November 9, 2018 | Feature
queer api health and feeling together
I am walking through a fluorescent hallway. It smells like new air conditioning and pharmacy and bleach. The floor is tiled beige and the sounds of people mumbling behind closed doors drift into the hallway, which looms narrow and empty except for a coffee machine. It is very cold. It is corporate. It is boring. My face is bright red, warmed from the muggy NYC air. My pores are filled with the dirt and grime stirred up by double-decker tour buses displaying the sights of Chinatown for tourists passing through.
Inside, I am suddenly freezing. Air vents hum in the background as I am led to the sole office in this basement hall. I’m following my boss—she has short hair and tells me she is a writer and a rapper and an activist and a friend. I distract myself from the anxiety I feel about my first day by focusing on the way her dress moves. The cotton blends with the linoleum floor; it ripples and snaps into place, holding its own like paper once wet, now dry. She interrupts my trance and says, “I’m so happy you’re here. I already feel like your auntie.” And I wonder what my life would have been if I had grown up around someone like her.
We enter a windowless room lined with cubicles, located down the hall from the pharmacy. About 15 people turn in their swivel chairs as I enter. Everyone smiles. Everyone says hello. They tell me that they think this will be a wonderful summer, that I will like working here, and I am comforted. My boss says we will do introductions later, after I have completed my trainings and orientation assignments. She sits at her desk and hands me a binder that says, “Welcome to Apicha, Erin Walden, Summer Intern.” There is a logo with a rainbow flag below the text and three pieces of paper in the two-inch binder.
Orientation begins with an introduction to where exactly I am: Apicha Community Health Center. We talk about what happens at the center (affordable and affirmative healthcare) and the mission of Apicha (to serve underserved populations in New York City). I am the only intern in this department, which usually doesn’t have room or funding for temporary employees. The most important part of orientation is learning about my position: I will assist with Project Connect in the Community Health Education (CHE) department. Project Connect is a program specifically for API (Asian and/or Pacific Islander) LGBTQ+ youth that offers mentorship programs, workshops, leadership trainings, cultural competency trainings, and support for members of the community. My boss is the only person who works for Project Connect; she oversees all of the programs throughout the year.
In the CHE department, there are SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and health insurance enrollers who help people in Lower Manhattan obtain Medicare and Medicaid. There is also a Sexual Health Education department that provides HIV and STI testing as well as assistance with attaining PrEP and PEP, drugs that prevent the transmission of HIV. Apicha was founded in 1989 as the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS (APICHA), a grassroots organization formed in response to the AIDS crisis and the unmet HIV/AIDS needs of API people in New York City. Today, one in five API people living with HIV in the United States are unaware of their status. Taboo and stigma around HIV and LGBTQ+ people are prominent in many API communities. In 2009, Apicha became a Community Health Center, broadening their range of services from HIV-focused practice to offer general primary care, STI testing, trans healthcare, and community outreach, among other services.
I am in an incredible organization, focusing on all of the issues that I find most important—still, I am nervous. Of course, I knew from the start that I would be. I joked to a friend at the end of the school year that I was unsure if I could provide support to other people in the API LGBTQ+ community when I didn’t have any myself. Now the expected nervous feelings have arrived, the same ones that surface whenever I meet anyone new. There has always been the inevitable, “I couldn’t tell you were Chinese,” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” As someone who feels invisible by virtue of how I was raised and various other aspects of my life (gender, disposition, sexuality), it is always jarring to be thrust into the position of having to correct someone’s assumption, of having to assert an identity that can be uncomfortable to talk about. And even if the questions are never voiced, I can hear them. I can see them in the confused faces.
Here at Apicha, though, something feels different. No one asks me personal questions. No one asks me why I want to work here: That is to say, no one asks me to prove anything. The head supervisor says my piercings are cool. My boss says we are just a bunch of queers sequestered into the basement. Mostly, people want to talk about their jobs; they want to show me how I can do what they do. I listen, observe their work, and learn about healthcare. More importantly, I learn about discriminations in health and healthcare faced by API communities (language barriers, stigma, insurance and immigration status) and LGBTQ+ communities (lack of providers, high homelessness rates, risk factors including violence and harassment). I learn about the intersection of these conditions.
The busiest month of the year for the CHE department is June: Pride Month. I have the opportunity to attend pride parades and festivals throughout New York City. Although it is fun to march and hand out condoms and Apicha-branded giveaways, Manhattan Pride feels incredibly corporate. The event is heavily policed and regulated. Only people with wristbands can march, and each organization gets a limited number of wristbands. It is also a prime display of rainbow capitalism: the incorporation of the LGBTQ+ community into a neoliberal society only because corporations can profit off of targeting this demographic, not because there is real acceptance. This usually involves corporations that have no pro-LGBTQ+ practices showing up at pride festivals (which have historically been protests) to attract customers, sell pride-themed merchandise, and profit.
Over the course of the summer, I go to many other events such as a NYC Department of Education conference for teachers on gender and sexuality, National HIV Testing Day, and Apicha workshops. I do outreach at community centers like the Charles B. Wang Center, Callen-Lorde, and The LGBT Center. I sit in on calls with The Network—a group of LGBT-specific and LGBT-supportive non-profit organizations that provide care to queer people in New York City. I spend most of my days reading, sitting in on phone calls with my boss, planning meetings, and researching.
On a July night, I sit in a circle of 15 black chairs. There is Popeyes, water from the office water cooler, and instant coffee, already cold. My supervisor runs a group that pairs young members of the community with older ones. She says it is the only one of its kind in the country that has intentionally carved a space for API LGBTQ+ people, and I hate that I can so easily believe this fact.
A girl sits next to me and taps my shoulder. She asks me about the shirt I am wearing, I ask her about her tattoo. We start the meeting by introducing ourselves and talking about our weeks. My boss has us share our coming out stories, if we are comfortable doing so. People discuss their experiences in the workplace and in school, about how we act and present differently around our bosses, our family, our friends. We talk about feeling tokenized, about feeling isolated from our cultures and from our families. We talk about language barriers, generational differences, stigmas around sex (none of us had any type of “sex talk” from parents, and public school certainly does not offer queer sex education). We talk about having to make parents feel comfortable, about the guilt of not being able to. I hear people articulate feelings I have known but have not had the vocabulary to discuss (or anyone to discuss them with). I come out in front of a sizeable group for the first time, and no one says I have to tell my parents. No one says queer visibility is critical for my well-being or that to stay closeted is selfish. People just listen.
That night, I return home tired. My daily commute is two hours each way. The good thing about that is I get to read. Sometimes all I can do is sit, make lists of the storefront signs I see through the foggy Long Island Railroad window. Sometimes I write poems, sometimes I take notes on what people are saying. The night creaks, but it is summer and warm, and my mom is there when I get home. She asks me if I had a good time at work, I say yes, and she says there is leftover dal in the fridge, the same one that she always makes in the big red pot, garnished with an excess of cilantro. There is ginger tofu too, if I want. My dad high-fives me when I walk through the door. I feel like the luckiest person.
The summer continues, and I am full. I write a letter to my parents telling them I’m queer, telling them what they probably already knew. In response to the letter, my father sends a text message. I receive the text while at an Asian-American poetry reading, holding a warm glass of complimentary white wine. The poet on stage mentions that his husband and dogs are waiting for him to come home, and that’s all it takes for me to start crying. I find myself wiping tears from my eyes before the reading has even begun. A wave of relief floods over me. My mother says nothing in response to the letter, but still makes me dal.
On Fridays, I go to the animal adoption center with my boss to pet dogs. We drink overpriced coffee and travel to community events. I learn what it means to live as part of a collective, what it means to be a just-turned-20-years-old-starting-to-feel-okay-with-life person. On my last day at the office I bake banana bread, and my boss reads a poem she wrote for me on the subway. Later in the summer, at a baseball game, my mom jokes that all the pride merchandise at the stadium has been put on sale and placed in the corner. She laughs and gives me a hat to try on. I am still overwhelmed. There is newness in everything, but sometimes I feel comfortable.