Anthony Ocampo: The Lives of Queer Filipino Americans and Being Asian American in Academia

Anthony Ocampo, Janna Huang and Tiffany Hamidjaja

As two Asian Americans in Sociology, we were so excited when we got the chance to interview Anthony Ocampo. A leading public voice on the lives and experiences of queer Filipino Americans, his writings fuse together personal narrative and sociological research that inspire our own life and work. In the following conversation, we discuss his journey between Ethnic Studies and Sociology, our shared experiences of being Asian in the academy, his most recent book Brown and Gay in LA, and the process of writing for public audiences outside academia. In sharing stories about the communities that we are a part of, Anthony challenges us to go “beyond the dichotomy of tragedy and triumph.” 

Janna Huang (JH): Can you tell us a little bit about your own background as well as your family’s background and their migration story to the US?

Anthony Ocampo (AO): I am the only son of Filipino immigrants. I’m from Los Angeles. I was born in Los Angeles. My parents migrated from the Philippines [in] 1980. They came through family, actually, through family reunification. Even though my mom’s a nurse, she didn’t come through nursing, she came with as a tourist visa, and she shortly after married my dad, who was a permanent resident. They settled in LA. I grew up in Eagle Rock, which has a large number of Filipinos… My elementary school was mostly Filipino and Latino, but when I got older, I went to a Catholic school that was 50% POC and 50% affluent white folks. That was kind of a funky experience. In college, I majored in Ethnic Studies. My plan was to major in Ethnic Studies, but one of my advisors discouraged me from doing so because they said it would be harder to get a job as a professor (which now I don’t fully agree with). And so I ended up becoming a Sociology Ph.D., somewhat randomly. In a lot of my classes, I had to read Racial Formation in the United States (by Omi and Winant), and so I thought, I’ll go into Sociology. That’s how I ended up in Sociology, and my areas of interest are immigration, race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and then secondarily, looking at education and culture.

JH: We’re all Asian here. We grew up with families that have immigrated or gone back and forth between Asia and the United States. We’re curious about what your family thought of your trajectory, through college and going into a Ph.D. and later academia?

AO: Yeah, love that question. Well, growing up, my mom was a nurse. She told me not to become a doctor because it takes too long. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer. I kind of found academia by accident. It all stemmed from my freshman year at Stanford. I hated it at first. I really hated it. It was such a culture shock.

Stanford was rough. Because growing up in LA, my entire social circle was all POC. When I went to Stanford, it was a culture shock. My dorm was very white, and I had a hard time fitting in because I didn’t have the language or cultural tastes as the white kids in my hall. That whole first year, I really wanted to transfer, but taking ethnic studies classes really helped me develop a sense of belonging at Stanford.

My first ethnic studies class was on Asian American literature. Then I took classes on African American Psychology and African American History. My freshman year, I took the one and only Filipino American History class Stanford had ever offered. It was taught by the late Dawn Mabalon, who was a graduate student in History at the time and later a professor at San Francisco State University. On the first day of class, she told us how important it was for Filipinos to go get their PhDs because there were so few of us in the academy. I didn’t know what that meant or what that entailed, but what I did know was that a lot of my professors changed the way I saw the world, and I wanted to do that for other students.

I ended up majoring in Ethnic Studies and then I ended up pursuing my PhD in Sociology. For a long time, my parents were like, “What are you going to do with that?” The idea of me going to expensive schools, and then not getting immediate returns for that didn’t make sense to them. My parents weren’t explicitly against it, but I don’t think that they really understood what this career meant until my first book came out. I think seeing the people in the room react to me and the book helped them see why I did what I did.

Tiffany Hamidjaja (TH):  It sounds like for you, you had the experience of connecting your academic interests with also different elements of your identity and finding yourself. For a lot of people in academia, there’s that distinction between research and “me search.” I think in more recent times, we’re seeing that people are starting to say that “me search” doesn’t immediately make the research findings invalid. How do you feel about that distinction?  How have you navigated that, especially with this book?

AO: Actually my first book [The Latinos of Asia], which was on Filipino-Latino connections, was what I wrote about in my grad school statement of purpose. I’d always wanted to do this project on Filipino-Latino connections because I thought it was an interesting part of history that didn’t always get proper airtime in Asian American Studies or Chicano Studies. It was really interesting because that’s what I saw and witnessed growing up.

I’ve always thought there’s an advantage to researching your own community because you just know the questions to ask and the way to ask them. But of course, when you go to grad school, and you mention this, it’s clear there are professors who are skeptical. I didn’t get the sense that my professors understood why I wanted to study Filipino-Latino connections, and so I spent four years of grad school pursuing other projects. I hit a point, though, where I told myself: if I’m not going to do what I want, I don’t even care to finish. It clicked that I needed to start doing things my way and pursue the projects I wanted to pursue, even when grad school was over.

Before I started grad school, I’d always wanted to write books. To be honest, I didn’t even know what journal articles were when I got to grad school. That’s how naive I was. The main reason I went into grad school was because I wanted to write the book that I felt like I should have been able to read in college. That’s always been my guiding mantra. I know that there have been professional costs to doing a project that could be perceived as “me-search.” But I thought, I’m going to do it anyway.

TH: Are there practical things that you did in order to feel more anchored toward your commitment to the things you wanted to study? What would your advice be for graduate students who are balancing this tension between doing what they’re interested in and doing something that might better guarantee professional advances?

I was motivated to ask what Filipinos can teach us about race, ethnicity, and colonialism. And so I learned very early that in order for people to care about my Filipino American project, I had to get them to care about me. I realized very quickly that the landscape of knowledge production was very much unequal.

AO: I definitely think there’s a social component to it. Let’s imagine that my entire social world was the UCLA Department of Sociology; There’s no way I would have researched Filipino American communities for a dissertation. There wasn’t a single person, I felt, that really understood why I was doing this. But, I was motivated to ask what Filipinos can teach us about race, ethnicity, and colonialism. And so I learned very early that in order for people to care about my Filipino American project, I had to get them to care about me. I realized very quickly that the landscape of knowledge production was very much unequal. Finding community with folks outside the department, other campuses, and other disciplines reminded me that what I was studying was important. For me, the Association of Asian American Studies was a great space for me because it was there that I was able to connect with Filipino American faculty and fellow graduate students who were researching and publishing on Filipino Americans. I very much saw the possibilities of my own work whenever I was around them.

JH: So you’re pursuing a topic that you’re genuinely excited about and draws on your personal identity and upbringing. From reading your book, you also talk about how doing these interviews is sometimes really emotionally charged. What was the process of writing Brown and Gay in LA like?

AO: I first approached it like a traditional research project, you know, I’ll interview gay men who are children of immigrants from two different ethnic communities, and I’ll compare and contrast their experiences. I had imagined that I would use this project to write pieces in theory and society or try to write pieces similar to work by Mignon Moore, who I worked with at UCLA when I was in grad school. I wanted to research and write about gay children from immigrant families because I thought sociologists studying immigration don’t often consider queer perspectives.

And then the Pulse shooting happened in 2016. And I’ve said this in other interviews, but I feel like that event completely changed the writing of this book. When I look at my writing before Pulse, it feels like I was writing to a field, instead of a community of queer people of color. That felt wrong, especially because Brown and Gay in LA was a project that stemmed from the vibrant social world of gay Latino clubs like Pulse

There was a time after the Pulse shooting when I felt really disillusioned with sociology. Beyond the tragedy of the shooting, I had a really traumatic job market experience. It was during this time that I turned to creative nonfiction. I took a creative nonfiction classes with Kiese Laymon, I read essays and books by academics who also wrote for the public like Roxane Gay and Tressie McMillan Cottom. Because of Kiese, I started approaching writing more as an art than an academic exercise. I started rewriting the book, and it looked completely different from the original version.

TH: That is a really cool lead into something that we think about a lot here. When we took on the BJS and revamped it two and a half years ago, our intention of picking it up was to make sociology more public. So, when we were reading your book, we had a discussion about how it just was so easy to read. Clearly, there’s sociology at play, but also, it’s not alienating. And so the reason we were so drawn to your book, is how it’s connected to what we do with the journal which is, being public-facing and engaging with the public. So we wanted to know, how have you felt about the response to your book? People are picking up your book in bookstores because it is interesting. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and there’s just so much in it that is relatable. And so, what does it feel like to have your book be so enthusiastically received in public?  We’d like to hear more about your purpose and intent for writing the book, how you would like it to be consumed by the public, and how it came to fruition?

AO: I remember there was this queer, second-generation Mexican American sophomore at UCLA, who talked about how he had just recently come out to his mom, and how tough it was. He told me he’d read my article on gay sons of immigrants. And when he read it, he started crying because he’d never read anything about his experience. Soon after, he shared it with his mom, and she started crying. And then they read it together, and they both started crying. I thought, isn’t that the point of doing this work? To write things that give people a blueprint for how to understand the world?

I’m also really influenced by the students that I teach at the Cal State. The average age of my students here was in the 20s. I have students as young as 19 and as old as 60. I have a lot of students who are parents, students who work full-time, or both. Students really love books with great sociology and great writing, books Victor Rios’ Punished or C.J. Pascoe’s Dude, You’re a Fag or Neda Maghbouleh’s Limits of Whiteness. There are books like these that they read that got them really excited. I want to write books like the books that will resonate with students, who are busier than the average college student.

JH: That’s super powerful, I think especially hearing about someone crying when reading your art and then sharing it with their mom. Prose can be a really transformative experience, so it’s cool that it had that sort of generational sort of reception to it. This leads to something else we were curious about which is what sort of art, music, or prose would you say has affected you recently? What is inspiring you these days or recently?

AO: Yeah, I really love the academics who are doing the academia thing, but also writing for public audiences. I’m really influenced by sociologists like Ruha Benjamin, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Victor Ray, who all write regularly for public venues and are shaping conversations. I’m also really inspired by writing that goes beyond the traumatic narratives associated with racism, sexism, homophobia. There’s a lot of joy and laughter and artistry that I rarely get to write about in my sociological work, The authors who inspire me are the ones who write about the full spectrum of minoritized people’s lives, writers like Jean Chen Ho, Bryan Washington, Kiese Laymon, and Anthony Veansa So. These are authors who write about communities of color beyond the dichotomy of tragedy and triumph.

TH: This has been very generative and lovely. These are the interactions that we really look forward to and are very lucky to have so thank you!  We really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for sharing so much of your personal story and all of that, we’re honored.

Anthony Christian Ocampo, Ph.D. is queer Filipino American writer and sociologist. He is Professor of Sociology and Faculty Director of the Office of Ethnic Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Dr. Ocampo is also the Academic Director of the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD). A researcher of race, immigration, and LGBTQ issues, Dr. Ocampo has published in leading journals in sociology and ethnic studies, including Ethnic and Racial Studies; Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies; Race, Ethnicity, and Education; Latino Studies; and the Journal of Asian American Studies. Dr. Ocampo is the author of two books: Brown and Gay in LA: The Lives of Immigrant Sons and The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race. He has also penned essays and articles for GQ, Catapult, BuzzFeed, Colorlines, Gravy, Life & Thyme, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He is currently working on a new book On the Margins of Justice, which will be published by Little, Brown. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he earned his BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and MA in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford University and his MA and PhD in sociology from UCLA.