LGBTQIA+ What does it mean for AAPIs?
What does it mean to be LGBTQIA+ and Asian/Pacific Islander-American?
By Joie Ha
LET’S START WITH GENDER
Laila Ireland (preferred pronouns: she, her, hers)
Membership Director for SPART*A (Service Members, Partners, Allies for Respect and Tolerance for All)
War Veteran, deployed three times to Iraq as interrogator and medic
“The only power you have is to outwardly love somebody.”
When we met Laila, she welcomed us with a warm hug and a smile. She is funny, positive, and an absolute joy. Despite her difficult past, Laila faces the future with confidence and determination to never back down.
What was your childhood like?
When I was a kid, I did not identify very well with being a boy. Growing up in a Pacific Islander, Catholic, and military family, a boy acting like a girl was unacceptable! I conformed because I was conditioned to be the boy my family thought I was. But I knew I was different; I would always want to wake up and be who I really was – a girl.
My effeminate ways were frowned upon by everyone in family. They would physically discipline me and tell me, “You’re never going to be a girl; you’re never going to be part of the family.”
What was it like being transgender and serving in the military?
The military does not allow transgender people to serve, so you have to keep it to yourself. I was an interrogator, which was really hard in itself. Things got worse when I started identifying as transgender. When I came back from deployment, they started moving me from department to department to hide me because I was ‘different.’
What does it mean to be both Pacific Islander-American and transgender?
In Old Hawaiian and Chamorro culture, being transgender, or mahu (two spirit), is seen as a gift. Mahu people act as caretakers for when men go off to battle, but they can also be the fighters. They can play a double role, so they are seen as sacred. Now, our culture is so westernized that being mahu may be seen as different and therefore undesirable. I think it’s important to go back to our roots and remember that being transgender is not a bad thing.
What was coming out like?
Before my transition, I actually identified as a gay male, but that never sat well with me. Right before my first deployment, I decided to tell my mom I was gay and she was not having it. It was sobering for me because the one person that I thought was my best friend was pushing me away. She threatened to disown me. It wasn’t until eight months into my deployment that my family started talking to me again. Someone from my unit was killed in an IED explosion and a service was held for the military families involved. My family was put in the front and my mom witnessed the other family’s loss of their son. She realized that it could have been me and that was when my mom started to accept me.
I finally went to a therapist in 2012 and told her everything. I was in tears, and she told me, “there’s a term for what you’re feeling: it’s transgender.” Letting my family know that I was transgender was like telling them all over again that I was gay. It was enough to feel like I didn’t want to be alive anymore. Then I realized that I wasn’t the only one transitioning, everyone was transitioning with me.
What was one of your happiest moments?
In March 2014, my dad took me out to dinner for my birthday and told me I could dress however I wanted to dress. We went to dinner and he used the right pronouns and even corrected our waiter who kept calling me ‘he’. That was the turning point for me. After dinner, my family had a surprise for me – they brought out a cake and on top it said, ‘Happy Birthday, Laila.’ When they used that name instead of my male birth name, I knew that they finally had accepted me. Since then they have been my rock for my entire transition – I can talk to them about anything. I can even talk to my dad about makeup and he’ll listen and tell me what color he likes.
You got to meet President Obama at the 2015 PRIDE Reception. How was that?
In June 2015, the New York Times did an opinion documentary piece about me and my husband called, “Transgender: At War and In Love.” The article went viral, and two weeks later, we got an email from the White House with a formal invitation to the White House PRIDE Reception. The invitation mentioned that the President had seen the video and knew I was from Hawaii! Meeting the President was the experience of a lifetime.
What are your hobbies?
I LOVE to cook. Cooking is what brings everyone together. When I host gatherings for family and friends, we cook the entire feast. My mom always taught me that you always cook plenty because you never know who may come to the door.
What do you say to people who are struggling?
I wish I could just hug people who are having a hard time. It is okay to be different. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to love who you want to love. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. That is the one thing that no one can take away from you.
Jordan Blisk (preferred pronouns: he/his/him)
Law Student at the University of Colorado – Boulder
Senior Airman in the Air Force from 2011-2015
“Stop worrying so damn much about what is in our pants.”
Talking with Jordan, you are immediately impressed by his intellect and ability to so eloquently express his thoughts. He speaks quickly, backs up his statements with facts, and is incredibly expressive and passionate. It’s no wonder that he is an aspiring attorney.
What was your experience discovering your identity?
Some of my earliest memories were trying to shave like my dad. I never had an interest in anything feminine and it was a battle to get into girls clothing. My mom had to pay me to wear a dress for my graduation party.
My parents were very conservative, white, and Christian and I am none of those things, so we had a lot of clashes. I went to a private Baptist high school and if you were queer, they would kick you out. When I started realizing that I was more attracted to women than men, I was bullied, kicked out of church, and almost kicked out of school. In high school, my youth pastor told me, “You’re going to hell, you’re never going to be employed, and you’re never going to college.” A lot of people told me I was worthless.
I first identified as gay, but I knew that wasn’t it. I didn’t understand what trans meant until I got to college. I honestly thought it was more of a sexual fetish than an identity. When I joined an LGBT group, I met a trans person and she really just opened my eyes about everything it meant to be trans. I realized that everything that she was saying… that was me.
What was the turning point on your journey?
I got to a point in which I didn’t want to live anymore. I didn’t want the future other people were predicting for me. Even though I had abandoned the idea of marrying a man, I still didn’t want to be a woman, or a mother. The older I got, the more I felt it. It just built up to the point that I knew the answer, but I just didn’t want to say it. I asked myself, “Is being trans really worse than being dead?”
What was your experience being Chinese, adopted, and transgender?
I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana and had a difficult experience with racism. In 4th grade, my parents had to pull me out of school because my classmates beat me up for being Asian. People didn’t know how to deal with someone that was different. Being adopted, I had a lot of identity struggles growing up, which ultimately helped me with the uncertainty of my gender identity. As for transitioning, I had never seen a trans man, much less an Asian trans man. I didn’t know what Asian-American masculinity or transitioning men looked like! A lot of things surprised me, like growing facial hair!
How do you approach bigoted people?
A lot of people don’t see trans people as human beings, and yet, I know that it’s important to engage with people who have different perspectives. When others realize I’m a veteran, that I have served my country, it often blows their minds. That contradiction is what makes people sit down and talk to me and realize that we’re not that different after all.
What is a fun fact about you?
I am the biggest Star Wars nerd on the planet. When I was 12, I desperately wanted a build-your-own light saber kit. It was the coolest toy I’d ever seen and I did everything a kid could do to impress my parents. However, my mom bought me sewing lessons instead! In protest, I sewed a mat and slept on it for a month.
Vy Pham (preferred pronouns: he/him/his)
IT Help Desk at the University of Denver
Political Science Major
“My goal is to become the first Asian-American transgender politician.”
Vy is quick, smart, and has a great sense of humor. Although he is in the midst of his transition, it is clear that he is becoming more confident and comfortable with himself everyday.
What has your experience been coming to terms with your identity?
At 10, I began referring to myself as a boy. My mother found out and threatened to send me to conversion therapy. I was very masculine, and rejected any feminine clothes and femininity in general. I ran away from home and when I came back, we never really talked about it again.
After my first year of college, I cut off my hair. When my parents saw me, they completely flipped out: they told me to never cut my hair again. A month later, I shaved it. Then I told them I was gay. Both of my parents insisted that it was a phase. I began to dress in baggy clothes and because I was very masculine, I would always get referred to as “sir.” It never bothered me and I never corrected them. That was when I realized that I couldn’t just live my life as a gay person – that when I told my mom I was a boy of 10, I meant it.
For the longest time, I was afraid of the word ‘trans.’ I wouldn’t even say the word. I was afraid of it because it wasn’t accepted by society to be different. The first time I said it out loud to someone, I started to cry.
How did growing up in a Vietnamese and Catholic community affect your journey?
On top of being Vietnamese-American, I was also raised as a Catholic. I went to Bible school at a Vietnamese church every weekend. I think a lot of that contributed to the homophobia I experienced in my youth.
In August 2016, my mom told me that she liked women at a younger age, but when her parents and grandparents found out, they beat her and told her she couldn’t be like that. This is quite typical for Vietnamese culture. Most people are not taught about things like gender and sexuality identity in school, and especially not Vietnamese immigrants. In Vietnamese culture, people are very proud of their children – they came from a war-torn country with nothing, and when their kids become successful, that’s all parents want to talk about. But when a child is the black sheep of the family, everyone knows.
What is your relationship with your parents now?
I think they will eventually accept me. It’s just the initial shock at first. They don’t know anyone who is transgender so it is hard for them to understand what it means. I think they will accept me because they love me very much.
What are your hobbies?
I like to go hiking and I like to eat mac-n’-cheese, but I’m lactose intolerant so I can’t eat it all the time. If I had to eat one food for the rest of my life, it would be pizza. How can you say no to cheese and bread?
LET’S TALK ABOUT SEXUALITY
“Don’t be afraid to explore. Life is too short, just take a chance. It gets better for those who are trying to come out.”
How did you come out as gay?
My parents found out through my MySpace profile. My boyfriend and I went to the Gay Pride Festival in Denver nine years ago and we posted photos on MySpace. My uncle found out, he told my mom, and we had a big blowout fight that evening. It was never the same after that. When I turned 18, my mom and I had a big argument and that night I left the house for good.
Are your parents accepting now?
It has taken my dad some time. My mom has changed a lot, actually. She’s always greeting my boyfriend, asking if he has eaten, how we are, etc. My dad is starting to talk to my boyfriend, too. They thought that I was going to be physically attacked and discriminated against because I was gay. They didn’t want me to suffer.
What are some of your hobbies?
My boyfriend and I love trying different kinds of beer, so we go to beer tastings and test out various microbreweries around town for fun. We’re just as comfortable staying home and watching Netflix, too.
How was your discovery of your sexuality as a lesbian?
My journey was long, difficult, and convoluted. I identified first as bisexual because I didn’t want to completely shut out the possibility of being with men. But when I was with men, I felt this barrier, like a knot in my stomach, and I didn’t know why it was there. My feelings were limited. I tried to push through it but I just couldn’t be completely free. When I finally chose to be with a woman, it was the first time in my life that my stomach stopped hurting. I knew then that I was a lesbian.
What is it like being Asian-American and a lesbian?
Well, being both a minority and identifying differently on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, I am a minority of the minority. If I were to travel abroad, my first question about the country would be regarding racial discrimination: are they racist there? My second question would be regarding inclusivity and openness around my sexual identity: can I come out to them? Will I be arrested or held in custody if I were to have an affair with anyone? These are legitimate concerns for our community when we consider travel opportunities and where we will feel comfortable and be welcomed around the world.
LGBTQIA+ – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, and Ally. The plus sign refers to other identities not mentioned in the acronym.
Transgender, or trans – an umbrella term for individuals who do not align with their sex assigned at birth and who have chosen to live their lives as the gender they feel better represents who they are inside.
Sex – the biological and anatomical traits that can make an individual “male” or “female.”
Gender – the socially-constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes of men and women. How people operate in or out of these roles is gender expression.
Gender Identity – a deeply felt and experienced sense of one’s own gender. For transgender individuals, they often identify as a different gender than the sex they were assigned at birth. This is the purpose of acknowledging one’s preferred pronouns. Some trans individuals will also use preferred pronouns “they, them, theirs” if they do not identify along the gender binary of “he or she.”
Sexuality/Sexual orientation – the romantic, physical, and emotional attraction towards other people. Note: sex, gender, and sexuality are different concepts. A person may be transgender, but that does not mean they are gay.
Transitioning – the process some transgender people go through to begin living as the gender that they identify as, rather than the sex assigned to them at birth. The process of transitioning can happen through hormone therapy, surgery, emotional, spiritual, and psychological growth, or any combination of these.
Is being gay or transgender a mental health disorder?
NO. It is just another way of being born.
What is “coming out?”
When a person tells others of his or her true gender identity or sexual orientation.
Is being gay or transgender a new trend?
NO, these identities have always been a part of our communities. There is evidence even from prehistoric rock paintings in South Africa and Egypt.
Can you change a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity?
NO, it is not a choice but a central core of a person’s being. Forced conversion therapy cannot truly change a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity and can instead cause severe trauma.
Why do 41% of transgender youth try to commit suicide before they turn 18?
It can be a combination of feeling wrong in their bodies (body dysphoria), being bullied and mocked by their peers, overall rejection by family and society, and struggling with accepting their true identity. There are many social resources to help support trans youth and prevent suicide.
What injustices do LGBTQIA+ individuals face?
Around the world, LGBTQIA+ individuals suffer from harassment, discrimination, assault, rape, and murder. They are bullied in school (some are even kicked out) and their families and friends may not accept them for who they are. Governments often fail to protect these individuals from these injustices. In fact, over 33% of the world’s countries have laws that permit arrest, imprisonment, and even execution of individuals that are in same-sex relationships. One great resource for travel tips is the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, which can be found online at https://www.iglta.org/.
*Disclaimer: there many identity politics at play and terms change rapidly, but these are the commonly accepted terms as of now*
Answers sourced from Dr. Karen Scarpella at the Gender Identity Center and the United Nations Free and Equal Fact Sheet.
For more information and resources: Gender Identity Center, 20 Bryant St, Denver, CO 80219 (303) 202-6466