, blue-eyed college football player who shivered with fear and could not speak when you touched him. I could spend 10 minutes coaxing a guy into my stall, only to have him twist his mouth in disappointment after seeing my eyes, then toss off a mumbled apology as he turned around and walked away. In truth, an apology was rare.
Sex or no sex, most of these trips to the train station culminated with me sitting in the parking lot banging my head on the steering wheel of my car, sobbing.
Still, I returned every night.
It turns out that the only place easier than a public restroom to meet casual racists, and come face to face with your own self-loathing, is online. AOL chatrooms introduced me to the phrase “I’m just not into Asians.” A statement of fact? A sincere apology? It was never quite clear, but it was often the response I got after revealing to some guy living in the middle of Nebraska or Central California or Arkansas that I was Korean. I’d stare blankly at the computer screen, gather myself, and then move on to the next guy with whom I could get a conversation going. Too much for my 17-year-old, still-closeted self to process.
Of course, growing up Korean-American, I’d experienced plenty of blatant, crude discrimination. But this was different. This was candid, not meant to provoke. It was not saying “I don’t like you because you’re Asian.” It said “I’d be attracted to you if you were not Asian.”
Being Korean got in the way of falling in love. I blamed myself. I omitted Korean from written descriptions when responding to Craigslist personal ads, and eventually started sending headless photographs, not to highlight a glistening set of six-pack abs, rather to forestall the revelation that I was Korean until I showed up at the guy’s place. My sad strategy was founded on the belief that most guys will set the detail of my race aside after spending an hour or so waiting for me to arrive. It worked pretty well, but was usually accompanied by a waft of displeasure or the irritability of a chore not completed.
These digital dalliances offered a modicum of control when disguising my true identity and I got an opportunity to be myself, but in the physical world, in bars or cafés, I was often rendered invisible. In fact, I can only recall being flirted with a handful of times in gay establishments. Once, a man in his late 60s put his arm around me and asked, “You old enough to be in here?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I’m 21.”
“You even speak English?” he sounded truly surprised.
I got up without saying a word and walked home.
Here’s the rub: I prefer white men. Vanilla only, some might say. And, as a person of color, I hate myself for it. It used to be that – as was, of course, only acceptable in gay cruising culture – when people asked what kind of guys I was into, I’d state my answer in order of racial preference: White, Middle Eastern, Latin/Hispanic, Black, Asian.
I’d venture to say that a greater portion of gay men, when speaking honestly, would rank similarly with variations amongst the middle three. But, decades ago, when the ugly body of discrimination moved more freely amongst the crowds, one could sort prospective lovers like you might a Whitman’s Sampler.
Unlike the polite culture that camouflages today’s straight dating world, gay men make no fuss ordering their men à la carte, from weight to hairiness to masculinity and so on. In the safe cover that gay dating apps provide, aversions to race are recorded as foods one must avoid: “No Spice. No Rice. No Curry. No Chocolate.”
In conversation with gay men, I used to rail against the notion that preference for one race over another is simply a matter of taste. “It’s just plain old racism,” I’d complain. “It’s just the same as saying you can’t tell one Asian person from another.”
Some bit back, “No way. If an Asian or black guy doesn’t get me going, they just don’t.”
“Well, maybe you should think about that.”
“Nah. You can’t tell me what gets me off. It’s as simple as that.”
And then, in private, I would skip over the profiles of Asian, black, or Hispanic men like I was running through paint swatches. Out in the world, a non-white man might catch my eye, but he evaporated as soon as he left my field of vision.
Lately, I wonder how much my inability to see whole palettes of men has affected my romantic life. In the 20 years I have been out of the closet, I haven’t had any long-term relationships. I’ve been stood up plenty of times and had several short runs, but mostly I have been single.
There was this one guy I dated for two months. I’m fairly sure he was an Asian fetishist. On our first date, he smiled every time he looked at me, he liked kissing my face, touching me. I felt seen. As the days and weeks went on, I noticed that he bristled at my impassioned responses. He talked a lot about Buddhism, had Japanese pottery with bundles of bamboo in his home and, finally, he thought I’d be “hotter” if I lost 15 or 20 pounds. It felt as if I was another fixture, an Oriental rug or vase he could talk to or have dinner with.
But, am I a white fetishist?
My father never quite got a handle on English, which kept him from finding profitable work and relegated him to being a shop owner in poor black neighborhoods. He was hot-tempered and abusive, disparaged black people under his breath, and was critical of white people for keeping him down. However, he wanted better for his children, so we moved to the suburbs where my adolescence was spent largely around white classmates, white friends, white teachers, white supervisors, and so forth.
Popular movies and TV were almost exclusively populated by white people. And later, sitting on the floor in my friend’s living room, I watched my first porn and it was lily-white. Asian faces and bodies were almost entirely excluded from my ideas of sex, love and romance.
I loved beards and chest hair, carried a fondness for men with a little meat on their bones. I craved a guy who said what was on his mind, men who walked around like they owned the place, men who waved away the details. I wanted men who felt at ease in their own skin.
But, after so many disappointments and debacles, my “must-haves” list now includes qualities such as magnanimity, humor and intelligence.
Unless explicitly stated, it’s hard to find these details in online dating profiles. Like hiring managers, we sift through applications that will best fill the position of mate. Who is the right man for the job?
One day, online, or perhaps in a bookstore or on the street, some guy will come along who enjoys reading, loves children, and makes me laugh. And maybe then I’ll be comfortable enough with my whole self to see him.