Mukbaraka Patanwala
Mercury Staff

Sophomore uses photoshoots, podcast to bring queer Asian American students together

After a summer spent in India, international political economy sophomore Julie Le was inspired to organize a photo shoot focused on LGBTQ+ Asian Americans.

“In America, I identify as a queer Vietnamese female, but in India, people cannot do that without risking their livelihood. I thought about that for a long time and how I was such a privileged individual to be doing that, but my friends in India couldn’t,” Le said. “The summer of 2018, I kept thinking about it. Why am I not more involved in the LGBTQ+ community?”

Last summer, Le spent a month in India through the National Security Language Initiative for Youth scholarship program. After making friends who identified as LGBTQ+, Le carried her experiences with her until she was able to organize a photo shoot.

In preparation for the shoot, Le reached out to three friends she met through the Filipino Student Association, including healthcare management junior Linda Tran, ATEC junior Jacob Tran and computer science junior Patrick Le, all photographers Le had worked with before.

“We want to raise visibility for Asian Americans who identify as LGBT+,” Le said. “That was purely the motivation.”

The project was originally set to begin later in the fall, but Le said she felt she had waited too long.

“There’s no point of waiting if I really wanted to do something,” Le said. “I’ve been waiting for over a year — might as well go ahead and get started.”

Le used her high school background in design to craft flyers and find models. The photo shoot consisted of only Asian Americans who identified as LGBTQ+. There were 13 models, four of whom Le did not know prior to the shoot.

One of the models, finance freshman Henry Zhang, did his own make-up and clothing for the shoot. He said he decided to participate after seeing Le’s flyer in a forum and found the project important for Asian American visibility and inclusion.

“What is seen in the media isn’t always representative of everyone,” Zhang said. “I definitely want to be part of anything that brings visibility to this community.”

Le said an obstacle while finding models was finding more LGBT+ people from the Indian subcontinent as well as darker-skinned Asians.

“We only had one South Asian queer (person) on the photo shoot,” Le said. “That was something I wish I could have improved.”

Le said the photo shoot was a difficult project because she found it challenging to capture a theme with a natural setting.

“It was so hard to work with three photographers,” Le said. “Every photographer has their own vision, and I had my own vision. It was heavy trial and error.”

Le said despite the different artistic styles among them, she was pleased with the results.

Le completed the shoot from Aug. 21-22, the weekend before fall classes began. Once the photo shoot ended, she began setting up her website and podcast, Lychee City.

“Initially the podcast was going to be about Asian LGBT+ topics, but I knew I would run out of topics in five weeks. So I extended it to Asian American identity,” Le said. “I could talk about welfare, something that not only affects LGBTQ+ but also Asians in general.”

Though she had a team helping her with the photo shoot, Le runs the podcast and website on her own. The podcast was originally supposed to launch Oct. 2 along with the website, but Le said she felt it was rushed and incomplete. The first episode will cover Afro-Asian culture and anti-Black sentiments in Asian communities. Future topics include affirmative action and the hyper-sexualization of Asian females in Western media. Le is in the process of meeting with professors and professionals in such fields to discuss these topics. She said she aims to incorporate these issues into her podcasts to facilitate a broader discussion on Asian American identity in society.

Tran said he learned to love working on projects that allow for limitless creativity. He said he has better appreciation for the LGBTQ+ community after working on the photo shoot.

“The spectrum of it, of human sexuality, is a lot bigger than I thought, and very normal,” Tran said. “It is so confusing to me why it is so stigmatized.”

Le said she was appreciative of the models who helped her realize the scope of the project. A few of the models had not completely vocalized their queer identity but wanted to participate anyway.

“It reminded me that it is so much more than just myself and my project,” Le said. “This is for people. This is for gay youth who will see these images right now and subconsciously think, ‘Oh, it’s OK to be Asian and gay,’ and move on.”