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Orange County Vietnamese LGBTs Fight For Identity

by Louise Adams
Wednesday Mar 20, 2013
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As their numbers continue to grow, LGBT Vietnamese and Asian-Pacific Islanders in Orange County and other California cities work to find a space where their culture and sexual orientation are both accepted. But with their prohibition from participating in the 2013 Tết Parade, they have begun to seek alternate methods of inclusion.

"They said that if we participate, other groups will pull out," said Tuan Trong Le, a Rowland Heights resident and co-founder of the Gay Vietnamese Alliance, in the Orange County Register. "They deny our human rights, which they’ve been fighting for all these years. What about us? We’re not humans?"

LGBT groups were prohibited from participating in the 2013 "Swift as a Snake" Tết (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) Parade in Orange County, California’s Little Saigon, despite a well-organized campaign leading up to the Feb. 10 festival.

On March 14, the Westminster City Council reaffirmed its stance against this type of discrimination at city events, as did the neighboring city of Santa Ana. Both municipalities are currently reviewing permit policies and plan to issue recommendations, possibly as early as March 27, to ensure fairness in the future.


Partnership leader and junior fellow at UC Irvine Natalie Newton reported that the group held a press conference on Feb. 2 to announce the LGBT community’s Tết events, followed by hosting a festival booth, which featured bilingual information on Vietnamese homosexuality and LGBT issues, plus games and prizes. The coalition held a demonstration on Feb. 4 to protest their exclusion from the event, holding signs that said, "Gay Rights are Human Rights."

Among the 30 or so supporters demonstrating was openly gay Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Shaw. "In this day and age, there’s no reason to exclude this group, other than sheer discrimination," Shaw told the Register. "They deserve to have a seat at the table."

LGBT Vietnamese-Americans first marched in the Orange County Tết Parade in 2010, which was boycotted by 2013’s co-organizer, the Vietnamese Interfaith Council in America (due to budget cuts, the city turned festival leadership over to other groups this year). But Southern California’s "Partnership of Việt LGBT Organizations" activist community has been around for much longer, offering performances, social events, language classes and the like.

The Gay Vietnamese Alliance for gay, bisexual and transgender men was established in 1995, followed in 1998 by the creation of O-Moi, a support group for lesbian, female bisexual and transgender people of Vietnamese descent. In 2000, the nonprofit "Song That Radio" began weekly broadcasts of Vietnamese-language LGBT programs from San José in Northern California, to increase visibility and inclusivity in the community. Currently, the program runs every Sunday from 7 to 8 p.m. on KSJX 1500 AM.

These groups and others consist of all ages working toward a unifying mission: to combat the stereotypes and misinformation that "LGBT is against Vietnamese tradition," as claimed by the 2013 Tết Parade committee, which is helmed by the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California.

After the Superior Court upheld their exclusion from the parade, the group approached the Westminster City Council on Feb. 13 to add a non-discrimination clause to their special events permits. In addition, two masters’ students from UCLA’s Asian-American studies department are currently filming a documentary about the Tết Parade campaign. The partnership plans ongoing media appearances, lobbying training and a Việt LGBT charity gala, to be held during Memorial Day weekend.


Golden State LGBT APIs Work for Acceptance

The Asian and Pacific Islander community in the Bay Area has also been active.

According to the Williams Institute, there are more than 66,000 LGBT APIs in the Golden State, yet API Equality of Northern California’s polling shows that the majority of the API community is unaware of this population.

In order to generate more awareness, APIENC staged a flash mob in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown in summer 2011. The group of nearly 100 sang and danced in rainbow-colored T-shirts and carried signs about love and acceptance in English, Chinese and other API languages.

The event was about "coming home," said APIENC Director Tawal Panyacosit, Jr.

"Many of us grew up in this community," said Panyacosit. "But since growing up and coming out as gay or lesbian or transgender, many of us don’t feel welcome anymore. The silence and invisibility around this issue is heartbreaking."

Lead organizer Vanessa Coe added, "Is being Asian about our shared values and culture or is about one’s sexual orientation? I am my mother’s daughter. I believe in respecting my elders, in prioritizing family, and in giving back to society. Just because I am gay, does that mean I’m not Asian? Why can’t we be both?"

APIENC, founded in 2004 in response to an anti-marriage equality rally organized by Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco area, also runs a summer internship program to develop the next generation of API social justice and cultural change leaders.

"It was an amazing opportunity to see what working with family, with fellow queer API folks, felt like for a social justice queer movement," said 2010 intern Kenny Gong.

Women’s Center Programming Assistant Le Tran added, "The entire experience of API Equality has done a lot for my personal growth as well as my growth as an activist. This is what I want to do as a person for the rest of my life."


New Documentary Raises Awareness of Growing API Queer Narratives

While working as an intern at APIENC, UC Santa Barbara’s Sally Tran developed an idea that she thought would help bridge the gaps between culture and sexual orientation.

"The first thing that popped up in my head was hair and queerness, and how hair makes one’s identity," said Tran. "Especially being an API woman, you have the social pressures of Western ’normative femininity,’ and to be able to break away from that is very empowering. API Equality gave me the resources to start that project."

On March 9, the South Bay Womyn’s Conference at San José State University, called "Weaving Our Wisdom: From Roots to Wings," screened Tran’s documentary. The film asked, "How does hair define gender and sexuality?" and "How do API women determine between what is appropriate at home and what is appropriate for ourselves, and how do we defy these boundaries?"

For the 20-minute film, Tran interviewed 12 queer API California women to expand on growing queer narratives, and to inspire and empower "hair liberation" as an expression of self.

"API Equality does vital work that gets to the core of acceptance and loving each other as people as we are," said Le Tran.

Through the efforts of these activists, LGBT APIs in California will continue to fight to be accepted for all facets of who they are.

National Asian & Pacific Islander HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is May 19. For more information, visit http://www.banyantreeproject.org/hivaids_awareness.php






Louise Adams is a writer, actor, educator, yogini and nom de guerre. @MzzzAnthrope

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