Mandy is one of the most passionate and talented people I have met. I have so much respect and admiration for all that she’s involved with, and so I was delighted when she agreed to be interviewed for Asian, Gay and Proud. Last week, we had a conversation about law, being queer in China and other hot topics! Enjoy!
On weekday mornings, Mandy Hu dresses up as a commercial litigator. But what she really lives for are coincidences, lexical ambiguities, observant compliments, late night conversations, impromptu foot races, and other small, delightful moments of art and connection. Mandy considers her biggest achievement her continuing (and often unsuccessful) struggle to do the right thing.
She is on the board of directors of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) and is active in her local communities in San Francisco.
Name, age, what you identify as (or not):
Mandy Hu, 31. I identify foremost as a special beautiful unicorn. Other identities that fit: queer, second generation Chinese-American, bicultural, Californian, short-haired gender nonconforming who’s that boy-looking-girl in the girl’s bathroom call security!!?? And I don’t think of identity as just demographics or phenotype but also personality, interests, characteristics, thoughts, e.g., I’m a Chatty Cathy who likes stringed instruments and word games and feels lots of lust for life.
Miyuki: What do you do for a living?
Mandy: I’m a lawyer, currently doing commercial litigation for a firm in San Francisco. On a good day, litigation works for me because it channels the competitive, verbal, cerebral, and performative parts of me into a productive occupation. On a not so good day, it’s a lot of sitting in front of a computer wondering why judges can’t write simpler sentences and when people stopped talking and started suing each other to resolve their differences. My job is fulfilling, but I also care about social justice and political issues that my paid work can’t capture. So it’s important to me to plug into my communities and work for the changes I want to see within them and in society at large. Right now that means being on the board of directors of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and doing local organizing with other queer communities in San Francisco.
Miyuki: When did you come out? Any stories?
Mandy: I don’t think I can isolate coming out to any single moment. Did I come out in 1992, during Kristi Yamaguchi’s long program at the winter Olympics in Albertville, when I first identified my funny feelings for girls? Or at sixteen, when I told the person who would be my first girlfriend that I thought I was bisexual? When I told my first friend? A teacher? Or when I told my parents a week before leaving for college that I was in love with that girl on my wrestling team? Or never telling my aunts and uncles explicitly that I’m gay, but bringing the same partner to several family functions and acting affectionately?Coming out is not a one-way street, either. I’ve come out of the closet, then returned for a change of clothes, then stepped out partway and changed my mind, then tried to take a sledgehammer to the whole damn thing. For example, my first job after college was teaching in a public high school. I certainly did not come out to my students, but I did share my progressive opinions with them freely. I did not tell the evangelical Christian music teacher that I was gay, even when she said idiotic things about gay people. At times I’ve looked more feminine, and I can tell people assume I’m straight, and I don’t say anything to suggest I’m not. These days I present fairly androgynous, leaning toward masculine, and I assume that most people have enough awareness of social norms to understand that there is something unusual about my gender and therefore about my sexuality too.And I think other people can come out for you! Take my mom, for example. About a month ago, a nosy uncle asked why I don’t have a boyfriend. Mom said, “Oh, you know Mandy. She’s just too busy!” That’s the kind of response I’ve gotten used to; I see it as a very Chinese way to avoid conflict and deflect the issue. But then two weeks ago, we were at a friend’s wedding, and a nosy auntie asked the same question, and my mom leaned in and said, “Actually, Mandy’s gay!” I almost dropped my drink when she said that. I was elated. It really felt like progress.
Miyuki: How did coming out impact your career or relationships with others?
Mandy: I told my parents when I was seventeen, after my car got broken into when I was visiting my girlfriend in San Francisco. I had to explain why my car was parked in SOMA at dawn. I remember nothing but lots of crying, and my mom saying that she basically already knew. I guess I didn’t hide it very well. Since then, they’ve met several of my girlfriends, gone on family trips with a few. I can talk with my parents about the women I’m dating, and my activism on queer issues. Still for about a decade my dad kept trying to set me up with his co-worker’s son. And once every few years my dad and I will get into an argument about something unrelated to sexuality, and in the heat of the moment he’ll say something nasty about gay people.I’m mostly laughing about it now. I’m proud to have a good relationship with my parents – it’s something we’ve all worked on for a long time. I lived on the opposite coast for most of my 20s and I didn’t have an ethnic identity until I was about 25, I think because I saw being queer as my primary identity, and something incompatible with being Chinese, which I associated with my family of origin, and my way having a queer identity was to live far away so that my Chinese family didn’t have to know what I was doing day to day. I’m 31 now, and really grateful to have found friends and experiences that have taught me how to be both queer and Asian. It’s vastly improved my relationship with my parents.I would say I’m pretty far out of the closet now. Definitely in my professional life. I put obviously LGBT organizations on my resume and I talk about the work I’ve done for them during job interviews. Actually, it probably works in my favor in a town like San Francisco, where queers and allies are everywhere. In other towns I’ve worked in more conservative/formal/frat guy environments, where it’s been a challenge to connect to mentors or co-workers because everyone is a good ol’ boy named Brandon or Chuck, so I feel lucky now to work in an environment where homophobia, not homosexuality, would be frowned upon and there are people who look like me.As far as how being out affects my effectiveness on the job, how a judge or jury will receive an androgynous Asian-American female litigator – jury’s still out. I haven’t gotten far enough in my career to find out.
Miyuki: Queer communities are constantly changing depending on laws, societal acceptance and dynamics within the community. Can we talk about the relationship between laws and societal acceptance in the US? Do we really need to change laws to see change in society?
Mandy: That’s a really interesting question. Since I don’t work on any LGBT related legal issues in my career so I can only speak from my general experience as someone who has thought about the law and how the law prescribes morality for society. First of all, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s perfectly legal to be gay in America. Up until 2004, before Lawrence v. Texas, criminal sodomy statutes were constitutional. And even though that’s now unconstitutional, in states where there is no sexual orientation protection under state law, it’s still legal to fire someone because they’re gay, because there’s no federal law prohibiting discrimination against people based on sexual orientation.As far as the social change question, I think the law leads public morality. It’s a statement on public morality. So even if people disregard the law, if there’s a sodomy law in the books — which probably doesn’t just cover homosexual behavior but bans anything except for procreative missionary position sex — even if people disregard it, I think it still says something that it exists and no action has been taken to overturn it. So that’s why it’s important to have a decision like Lawrence come down, to declare that it’s not okay for the government to regulate sexuality in this way.
Miyuki: How do you feel about the equality campaign? Certainly in many queer communities, there has been a lot of backlash because marriage is seen as an institution rooted in traditional beliefs.
Mandy: I have personal opinions on the marriage issue and then I have a political strategic opinion. My personal opinion is that marriage is not necessarily what the movement should focus on because of the message it sends. What’s so great about being queer is that we have to be a little more deliberate about our family structures and about our partnership structures. You get to create alternatives if you don’t fit into a social norm. So why give up the opportunity to redefine what a family looks like?The policy reasons for the government recognizing a married couple over any other relationship is that the government wants to encourage social stability. It sends the message that this is a basic unit of society — we want to protect it, give it tax breaks and do all we can to nurture it because it creates society. But I don’t think that that’s the only model on which society can be built. For example, I wonder why we can’t have more varied partner recognition so that if two siblings want to live together and want to create a household together, or if two people who don’t want to have sex who live together, they can go ahead and be recognized and supported by the government. That’s the ideal. From a resource perspective in the LGBTQ movement, so many resources have been devoted to marriage equality, even though there are lots of issues pertaining to LGBTQ people. Not everyone wants to get married, not everyone is a citizen, not everyone is capable of being married, it’s all just so narrow. So that’s my personal opinion about the movement. But then again I feel that marriage is a very easy hook to get people who are not in the movement to understand gay people. It’s a great way to lure non-LGBT support to gay people and create initiative.
Miyuki: You mentioned that learning how to be both queer and Asian has vastly improved your relationship with your parents. Can you talk more about that process?
Mandy: When I first came out, I felt like my gay identity was my most important one to me and in choosing that I felt like I had to step away from my family of origin and what I had been raised in . It’s hard for me to describe this because there was such a variety of emotions — this was also back when I was a teenager. I came out to myself at 15 and then my parents at 17 so I wouldn’t have been able to articulate at the time that I was very consciously stepping away from being Chinese or having an ethnic identity. For me it was more that I felt like I had to reject what I had been given. Which was an easy thing for a privileged Chinese girl from Palo Alto, CA to be doing.
Miyuki: But you speak Chinese and from what I know of you, you seem like you have a strong Chinese heritage.
Mandy: I spoke Chinglish at home and I went to Chinese school where all the other Chinese American kids were tortured by their parents. I wasn’t a very diligent student–my Chinese wasn’t very good and I communicated with my parents in a mixture of Chinese and English. My vocabulary was universally limited, meaning I could only talk about a few things like what are we eating or can you take me to this place. A very functional and non-emotional and poor medium for expression. I didn’t take any Chinese in college but then two years ago I was in China for five weeks and did some language study specifically to improve my Chinese so I could speak to my parents.
Miyuki: Do you think that has helped you reconnect with your cultural background?Definitely. But then again, my parents have never lived in China so I’m pursuing some idea of what it means to be Chinese, not theirs. They ethnically Chinese but they grew up in Taiwan. I don’t know if my experience of being Chinese is the authentic experience of being Chinese. It’s kind of like a hodgepodge, putting together my own groping around in China and with the language as well as with other Chinese American friends.
Miyuki: How did you feel in China as a queer person? Did it feel different than being in the US?
Mandy: I’ve been to China a couple of times in different formations of being a queer person. The first time I went to China for language study I was more gender conforming looking which meant that I had long hair..well that was pretty much it, I had long hair. So even though I was more androgynous in my clothing, hair makes such a difference in giving people an immediate idea of what your gender is. And I didn’t know anyone there so I wasn’t out to anyone or even have the opportunity to come out to anyone because I didn’t have friends. I was just going to my language classes. Eventually I became friends with my language teacher and my Chinese roommate and I came out to both of them. My language teacher took it well but my roommate was in disbelief the whole time. She kept saying ‘You can’t possibly be gay’ and just refused to believe me. I’ve had that reaction before too from other Chinese people so I wonder if that’s just a polite thing to say like, “Oh no, no you’re not gay!” So it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I did go to a lesbian bar in Beijing.
Miyuki: How was that?
Mandy: It was fine, it was like any bar anywhere–loud, shouting and trying to connect with people over the music and not being able to hear anything. It was interesting to see that there was a dyke bar. Actually it was just a queer women’s night in a hotel bar. The last time I was in China I was much less gender conforming. I had short hair and I wore a chest binder. In fact I went into the men’s room and I was trying to pass as male just because I thought 1) it’d be easier to travel alone that way and 2) because I thought it’d be an interesting experiment.
Miyuki: Wow…interesting! I actually read your article from 2003 in the Harvard Crimson, “A Drag Diary”–
Mandy: Oh for god sake, yeah?
Miyuki: It was one of the top 10 hits on google when I searched your name :)
Mandy: I was just talking to a friend about how the stuff we wrote on the Internet ten years ago is still coming back to haunt us.
Miyuki: Well I mention it because it seems like you’ve had several experiences trying to pass as a man, what with your experiments you talked about in the Crimson and with your time in China. When you were passing in China how did people react? What was it like mentally and emotionally to do that?
Mandy: Well it wasn’t what I thought it would be. In my travels the past, I’ve had people in Europe or South Asia just come up to me and ask ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ and be really forward about it. But I found that people were a lot less straightforward about their curiosity in China. Part of it I think was that I look really Han Chinese and kind of fit in so I stick out far less as an androgynous Chinese person in China than I do as an androgynous Chinese person in Munich. People actually thought I was a guy. They’d say “I’ve got this daughter who is looking for a boyfriend” and I’d say “actually, I’m a woman…” And after I revealed my gender, most people reacted by saying “Oh I was really curious but I didn’t want to ask you, you’re very androgynous.” People weren’t freaking out about it. I was expecting a bit more pushback you know? It never became the centerpiece of our conversations. I never felt like I was being judged.
Miyuki: Along the lines of what we’ve been talking about, how do you feel we can come to terms with the dissonance created between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us?
Mandy: Let’s see..okay I have a story. There was this one time where I went to a gay lawyer’s conference in Los Angeles. On the Saturday night of the conference I went out with a bunch of other women to a bar and we were all sort of smallish queer women. Actually I was the only gender non-conforming looking person–most people had long hair and all of us wore put-together lawyers outfits. And I just remember standing outside the bar and we had to get somewhere and — I love lawyers because they get shit done. So we were like “Okay we need to get to this place, this person is going to lead us, we need a cab, this person is out in the street hailing a cab.” It just felt really badass and independent, like yeah, we can get anything we want done. We felt powerful and maybe it was because we were in this social class of well-educated, mostly wealthy people working for law firms that we felt empowered, and to top it off we were around queer folks. But then I took a step back and saw that actually, we’re just a bunch of small sort of gay-looking women. Other people are not going to think that we’re powerful. In my mind I think that I can get anything done, like don’t mess with me, but then I’ll go to a bar where I’m five inches shorter than everyone else and the bartender literally overlooks me or people don’t register me because I’m Asian. That startles me because I have this narcissistic imagination of myself as an awesome person.
Miyuki: Well you do have a lot on your plate–you sing, you dance, you’re a lawyer. How do you juggle it all? What keeps you going?
Mandy: That’s a really hard question to answer…I mean why do you do the things you do?
Miyuki: Yeah, I guess it is a hard one to answer…hahaMandy: I suppose I’m just trying to chug along in life without getting bored.Miyuki: Do you feel like you get bored easily?
Mandy: *laughter* yes, NO haha I think getting bored is such an awful thing. This is getting very far from being queer and Asian but there’s so much in the world, how could you possibly be bored? You just have to seek it out. If you’re feeling bored I feel like it’s up to you to stimulate yourself.
Miyuki: I completely agree. Okay, to wrap things up, do you have any advice you can give to other Asian, Gay & Proud readers?
Mandy: Keep doing what you like doing and eventually other people will learn that you’re as awesome as you know you are. Surround yourself with people who inspire you. Smile a lot and be attentive and patient and nonjudgmental with people. Everyone’s just like you, another person, in this world, with other people, trying to get along. And this is anti-advice: I don’t only want to give advice, I want to receive it. Asian, Gay & Proud readers surely have a lot to teach me! How exciting that we all get to learn from one another!