Pride & Heritage Hero

From the activist trenches to the halls of power, Ben de Guzman moves the ball forward

Few embody the intersected identities of being gay and being of Asian ethnicity as vividly as Ben de Guzman. Whether serving for a time as co-chair of the local Asian/Pacific Islander Queers United for Action (AQUA) or doing work on behalf of Filipino WWII veterans – recognized by the Philippine Embassy – de Guzman wears his hats well.

Really, de Guzman is the embodiment of an invested American. Growing up in Paramus, N.J., where he acted in all the school plays and learned his way around a volleyball court, to undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, to earning his master’s at the University of Pennsylvania, studying Spanish and communications, de Guzman is arguably as well-rounded at the volleyballs he’s still spiking.

Ben de Guzman
Ben de Guzman
(Photo by Todd Franson)

He’s also very grounded, choosing to live in Springfield with his twin brother, sister-in-law, and new nephew, Jack.

”It’s just comfortable where I’m at,” he says. ”I love taking the kid to day care and changing a diaper — when it’s convenient for me. It’s been really great watching him grow. And it’s easy. It’s easy to have someone to come home to. It’s a family.

”And I’m the crazy uncle they keep locked up in the basement,” he adds with a laugh.

His work with the relatively new National Queer API Alliance (NQAPIA) means he may not get as much time at home as he might like. Serving as the organization’s co-director, he finds himself routinely visiting with member groups of nationwide LGBT-Asian federation.

On Saturday, May 22, four local organizations – Asian/Pacific Islander Queer Sisters (APIQS), AQUA, Khush DC, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum-D.C. Chapter (NAPAWF-DC) – will present the 10th anniversary Pride & Heritage celebration as a queer contribution to Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. And what better way to celebrate than by honoring Ben de Guzman?

METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about your history with Pride & Heritage.

BEN DE GUZMAN: I was there when it first started.

Helen Zia used to be the executive editor of Ms. magazine and is very big in the Asian-American community. She was doing a book tour at the time, going to all the federal agencies [for] Asian Heritage Month, but not talking about the gay chapter in her new book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (2000). I remember very clearly she would never talk about Chapter 9, which was the gay chapter.

We were like, ”The next time she comes here, we’ll just make her stay an extra day.” And she did, and she did a reading for us. We put it together in like a month. We had a pretty good turnout and we decided to just keep doing it every year. We felt like it was our duty to do something gay during Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

We have three local Pride & Heritage coalition members: essentially AQUA, APIQS and Khush DC. Those people kind of stayed together to do the Pride & Heritage stuff.

MW: Let’s go beyond D.C. and talk about your national work with NQAPIA.

DE GUZMAN: I am co-director for programs there. We started – again, depending on how you count these things – our first kind of convening was in 2005. But we’ve sort of officially been staffed since 2007.

MW: And, as with Pride & Heritage, you had a hand in forming NQAPIA?

DE GUZMAN: Yes. For the longest time, we’ve all sort of known each other. [The Asian/Pacific Islander-American LGBT activist community] is a small community. Even back in 2000, during the Millennium March, our local groups did a reception for all of the Asian folks who were coming into town during that time. We’ve all know each other forever, but we’ve never really committed to doing national work together until we decided that it was time in 2005.

MW: So a few e-mails went back and forth? There was a weekend retreat? How did the structure form?

DE GUZMAN: We had been talking for a long time informally. We’d all see each other at Creating Change, and there were conversations. But at Creating Change in 2005 we intentionally did a convening to think about what we were going to do together. Did it make sense to form an organization? That was the weekend where we kind of came altogether.

We didn’t want to form a national organization just to form a national organization. We wanted it to mean something. We wanted to make sure that it was grounded in the work that was alrea dy h appening. So that’s why the idea of doing it as a federation made the most sense to us, because our local groups were the ones that were already very active.

MW: Is NQAPIA simply a progressive coalition, or specifically LGBT?

DE GUZMAN: It is specifically LGBT. In essence, the core members, the voting members, are like the AQUA, APIQS and Khush members around the country – whether they’re ethnic-specific, multi-gender, pan-Asian or whatever. We also have affiliate membership if there’s a group that’s kind of a project of a larger group, that sort of thing.

We have foundation funding, primarily Arcus Foundation and Astrea [Lesbian Foundation for Justice]. We’ve gotten money from the Gill Foundation in the past. We’re trying to get back on their docket.

MW: Granting you’ve got your bias, how successful has NQAPIA been?

DE GUZMAN: It’s been really good. I think it’s come at a time when LGBT national organizations are finally trying to come to grips in a real way with the kind of racial and ethnic diversity within the community, in terms of walking the walk. I think they’ve tried to talk the talk for long time, but this is the first time where you’ve seen more intentional efforts. It’s also come at a time when there’s just been more access. The discussions around LGBT folks have changed so much in the last five years.

MW: There has been an internal critique I’ve heard that there are too few people of color in the leadership of our national LGBT groups. Do you share that perception?

DE GUZMAN: I think people of color feel that a lot more directly: the absence of our presence at the national tables. And I think – it’s not a ”but,” it’s an ”and” – the national groups kind of realize that now more than they used to. It takes a leap to think about not just who is at the table, but who’s not at the table. I do think they’re more cognizant of the need to make sure they’re being inclusive. Plus, there haven’t been our groups before. We’re being asked to be at a lot more tables.

MW: An NQAPIA project you’ve been working on is promoting the 2010 Census. Why is that important?

DE GUZMAN: It’s funny. I was just talking to somebody about how when you first get invited to the table, you’re very gracious. You’re just happy to be there. [Laughs.] Then, as you get comfortable, you sort of figure out, ”Okay, what do I really need to do? I’ve just gotten in the door, now how do I push?” In some ways, we’re still at the ”just happy to be here.” The census is putting resources into the LGBT community for the first time, but does it make sense for them to just put out T-shirts and videos? Is that the best use of their money? I don’t know. [Laughs.]

Regardless, it has an impact on our community, just because we happen to be folks who live in a particular area. In that sense, it’s not any different than the impact it has on straight folks. It’s just where we live.

Behind the scenes, we’re just nipping at the edges, but we’re also pushing in a more real way to get toward a gay question. I see it moving in the right direction. Part of me feels like we have 10 years to get it right. [Laughs.] I think we could have a gay question by 2020. There are smarter heads than mine in those conversations, who are more engaged than I am. But I think that the push is important behind the scenes, even if the public face is more genteel.

MW: NQAPIA’s second focus is on immigration, where a genteel face is hard to find.

DE GUZMAN: It’s one of our – if not our top – legislative priorities.

The conversation has always been about Latinos. The percentage of Latinos who are foreign born is like 30 percent. For Asians, it’s like 60 percent. So, technically, these things affect us more directly than Latino folks. I think Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group. For us, it’s always been a matter of standing in solidarity with Latino folks on these issues, but also trying to assert our voice in it. It’s always been hard to dislodge the frame that’s placed on it in the public arena.

MW: Does the debate give you a chance to build partnerships? Is there a lot of solidarity?

DE GUZMAN: I think there is. At the local level, our groups engage Latino organizations. We’re beginning to better have those conversations with the local Latino community in terms of AQUA, APIQS and Khush DC. But I think just the fact that we exist as national entities so that we can have the conversation at the national level is important, but it just replicates what happens on the ground. Across the country, our groups realize that immigration is an important issue.

Sometimes the process is working with them to recognize that there’s a connection to the discussion, because it hasn’t included us. Even folks like me – my parents came here as immigrants – I never really thought about immigration, but I recognize the fact that Filipinos have the longest backlogs in the world for family petitions.

MW: Speaking of the Philippines, you’ve also done work for the National Alliance for Filipino Veterans Equity. What did you do with them?

DE GUZMAN: It was essentially running the legislative campaign that we were doing to get military recognition for Filipino WWII veterans. During the war, the Philippines was a colony. They were U.S. nationals. They essentially got drafted into the war. The whole Bataan Death March and Gen. Douglas MacArthur: ”I shall return.” After the war, the government rescinded their veteran status. This was an effort to reclaim military recognition from the U.S. government.

MW: Did you consider it a job, or was this an issue you care about passionately?

DE GUZMAN: Both. My twin brother is in the military, so it’s a unique kind of resonance for me. When the Democrats took back control of Congress, the NAFVE were like, ”We’ve got an opportunity to pass this bill. We need to run it as a real campaign. Who can we get to run it? Oh, look, Ben de Guzman is here.” [Laughs.]

MW: Where does that stand?

DE GUZMAN: We passed the bill. I literally worked myself out of a job. [Laughs.]

MW: Congratulations. Have you been to the Philippines?

DE GUZMAN: I have. I have family there still. I came out in the Philippines, actually.

MW: What were the circumstances?

DE GUZMAN: I was 20. I was in college already, and this was my study-abroad program. It was for the summer. I came out to a friend of mine, a straight guy. He’s still one of my closest friends. I think he knew. He wanted to pull me out of the closet. [Laughs.] He was very supportive. He’s one of those über-supportive straight allies. I don’t know if he hugged me, but probably.

MW: This was a dramatic juncture?

DE GUZMAN: You know, it didn’t feel like it at the time. I knew that summer I was going to have to come out. You just see the writing on the wall and it’s like, ”You have to come out!” I knew that I was gay when I was like 12. But going out to the Bay Area – which I always think is so hilarious [laughs] – I was living as a closeted man. I was in Berkeley!

MW: So in the early 1990s, doing your undergrad at Berkeley, you were aware that you were gay, but you were closeted?

DE GUZMAN: Yeah. [Laughs.] It’s such a conservative place.

MW: What kept you in the closet?

DE GUZMAN: I don’t know. I was very active. I was playing volleyball, kind of running with a conservative crowd – for Berkeley.

MW: The volleyball kids were the buttoned-up crowd?

DE GUZMAN: It was like the frat guys. Straight guys who play volleyball have issues, because it’s always seen as a women’s sport. So they’ve got to be a little more macho or whatever. [Laughs.]

I thought I was going to come out and be all fabulous, but I just found myself in a kind of conservative dorm, running with these folks, and I just never really found the opportunity.

MW: Was being closeted a problem, or were you happy?

DE GUZMAN: At the time I felt like I was doing a lot of really great stuff. I loved what I was doing. It wasn’t until my junior year when I realized, ”I’ve got to do something about this. I’ve sort of ignored it long enough.”

MW: After coming out during the summer in the Philippines, was it easy to come back to the states and establish yourself as ”Gay Ben”?

DE GUZMAN: It still took a long time because there was all this inertia. So I didn’t kiss a boy till a year after that, the following summer.

MW: I noticed on Facebook that you list your religion as Roman Catholic. Did you have any trouble reconciling your faith with your sexual orientation?

DE GUZMAN: I discovered being a Catholic in college. My parents are kind of very atypical Filipinos, because they’re not very religious, not very Catholic.

MW: You weren’t going to church as a child?

DE GUZMAN: Only when Grandma was in town. [Laughs.] When I got confirmed, it was my own choice, so I sort of feel like I own it more. It’s probably the only reason why I’m still Catholic.

Berkeley’s Catholic community was always very progressive, very inviting. And they had cute music. [Laughs.] In fact, my [college dorm resident assistant] brought me to the gay-Catholic club. I never connected my sexuality to my Catholicism, which was good, because I probably would’ve left the church. I’m not as religious as I used to be. I think part of it is not finding the right kind of community here, especially now that I live in Virginia. So it’s more of a personal thing now, as opposed to a churchgoing thing.

MW: How did your family deal with you coming out? Were there any issues?

DE GUZMAN: My family has been really good. I feel like I should be pushing them on it more. I tell my brothers about all the stuff that I do, but I’m still learning how to talk to my parents about the work that I do. I was just talking to my mother and I was saying, ”When I was staying with you, I was at a [NQAPIA] press conference in New York. I was covered in the Philippine press that you might be reading.” I’m not as forthright about that as I feel I should be.”

I tell her about the Filipino veterans stuff all the time. It’s like, ”Ben got this award from the Philippine Embassy, so we’ll come down for that.” We did stuff with our members of Congress, so my mom came and was shaking hands. But I feel like I’m still learning how to tell her about this [Pride & Heritage] award.

MW: The next time you’ve got her at the Philippine Embassy, you should walk her across Rhode Island Avenue to the Human Rights Campaign building.

DE GUZMAN: I know! [Laughs.] That whole corner is very funny to me, because the University of California is next to it. That’s my ‘hood, right there. And I used to live there, on 14th and Rhode Island.

MW: Did you enjoy the Capitol Hill work for the Filipino veterans? Some people gravitate to the Hill, while for others, D.C. is a progressive, grassroots sort of city and Congress is s different world.

DE GUZMAN: It bothers me that they are so separate. The folks that I work with doing national stuff on the Hill, they care so deeply about the issues that they work on. Well, most of them do. But those people that work on these issues, sometimes I think they forget that they live in neighborhoods where the communities that they serve live. The local work has always been so rewarding to me.

MW: Having worked your way out of the veterans job, are you still on the Hill as much?

DE GUZMAN: Yes. I kind of took a little hiatus. I started going back to the Hill for the immigration work.

It’s been really great for me to see my caucuses – like the Equality Caucus and the Asian Caucus – being populated by folks who get where I’m coming from.

MW: Do you feel like you have to walk along a lot of caucus lines?

DE GUZMAN: I do. In some ways, I have to do twice the work, because you’ve got to work with all the HRCs and the Task Forces, but at the same time it’s like I’ve got to go to all the Asian stuff, too. But it’s exciting. I get to be at the same table as Joe Solmonese and Rea Carey – and, oh, little ol’ me. [Laughs.]

MW: Do the different camps all see you the same way?

DE GUZMAN: I think so. Sometimes it gets confusing, in terms of affiliation. But you have to move through the world. Doing so authentically has always been about bringing everything of who I am to each space. So if I’m the gay in the Asian space, that’s what I do. If I’m the Asian in the gay space, that’s been part of my journey.

MW: Being honored by Pride & Heritage brings together both parts. What does the honor mean to you?

DE GUZMAN: I feel like I’m the kind of person that doesn’t take compliments very well. So to be recognized for the work that I’ve done is really great.

What’s really kind of most meaningful to me is the folks who have emerged to do the work now. Watching the new leaders really kind of making it their own, that’s what’s really great to me. Our work is successful because that’s why we built these organizations: to get more people involved in our communities. There’s a lot of commitment now. That’s what’s exciting to me.

The Pride & Heritage Celebration of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month is Saturday, May 22, at Christ Church, Washington Parish Hall, 620 G St. SE, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tickets are available online for $16 by May 21 via dcprideandheritage.org, or at the door for $20. An afternoon retreat, ”Getting It All OUT,” the same day runs from noon to 6:30 p.m. at The Center, D.C.’s LGBT community center, at 1810 14th St. NW. For more information, visit dcprideandheritage.org. For more about the National Queer API Alliance, visit nqapia.org.

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.

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