BOLSAVIK: VIET HOMOPHOBES LEARNED IT FROM THE FRENCH AND THE SOVIETS

It was not planned. He had recently connected with a woman on MySpace, who traveled from Sacramenkhổng lồ to visit hyên ổn in Garden Grove. It was his first time falling in love sầu và his first time meeting another lesbian, & they soon became lovers.

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“I became really overwhelmed with feelings. my first time being physically intimate with another person, and realizing I’m lesbian, và she was really encouraging just pachồng up & leave with her,” said Dao, who is currently transitioning from female lớn male.

“My family ended up catching us together, và that’s how I came out. It wasn’t like a thoughtful plan,” Dao said. “I was exploring it privately and I wasn’t sure how to come out. And then my mom & my sister caught us together.”

That day, the family — his mother, sister & two older brothers — gathered in the living room. “I’m a lesbian,” Dao said, & his mother began crying. His siblings were silent.

“I think because I came out & it wasn’t necessarily a ‘that’s okay, we still love sầu you,’ there wasn’t much of a conversation, there was just a lot of crying, so I just internalized it, ” Dao said. “It was lượt thích, if I can’t talk about it, there’s no point in me even being here anymore. I’ll just leave.”

In the years after that incident, Dao felt alienated from his family and left home page to lớn study at the University of California, Davis. Lacking support, he began abusing cocaine & alcohol, and struggled with an eating disorder. It wasn’t until he was hospitalized for a drug addiction và the hospital called his nearest relative, his brother in Sacramenlớn, that Dao reconnected with his family.

Now a social worker who works with foster youth throughout the Bay Area,Dao has come a long way since that evening seven years ago, which his family has still never discussed.

‘A Western Disease’

Dao, who is Vietnamese American, represents a common experience within a community that not only does not discuss sex & gender, but also where family lines of communication have been weakened by war trauma, language barriers, & cultural rifts.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual và transgender people like Dao, that struggle is all the more complicated.

That was on full display in 2013, when an alliance of gay và lesbian Vietnamese groups applied to participate, as they had been for three years, in the annual Lunar New Year parade in Westminster. Known in Vietnamese at Tết, the holiday celebrates family, ancestry, goodwill and luông xã for the year ahead.

So many did not expect the controversy that would unfold when the politically influential community group organizing the sự kiện, the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, refused lớn accept their application.

The incident sparked a community-wide discussion about eunique for LGBT individuals và the parameters of traditional Vietnamese values.

“We were called ‘sichồng,’ that this is a ‘western disease,’ ‘your parents didn’t teach you right,’” said Hieu Nguyen, recalling what some who did not want the group to lớn participate in the parade had said. Nguyen, who grew up in Orange County, was one of the key organizers behind the parade effort & later formed a non-profit called Viet Rainbow of Orange County.

Although the LGBT groups were barred from participating in the 2013 parade, truyền thông media coverage from across the country, pressure from parade sponsors & supporters within the community pushed for their inclusion the following year.


Viet Rainbow has also since organized a tư vấn network for parents of LGBT children — an informal group of mothers và fathers who meet occasionally & offer their tư vấn và advice.

“One youth connected with me about his parents, and another brought her mother khổng lồ our group…and both situations turned out khổng lồ be really positive sầu,” Nguyen said. “The gay youth says his mother has been really accepting and that she would lượt thích lớn meet us to say thank you. The other youth said their relationship has improved significantly.”


“That is so desirable, that feeling of belonging…being proud of yourself & seeing the representation of love from parents,” Nguyen said. “That’s powerful, and profound, và impacted us a lot.”

Finding the Words

Nearly every family has struggled at some time or another for understanding: the things you wish you could say; what you hold in your heart out of fear the other won’t understand; và that gnawing conflict between protecting your own fragile sense of self and wanting to lớn comfort the other.

In the immigrant family, the gulf of language and culture that separates parents and children can make those feelings all the more intense.

Toan Nguyen, now 24, came out lớn his mother in high school in Tampage authority, Florida on the car ride to lớn school. It was a clumsy and awkward conversation, because he didn’t know how to lớn describe his sexual orientation other than the word bê đê.

Although bê đê is a comtháng colloquialism to lớn refer to lớn gay men or homosexuality in general, it is often used in a demeaning or derogatory way.


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Above: Self-portraits by Toan Nguyen.

“I felt like I was calling myself a faggot – and it was the first time I was describing myself to lớn my mom,” he said. “It was difficult when she started freaking out…saying, ‘who taught you to lớn think like this? Who are you hanging out with?’ I felt very helpless.” Toan Nguyen said.

Hieu Nguyen said he wasn’t aware of any terminology when he came out as gay lớn his family — & while later supportive, they were initially very upphối.

“They themselves didn’t have a good knowledge or idea of sexuality & what it means to lớn be gay. All these years, all they’ve sầu heard is really negative things,” Nguyen said of his siblings. “‘Thằng đố bê đê,‘ (meaning ‘that man is gay’) people laugh, the images they see on TV is lượt thích, guys dressing up in women’s clothing, that’s what they think being gay is.”

His mother was initially in denial.

“She said, ‘you’re not, you watch that MTV show,’ she thought I was influenced by American culture, it’s a western disease,” Hieu Nguyen said.

She also carried many of the misconceptions that Hieu Nguyen heard during the Tet parade controversy và subsequent outreach efforts.

“My mom, her friends asked her this question — they were wondering if my genitals work. Does it mean that I don’t have a penis, or it doesn’t work? They thought I can’t impregnate someone, that it doesn’t get aroused,” Hieu Nguyen said. “I think might still think that me being gay means I want khổng lồ be a woman…their understanding is really attached to lớn gender roles.”

It’s not uncomtháng khổng lồ see columns in Vietnamese American newspapers và magazines giving advice about sexual health and pleasure, although those are largely geared toward married, heterosexual adults.

In Asian societies in general, discussing sex & sexual health is taboo, and even words to describe sexual organs or reproductive health are a touchy subject. Colloquialisms or euphemisms, lượt thích bê đê, are commonly used, but also carry a stigma.

Late last year, the nonprofit Asian Health Services in Oakl& released a 22-page glossary of LGBT terms in Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean và Burmese geared at helping doctors and patients communicate about ideas that have different connotations in each language, according to lớn Oakl& North, a news project of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The glossary is especially aimed at monolingual LGBT individuals who may not be familiar with terminology in their language for words describing sexual organs, STDs, mental illnesses such as anorexia và bulimia, and words like trauma và suicidal tendency.

Hieu Nguyen says since the parade controversy, he & other members of Viet Rainbow have been invited on Vietnamese television shows to talk about their experiences coming out and khổng lồ explain issues và terminology to lớn Vietnamese-speaking audience.

“We’re all about saving face…but there’s nothing khổng lồ be ashamed of. Maybe that’s my Americanized ideologies, but from my experience, these kinds of conversations are really important,” said Hieu Nguyen.

‘Its Just a Phase’

Toan Nguyen, Hieu Nguyen and Dao all said they never discussed sex, gender or relationships with their parents growing up.

Toan Nguyen said after he came out khổng lồ his parents, his father told hyên ổn it was just a phase.

that I really shouldn’t be thinking about these types of things & focus on school work — don’t let these types of things going into lớn my head,” Toan Nguyen said.

Dr. Clayton Chau, a psychiatrist và therapist who counsels patients about sex & LGBT issues, says many parents simply avoid the taboo topic of sex at home & are happy khổng lồ have sầu sex education addressed by their child’s school.

“We don’t talk about sex – we all know that,” said Chau, who is currently the medical director for the Behavioral Health Department of Los Angeles County’s healthcare plan, LA Care. “I’ve encountered elderly Vietnamese couples who reach certain age, and they just automatically sleep in separate beds and rooms. When I tell them there’s no reason , it’s sort of surprising lớn them.”

Many parents urge their children lớn abstain from sex or wait until after they finish school khổng lồ get married, và view sex & relationships as a potential distraction or barrier to lớn their child’s academic or professional success, Chau said.

In addition to prejudice or shame associated with the belief that homosexuality is a disease, Chau said he has also encountered many Vietnamese parents who associate their child’s sexual orientation with the stereotype of gay and lesbian entertainers and hairdressers — & as a result, fear their children will fall inlớn a lifestyle that will keep them from successful careers.

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Even if they vì chưng receive that education in public school, many Asian American children report that abstinence & the biology of sex was the main focus of their sex education.

A consequence of that is that Asian Americans are the least likely to lớn use protection, with 40 percent of Asian American women having unprotected sex in their lifetime, according to a 2005 study. Another study found that 44 percent of college-aged Chinese và Filipino women used withdrawal as a contraceptive sầu method, compared to the national average of 12 percent.

Nationally, Asian American women have sầu the second highest percentage of pregnancies that kết thúc in abortion, at 35 percent. The country of Vietphái nam has among mỏi the highest rates of abortion in the world, with 40 percent of all pregnancies ending in termination.

Meanwhile, a svào body of academic retìm kiếm has shown that parental communication about sex delays adolescent sexual activity & reduces risky behaviors.

But in Vietnamese families those conversations are few & far between. A 2013 UCI Irvine study in the Journal of Minority Health of Asian American college-aged women found that while 54 percent of the Vietnamese women surveyed said their parents talked khổng lồ them about abstinence, only 12 percent said their parents discussed birth control.

Most Vietnamese immigrant parents living in the U.S. today grew up in homes that did not discuss sex & received little to no education on sexual health & contraception.

That is a silence that gets passed on, Dao said.

Their family transition from Vietphái mạnh to Santa Amãng cầu was difficult.After Dao’smother left their father, Dao’s brothers had lớn hustle in their early years in the U.S. lớn help support the family.

“I don’t want lớn blame it on my mom, but I think because she was more focused on making money or paying the bills, khổng lồ make rent, move inlớn a safer neighborhood, didn’t think it was important,” Dao said.

Displays of affection were rare — they did not hug — & Dao’s mother showed her love sầu through her anxieties, lượt thích constant reminders about his health.

It wasn’t until Dao began menstruation that his mother made any reference lớn puberty — by urging hlặng hurry up & clean up the spot of blood on the sheets, & handing hyên some tampons.

“I wonder if contributes khổng lồ how much I hate my period — like it’s more than being a transgender man, it’s also because we never talked about it,” Dao said.

“When I went away from trang chính, I didn’t know how to say no, I didn’t know what healthy sex was. That contributed to lớn me experiencing sexual violence, and exposing myself to unsafe situations,” Dao said. “She didn’t know how lớn talk about it, và I didn’t know how to lớn live with it, and it became this really messy situation.”

Chau says parents don’t realize that avoiding the subject of sex often results in children hiding relationships or other details about their life, building a barrier in their relationship.

“I tell them that…many of you work two jobs and have sầu less quality time, and now you create this barrier and secrecy, và it pushes you apart,” Chau said.

Talking about sex or relationships, và how khổng lồ navigate those realms, also opens up a line of communication for when a difficult situation arises, such as sexual violence, Chau said.

“It applies with any parent, but I think it’s much more important for Vietnamese American parents, especially for ones with English proficiency issues,” Chau said.

Chau believes that the Vietnamese American community in some ways has been more traditional and conservative sầu about sexuality than the society in Vietnam giới.

Hieu Nguyen said he was proactive sầu about bringing up & educating his family about LGBT issues, whether his family was watching a movie that included LGBT people, or if his mother was avoiding the subject of his partner.

“When we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. So for awhile, that was what my mom was doing,” said Hieu Nguyen. “I was very conscious in terms of exposing her…I demanded my mom that if she wanted lớn know what was going on with my life, that she hear everything — not that she wants me lớn leave out that I was dating a guy.”

Hieu Nguyen believes that strategy — asking for, often demanding, what he needs — helped guide his parents toward acceptance.

“You have sầu lớn help them along – they don’t know any better. I bởi get frustrated, but I know it’s my responsibility, because if I don’t have sầu open conversation with them, it’s not fair to lớn expect anything different.”

A Turning Point

In the months after he came out lớn his family, Dao isolated himself & waited for his high school graduation. He registered for summer classes at the University of California, Berkeley, hoping to lớn move out as soon as possible.

“In a lot of the gay community, there’s a lot of drinking & substance abuse and partying, people trying to cope with their feelings. And so I got into that scene,” Dao said of his first two years of college.

Cocaine was his drug of choice. Also struggling with an eating disorder, he liked the way the drug made hyên thin, to appear more masculine. After Dao was sexually assaulted at a buổi tiệc nhỏ, his substance abuse escalated.

During his second year of college, Dao was hospitalized, và doctors called his closest relative sầu, his older brother in Sacramento, và his sister. They had barely kept in touch over the last few years.

“They saw me struggling. They visited me in the hospital và they also visited me when I went khổng lồ rehab, và when I was hospitalized again. And they never told my mother,” Dao said.

His family never talked about his coming out or the drug use, Dao said. It wasn’t until his college graduation ceremony years later, that his mother, crying, acknowledged what had happened.

“She said, ‘You’ve been through so much, I’m so proud of you.’ And that’s the closest she’s ever gotten khổng lồ referring lớn anything. And it was amazing lớn hear,” Dao said.

As Dao began khổng lồ stabilize he began reaching out khổng lồ his mother, writing her letters khổng lồ practice Vietnamese và learning about her past. They were among muốn the families that turned to lớn Viet Rainbow khổng lồ help rebuild their relationship.

They hit turning point last summer, when he, his mother & older sister took a trip to lớn Vietphái mạnh.

Dao, who had recently come out as a transgender person khổng lồ his sister over the phone, planned on telling his mother on their trip. He decided that this time, he would use his mother’s communication style.

“I thought about it for a long time, because I felt lượt thích we worked so hard to lớn reconnect & have sầu a healthy relationship, & I didn’t want to put that at risk, by coming out again,” Dao said.

On the trip, Dao shared a hotel room with his mother & left his hormones in the refrigerator where she could see it. Dao let her watch, without explaining, as he used a chest binder to compress his breasts.

“My sister said, ‘mom is asking lượt thích, what is your sister doing, what’s that in the fridge,’ and I was just lượt thích, ‘tell her lớn talk to lớn me,’” Dao said. “And it was really entertaining, because my mom just did not know how to bring it up.”

While in Vietphái nam, Dao was able to lớn get by as a transgender man until it was time khổng lồ use a public restroom. If he used the men’s bathroom, people might stare or ask him to leave sầu. If he used the women’s restroom, they would hotline security. Binding his chest in hot weather made him light-headed, và he couldn’t walk for more than a few hours at a time.

Eventually, she did ask Dao questions, a lot of them. And rather than use the word “transgender,” which Dao felt could be alienating, he explained the process of transitioning: that he uses hormones because they make hyên more emotionally stable và because they change his body, that some day he might get surgery.

“And so I kind of framed it around my happiness, & what feels good for me. At the over, she looked at me và said, ‘that makes sense’ — she kind of connected the dots with my growing up, & said, ‘I’m not surprised,’” Dao said.

“It was really beautiful because for the rest of the trip she tried khổng lồ be my ally. I think she started seeing people mistreat me in public… whatever transphobia she might have had, she threw out the window & became the protective sầu mom.”