After 'I Do': LGBT Asians come out amid cultural and language barriers
More than twice as many immigrants come to California from Asia than Latin America. But when their children are steeped in American culture and pick up values different from their home country, they struggle to understand what being LGBT means.
The fight for marriage equality was, by proxy, a fight to normalize same-sex relationships. But Asian-Americans like Alan Chan say that conversation never reached their own homes.
"People who are white pretty much know what gay marriage means," says Chan. "Especially in the Asian-American communities, we really don’t talk about what it means to be gay."
A combination of linguistic and cultural differences have made coming out still difficult for many children of immigrants to the US. However, Chan and others are working to change how their older relatives view LGBT people.
East vs West, and a Generational Divide
More than twice as many immigrants come to California from Asia than Latin America. These newcomers are a majority in several cities throughout areas like the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles.
They've managed to maintain a distinctly different culture that's sometimes isolated from the mainstream.
But when their children are steeped in American culture and learning different values from their home country, there’s a culture clash.
"Lot of first generation got no idea what LGBT is," says Minsook Brady from Downey, CA, whose native language is Korean. She's a first-generation American, and says that in her home country. "a lot of them think that it’s Western culture, that’s an American way, not Asians."
However, her son is gay, and she now regrets what she considers ignorance on her part when he was growing up in the closet.
"While watching TV in my house, I making all these derogatory comments, and it really hurt my son a lot," says Brady, "and I don’t think all the wound I inflicted all these years, I don’t think it will ever go away."
Alan Chan explains that bridging the cultural gap with his elders is difficult because of language barriers.
"I mostly speak English, and my parents mostly speak Cantonese," says Chan, "and so I don’t have the vocabulary to really talk to them about gay issues because I just don’t know how to say that word."
He says the closest word to "gay" in Cantonese would be considered offensive or a slur, a parallel in several other Asian languages.
Also, the only image that immigrant families might see of LGBT people are from TV shows and movies that come from their home countries, says Christopher Villanueva.
"For example, within the Filipino community, if you turn on the television with broadcasts that present the gay community, it’s very flamboyant," says Villanueva, "so when that gay Filipino comes out to his family and that’s all that that family has been fed, that is what’s going to be the perception when they say, 'I’m gay.'"
Looking for support in a safe space
In the San Gabriel Valley is a special chapter of PFLAG -- Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. This one is geared for Asians and Pacific Islanders.
Carol Mannion, who’s Filipino-American, created the group because she felt people would be more open and honest if they met with others who had similar backgrounds.
"And then being vulnerable in your own language really gives you that courage," says Mannion.
Carol is the parent of a gay son, but said something was missing when she attended a support group with a mainstream American crowd.
"I know they totally understand what my process is as a parent of a gay son, but there’s a part where there’s a disconnect with them understanding what it feels like to be a minority."
Her group holds sessions in English, Chinese or any number of languages in order to help people feel at ease. In addition, they'll facilitate a translator for people who do need help coming out to their parents.
But most importantly, members can share their experiences and offer advice to other people worried about how their own parents might react.
Redefining what "LGBT" means to Asians
The strategy by Christopher Villanueva is to change how Asians view LGBT people.
He's the founder and editor of "Daniel," a new magazine with a specific niche to showcase gay Asian men.
Named for a personal friend he admires, Villanueva aims to change what newly out teens and their parents might see if they Google, "gay Asian male."
"Um, you’ll start seeing Tumblrs that are more into erotica, you have hot gay Asian," says Villanueva. "I mean, this is what we’re getting into."
In his glossy, almost GQ-like magazine, there are images of Asian men in suits looking professional, fathers playing with their children in the park and others describing what their faith mean to them.
All things, Villanueva says, that are meant to meet the standards that Asian parents have for their children.
"There is this strong need to have this stature that I have everything together. That I have a great job, I’m doing things correctly in life, and in the school context I’m making straight As and I’ll graduate with honors, all this good stuff."
But there’s another uphill climb: when children come out, it’s not just to their parents but also to their whole extended family here and abroad.
"I assure you I know a lot of people," says Villanueva, ,"that when they come out, a lot of their responses that they’ll get from their parents is, 'What is your uncle going to think, what is your auntie going to think, what is your grandmother going to think?'"
To have an entire culture change its view of what being “gay” is, Villanueva needed someone for the first issue who was immediately recognizable and respected worldwide.
In this case: Star Trek and internet celebrity George Takei, who is Daniel magazine's first cover model and featured profile. He and his husband's story is also featured in the new documentary, "To Be Takei."
Takei's own parents accepted him when he came out, despite out LGBT people not being a fixture in his parents’ native Japan.
But while he hasn’t faced the struggle that some Asian LGBT teens deal with now, Takei is more than happy to be the person Asian-American families can look to for guidance.
"I don’t consider myself a role model, but I consider myself someone who can make a contribution to making our society just," says Takei.
That’s the image Villanueva hopes becomes the norm – someone successful and an asset to his or her community. It’s just a matter of meeting those generations of Asian immigrants half way.
"I think that a lot of people in the straight community are trying, they want to understand," says Villanueva, "but we also have to understand for them as well."