Love Your Asian Body: An Interview with Eric Wat
In his new book Love Your Asian Body, writer Eric Wat uses oral history to tell the stories of Asian American AIDS activists who confronted the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Los Angeles during the 1980s and 1990s. His book is an important contribution to our understanding of AIDS and AIDS activism during that time, since stories of white gay men still dominate both scholarly and popular narratives of AIDS history. Love Your Asian Body also received the 2023 Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for History. I spoke with Wat about the challenges activists faced, his personal connection to the stories he tells, and why those stories matter today.
Dan Royles: You said at one point on X (formerly Twitter) that this was a book that you thought you weren’t going to write. Why didn’t you want to, and what changed your mind?
Eric Wat: I didn’t want to write it at first because I felt like I was too close to it. I’m not HIV positive, but AIDS activism informed who I am, and I know a lot of the people that ended up in the book.
What changed my mind ultimately was Trump. I felt like I needed to reflect on why I do the activist work that I do. I always knew that AIDS had informed my activism, but it wasn’t until I delved into the history that I realized it was everything. And I felt it was the same way with my generation, and that story wasn’t told.
Dan Royles: What’s your personal history with AIDS activism?
Eric Wat: I was born in 1970. I came to this country from Hong Kong in 1982, so I was eleven years old. That was the beginning of what we now know as AIDS, and I was also coming into my own sexuality. My coming out is always tied up with the threat of AIDS in a way. At the same time, I was experiencing all the things happening around AIDS activism. I used to volunteer for the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT), which I profiled in the book. I would go to bars in West Hollywood and hand out condoms and information.
Dan Royles: What were the challenges that Asian American AIDS activists in Los Angeles faced, especially early on?
Eric Wat: It’s hard to talk to other gay Asian men about HIV/AIDS. I think the first documented case of an Asian American with HIV didn’t happen until the mid-eighties, so rumors started about Asians being immune. And then there were some organizations of gay Asian Americans, but they were mostly social, and it was hard to get them to talk about AIDS.
Once those organizations started talking about AIDS, they realized that their members were mostly well assimilated, meaning that they could get information from different sources, and they were mostly English-speaking. But we knew there were also a lot of immigrants who weren’t coming to these organizations, but they were still engaging in high-risk behavior. Activists had to convince them not only that AIDS was important to discuss, but that there were queer people in their communities.
The “Love Your Asian Body” campaign, on which I based the title of the book, was really focused on that assimilated audience. After that, there was much more effort to engage immigrant communities about AIDS. It was hard because you’re talking not only about sex and death, which are difficult topics to begin with, but you have to be explicit about those things. It required a lot of uncomfortable conversations.
Dan Royles: Why was the “Love Your Asian Body” campaign important?
Eric Wat: It was a huge shift in gay Asian consciousness. Throughout the seventies and eighties, you did not see a lot of Asian images in gay media, and when you did, it was always in relationship with a white gay subject. “Love Your Asian Body” was radical in showing two Asians in a state of undress, being intimate with each other. It was more than just a public health message. It was also a political message, where it’s revolutionary to love another Asian man. In public health, “Love Your Asian Body” means love your Asian body, right? But as a larger message, it’s about loving another Asian body. It was consistent with what was going on in the Latinx and Black communities as well. There was this clamor to validate each other, rather than to look outside the community.
Dan Royles: It’s about protecting yourself from HIV as a way to love your body, and seeing your body as something worth protecting.
Eric Wat: Yeah, although some will question that. I think it’s true that people often engage in destructive behavior because they lack that sense of self-worth, but HIV isn’t limited to people who don’t have self-esteem.
Dan Royles: In writing my book on African American AIDS activism I saw that there was the same kind of argument being made, which makes sense, but maybe misses that HIV doesn’t always come down to individual behavior. What were some of the structural factors that put Asian Americans at risk?
Eric Wat: HIV prevention is about community building. It’s about changing social norms, and not passing judgment on people. When AIDS hit, it allowed us to imagine a community that reinforced a liberating kind of sexual freedom. I draw a parallel to what’s going on now with trans and non-binary activism. In the nineties, we theorized about breaking down gender binaries. That has become much more of a reality for this generation. In the late eighties and nineties, there was this beautiful wave of community building that was happening, but that was also about HIV prevention. That didn’t just address HIV prevention for individuals, it was also about creating structures in the community that would outlast the AIDS epidemic, which is still going on.
Dan Royles: In this book, you talk about Asian American identity and community being historically specific to the wave of Asian immigration to the United States after 1965. What were some tensions within that sense of community, and did you see it change over time, including in a queer context?
Eric Wat: 1965 is a huge moment for Asian immigration, because it allowed for family reunification, and then you have the wars in Southeast Asia, which brought a lot of refugees here. Immigrants coming to this country are not going to automatically adopt this pan-ethnic term.
And then in 1969 is Stonewall. Of course, there were queer people before Stonewall, but Stonewall also changed the way we looked at ourselves. So that was developing in the seventies, but it wasn’t until around 1980 that people started thinking more intersectionally.
That was also around the time that AIDS hit, which challenged what it means to be a gay man. Everything that we thought was groovy in the seventies became high risk, so there was a lot of debate about how gay men should be. There was the push to become more “normalized,” and a lot of blaming of gay men and their behavior for the epidemic.
By the nineties, there were many different Asian ethnic groups, especially in Los Angeles, and they weren’t all gravitating to the pan-ethnic Asian American queer groups. Activists realized the need to establish spaces in these immigrant enclaves and run meetings in their own languages, so that people could bond and socialize much more freely. Some leaders in the queer Asian community saw that as fracturing, or as diluting our power. Other leaders thought it was a development toward being more inclusive, and I would say that APAIT fell more in that camp. We could work with these groups to talk about safer sex. Some of the AIDS funding was funneled through them to build their strength and capacity, and they became messengers to the people who we had the hardest time reaching.
Dan Royles: Could you speak to why this story is vital now?
Eric Wat: I’ve been thinking a lot more about the role of joy in movement building. I really wanted to use this book to create some intergenerational dialogue with today’s activists. People talk now about sustainability and self-care in movements because a lot of things that we did before, especially in other movements, just were not sustainable. I think there was more emphasis on joy in the AIDS movement, maybe because it was led by queer people. It shows how you can mobilize joy even in the grimmest, darkest times, through art, through creativity, through community building. Or maybe it’s just a function of talking about sex honestly that helps bring that joy out into the discourse.
One of the other things I believe about social movements, which I learned from ethnic studies, is that everyday people make history. And then the thing I learned from queer studies is to embrace deviance. The AIDS movement taught me that it doesn’t matter if you’re not the norm. You still deserve healthcare, you still deserve to live, you still deserve to have a community. And today when we’re talking about all this transphobic legislation, and people so shook by the gender binary coming down, we need more stories about how “deviance” can be embraced.
Dan Royles is an Associate Professor of History at Florida International University. His book, To Make the Wounded Whole: The African American Struggle against HIV/AIDS, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2020.