Photo: Benjamin Aquino and his partner, Dion Wong. (Steven Underhill/Bay Area Reporter)
Part 1. Read Part 2 here.
SAN FRANCISCO--The entryway of the Twin Peaks-area apartment is cluttered with various pairs of shoes. In the kitchen is a potluck collection of Asian-inspired dishes.
Chairs are set up in the living room. Nametags are distributed. Conversations fill the home.
On this Sunday night in early January roughly 20 gay Asian and Pacific Islander men have gathered to bond over dinner, be entertained, and discuss how to care for parents, loved ones, or themselves as they age.
The meeting is the first gathering in 2013 of the GAPA 35-Plus group. Sponsored by the GAPA (Gay Asian Pacific Alliance), the program has been providing a safe space for older gay, bisexual or transgender API men to connect and engage in frank discussions since 2000.
"I knew there was a need for it," recalled Vincent Baduel, 62, a former GAPA co-chair who revived the men's only group. "I know there is still a need for it because first-timers are coming in and coming back. I think that is an indication they like it."
Issues Differ from Younger Gays
Having attended GAPA Rap sessions, where any API man regardless of age can participate, Baduel realized that the issues older API men face do not always overlap with the concerns of their younger counterparts. Topics the older group focuses on include financial planning, career changes, health and fitness tips and affordable places for recreation in the Bay Area.
"Our interest is different than those of younger guys. Those under 35 talk about partying, going to bars, and going down to the Castro," said Dion Wong, 69, the group's coordinator for 10 years until 2011. "Most of us have too many other obligations to do that. We have business careers, own property, are taking care of older relatives."
Wong, a former public school teacher, who consults on education issues, and his partner of 18 years, Benjamin Aquino, are still regular attendees of the group. Aquino, 60, a registered nurse, enjoys the open dialogue the gatherings foster.
"It is very healthy to me," he said.
For those API men who grew up overseas and are culturally inclined to remain closeted to their families, the monthly meet-ups can be a lifeline and a nice entry point into the local LGBT community, said the couple. It serves as an alternative to the Prime Timers, a multi-ethnic group for older gay men.
"It is important to know people like them," said Wong. "Especially for gay men raised in Asia who may feel uncomfortable with a group like the Prime Timers, where it is mainly non-Asian. Just getting them here is difficult."
The host for the evening was Andrew, 38, a software consultant born in China, who moved to San Francisco three years ago. Because he is not out to family, he asked that only his first name be used.
"I feel comfortable here and can make friends," he said about participating in the 35-Plus group. "The most important thing is to make a lot of friends. And every forum has new topics that are very interesting."
The age cut off of 35 years old was hit upon arbitrarily, said Baduel, who is now the coordinator for the group. But it has proven over the ensuing years to be a good demarcation point between the two GAPA discussion groups, he said.
Since the 35-Plus group began, it has not missed a monthly meeting.
"Every year, every month, in and out we have a meeting," said Baduel, who lives across the Bay in San Ramon and works in health care for Kaiser Permanente. "The group has got to be a regular thing so people feel like they have a home."
It has had such a successful run, said current GAPA co-chair Benjamin Leong, because it fulfills a need in the community.
"Sometimes you feel more comfortable speaking with your peers," said Leong, who at 30, was invited for dinner and to make remarks but then departed. "I've only gone to the GAPA Rap sessions because I am not 35 and over. They really enforce that to protect people's confidentiality to discuss things."
Both discussion groups are non-alcoholic gatherings in people's homes, which lends to creating a safe space where attendees are comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives, noted Leong. The groups offer an alternative setting to meet other API men outside of a bar, with the focus less concerned about hooking up and more on making friendships.
"The format builds stronger bonds in a nurturing and family atmosphere," said Leong.
Shared Values and Cultural Beliefs
That is why Larry Pascua, a music director at a Hillsdale church, started attending the meetings last month after turning 35.
"Being Asian at 35 it is more career-oriented and not just about going clubbing like in my early 20s," said Pascua, who was born in the Philippines and moved to the Bay Area at 11. "For me this is easier to talk to people here. People have the same values system and cultural beliefs."
The GAPA 35-Plus group adheres to a few rules, the foremost being that it is intended to be a private event open only to gay, bi or trans API men 35 years or older. Invites stress that the age requirement is absolute, stating "Sorry, no exceptions, no matter how cute you are."
Everyone is asked to bring a dish to share at dinner and is required to remove their shoes at the door. Conversations are meant to be confidential and jovial; it is not a debating society, explain organizers.
"Because it is a safe space, confrontational and aggressive tactics are not acceptable. You can state your opinion but do not dwell on criticizing the opinion of others," states the invite.
The ground rules and location in private homes provide for frank discussions, said Baduel.
"In a host environment people are very relaxed," he said. "They say personal things I am not sure they would say in a bar."
The meetings are free and open to non-GAPA members. For information, email Baduel at mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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