BY: LOUISE ALLYN PALMA
This is how Cutsleeve began: Lian, a drummer, met Hillary, a bassist, through a mutual friend at an art installation hosted by Rice Roll Productions, a Toronto digital art collective that focuses on telling queer, Asian stories. The installation was one of a series of projects that celebrated the history of LGBTQ+ Asians in Toronto.
Until then, Lian had played in amateur bands made up of mostly straight, white guys–and as a queer, East Asian young woman, she didn’t feel like she could relate to them. In high school, she “experienced imposter syndrome, a lot,” she says.
“Even though I’d been playing for just as long, if not longer, I just felt so out of place. I really wanted to be around people that I would feel comfortable doing all these things with.”
Check out more photos of cutsleeve's cover shoot at the end of this article!
"Do people like our music and do people enjoy seeing what we’re doing?
And do we enjoy playing with each other?
Yes, we fucking do.
And that in itself is power I think."
But after she met Hillary, she realized there was a solution: “I had to go seek out these people. If I just went to my school and picked out four other people, they would definitely not [be] all-queer, or all-female, or all-East Asian or even all people of colour.”
Soon, Lian and Hillary were joined by Amanda, a rhythm guitarist and back-up vocalist, Chanel, the keyboardist and lead vocalist and Hannah, the lead guitarist. Like Lian, all five band members are young, East Asian and queer.
As Toronto’s newest punk band, Cutsleeve, they’re ready to take on heteronormative and racist media representations of Asian women–and they are also giving strength and courage to one another to embrace who they are.
There's still a stigma against being queer and Asian
According to National Queer Asian Pacific Island Alliance (NQAPIA), “same-sex activity” is legal in many countries throughout Asia and Oeania, but anti-discrimination laws are rare, and same-sex marriage and gender changes are often illegal.
There has been some promising change —on Sept. 6, India abolished a 160-year-old law that made non-binary sexual orientation illegal and punishable with a ten-year jail sentence.
But attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ are still overwhelmingly negative. And these ideals aren’t restricted to Asian countries; in a 2015 report by the U.S. National Education Association, about LGBTQ+ youth, “90% of Asian and Pacific Islanders (APIs) who self-identified as LGBT agreed that homophobia or transphobia was an issue in the larger API community when they come to Canada.”
That’s why Chanel, Amanda and Hannah have not come out to their families—and why branding themselves as queer, East Asian and femme is a bold statement.
“I feel pretty fearless when I’m in this group of people and doing my thing. It’s a nice place to be myself and be as queer and as out as I’d like to be, even if I can’t be at home,” Hannah says.
"There are things about Asian culture, not [just] about queerness;
anything that will tarnish how people perceive you- is a big deal."
But it’s not just about the messages queer Asian youth receive at home. It’s also about whether they see themselves anywhere else—and usually, they don’t. White queer youth have more representation now than ever before, thanks to movies like Love, Simon and YA novels like David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, the same can’t be said for young, queer POC, particularly Asians. In fact, even when queer or non-heteronormative are represented in media, they are framed in a single way, says Elisha Lim, a graphic novelist and queer advocate.
“What I have found that is exhausting is that gay [people] are pictured as wealthy white men… And for queer [people] who are not white, not exactly gay—like, if you are trans, or if you’re a trans woman, or an Asian trans woman, you can’t be a neoliberal concept of a respectable gay. It’s like you just ruined it, you’re just a freak,” Lim said.
Chanel echoes Lim’s observation, explaining that while her upbringing in Canada provides exposure to Western media with queer representation, only white individuals are shown—and coming out is a huge part of the narrative, something queer Asian youth don’t always feel they can do.
Is coming out even that big of a deal?
John Paul Catungal, a scholar at the University of British Columbia who specializes in both human geography, critical race and ethnic studies, explains that, “many scholars and activists have argued that “coming out” is a very Western, individualistic narrative.” He uses a Filipino metaphor, which loosely means that “one’s sexuality is not hidden, it is something someone wears and unfurls… which makes it very clear that this idea of coming out is not universal. It is very grounded in a North American context.”
Amanda agrees. “Everything [in Asian culture] is family, organization, community… so if you’re queer, that doesn’t fit into [the] standard, heteronormative structure,” she says.
That’s part of the reason Hannah hasn’t come out to her family—she’s worried about disappointing her parents, something all her bandmates understand, even if they have come out.
Hannah explained that being part of an all-Asian queer band with a similar upbringing; not only in their ethnic background but also in their struggles and experiences as queer Asians; differentiates them from "Western or white queer groups."
"We kind of have this unspoken understanding of everyone's experiences and struggles with the cultural differences that we face with the people in the Western world and white folks," she says.
See Cutsleeve perform "Girls like Girls" at their Queer Asian Youth Pride Stage performance by clicking on the video on the right! To see more of Cutsleeve's performances, click here!
"Young, queer, Asian women.
I mean as big of a city Toronto is; us being the only band we know of like this, is pretty empowering.
And we can make this whatever we want it to be."
That attitude, simultaneously brash and understanding, means a lot to the members of Cutsleeve who haven’t yet come out. “Since I’m really close with my family, I feel like the band gives me the support I need to come out to them eventually. Because that’s where I hope to be once I have the courage to,” Chanel says.
But it’s also what make the band so revolutionary for its fans.
“It's important that Cutsleeve understands… that they are bigger than themselves. They have the responsibility to represent, to be there for marginalized communities, which for them is queer, East Asians, women, gender non-binary folks,.” Catungal says.
And they do. All five members of the band are aware of their responsibility, and find empowerment in their roles as queer Asian musicians.
“I’m not going to hide anymore,” Amanda says. “I’m just going to be me, with a bunch of awesome people, and play fucking kick ass music together.”
Photography by: Louise Allyn Palma