Anthony Ocampo on new book on queer POC, ‘Brown and Gay in LA’

On the shelf

Brown and Gay in LA: The Lives of Immigrant Sons

By Anthony Christian Ocampo
NYU Press: 240 pages, $32

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When I first heard sociologist Anthony Christian Ocampo speak on The Times podcast “Asian Enough,” I was moved by the specificity with which he spoke about growing up in the Eagle Rock neighborhood as a Filipino-American, and how this has shaped his understanding of his origins and oddness.

Ocampo’s first book, The Latinos of Asia, complicated the incomplete narrative of a community that must tick off “Asian” on the U.S. census despite sharing a colonial history with Latino-Americans as well as some of the same neighborhoods, including Eagle Rock.

His second book, out this month, takes those complications in a new direction. “Brown and Gay in LA” captures the intersection between the immigrant experience and queer life in Los Angeles – a first-person account that expands to include the stories of dozens of gay men he interviewed in a scene that he has navigated for most of the last decade.

What emerges is a nuanced perspective on this particular way of growing up: coming out, perhaps away from home for college, finding new families in the public and private spheres. Ocampo writes fondly of gatherings that have allowed gay people of color to escape not only from the judgment of traditional families but also from the cultural dominance of white West Hollywood.

As Ocampo and I discussed the geography of queer Los Angeles, it was fitting that we both called from our respective childhood neighborhoods. We thought about how the places we call home, his Eagle Rock and my San Gabriel Valley, are changing in new and frightening ways. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

I like that you don’t present yourself as a traditionally distant sociologist. You immediately put yourself in this story. How did that shape your research?

Part of the reason I started writing the book is that I didn’t have a blueprint for how to deal with queerness as the son of immigrants, as a person of color. The stories of these young men gave me a roadmap for surviving in a marginalized society. As much as I wrote a book, I learned a lot.

Often when scholars write about communities of color or other minorities, there is this belief that to be “objective” you have to be an outsider. I don’t think there is objectivity. And I think the best people to write about underrepresented communities are the people from those communities. You know what kind of questions to ask. You know the value system and you know the connections.

I spent 10 years just hanging out in queer communities of color in Los Angeles with no intention of writing a book. I was in grad school in my early 20s, studying immigration and race. But it was very rare that the stories of the gay men I interviewed were included in books, articles, conferences and courses. I found that unfortunate because these young men have a lot to teach the world about dealing with multiple identities at once.

"Brown and gay in LA," by Anthony Christian Ocampo

Why was it important to you to document these queer spaces?

Sometimes people assume that gay spaces are automatically inclusive or welcoming. But the reality is race and racism, class and classism, body discrimination and misogyny – these are not going away. In West Hollywood, some might argue it’s being amplified.

I write about specific venues, many of which are unfortunately closed, such as Circus Disco and Arena. These two bars were some of the main places to meet other people before there was social media and Grindr.

West Hollywood is almost seen as a rite of passage, but many queer people of color know that’s not always the case for them. What was the reaction to your criticism of whiteness in WeHo?

West Hollywood was one of the places where I first started to indulge in queer nightlife. No one necessarily used racial slurs at me, but I also felt—and many of the men I interviewed—that we were either exoticized or made invisible. When it came to entering certain venues, they found that white guests had a relationship with security that people of color didn’t.

Racism is complicated and people get defensive when spoken to. But the reality is, it’s not on purpose why they changed the music, or on purpose why they wanted a flyer a certain way – it doesn’t matter. It’s the effect it has on queer people of color.

You write a lot about the similarities between Filipino and Latin American cultures. Why did you focus on mixing these two specific cultures in queer spaces?

LA is a Latinx city. Unlike other cities where you have to call it Latin Night, it’s just a bar where all the patrons are mostly Latinos, like in East LA or Long Beach. We sometimes exaggerate the differences between different ethnic and racial groups. But in the real world, these groups merge fairly seamlessly. You live in the San Gabriel Valley, right?

Yes, it’s very Latino and Asian.

If you go to Banana Bay on a typical Friday night, you’re always going to have these birthday party crowds that are a mix of Latinx and Asian Americans. I’m always floored when I go to other parts of the United States – they just can’t imagine groups blending in that way. And for us in LA, it’s so normative.

There is a way that Filipinos are sorted into the gay scene because there is no Asian scene. How are you? You either go with the white gays or you go with the brown and black gays. The benefit of writing about Filipinos is that it’s a really easy opportunity to complicate people’s ideas about race.

Many of the places you write about are prone to gentrification. Do you worry that these scenes may disappear in the future?

When I was in the closet, there were no smartphones. I’m not even exaggerating, being in these strange spaces felt like oxygen to me. And I can imagine that for a lot of people who aren’t accepted in their family or friends or who can’t learn much about what it means to be gay, these spaces are still very important.

I remember a time when you never saw a white man in Highland Park. And when I drive by today, they’re all white families. I’m like, “What happened? They’re all million dollar houses,” which is bananas to me. But what keeps me sane is that there are business owners who make sure the role that queer people play in these neighborhoods is important.

You wrote this book after the Pulse nightclub shootings in 2016. Many things have changed in the landscape of LGBTQ rights since then. Do you think the message of this work has changed?

I was about to stop writing this when the Pulse shooting happened. People get killed in nightclubs, who cares about writing a book? I was devastated that a queer Latinx room would be gunned down by a mass gunman during the two or three hours a week that people can be themselves.

But after not writing for a year, I realized that because of the 24-hour news cycle, people have the memory of a goldfish. I had to document what was going on in this community; That’s one of the reasons why I like to write books. I want queer people of color to know that their experiences count as knowledge. One of the things that took me the longest to learn was my experience, my family’s experience, my immigration history, and living with my queer friends—all of these things count as knowledge.

Deng is a queer Angeleno and multimedia journalist. Anthony Ocampo on new book on queer POC, ‘Brown and Gay in LA’

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