Top 5 queer Asian-American women in entertainment and media


May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which provides a perfect opportunity to give a shout out to the queer Asian-American women who have been out both in front of the camera and behind it, giving a much-needed face to the queer Asian-American community.

5. Alice Wu

The Stanford-educated computer scientist-turned-filmmaker burst onto the queer scene in 2004 with her debut feature film, Saving Face, about a Chinese-American medical student, Wil (Michelle Krusiec), who falls for a dancer, Vivian (Lynn Chen). The film, which began as a wholly independent feature from an unknown and previously untested director, went on to be picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, making it the first theatrically released film about an Asian-American lesbian.

Wu is currently working on her second feature film, Paramount’s Foreign Babes in Beijing, an adaptation of Rachel DeWoskin’s memoir about a 21-year-old poetry major who goes to China to work for an American PR firm, then tries out for an acting job on a whim and becomes an overnight success on a Chinese soap.

4. Nisha Ganatra

The out Indian-American director and actor’s first feature-length film, Chutney Popcorn (1999) earned both critical and popular acclaim, taking home audience awards at both Outfest and Frameline that year. The New York Times‘ Stephen Holden wrote: “The story of an Indian-American lesbian who impulsively decides to have a baby for her married, infertile older sister carries off the tricky feat of being wisecracking one minute and serious the next while staying true to its characters and sustaining a jovial easygoing tone. Here is one comedy that actually earns its mostly happy ending.”

Ganatra went on to direct Cosmopolitan (2003), a PBS film about an Indian-American family and starring Purva Bedi, who was recently cast in the upcoming When Kiran Met Karen, as well as the romantic comedy Cake (2005), starring Heather Graham (Gray Matters). She hasn’t been idle since then, either. Look for her in Margaret Cho’s Bam Bam and Celeste this summer, and in the upcoming Don’t Go, a TV series debuting at Outfest this July.

3. Jenny Shimizu

Shimizu first gained our attention back in the early ’90s when she became the face of Calvin Klein‘s unisex One cologne, but she really made headlines when her brief relationship with Angelina Jolie in the mid-’90s (the two met on the set of the film Foxfire) became public knowledge. After the Jolie affair, Shimizu dropped out of sight for awhile, but the motorcycle-riding, tattooed model-turned-actor began to test the Hollywood waters again a couple of years ago.

She appeared on an episode of America’s Next Top Model, dealt with even more rumors about her love life (this time involving Madonna), floated a reality series on the now-defunct Q Television Network, and recently played the part of Laurel in POWER UP’s first feature-length film, Itty Bitty Titty Committee. Last month, here! announced that Shimizu had been cast in Season 3 of its supernatural soap, Dante’s Cove, so we can be sure to see more of her in the future. 

2. Margaret Cho

The outspoken comedian has always been one to lay it on the line, being open about everything from her relationship with her mother to her feelings about racism and her sexual experiences with women. In 1994, Cho was also the first Asian-American actor to carry her own prime-time show, the short-lived sitcom All American Girl. Its cancellation sent her into an alcoholic depression, but she turned that experience into the nationally touring, hilarious 1999 performance, I’m the One That I Want.

After that rousing success, Cho went on to produce two more national one-woman shows, Notorious C.H.O. (2002) and the politically charged CHO Revolution (2004). In 2005, Cho wrote, produced and acted in the feature film Bam Bam and Celeste, which hits theaters (and will be available on DVD) later this summer.

1. Helen Zia

Journalist Helen Zia has been reporting on the Asian-American community and feminism for decades (she is a former executive editor of Ms. magazine). Though pressure from feminist and Asian-American groups in the 1970s kept her closeted during the early years of her career, Zia has long since been an openly lesbian activist and writer, covering stories on date rape, women in neo-Nazi organizations and homophobia. Her work in the civil-rights case that arose after the murder of Vincent Chin was documented in the Academy Award-nominated film Who Killed Vincent Chin?

In 2000, Zia’s book Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People was a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, and in 2001 she co-wrote with Wen Ho Lee My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy. These days, Zia is an active part of the marriage equality movement, and married her partner, Lia Shigemura, in 2004 in San Francisco.

Who else has made a difference in the way that lesbian and bi Asian Americans are perceived in the media? Tell us in the comments, and come back tomorrow when I’ll highlight some of’s past coverage of queer Asian women.

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