Cheng on Wat, 'Love Your Asian Body: AIDS Activism in Los Angeles'

Eric C. Wat
Jih-Fei Cheng

Eric C. Wat. Love Your Asian Body: AIDS Activism in Los Angeles. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2022. Illustrations. 304 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74932-7; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74933-4

Reviewed by Jih-Fei Cheng (Scripps College) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (March, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

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Love Your Asian Body: AIDS Activism in Los Angeles is the first book-length history of Asian American HIV/AIDS activism. It focuses on Los Angeles-based activists and community leaders who joined the HIV/AIDS social movement in the late 1980s. Their organizing responded to family and friends becoming sick or dying and to their own HIV-positive diagnoses. Against media misinformation and US government inaction to the pandemic, they founded the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT) in 1987—the same year that the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) came into existence in New York City. This past is narrated through a collection of interviews with artists, grassroots organizers, social workers, scholars, volunteers, community leaders, and public figures conducted by activist, novelist, and public scholar Eric C. Wat between 2017 and 2019. The book ends by reflecting on the struggles and pleasures of APAIT’s historical pan-ethnic, multi-gendered formation. The arrival of Love Your Asian Body, amid the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, is timely and prescient. It asks: what do the politics of embodiment and pleasure tell us about solidarity in the age of US pharmaceutical greed, global medical apartheid, and increasing viral pandemics?

The impact of HIV/AIDS brought Asian Americans into pan-ethnic community. Its crisis demanded the address of structural barriers, including limited access to health care, immigrant rights, and housing, and the lumping of HIV/AIDS data on Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Asians into “Other” as late as 1988. Wat’s oral histories follow the lives of those who convened the AIDS Intervention Team in 1987 as a working group of the Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Gays (A/PLG), an organization cofounded in 1980 by Dean Goishi, Takenori (Tak) Yamamoto, June Lagmay, and others. Goishi’s leadership was joined by activists and service providers from lesbian and gay, queer, and AIDS initiatives as well as Asian American, feminist, and anti-imperialist movements. For instance, Ric Parish and Joël Barraquiel Tan met at a 1991 rally against then California governor Pete Wilson to protest his veto of California assembly bill AB101, which would have outlawed workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. Sally Jue arrived from the AIDS Project Los Angeles, where she had been working since 1984 as their seventh staff hire and first Asian American employee. Margaret Endo Shimada came from the Asian American Drug Abuse Program with extensive clinical experience. Their convergence via APAIT as its earliest staff members necessitated the naming, defining, and building of “Asian American” solidarities through the circulation of cultural and political representations with HIV messaging and the activation of networks of direct care and direct action.

The title, Love Your Asian Body, derives from APAIT’s first social marketing campaign. As cofounder Parish recounts, the slogan was coined in 1991 after conducting outreach. Artist-activist and cofounder Tan responded to a fellow gay Filipino/x man’s complaint about wanting a more angular nose to feel desirable in the affluent, white, cis-male dominated West Hollywood gayborhood: “Sistah, love yo Asian body!” (p. 115). In addition to protests and marches, forging an anti-racist, feminist, queer, and sex-positive environment required visibility that articulated the lived and embodied experiences of various Asian-descent peoples. Rather than incite fear, moralism, or individual culpability for shouldering HIV and its stigma in isolation, their representations demonstrated how the negotiations of intimacy, risk, and pleasure coalesced them into a shared sense of community, belonging, and protection.

During APAIT’s December 2021 World AIDS Day Celebration, Tan explicitly stated that the HIV/AIDS movement is first and foremost an artist movement. The “Love Your Asian Body” campaign included otherwise rare photographic portraits of queer bodies; erotic attraction; and physical embrace between Asian American women, men, and trans people. The images donned postcards and magazines in the pre-internet era to emphasize the use of latex barriers and to promote access to HIV testing. The artist-activists themselves, like Tan, Wat, Noel Alumit, Diep Tran, and Alice Y. Hom, also generated literary productions, including poems, plays, performances, and films, as well as scholarship and pedagogies that examined feminist, queer, trans, and HIV/AIDS-related themes as they played out within ethnic-specific contexts and pan-racial and pan-ethnic settings. These authors were editors and contributors to volumes of feminist-queer Asian American literature and art, like Geraldine Kudaka's On A Bed of Rice: An Asian American Erotic Feast (1995), Russell Leong's Asian American Sexualities: Dimensions of the Gay and Lesbian Experience (1996), Tan's Queer PAPI Porn: Gay Asian Erotica (1998), and David L. Eng and Hom's Q&A: Queer in Asian America (1998). Versions of Tan's short story, "Night Sweats" (1995), about the relationship between HIV-serodiscordant gay male Filipino/x and Puerto Rican lovers, appear in several of these anthologies. It became crucial to my own politicization and to my MA thesis, which explored how refusing HIV stigma, criminalization, and serosorting became the potential grounds for anti-colonial and intersectional political mobilization.

In 1999, I was handed outreach postcards by Alumit and poet and social worker Chi-Wai Au and joined APAIT. I started my MA program in Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2000. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was not yet considered history among communities of color even as mainstream media observed its twenty-year anniversary in 2001. Its activism was not yet taught in Asian American social movement curricula. At the time, it was still difficult to convince Asian American scholars and activists that HIV/AIDS politics was not a fringe movement, and that lesbian and gay and queer studies were not simply dense, lofty fields of theorization. Wat’s scholarship intervenes into this intellectual impasse and historical elision. His longtime involvement in Asian American community organizing and his close ties to APAIT's network of founders have made him key to remembering and recording social justice movements as a writer, historian, and storyteller.

Historic pan-ethnic, cross-racial, and coalitional Asian American activism is often recalled through the Third World Liberation Front (1968), the Strike for Ethnic Studies (1969), and anti-Vietnam War organizing. In 1982, the white supremacist murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin near Detroit, Michigan, sparked journalist, Asian American studies founder, and anti-Vietnam War and lesbian activist Helen Zia to fortify alliances among Asian Americans and with African Americans. Wat's 2001 publication of The Making of a Gay Asian Community: An Oral History of Pre-AIDS Los Angeles prompted further reconsideration of how historical lesbian and gay pan-ethnic and pan-racial Asian American organizing occurred alongside anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements leading up to and into the 1980s. It is crucial to frame the visions for Chin’s movement for justice in relation to earlier lesbian feminist, anti-imperialist Asian American studies and activism. Love Your Asian Body continues to revise our timelines for Asian American politics and social movements: APAIT’s late 1980s pan-ethnic formation built on the momentum of earlier intersectional and internationalist politics. The book should be read in conjunction with Wat’s pre-AIDS oral history as well as the aforementioned feminist-queer Asian American cultural productions that emerged with it, including Wat’s recent novel Swim (2019), about a gay Chinese American addict in San Gabriel Valley, California, confronted with his mother’s passing.

As Wat asserts, the coalitional energy of the early 1990s infused the spirit of gender and ethnic-specific queer organizations to emerge, like Asian/Pacific Lesbians and Friends, Barangay, Satrang, Ô-Môi, Chingusai, and the Chinese Rainbow Association. These transformations were inspired by APAIT’s establishment and resulted from deep tensions with it. For instance, from its inception APAIT had to contend with the role of white lovers and allies, which oftentimes led to the formation of organizations that ensured Asian American leadership, including the original AIDS Intervention Team working group of A/PLG. During the first Asian and Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS conference in Los Angeles in 1993, a fundraiser drag performance became the flashpoint for heated debates over deep-seated misogyny, transphobia, anti-Blackness, physical aggression, and the marginalization of HIV-positive people within the movement.

Thirty-five years later, APAIT now stands for Access to Prevention Advocacy Intervention & Treatment. The epilogue considers APAIT’s present-day expansion beyond its Asian American constituency to align itself with trans initiatives and organizations for housing and health, like "Gender Justice LA and the Translatin@ Coalition" (p. 260). APAIT’s mission is rooted in the founding vision and values of coalitional Asian American HIV/AIDS organizing, to “positively impact the quality of life for vulnerable communities experiencing behavioral health challenges, housing insecurity, and at-risk for HIV/AIDS.”[1] It remains under the decades-long leadership of Filipino/x American executive director Jury Candelario, who was my supervisor when I was APAIT's mental health coordinator for people living with HIV/AIDS during the early 2000s. Although treatment activism led to successful HIV antiretrovirals (ARVs) hitting the consumer market by 1996/1997, widespread access continues to be hampered by US corporate pharmaceutical greed and the entrenched racial, gender, class, and geopolitical barriers to access—structural violence that has deepened with the advent of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines. Asian American HIV/AIDS activism helped pave the way for cross-racial and transnational solidarities among US communities of color and global South subjects facing US military imperialism, medical apartheid, and environmental destruction in the age of COVID-19.

Still, we must ask: If Asian-descended peoples were once stereotyped as "immune" to HIV because they "lived clean lifestyles—free of alcohol or drug abuse," then what histories and transformations have transpired to make us the source of racist, sexist, and xenophobic anxieties under COVID-19 (p. 35)? If Wat's informants focused on "broad topics as the model-minority myth" or "outreach to immigrant communities," and "did not include Pacific Islanders meaningfully” in their discussions, then how might we consider the systemic marginalization of and calls to disaggregate Pacific Islanders from "Asian & Pacific Islander" statistics, including HIV/AIDS data and the documentation of anti-Asian violence by groups like #StopAAPIHate (p. 10)? If HIV/AIDS was no longer a death sentence by the mid-1990s arrival of ARVs, then what are the historical implications for the US Center for Disease Control to report in 2001 that "by 1996, more cases occurred among blacks than any other racial/ethnic population," while cases among "Hispanics, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Alaska Natives" and "cases among women and ... cases attributed to heterosexual transmission" continued to rise?[2] If, by the start of the new millennium, the HIV/AIDS crisis was considered the past, then how might the history of APAIT and other ethnic and gender-specific AIDS organizations, which continued to develop during that same period, recast the periodization of HIV/AIDS specifically and the temporality of pandemic crises generally? We must reject US president Joe Biden's false proclamation in September 2022 that the COVID-19 crisis is now "over" only a few years after its scientific discovery. This lie will have frightful ramifications on research, public memory, and politics on a global scale for the foreseeable future, especially for US Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities and the Global South.

Love Your Asian Body is a clarion call to understand one’s body not merely as a site for biotechnological intervention and individualized consumption but also as the source for envisioning social connectivities and political collectivities anew. We must acknowledge where appeals to the state, nationalism, and corporations have failed and instead reconjure embodiment and pleasure as the crossroads for negotiating the intimacies and risks of visibility, care, and community. The book demands that we inquire what “Asian American” means today and which historical alliances we recall. On what grounds do we reimagine it possible to meet, play, grieve, rage, and dream into reality our political potential and aspirations? To this end, we can look to how APAIT centers trans of color lives today to generate new horizons for coalition building and world making.


[1]. "Who We Are," Access to Prevention Advocacy Intervention & Treatment, accessed February 4, 2023,

[2.] "HIV and AIDS --- United States, 1981--2000," Center for Disease Control, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 50, no. 21, June 1, 2001,

Citation: Jih-Fei Cheng. Review of Wat, Eric C., Love Your Asian Body: AIDS Activism in Los Angeles. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL:

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