Our Story, Our Voice: The Resilience of Queer AAPI Youth
May is Asian American Pacific Islander Month. It is a month of celebration and recognition of the influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. However, throughout the years, we have seen the erasure of stories of our community, especially stories surrounding queer Asian American Pacific Islander Youth. Throughout history, we see our ancestors being stripped away from their native tongues, our histories are deleted from textbooks, and our roles in movies and shows are white-washed. The foundation of who we are has been molded by others’ perceptions of our identity.
Yet despite all of this, we are incredibly lucky to have a rich history and a strong community of activists. Many of us, including myself, referred to our history and our ancestors as a means of motivation and inspiration for the work that we do. Through the strength and sacrifices of my ancestors, I found the capability to speak my truth.
I believe that our ancestors laugh, cry, hurt, rage, celebrate with us. Most importantly, I believe they learn as we are learning, just as we learn from them. We grow knowledge and movements with them. We crip futurism with them. We demand and entice the world to change the way things have always been done, with them. We change ourselves with them. They learn through us. When we become ancestors, we will also continue to learn.” -Stacey Milbern (Rest In Power to an amazing queer AAPI disability activist who recently became an ancestor)
My name is Darid Prom, and I’m a queer Cambodian Immigrant from Philadelphia. With this project, I want to create a space of possibility to shed light on stories of folks whose identities are marginalized and erased in classrooms, GSAs, and the overall mainstream media. Stories are our greatest learning tool, and through my story and the stories of these amazing QTAAPI (Queer Trans Asian American Pacific Islander) folxs, I hope to inspire purposeful conversations around representation, intersectionality, and vulnerability in classrooms and GSAs.
As a descendant of our lineage, I encourage our generation to continue sharing their stories in and out of schools to bring visibility and to add on to our history. Our stories and our voices are our most powerful tools to help wipe out the hateful stain that rests upon this nation. Through our stories and our voices, we will reclaim our identity, our origin, and we will work to break away from Western narratives. We will no longer be silent!
THESE ARE OUR VOICES AND HERE ARE OUR STORIES...
DARID: 19 | Any/All Pronouns | Philadelphia, PA
Growing up in a categorical society, I found myself unable to fit neatly into one category. Being an immigrant, Asian, and queer often caused me to stand out among my peers. Living authentically, unfortunately, meant that I would be the target of bullying. As a kid, I was always teased and called “gay”. Upon arriving in America in 2010, I didn't entirely know what it meant to be "gay," yet I was consistently harassed for being it. In Cambodia, there isn't a word that accurately describes a person who likes someone of the same sex. Growing up, I often associate "gay" or “khtaey” in Cambodian culture with drag queens, so I never fully understood what it meant to be gay in America. How did people know something about me that I didn’t? I always knew I was different but what about being my authentic self made me gay? After years of being put in a box, I had enough! I started seeking support through my school’s GSA. Learning about LGBTQ identities led me to better understand and develop my own identity. It helped me to finally accept my intersectional identity as a low-income queer Asian-American immigrant.
For anyone who is reading this, know that you are not alone and that you are loved! Don’t be afraid to reach out for support! The support from my community has been life-changing. They helped me find my voice, and now I am louder than ever!
As a community, we need to learn to stand together. As a country, we need to stop spending our time talking about building walls and instead stand hand in hand, despite our differences, to be strong enough to fight back and beat down the power of hatred and division. We are the future!
CINDY: 17 | She/Her | West Valley City, UT
The United States Supreme Court legalized gay marriage on June 26, 2015. When my mom first saw news of it, she asked derisively, “Rồi sau sẽ là gì? Người ta sẽ được cưới cùc đá hả?”
What’s next? People will be allowed to marry rocks?
Queerness for AAPI youth is frequently a difficult and lonely journey. At seventeen, I now know what I am: unapologetically queer, bisexual. But there is no word for in Vietnamese, nor is there a word for bisexual; what felt so punishing about growing up Vietnamese and queer is that sometimes it felt as if I could not be both. It was as if queerness was inherently Vietnamese as if to exist as queer was to cut ties with my culture entirely. For years, I grappled with the oxymoron of it. A queer Vietnamese—too queer to be Vietnamese, too Vietnamese to be queer. Because, although things have improved, queer spaces still remain dominated by non-POC narratives and Western ideals, especially visible in the glorification of the narrative. Coming out conceptualizes the queer journey as a linear process from “closeted” to “out,” setting up this false dichotomy in which you are either or, stigmatizing the lives of those who are “closeted” or “in” as false, unhappy, and unempowered.
Closetedness is sometimes not a choice, but a necessity. It is never anyone’s place to judge another for not coming out, and there is no one way to be queer. Being queer and AAPI means that there are always questions and never enough answers. But even making it to this point is enough. Even recognizing that you are queer AAPI is enough. You are enough, and you are not alone!
CHRIS: 17 | He/Him | New York
I always felt affection and support from my parents. As many other Asian-American youth know, those feelings of affection and support don’t come from praise and affirmation or physical touch. The family ideals have always been harmony and emotional restraint, and the preferred love language is acts of service.So, when I sat down with them and told them I am queer, I got no more than one word, “Okay”.
In a time when I was still questioning my identity and navigating a community that I was so new to, I felt alone. I didn’t feel like I had the resources or support system in my small town. In school, I was part of a small minority of Asian students and this pushed me even further into the corner.
As I look back on it now, a proud and out senior graduating from high school, I wish I could tell my younger self a few things. First, there people that support you and who will stand up for you. The world has a way of opening doors, whether it is social media, your local GSA, or a teacher, you will find your support. Second, people are scared of what they don’t know. When I came out to my parents, they weren’t so much disapproving as they were confused. Using your voice and telling them your story and your truth will make them more interested in opening a conversation and learning more. The more we educate people, especially Asian-Americans who may come from backgrounds where LGBTQ+ people are completely invisible, the more they will support and accept us. Lastly, I would tell my younger self that they are valid. No matter what others say or think, know that you are amazing, capable, and courageous.
AUDEN: 18 | They/Them | Philadelphia, PA
Growing up in a small white suburb as a queer trans Cambodian American, I struggled to find others like me. No matter what community I was a part of, I always felt excluded or marginalized for some aspect of my identity. When I came out in high school, the Asian spaces I had held dear to my heart rejected me. For many years after, I felt like I couldn’t reconcile being both Asian and queer.
It was only through building community with other QTAAPI folx that I was able to accept and express myself in my entirety. Through GLSEN, I gained QTAAPI mentors, who helped me see a future as an activist. I also found healing and thriving in spaces intended for QTPOC and QTAPI. Organizations such as NQAPIA and APIENC connected me with other queer AAPI youth activists. With my peers, I was able to find solidarity in my struggles with diaspora, intergenerational trauma, and cultural barriers. Although I am still on my journey of self-acceptance and growth, I recognize I wouldn’t be where I am today without the incredible QTAAPI elders and youth who’ve helped cultivate me.
Even if you may not have QTAAPI community spaces accessible to you, just know you’re not alone. There are many great resources online for QTAAPI. You can always be the change you want to see in your community. Whether it’s something like planning a GSA event for AAPI Heritage Month or running a workshop about the history of Asian civil rights movements, any act of activism can make a change and better your community.
TRI: 18 | He/Him | Chicago, IL
Rainbow streak upon the prideful fabric that I once hid my identity under. Growing up queer in an Asian household, I often struggle with expressing my identity while succumbing to my dad’s masculinity. I wish I could connect with my family through my flamboyant appearance or discuss it with my parents about LGBQTIA+ Sex-Ed. With their traditionalist ideals and rigid disapproval of my femininity, I am fearful of not living up what they want me to be.
Coming out was not easy. Some family members saw my sexual orientation as a performance rather than part of my identity. Instead of directly addressing their conflicting beliefs with me, they did not acknowledge and co-exist with the molded version of who I am. Figuring out myself is not an easy process to undergo, and the confines within these four walls of my house prevent me from doing so.
For my years in high school, I have had the opportunity to work with various activism fellowships in Chicago and with my State Board of Education. My work reminds me that young people's voices matter! Through my experiences, I wish to empower queer English language learner youths like myself to stand up for who we are and break the mold that society has subjected us to. My advice for queer youth who are struggling with embracing their identity is to keep your head up. I promise you, your time will come. Know that you are valid and that there is a community standing behind you! But until you feel comfortable, shine underneath the stars and be as loud as you possibly can in spaces that you feel safe.
REGGIE: 17 | He/They | Wisconsin
I remember a time where I had just gotten off the phone with my Lola. She started the conversation with, “Merry Christmas!” then started laughing. The 76 year-old headstrong lady is a force to be reckoned with. She is the most supportive, most generous, and most determined lady I have ever met. I told her I was writing this piece about her and she was in shock because little does she know that her influence shapes the activist work I do. My Lola was born in the Philippines right after WWII. When she immigrated to the US with my Lolo, she left her life behind to create a better future for the people I love. Her strength is what fuels me. Knowing that she was willing to change her life for her family has shown me that I can change my life and the lives of others.
Growing up mixed, I only knew a superhero that happened to be my Lola. Still today, I idolize the strength and courage that she radiates with such grace and authority. These are all values, traditions, and morals my siblings and I hold all came from my Lola. When I came out as bisexual in 2015, my mom explained it to my Lola that I was a lesbian. My Lola’s response was, “I don’t know how to be a lesbian”. But what she does know is how to love and accept her grandchildren nonetheless. When I came out and started my transition in 2018, she had a hard time adjusting to a new name and pronouns. Still, my Lola misgenders everyone but what I know to be true is that she has the best intentions in her heart. I am so proud to be my Lola’s grandchild and am honored to pass on the traditions and stories from her childhood.
ERIC: 17 | He/Him | Alabama
I have lived in Alabama for pretty much my entire life. I moved here from Guam when I was one and a half years old, so the Deep South is all I’ve ever known. Despite being the biracial gay son of a first-generation Filipino immigrant and a white woman living in Alabama, I have never had any difficulty growing up as an Asian American gay boy, or even just an Asian American. I cannot recall a single instance in which something negative was said to me about my race or about my queer identity in relation to my race. The only struggles I experienced growing up as a result of my identities were because of my gayness. I think that my ability to honestly make that statement despite living in the Deep South for 16 years shows progress.
I went to the Philippines for the first time in 2016 (When I was fully aware that I liked boys) for my grandparents’ wedding anniversary; I vividly remember watching a transgender woman do the makeup of my relatives for the ceremony. Even more vividly, I remember that no one made any transphobic remarks. Everything was perfect, and that’s coming from my Asian Catholic family. Later, when I told my mom about my anxiety of accidentally outing myself to my family, she pulled me aside and told me about a conversation she had with my grandfather years ago in which he very nonchalantly told her, in his heavily accented English, that one of the cousins was “a gay.” He did not care at all about queer identity, and, knowing that, I was reassured that he would not be upset by my own.
SANYA: 18 | She/Her | Philadelphia, PA
You’ve become a puppet to society’s short-sided culture. Conforming to the cultural norms so people could accept you. As part of the Asian family culture, you have been trained to listen to people’s orders regardless of how you felt. There was no such thing as individualism at a young age; it was always family. Because of that, your bisexual identity was never on that list.
Being a bisexual woman, you were told that your sexual orientation was just a phase because you were too feminine. Being an Asian American woman, you were told that you had to like one gender, men. Existing at this intersection caused a lot of fear and fetishization from others. With these stereotypes being repeatedly played in your thoughts, you got lost and started questioning the progress you made in accepting yourself. I saw you drifting into the norms of society because you were afraid of not being loved… but you are loved.
You were surrounded by supportive friends who realized your self-worth and your strength. I’m happy that you continued your journey on self-acceptance.
Being a Bisexual Asian American woman is part of you. Those stereotypes do not define you. You don’t need to listen to societal norms. You still have a lot to learn and a long journey ahead to self-love, but your growth is appreciated. At last, you manage to rip away those puppet strings and become your own person.
With lots of love and patience,
As queer Asian American and Pacific Islander youth, we will continue to rise in power! Through our collective stories, we hope to educate, empower, and eradicate hate! A huge THANK YOU to everyone who was involved in sharing their story in this project! All of these folx inspire me each and every day to be more of my authentic self, and I am incredibly honored to be sharing my story alongside them.
We hope you continue to tell your stories. I encourage you to write yourself a letter like Sanya, talk to your fellow GSA members about how to navigate through having conversations with safer family members, connect with QTAAPI community in your area, or research your QTAAPI historical icons.
Know that together we are loud, we are proud, and we are fierce!