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    A Fantastic New Exhibit and Book About Our Shared Humanity: – 15 years of the hapa project

    By Stuart Gaffney

    How many times has a stranger on the street asked you the question, “What are you?”—as if you looked like you were from outer space? In fact, many people of mixed race like me are asked this question repeatedly throughout our lives—by friends, neighbors, classmates, and even strangers. Years ago, at a party, people thought it would be fun to play a guessing game regarding my racial identity. One person told me with conviction that I was an “Aleutian Eskimo.” In reality, I am mixed race Chinese and English/Irish—or Hapa—a broad term referring to people of mixed Asian ancestry.

    For the last 15 years, I have been proud to be part of UC Santa Barbara Professor Kip Fulbeck’s The Hapa Project. In 2001, Fulbeck had the brilliant idea to reclaim the “What are you?” question and create a book and travelling art exhibit, entitled Part Asian, 100% Hapa. In the book and exhibit, Fulbeck displayed original photographs of many Hapa people and our handwritten responses to “What are you?” on our own terms.

    A few weeks ago, a beautiful new art exhibition, entitled – 15 years of the hapa project, opened at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The exhibit and recently published book of the same name feature then and now portraits of many of the participants and new answers to the “What are you?” question alongside those of 15 years ago.

    Fifteen years ago, I answered the question in two words in all caps: “QUEER EURASIAN.” I wanted anyone viewing the book or exhibit to know that both my race and my sexuality were queer and to be aware of the existence of queer Hapas. Indeed, when the exhibit went up at a university in Georgia, staff told Fulbeck that he would have to remove my portrait and words from the show at their school. To his great credit, Fulbeck told them that if my photo and words went, the entire exhibit would go. They relented, and my portrait and words remained proudly part of the show.

    In 2018, I answered the question very differently. I talked about the parallels between my parents’ experience of being able to marry in California in the 1950s only because the California Supreme Court overturned the state ban on interracial marriage, and all that my husband John and I have experienced over the last 15 years as part of the marriage equality movement. I described how wonderful it was for my parents to walk me down the aisle when John and I married in 2008 after our community’s historic victory for marriage equality at the same California Supreme Court. This time I wrote in all caps: “LOVE IS LOVE!” and “EQUALITY♥.”

    In our own way, queer people also have to answer the “What are you?” question over and over again. We do this when we come out. Of course, all too often politicians, preachers, our own family members, and many others have imposed their own ignorant or misguided answers on us and on society, to our great detriment. But the world is changing because millions of queer people and our supporters are answering the question on our own terms, articulating the truth of our lives from our hearts and living openly and honestly—just as The Hapa Project invites Hapa people to do.

    Something else that queer people and Hapa people often have in common is that our parents do not share our experience—my parents weren’t queer or mixed race. We have to discover, investigate, and come to understand our identities for ourselves and in community with each other.

    When I attended the opening of the exhibit two weeks ago, I was struck by how happy, safe, and at home I felt surrounded by hundreds of other mixed-race folks, our friends and families. As the day went on, it became not only an opening of an art exhibit but also a festival of spontaneous storytelling as well. Seemingly everyone wanted to tell their story and to hear everyone else’s.

    Indeed, the exhibit was bringing out the very best in people, as if everyone suddenly wanted to get to know everyone else in a celebration of all that we share as well as the ways we differ. We all have a story to tell. And as we have learned so profoundly through the marriage equality movement, our personal stories have the power to open hearts and to create change. – 15 years of the hapa project is on view at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles until October 28, 2018 (

    For more information or to participate in the project, please visit:

    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.