To celebrate Pride weekend in New York City, Amy C. jumped at the chance to welcome friends she said she's known for years, some of whom she had never met in person.
"It was an influx of beautiful queer women, Asian Sapphic women coming in and it was really, really just heartwarming," she said. "It was really meaningful for me to help plan and welcome people into the city I called my home for almost a decade at that point and be able to show them around."
Amy and her closest friends are just a few of the nearly 7,000 members of the online community Subtle Asian Sapphic Squad, or SASS. Members describe the online group as a "safe space for sapphics," or any person who identifies themselves as a woman -- either cisgender or trans -- or a nonbinary person who is attracted to other cisgender or trans women or nonbinary people. The group carves out a space for queer Asian women-centric members who grew up in a conservative culture that rejected anything other than heterosexuality, Amy said.
"SASS for me is the most niche of a niche, but it is very representative of a lot of people who fall under that intersectionality of being Asian, but also identifying as women or nonbinary and queer," she said. "It seems so specific, but there are so many of us, and it's a community that is generally pretty silenced due to our cultural pressures."
The SASS members interviewed asked to be identified by their first names and last initials due to previous online harassment.
SASS administrator Lisa Y. who organized the group's first East Coast meet up with Amy, said sapphic people from all over the world, including from the U.S., South Korea and Canada, gathered for the event. The group grew from only a few hundred members in 2020 to nearly 7,000 people today across the globe -- and growing, Lisa added.
Stigma at the intersection of AAPI and LGBT identities
The U.S. has around 685,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who self-identify as LGBT, according to a 2021 study from the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law. Among AAPI LGBT women, 30% were diagnosed with depression compared to 9% of all AAPI non-LGBT women, the research found.
"In the Asian community, there tends to be a stigma against therapy. And when people come [to our group] looking for advice, they will not shy away from suggesting therapy or openly talking about their experiences with therapy and their struggles with mental health. There is absolutely no shame in the topic of therapy," SASS member Tracy W. said of the group.
While Amy said she never struggled with accepting her sexuality, she still struggled from homophobic stigma in the Asian American community. Other SASS members, Youtomia and Lisa, said they too experienced similar stigmas.
Youtomia said that SASS is important because a lot of queer spaces are very male-centric. She said that SASS provides an accessible online community that would be difficult without the internet.
"The stigma for Asian women in general, or Asians in general, is to stay more quiet, stay more reserved, and I feel like the group as a whole is very loud and proud," said Lisa.
Youtomia said that while queer Asian women face external discrimination, they also face discrimination from their own families, noting that some members have posted requests for support with homophobic parents.
"I kind of grew up just telling myself that [being sapphic] would be like a separate identity from my mom -- I didn't want to hurt my mom," said Lisa, explaining the need to be accepted in many Asian cultures. "We have such a sense of filial piety that I think it has a detrimental impact on your mental health, because you can't be your authentic self with your family."
Said SASS organizer Chieko I., "I told my mom this is a queer Asian networking group. On paper, it technically is. SASS is not only a queer Asian space specifically for women and nonbinary people, but this is also going to be most likely your closest group of friends."
Chieko said her first in-person SASS meet-up was a picnic during the early pandemic.
"That was probably the first time in my whole life I had seen so many queer Asian women and nonbinary people in one space," said Chieko. She said that the picnic was small in retrospect, but drove her to help organize different events and get more involved in advocating for queer Asian spaces.
Living "loud and proud" amid a rise in Asian hate
While members like Chieko and Youtomia have moved out of more conservative areas, some members like Tracy still live in "red" states. She said that members are very aware of how some members live in more homophobic areas -- sometimes in countries outside of the U.S.
"Growing up in the South, this is -- I hate to say that it's kind of normal for me," said Tracy. "It does relieve me to know that [homophobia] is not a normal or daily occurrence for everybody."
Tracy said she knows that plenty of people still experience pressures to stay closeted or face unjust repercussions, potential violence, and other aggressions.
Some members voiced concerns about growing Asian hate and homophobia in the United States more broadly.
About a third of Asian Americans in general say that they have changed their daily routine due to concerns over threats or attacks, according to a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center. According to data collected by the FBI, anti-Asian incidents and anti-LGBTQ incidents have risen in recent years.
Amy said that she has to remind herself to stay alert and stay safe, especially during big events like the Pride parade.
"As a 'triple minority', it's quite a hard place to be right now in the U.S.' current state," said Amy. "It's sad to have to tell friends to be vigilant, like, outdoors … even within their own neighborhood, but that is just where we are right now."
Youtomia and Lisa said that all of their meet-ups are volunteer-based and they typically break even when it comes to the cost of organizing the events. They said that they have spent hundreds of hours and their own money to make a safe place for SASS members.
"It's hard to make those small groups, but not impossible," said Youtomia.
She and Lisa said that their next goal is to grow SASS in the Midwest and internationally.
"[We need to] show the community that we do exist, and we are growing, to be able to let other people know that they do have support in this group," said Youtomia.