Untold stories of Asian men in San Francisco’s queer history

Woman in suit jacket and sweater looks at the camera with a building in the background and flowers in the frame.

San Francisco State University Interim Dean of Ethnic Studies Amy Sueyoshi

Against a backdrop of racist policies such as the alien land laws that prohibited Asians from becoming United States citizens, white Americans in the late 19th century were fascinated with Japanese art and culture, part of a broad aesthetic movement called “Japonisme” that hit Europe first and then spread to the United States, according to Amy Sueyoshi, San Francisco State University Interim Dean of Ethnic Studies.

One group in particular, an elite fraternal order of white men known as the Bohemian Club, which still exists today, reveled in Japanese culture as the pinnacle of aesthetics, said Sueyoshi. “Basically, the Bohemians were thinking of Japanese aesthetics as a form of high art — in print, in vases, in tchotchkes.” In her recently published book “Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American ‘Oriental,’” Sueyoshi describes this connection — which for some, included romantic relationships with Japanese men.

Sueyoshi is interested in shedding light on the influence of Asian men on modern gay culture. Queer history doesn’t always acknowledge the significant presence and contributions of Asians, she says. “The narrative in Asian American studies is that Asian men lived in bachelor societies. But clearly they also mingled with the white men in San Francisco and beyond.”

For her book, Sueyoshi pulled together untold stories from the early 1900s in San Francisco from more than 1,000 newspaper articles and illustrations, plus essays, plays, case files and oral histories. Her research surprised and delighted her. “I had found a gold mine of connections between Asian immigrants in the city and white guys who would likely be considered queer in the 21st century,” she said. These are a few of the stories she unearthed.

A well-known San Francisco writer and founding member of the Bohemian Club, Charles Warren Stoddard, had a particularly passionate affair with the immigrant poet Yone Noguchi.

Another well-known writer and club member, Joaquin Miller invited young Japanese men to live in his Oakland hills home even while he was married to a woman.

Club members used both Japanese and Chinese culture as vehicles to facilitate same-sex sexuality: They would stand in front of Japanese and Chinese storefronts as a signal to other men about their homosexuality; they also had sex with other men in lodging houses in and around Chinatown.

In February 1918, San Francisco police raided a flat on Baker Street used by club members for socializing with other men. The police had planted a Chinese servant in the flat to collect evidence because they considered him “invisible” and associated Asian men with “deviant” sexuality, according to Sueyoshi. In 1921 authorities released all of the men charged in the Baker Street raid, based on a court decision that the term fellatio was as esoteric as “Chinese or Japanese characters.”

While in some ways Bohemian Club members were freewheeling and less repressed sexually than mainstream Americans, says Sueyoshi, they also appropriated Asian culture.

The same year as the Baker Street raid, a short story published in the “Overland Monthly” told the tale of “Taka,” a Japanese servant who tries to kill his white lover and master’s wife. Publications like these, said Sueyoshi, projected the increasing visibility of same-sex sexuality onto “Orientals.”

Meanwhile, Bohemian Club members erected a huge Buddha in their private grove in a Northern California forest and conducted ceremonies around it. Many of them dressed in kimonos, a practice that continues today among some older gay men. Although Asian men were intimately involved in the club, they were never acknowledged in the club’s annals.

This fascination with Asian culture and aesthetics never extended to activism or support for Japanese immigration, Sueyoshi says. “[The Bohemians] were taking parts of Asian culture to enhance their own leisure lives but not taking a political stand to enhance the lives of the people they were taking the culture from.”

Learn more in this interview with Professor Sueyoshi on KPFA. 

Amy Sueyoshi is the author of “Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi” (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) and “Discriminating Sex: White Leisure and the Making of the American ‘Oriental’” (University of Illinois Press, March 2018).