I was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. when I was sixteen as an immigrant. Being an immigrant I was often undermined and underestimated in my ability to obtain a higher education. Overcoming the language barrier proved a challenge to adjusting to my new life in America. My high school counselor advised me not to take the SAT because she thought I would fail university classes. My aunt told me to avoid AP classes and aim for community college instead. The only person who believed in my ability was my gay uncle, the first person I came out to. He mentored me through the process of gaining my new identity as a gay American. With his support, I applied and was accepted to the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). At UCSB, I started to get involved in queer organizations and learned more about the history of the LGBT in the U.S. Throughout the four years of college, I was assimilating into American culture. It was the time of my life that I began to understand what it means to be an American.
After college, I moved to Orange County with my mom. In the quest to find my own community, I found Vietnamese Rainbow of Orange County (VROC) and became the secretary. VROC fights for the rights of Vietnamese LGBT and spreads our visibility in Orange County. In 2013, LGBT people were barred from marching in the Vietnamese annual New Year festival in Westminster, California on the assumption that being gay is not a part of Vietnamese culture. We worked hard for our rights to march and successfully turned the decision around. Ever since then, I have been marching with VROC for the Tet parade. VROC was a second family to me. All these years, VROC had nurtured me to grow up in this post-college chapter of my life. For the first time, I once again realized what it means to be a Vietnamese American. Through learning and sharing our stories, I learned that our experience is different from other Americans and also other Asian Americans. Furthermore, being an LGBT person adds more to the complexity of our American identities. In the end, I cannot be happier than to be a proud gay Vietnamese American.
Currently, I am a Ph.D. student at the University of California Irvine studying genetics. Being a scientist is not something that is associated with the LGBT. None of my VROC fellows are in the science field. A lot of time I did not feel related professionally with my VROC family. On the other hand, I am the only gay Vietnamese person in my science community. My mom even pointed out that science is a career for white people. Despite the lack of role model, I applied for grad school and became a scientist. I was very happy that I chose something which is authentically me as I am passionate about science and discoveries.
It is a stereotype that neither Vietnamese nor gay people are involved in science. In fact, I have met LGBT individuals as well as some Vietnamese fellows at my Ph.D. program. I believe there are many LGBT individuals working in the science field who are not visible. LGBT visibility in science disregards the stereotype that LGBT individuals are not contributing to science. Despite being unique, I am visible and carry my own voice for each community that I live in or work for. I am proud to be counted as a gay Vietnamese American scientist. I will continue to work for the voices and the visibility of my own people.
When I was a child growing up, I would lay in bed asking for some higher power to simply let me be “normal”. I had many challenges, expectations, and pressures that came together to make my life experiences different from peers around me. I was seen as just that: different. As a result, I was bullied growing up in Orange County, for my name, my ethnicity, my race, my sexuality, my gender. For a very long time, I felt like I was torn and was told that this broken person did not belong here. I spent a majority of my adolescence surviving with the intention to run away, and when I had a chance to leave for college, I wanted to stay away for as long as I could to avoid the place that reminded me of being hurt. I did not have hope that Orange County, my home, would be a safe space that would or could nurture me and allow me grow.
When I was forced to come back to Orange County and to face my fears, I was prepared to find and to carve a space for myself while hoping to meet other people who had similar experiences like me. I returned from college equipped with lessons and experiences of self-agency, self-worth, and self-care. The more I searched, the more I found that I was not alone in my experiences: I discovered my community and my family in Viet Rainbow of Orange County. Through VROC, I was able to relearn that my backyard can be and has been a safe haven for queer people of color and that we as queer members of the Vietnamese diaspora all deserved to be fairly and equality treated, to be thriving, to be visible, and to be counted. I was given a chance to be me, a second generation Vietnamese American person who identifies as queer and gender-fluid, and more.
I work as a clinical social worker now, supporting people who survived through traumas and have challenges with their lived realities. I was asked at work “What would you like to be famous for?” during a meeting, and I shared that I wanted to be known for being “apologetically, authentically me”. In wanting to not be seen as different, I tried to mold myself to fit to the expectations given to me and expected of me. I did not want to inconvenience others and to make the people around me feel comfortable. In giving myself permission to accept the decisions, actions, and behaviors that made me quirky, queer, me, I became comfortable with and true to myself. Different is good, special, and real; for me to celebrate my uniqueness is to accept that I am capable of being all that is me.
I learned that pain and loneliness does not always need to stay a negative feeling, but can lead to experiences that are honest and freeing. In standing up, I am vulnerable, but I can also be seen and be pinpointed as a person who is contributing to a movement that is larger than my life and beyond myself. I work towards creating change because my personal is political, professional, powerful, and precious. VROC’s slogan is “We, as a community are not complete without each other”, and this is a message that I am faithful to. Today, I am happy to be visible and to be counted as me: proudly queer and anything but “normal”.
“I stand before you as a 2nd Generation Vietnamese American, who is a proud Queer/Lesbian. Although I am proud queer woman of color, I still continue to fight for my visibility and the visibility of others in the Asian community. There is not a lot of representation in various media and social settings. Many constantly try to oppress and erase our existence, but we are not going anywhere,”