A Tricky Intersection: Growing up as a Queer Asian American

As a second generation Asian American, it was much easier for me to come out to my friends at school than to come out to my mom.

05.16.24
A Tricky Intersection: Growing up as a Queer Asian American (Courtesy of Knives Nguyen)

Berkeley, CA“Do you know what a bisexual person is?” With a racing heart and a lump in my throat, I told her, “That’s who I am.”

I came out to my mom in middle school. Even though she immigrated here from Vietnam as a teen and speaks perfect English, I wasn’t sure if she had ever heard of the term “bisexual” before.

In fact, like my sexuality, my life has always felt like it had been split in two — who I get to be when I’m at school, and who I am when I’m at home.

In high school, this contrast couldn’t have been any clearer. While I was at school, I was openly queer, elected President of our Gender Sexuality Alliance Club and supported our small but mighty gay community. My short hair and my appearance was frequently complimented. I didn't have to hide who I was.

But at home, my exploration of androgyny was met with hostility from my father and disappointment from my mother. One especially tense day, my father told me I needed to change my appearance or else he would throw out all of my clothes and replace them with skirts and dresses. A female gender was a performance I had to keep up at home. And I was failing.

My family and I butt heads over hair a lot, too. I’ve always preferred a shorter hairstyle. Both for ease of washing and aesthetic preference. I would have to constantly bother my mom to take me to the salon, and even then, she would always be watching the hairdresser’s every move to make sure it wasn’t too short. As I grew older and more rebellious, I had to find ways to hide my new haircut from my parents. My personality and preferences, if they didn’t fit within the confines of my parents' expectations, they didn’t matter.

I don’t blame my parents for their rigidity around gender. In Vietnamese American spaces, gender plays a huge role, and LGBTQIA+ topics are rarely talked about. Mostly out of ignorance, but also because the word “gay” doesn’t really translate in Vietnamese. Unless you mean to call someone an offensive slur. In a way, their harshness was an attempt to protect me. When you live in a society that preaches anti-gay rhetoric, you too will find yourself speaking the same language.

I know there are a lot of queer Asian Americans out there who struggle finding acceptance of themselves because of the deeply-rooted homophobia and transphobia within our cultures. Ultimately, we are still our immigrant parents’ wildest dreams. Who we love or how we choose to express ourselves does not take away from our potential for greatness. Everyone is deserving of unwavering love and acceptance.

Knives Nguyen (they/he/she), is a journalist from the Bay Area who covers entertainment, culture and student life. You can connect with them on LinkedIn: @knivesnguyen.

Edited by Amber Ly

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