Recent Comments

    ‘Chinese Stuart’ and ‘Chinese Tom’: Every Label Tells a Story

    By Stuart Gaffney–

    May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and this year I’ve been reflecting on what it was like to attend summer camp in Wisconsin in the early 1970s. A friend and I were the only two kids of color at camp, and the other kids began calling me “Chinese Stuart” and my friend “Chinese Tom.”

    Singling us out in this way was strange and alienating, but it was particularly confusing for Tom. I am mixed race Chinese and English/Irish, but Tom wasn’t Chinese at all. He was Mexican American.

    Although I was not a very “cool” kid, the other kids decided after a while that I was OK when I won the camp knot-tying contest. They stopped calling me “Chinese Stuart”—they started simply calling me Stuart. But Tom, who never gained acceptance, remained “Chinese Tom” to the bitter end—much to his bewilderment.

    It was at that point I realized that, to the other kids at camp, the word “Chinese” just meant we were outsiders, that as kids of color we were “other”—which is how Tom could remain “Chinese” without regard to his actual racial or ethnic identity. The camp counselors and adults did nothing to intervene when the other kids started calling us “Chinese.” Ironically, this all took place at a camp where we were often asked to pretend we were “Indians,” even though there were no Native Americans among us.

    Fast forward 40 years, and my husband John and I decided to try a cozy little European restaurant near our neighborhood, which is heavily Asian American. As the owner welcomed us to his restaurant, he was particularly delighted when we told him we lived in the neighborhood nearby because he lived here too, just a few blocks away from us. He exclaimed, “It’s really great to meet neighbors who are not Chinese!”

    As we greeted his excitement with silence and disturbed looks of surprise on our faces, he quickly added: “Nothing against the Chinese—I’m just excited to meet neighbors I can talk to.”

    This caused me to think back on what it had been like growing up in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin—a Milwaukee suburb that was sometimes nicknamed “Whitefolks Bay.” I was only one of the three kids of color in elementary school, and even though I was mixed race, the other students thought I looked incredibly Asian. Later, when I moved to California during high school, our school was much more diverse, and to my surprise, the other students often did not realize I was half Chinese—just as the restaurant owner did not recognize that I was part Asian when he made his pronouncement.

    As a boy, I think what I took from being labeled “Chinese Stuart” at camp was that I wanted to be just Stuart—with no labels or identifications. Being “other” hurt. But as an adult, I want to be just Stuart and I want people to know my story—my “labels”—so that they can understand and appreciate the many aspects of my background and experience that contribute to who I am. I want the restaurant owner to know that I am one of “them” after he makes a blanket statement against Chinese people.

    When labels are not used to divide, they can be the means by which we learn each other’s stories so that we can find connection and community with others who share our experiences, as well as bring richness and diversity to the broader community.

    I am delighted to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage month this May, and LGBTQ Pride next month in June. And this May, John and I salute the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA) as it celebrates its 30th anniversary as a cornerstone of the community.

    I am both simply Stuart, and am proudly gay Stuart and Chinese Stuart. Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage month!

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.