This paper highlights the
cultural barriers for Hmong people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, and queer (LGBTQ). Hmong American men and women face social and
cultural struggles where they are expected to adhere to Hmong requirements of
gender roles passed down to them by their parents. Despite the perception that
traditional Hmong culture holds no place for queer Hmong Americans, individuals
advocating to find acceptance and slowly moving the large Hmong community to a
place of understanding and tolerance. A vital part of this movement is Shades
of Yellow (SOY), an organization that supports queer Hmong. particularly as
more Hmong Americans continue to negotiate multiple identities, including
sexual orientation (Mayo, 2013).
The Hmong are a Southeast Asian ethnic group of people
who originated from the region of Hunan in northeastern China. To this day,
there are still uncertainties as to the exact time period the Hmong inhabitated
China. The first wave of Hmong immigrants came as early as the late 1970s, with
thousands who continued to migrate in the past 4 decades.
According to the 2010 U.S. census, approximately 260,000 Hmong
Americans are primarily residing in Californa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North
Carolina (Pfiefer et al., 2013), with the majority in the the Midwest and West
Coast. The Hmong culture is strongly rooted in a family-oriented system,
meaning family takes precedence over the individual. The Hmong community in the
United States consists of people from approximately 18 clans. One of the
highest held Hmong traditions is that each clan maintains its distinctive
household/tribal bloodline (Abidia, 2016). The Hmong collectively shares a set
of values that all its clans agree on, including practices that are deemed
taboo – homosexuality being one of them. For the most part, homosexuality has
been nonexistent (Hahm & Adkins, 2009). In fact, there is no direct
translation for the words gay or lesbian in the Hmong language. Instead, the
Hmong adapted the Thai word, “kathoy,” to refer to LGBTQ people in general.
However, “kathoy” primarily refers to men who dress as women, and does not
necessarily denote their sexual orientation (Yang, 2008). Futhermore, a Hmong
person is not simply viewed as an indivudal, but as a representative of his or
her family and must maintain a postive public reputation. Coming out as LGBTQ
as serious repercussions not only for the indivudal, but for the entire family
as well. In recent years however, the Hmong community has been forced to
confront their traditional cultural values after their resettlement in the
United States because LGBTQ Hmong Americans are stepping forward to advocate
Downfall of Self-Identifying as LGBTQ
Because the Hmong
community is such a close social network, any challenge to the culture’s social
norms may be interpreted as also challenging the culture as a whole.
Ultimately, all Hmong individuals are born with the expectancy to carry on
their family and clans’s name and reputation (Boulden, 2009; Lee & Pfeifer,
2006). If one comes out and self-identifies as anything other than
heterosexual, she or he will bring great shame to the family. This can cause
parents, relatives, siblings, and close fiends to disown that individual (Hahm
& Adkins, 2009). Once an individual self-identifies as nonheterosexual, the
individual may feel it necessary to withhold his or her sexual identity in fear
of being rejected and frowned upon. (Rosario et al., 2004).
If the individual’s sexual orientation is discovered
against his or her will, the consequences may lead to mental health issues.
(Hahm & Adkins, 2009). In a study conducted with 10 gay Hmong, ranging from
18 to 30 years old, most reported experiences of struggling with fear of
rejection and a variety of mental health issues including periods of
depression, suicidal ideation, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, high
risk behaviors, such as gang involvement, and high risk sexual activities
(Boulden, 2009). For example, on May 11, 2001, a 17 years old Hmong American
female, Panhia Xiong, and her 21 years female partner, Yee Vang, committed
suicide (Her, 2014). The incident occurred after Panhia’s mother discovered her
daughter’s relationship with Yee and prohibited them from seeing each other.
Situations like this one raise awareness of the LGBTQ Hmong community and the
potential risk of suicide among LGBTQ Hmong individuals (Her, 2014).
Self-Acceptance and Networking with LGBTQ
Despite the downfall with identifying as LGBTQ, some have
taken this as an opportunity to reach out to their community and network with
advocates and supporters of LGBTQ. For instance, in 2003, Hmong community members
in St. Paul, Minnesota, began a social gathering group of LGBTQ youth from the
Hmong community (Her, 2014). This group established a community known as Shades
of Yellow (SOY), the Hmong nation’s first nonprofit community organization.
What began as a safe space for young LGBTQ Hmong individuals to gather and
discuss the issues they faced in their environment has revolved into a place
where individuals now gather to discuss ways to promote lasting change in the
Hmong community (Her, 2014). In 2006, SOY became a formal organization
dedicated to make a difference in the Hmong community in the State of Minnesota.
Gradually, conservative elders and parents of LGBTQ Hmong youth began reaching
out to SOY support in responsse to familial conflicts (Ramirez, 2012).
Harmful or Harmless
The social changes brought by LGBTQ Hmong-Americans can
personally be harmful towards individuals identifying as lesbian, gay,
transgender, bisexual, and queer. However, in the Hmong American society, those
who are identifed as LGBTQ brings no direct harm to members who are willing to
accept the sexual orientation of these individuals. Being LGBTQ can be harmful towards
one if they are rejected by their community, especially their loved ones. Because
the Hmong culture is strictly patriarchal where power, authority, and responsbility
are held by the male elders, an individual’s sexual orientation could cause them
to be disowned from their family (Boulder, 2009). This would not only bring shame
upon the family, but as the entire clan as a whole. This could also break relationship
among friends who are strictly heterosexual and have no tolerance for homosexuals.
The effect of this can cause LGBT individuals to have mental and/or physical health
issues such as what the paper has discussed above. In worst cases scenerios, this
could include suicidal thoughts, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and in turn,
result in physical self harm (Boulden, 2009).
As a result of their upbringing by Hmong parents in
American, Hmong American men and women are born into a world where they must
navigate expectations of gender and sexuality on both sides. Men are able to
receive preferential treatment from the family without the societal pressures
of having to uphold their role as a man, while women are expected to fulfill
the expectations of their Hmong parents and in-laws in an environment that says
gender does not matter. Living under a dual set of rules creates stress for
heterosexual Hmong American men and women, while creating futher complications
for LGBTQ individuals. While Hmong American men and women have the option of
aging out of their immediate family’s gender expectations and have developed
methods of resistance through different channels, the same opportunities are
not available to LGBTQ Hmong Americans.