Being Gay Asian American

Lisa Wong September 1, 2010 Comments Off

Young, American-raised Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) often have to choose whether their ethnic or sexual identity will take precedence, according to a study published in the Journal of LGBT Youth by Boston University Medical Center.

The study, by Hyeouk Chris Hahm, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Social Work, and Chris Adkins, an HIV/AIDS clinical social worker, surveyed 1,000 Boston University API adolescents and young adults between the ages of 18 and 27 years-old who said they were attracted to the same sex.

The conflict of choosing one identity over the other is attributed to a unique set of challenges that the survey group’s western or Caucasian peers do not face. The study’s researchers also maintain that these challenges can lead to rejection from their families who emigrated to the U.S. and stigmatization by the larger Asian community. Both young men and women often mask homosexual behaviors to avoid alienating their family and parents’ communities, said the study’s researchers.

“For instance, in South Korea, where male children have obligations to marry and create a traditional notion of family, homosexuality is considered a deviant behavior that brings family dishonor and shame,” the study states, citing cultural barriers as the main cause for a sense of fear and inability in accepting a sexual identity.

The study, however, draws fire from critics who say many LGBT APIs don’t encounter a conflict of choice. Instead, critics say LGBT APIs face no more difficulty than colleagues of other ethnicities in integrating both cultural and sexual identities.

Dr. Connie So, Senior Lecturer of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, has been teaching Asian American Studies since 1989. “As a teacher, the number of people who I knew were gay was not an issue,” Dr. So said, also noting that many of her students and friends “have not had any problems” synthesizing both cultural and sexual identities.

Of students who have “come out” to her in class writing assignments, Dr. So said most were of Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese ethnicity. “I would actually say that none of them had problems coming out to their parents,” Dr. So said.

Thirty-two-year-old Kieu-Anh King, a Legislative Assistant at the City of Seattle, came out to his family when he was 19 years-old.

“I anticipated the worst,” King said. “But instead, my mom was more concerned with, ‘Are you dropping out of school? Are you still going to work? Are you still going to take care of me when I’m older?’ My family would’ve been much more ashamed of me if I had dropped out of school or if I had committed a crime…than if I get married to a partner.”

Some critics of the study argue that APIs don’t have to mask their sexual identity because there is little homosexual stigmatization in the API community.

“When I think about the gay communities, they’re always mixed with Asian Americans,” Dr. So said of the West Coast. “Many of my students who worked in these areas…say they always have outreach in Asian communities for gays and lesbians.”

Ben de Guzman, Co-Director of Programs for the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), has garnered the support of more than 30 regional Asian American organizations across the US to promote LGBT outreach initiatives. “It’s the role of NQAPIA to help support their work locally, and to amplify their voice on a national scale,” de Guzman said of affiliated organizations.

Another aspect of the study that critics disagree with is the study’s definition of “identity,” which they claim is based on Western ideals.

Dr. So states that in her work and research, the definition of “identity” is different in many Asian cultures. “To a lot of Asian gays, they’re gay but it’s not their identity. It’s not choosing one or the other,” Dr. So said. “In America, people wear their sexuality as their primary identity. That’s because they’re fighting the dominant norm of heterosexuality. To a lot of other countries, sex is private.”

Chong-suk Han, an Assistant Professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, teaches sociology with an emphasis on race and sexuality. Dr. Han, who is also gay, believes that many Asian Americans have accepted a Western stereotype of what it means to be gay.

“The Western stereotype of being gay is to ‘come out’ and wear a big sign that says ‘I’m gay,’” Dr. Han said. “Even the act of telling your parents becomes such a huge deal. Part of it is because it’s in the Western gay narrative and that being gay means telling everyone you love that you’re gay.”

In Asian cultures, critics of the study argue that a person’s identity is more reflective of their ethnicity and religion and that an identity takes on several different roles.

“We all wear different hats and become different identities,” Dr. Han said. “Identities like being gay and being Asian are similar in that they come out and take more salience depending on where we are and who we’re with.”

King, who is Vietnamese, agrees that his identity is both cultural and sexual but that neither is “more dominant than the other.”

“You don’t necessarily have to have your sexual identity so prominent and so public or as something that defines you,” King said.

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