Helen Zia – Post by Kevin Nguyen


Helen Zia. While not quite a household name yet (the average school curriculum is largely lacking in Asian-American studies classes), her activism for Asian American and LGBTQ intersectionality would earn her a place in any Asian American Activist’s hall of fame. Her book, American Dreams, plays a pinnacle role in displacing the stereotypical perception of Asian-Americans as either sexless, emasculated nerds (for males) or hyper-sexual, exotic “geishas” (for females). Her refusal to accept unjustified hate crimes as simply another contingency of being Asian also makes her a pioneer in community organizing for social justice for Asian-Americans. Helen Zia is a prominent Asian-American activist worth studying because throughout the scope of her career, she has broadened the definition for what an Asian-American identity looks like, from hetero-sexual, silent, and apolitical, to anywhere on the sexual spectrum, outspoken, and eager to organize.

Outraged against the oppression of fellow Asian-Americans victim to hate crimes, specifically Vincent Chin, she and other leaders in Detroit started “a new grassroots organization called, ‘American Citizen for Justice (ACJ)’.” [1] Alongside ACJ, Zia worked for 7 years to finally bring federal civil rights chargers against Chin’s killers, Michael Nitz and Ronald Ebens. Her work in bringing justice to Vincent Chin’s killers set a precedent message: Asian-Americans were not the stereotypically quiet, docile, apolitical “foreigners”  White America thought we were. Sure enough, her message ended up leading “to a conviction with jail terms in another murder case involving Chinese Americans at Raleigh, NC” in 1989. [2] In 1995, at the Organization of Chinese Americans’ Leadership Summit, Zia’s opening address emphasized that “Asian Americans and pacific Islanders will never achieve equal partnership and equal power with other Americans as long as we are seen as the quiet voice of reason, the ones who always behave, the people willing to discuss and negotiate no matter how outrageously we are mistreated.” [3] Zia’s message at the summit implies that without initiative from the Asian-American community, social progress is bound to remain stagnant. Without outspoken activists like Helen Zia to start grassroots movements, Asian-Americans would have taken far longer to begin the journey of liberation from an oppressive social hierarchy.

Although outspoken in her activism, Zia’s identity as a lesbian also forced her to keep her sexuality secret to other social justice organizers because of homophobic attitudes in not only conservative, but progressive dialogues. When Zia quit medical school to become a social organizer, her activist work landed her in Boston’s women’s rights movement. She “found a community of sisters, some of [whom] were openly lesbian,” but couldn’t come out as lesbian herself because of fear of backlash by her organizing peers. In Asian American Dreams, Zia recounts the experience of having a fellow Black community organizer, Tariq, sit her down and ask her if she was lesbian “because she would harm [their] organizing efforts.” [4] Even Asian-American activists in the same realm of work as Zia expressed paranoia against LGBTQ activism — While working on the book  My Country Verses Me, her co-author, Wen Ho Lee, told her that “before [he] knew her, if [he] had met someone who [was] gay, [he] would not want to have anything to do with them.” Also, at the Berkeley 3rd World Strike in the 1960s, the opening remarks insisted that there were “no homosexual Asian-Americans” because homosexuality was “a reflection of White, petty, bourgeoisie decadence.” Nevertheless, Asian American Dreams expanded the most commonly perceived Asian-American identity from one sexuality to all sexualities. Zia’s role in Vincent Chin’s case showed marginalized communities all over the United States that with enough resistance, change can be made.


Creative Piece: 

I tried reading this to a rap track, but alas, it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to. So here’s the poem I wrote:



I came out in the land of the free, but the critics didn’t wanna hold a space for me
Cause, being a d@&! was just too sentimental
It was only for the 白人 bourgeosies so I never could,
Ask, commit, organize without scrutiny
I got all the flack while heteros got the glory and
trust — my own people saw me as an 別人
Working alongside them, treated as an alien
I, couldn’t believe what had happened here,
Wait, yes I could, homophobia is everywhere!
I was invisible, unseen by friends
But I had gotten used to this,
Cause I made change on other ends
VINCENT CHIN, I’m calling you, my sweet angel
I’m here in solidarity, yes, you aren’t alone
But I just wish the fight, never happened this way
If we all just loved each other, I wouldn’t sing this today.







[1] EBSCO Publishing, Helen Zia: A Dedicated Civil Rights Activist for Chinese/Asian Americans, 7.

[2] Ibid, 8.

[3] Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux),  283.

[4] Ibid, 228.

[5] Helen Zia, Where the Queer Zone Meets the Asian Zone: Marriage Equality and Other Intersections (Remiglio, 2006), 9.

[6] Ibid, 3.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s