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Queer, Asian, Visible, and Empowered at Last

San Francisco Chinatown

When NQAPIA — the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance — holds its national conference this month, I’ll be there, out and proud. But like many others, I can’t claim I've always been out or proud.  

I was in the closet for a long time, even to myself. In college, I was a passionate “straight ally.” After graduation, I found the Q-Wave website. It took me over a year, lurking on the group’s email list, to get the courage to attend a meeting. After I came out to myself, I became consumed with figuring out how to come out to my parents.

My relationship with my parents is important to me. And I like to be as prepared as possible in tough situations. So I went to Barnes & Noble, to the “Gay and Lesbian” section looking for resources on “coming out to parents.” I found a book by Ellen DeGeneres’s mom, about her journey to acceptance. Somehow, the story of a blond, white TV star didn’t seem like the best thing to hand to my parents.

I scoured the internet. Eventually I found a one-page, homemade pamphlet from an Asian PFLAG chapter in Northern California. It was the only thing I could find in Chinese. The title was something like “Now That Your Child Has Told You They’re Gay.” I printed it out, folded it in three, and made a trip home from grad school to come out to my parents.

I sat them down, told them “I’m gay,” and gave them the pamphlet. Tears and silence followed. Then the negotiation: “You studied too much, so you don’t know how to be friends with boys.” “You got too much diversity training to be an RA in college, to help those gay kids, now you think you’re one of them!” The hardest thing for me to hear was “You don’t need to tell your siblings or your aunts and uncles; this is something to keep between you and your parents.”

This hurt. Just as I was beginning to accept myself and emerge from a deep loneliness, coming out to my closest friends one painstaking conversation at a time, my parents were asking me to shut down and isolate again.  

As I struggled with my relationship with my parents, Q-Wave became my community. I threw myself into community building. I attended my first NQAPIA conference 11 years ago. Through NQAPIA, I met activists and allies. I met parents of gay Asians, and gay Asians who were parents! I discovered a constellation of aunties and uncles, fierce advocates all across the country. At NQAPIA, I found connections and understanding that I didn’t yet have at home.

This gave me strength and faith to be patient, to commit to remaining in my parents’ lives, even as it was painful to be “respectfully invisible.” It is a difficult dance to do in our Chinatown, where people recognize each other and everyone knows you. It meant that I did not hold my partner’s hand in public; we didn’t sit too close at a restaurant. It was exhausting to police ourselves, not for safety, but because we might cause shame or embarrassment for my family.

So in 2009, when Q-Wave set out to organize the first openly LGBTQ contingent to march in Chinatown’s Lunar New Year Parade in New York, I joined the effort. I was working to convince Chinatown’s elders to let us in to the parade; and recruiting gaysians to join — though I myself wouldn’t be able to march openly with them. At times, I felt like a hypocrite.

While we were waiting for Chinatown’s parade organizers to reply, I was volunteering on a campaign for same-sex marriage in New Jersey. There, I met a Chinese-American woman. Talking about the parade, she shared that between her and her mom, being gay was “understood.” She said, “My partner comes with me to my parents’ house, we sit at the same dinner table, but we don’t say it. That’s the ‘Chinese way.’” She concluded that we should not have a gay contingent marching openly down Mott Street at all. To be so visible would be “culturally inappropriate.” That shook me. Someone was telling me — in my own community — that we shouldn’t march. It sounded like my parents’ request — “Keep this between you and your parents.” Given my personal conflict, could she be right?

Deep inside, I knew that being out at home, in your community of heritage, should not be disrespectful, should not be “inappropriate.” Through NQAPIA, I met people who believed this too, who were also willing to struggle for it. Like the Vietnamese group from Westminster, Calif., fighting to be included in their community’s Tet parade. Or SALGA in New York City, fighting to be let into the India Day Parade. Across ethnicities, across the country, we shared a common struggle.

I went back to our team, and we met at Chinatown’s Project Reach in New York City with Don Kao and Fay Chiang. Together, we crafted a statement to communicate the urgency of why we needed to be visible and march. We gathered endorsements from respected Chinatown organizations, politicians, and celebrities. We put together a coalition of elderly parents of gay children, clergy, and young gay Asians. In the end, we were welcomed to march, to usher in the Year of the Tiger.

Now, nine zodiac animals after that first parade, we have established our own queer Asian tradition. Some marchers, distant from their families, tell me it is the only way they celebrate the Lunar New Year. I am also humbled to share that this year was my very first time to truly march openly, out and proud, carrying Q-Wave’s banner that unequivocally says: “Queer. Asian. Visible. Empowered.”

Our work is not finished. We must build towards a world where it is not “disrespectful” to be out and proud in our communities. Where it is not “inappropriate” for our trans siblings to use the bathroom. Where Dreamers, undocumented young people, can exist fully in the country they know as home.

We all deserve to be wholly who we are in our own communities. This is why NQAPIA, and its nationwide conference means so much to me. This year, I hope to see you there too.

OLYMPIA MOY, a gay Asian LGBT activist, serves on the steering committee of Q-Wave, an organization by and for queer women and transfolk of Asian descent. Growing Home, the 2018 national conference held by NQAPIA, will be held July 26-29 in San Francisco. For more information and registration click here.

Tags: Commentary, Pride

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