Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Members of the Asian Lesbians of the East Coast (ALOEC) and Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) led a demonstration against a fund-raiser held by the LGBT rights organization Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund at a preview performance of Miss Saigon, a musical the activist groups and others considered racist, sexist, and otherwise dehumanizing.

Summary of Event

Miss Saigon, Miss Saigon (musical) a Broadway musical that premiered in London’s West End in 1989, immediately caused controversy. An adaptation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the musical, by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil, and produced and directed by Cameron MacIntosh, tells the story of Kim, a Vietnamese prostitute who falls in love with a U.S. soldier and bears his child. The soldier is ordered back to the United States, but Kim remains loyal to him, even when he marries a white woman from the United States. The couple returns to Southeast Asia and finds Kim and her child. Kim commits suicide so her son can be raised by the soldier and his wife in the United States. [kw]Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser (Apr. 6, 1991) [kw]Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser, Asian (Apr. 6, 1991) [kw]Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser, Asian Lesbians and (Apr. 6, 1991) [kw]Lambda Fund-Raiser, Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest (Apr. 6, 1991) Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund [c]Marches, protests, and riots;Apr. 6, 1991: Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser[1820] [c]Arts;Apr. 6, 1991: Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser[1820] [c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 6, 1991: Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser[1820] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Apr. 6, 1991: Asian Lesbians and Gays Protest Lambda Fund-Raiser[1820] Cho, Milyoung Yoshikawa, Yoko Stoddard, Tom

On April 6, 1991, members of the Asian Lesbians of the East Coast Asian Lesbians of the East Coast (ALOEC) and Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York, Gay (GAPIMNY) demonstrated against a fund-raiser being held by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund—a GLBT rights organization—in conjunction with a preview performance of Miss Saigon. Like Madama Butterfly, Miss Saigon is an Orientalist fable that reinforces the view of Western dominance over the East and reflects “a nostalgia for white European racial and cultural supremacy.” The libretto contained numerous anti-Asian epithets and slurs, including “greasy Chinks” and “slits.” Although many actors of Asian descent were cast in the show, Jonathan Pryce, a white British actor, was cast as the main male character of Asian descent. Pryce performed with eyelid prosthetics and tinted foundation—in “yellow-face.”

Individuals of Asian descent and antiracist groups had been protesting the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon when ALOEC and GAPIMNY learned that Lambda and New York City’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (LGCSC) were holding their annual fund-raisers in conjunction with performances of Miss Saigon. ALOEC and GAPIMNY met in December of 1990 and formed a coalition to convince Lambda and the LGCSC to cancel their fund-raisers. Lambda’s event was scheduled for April and LGCSC’s event was scheduled for October, so the coalition decided to approach Lambda first. They sent a letter to Lambda, detailing their concerns and asking the group to cancel their event. Lambda refused to cancel but agreed to meet with representatives of the coalition on February 19, 1991. The coalition’s opening statement clearly described its position and demands.

Lambda’s executive director, Tom Stoddard, explained that the organization had already invested in the fund-raiser and that canceling would be difficult. Also, Lambda had been depending on the event to provide 10 percent of its annual budget. The discussion that followed had been heated and polarized. A white male member of Lambda declared that Miss Saigon was not racist, according to a white friend who had seen it. When Lambda’s Carol Buell began a statement with, “Well, when Miss Saigon is dead and buried…,” protester Milyoung Cho responded, “Men yell ’Suzy Wong’ at me in the streets now and that came out 20 years ago!” Tsuhyang Chen compared the play’s use of the terms “greasy Chinks” and “slits” to the derogatory of the words “faggots” and “dykes,” and asked Lambda board members how they would feel if they had paid to hear gays and lesbians so described. Ron Johnson, an African American Lambda board member, suggested offering forums on racism to Lambda’s board members as part of the Miss Saigon fund-raiser. Lambda refused to cancel the fund-raiser. Stoddard confirmed the refusal by fax a few days later.

While negotiating with Lambda, the coalition had kept its protests within the LGBT communities, calling upon progressive LGBT people of all races and ethnicities to address institutional racism, including within their own communities. At this juncture, the coalition moved to public dialogue and protest so that Lambda would feel continued pressure to cancel the fund-raiser, and the coalition planned to greet donors with a demonstration if Lambda failed to cancel.

Joining the coalition were activists from other LGBT groups, including members of ACT UP, Brooklyn Women’s Martial Arts, Gay Men of African Descent, Kambal sa Lusog, Las Buenas Amigas, Latino Gay Men of New York, Men of All Colors Together, Other Countries, Queer Nation, Salsa Soul Sisters, South Asian Lesbians and Gay Men, We Wah, and Bar Chee Ampe. Seven female Lambda staff members sent a letter to the board, urging them to cancel the fund-raiser and offering to have their salaries reduced to offset any financial loss to the organization. Mariana Romo-Carmona, Lambda’s public education coordinator, resigned in protest. In California, Gay Asian and Pacific Alliance and Asian Pacifica Sisters pressured Lambda’s Los Angeles office. The renowned poet and social justice leader Audre Lorde refused to accept Lambda’s Liberty Award and said, “Until the real nugget of what racism and sexism is all about comes through to the white lesbian and gay community, this thing is going to keep happening all over again.” The strength and clarity of these efforts led to a meeting in March of 1991, in which the LGCSC—but not Lambda—agreed to cancel its fund-raiser.

The Center’s decision did not garner approval from all LGBT communities. Anonymous fliers calling the coalition homophobic were left at the Center on March 29, when a forum on the Miss Saigon controversy was held. In the Village Voice, a New York alternative newspaper, Don Shewey called the coalition’s protests “more p.c.-than-thou gay-bashing.” Furthermore, the controversy raged in the letters section of Outweek magazine.

By February, the coalition had begun to plan a second protest for the opening night of Miss Saigon. It hoped to engage communities of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and to clarify that its protest was against Miss Saigon and not against Lambda itself. Members of Asian Pacific Alliance for Creative Equality, Youth for Philippine Action, the Coalition Against Anti-Asian Violence, the Japanese American Citizen’s League, the Pan Asian Repertory Theater, the Chinese Progressive Association, and various student groups joined the coalition.

The April 6, 1991, demonstration at the Lambda fund-raiser was attended by approximately five hundred people, predominantly progressive LGBT people of all races and leftist people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. It was rumored that Tom Stoddard had told the police he expected a large, possibly violent demonstration. Protesters first were stopped about a block from the theater by police, who tried to keep them out of the view of theatergoers. Because the group was large, however, they were able to move across the street from the theater. The police arrested and removed six demonstrators—Haftan Eckholdt, Joe Pressley, Chris Hansen, Simon Howard-Stewart, Karl Jagbundhansingh, and John Kusakabe—and charged them with disorderly conduct. Kusakabe and Pressley later reported being beaten by police while in custody.

Shortly before the start of the show, two attendees gave their $100 tickets to Milyoung Cho and Yoko Yoshikawa. The two activists entered the theater and waited until Jonathan Pryce came on stage, at which point they began shouting, “This play is racist and sexist! Lambda is racist and sexist!” Although the two were quickly removed from the theater, the activists were pleased that the show had not been able to proceed without interruption.

The second demonstration, on April 11, 1991, did not attract as many protesters, and the police successfully confined the demonstrators to cordoned off sections of pavement. The media presence, however, was much greater than for the first demonstration. The coverage did not address the LGBT leadership of the coalition, and one television reporter asked a demonstrator, “What do lesbians and gay men have to do with protesting Miss Saigon?” The exchange took place off camera.

Significance

The protests did not close down Miss Saigon, though Lambda promised to be more aware of racism. The coalition experienced tension around sexual orientation while working with communities of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and tensions around race working with LGBT groups—experiences common for politically active LGBT people of color. The organizers felt, however, that the success of their alliance-building provided a model for future community development, a model in which “a complex identity is not only valued, but becomes a foundation for unity.” Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Inquirer Editorial: Heated Celebration.” Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 1, 2000. http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Prop/6137/ archives/ october2000/inquirer1001.html.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1979.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wernisch, Alexandra. “’Madame Butterfly,’ 1887 Through 1989: A Stereotype and Its Challenge.” Austrian Association for American Studies. http:// www.sbg.ac.at/aaas/conf/aaas1999/abstracts/wernisch.htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yoshikawa, Yoko. “The Heat Is On Miss Saigon Coalition: Organizing Across Race and Sexuality.” In The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990’s, edited by Karin Aguilar-San-Juan. Boston: South End Press, 1994.

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