3 Reasons Queer Asians Can’t Discard Their Families – And Why They Don’t Have to

One younger person in the forefront, looking concerned; two older people are in the background, watching them.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty damn tired of watching the same-old movie about a queer white kid who has to overcome their family’s disapproval in order to be themselves.

Seriously, how many times have you seen a sensationalist narrative about a gay white man who has to courageously come out to their family and inspire everyone they meet with their self-reliant heroism?

These films not only lack opportunities for queer people of color to show up as anything other than the ethnic sidekick, but they also exclude the fact that there are so many families of color who actually do affirm their queer children.

So I asked my queer friends if they could name any movies starring a queer person of color who had a supportive family. We came up with nothing.

Growing up as a queer Vietnamese kid, I ingested these movies and came to the conclusion that there was supposed to be a natural divide between my family and me.

I watched narrative after narrative featuring white gay men who, after having a lot of sex with other gay white men, emerged from tragic hometowns and family turmoil like neoliberal unicorns – far more progressive than everyone else – and decide that their queerness was reason enough to dispose of their families.

In order to truly be myself, I thought I had to conquer my family first.

I thought that having an unsupportive family was a natural part of the queer experience, and that there was nothing I could do to change that.

Luckily, I learned pretty early on just how much that was a bunch of white queer bullshit.

When you are both queer and from an Asian immigrant family, there is no need to conquer your family. Colonialism and white supremacy has already done (and is still doing) that conquering.

In other words, the capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy needs no help from me.

Choosing between queerness and my family isn’t a choice that I should have to make, especially when my family is part of my queerness.

For me, queerness is not just an individual identity. Instead, it is mode of building resistance, love, and community. It’s a way of being in the world and relating to my (chosen) family.

I come from a whole lineage of queer femmes, and they have brought me into existence through their survival. My queerness is wrapped up in my inheritance of their legacies. I would not be here had it not been for the resistance of my ancestors.

It doesn’t make sense to conquer my family to arrive at queerness when my family is the source of my strength in the first place. When I choose my family, I am choosing my queerness, too. 

And besides, racialization is a process of queer-ing.

My family is queer by default simply because they don’t embody white, heteropatriarchal ideas of a family structure.

When the epitome of masculinity and femininity are ascribed to non-disabled white bodies, there is no way that my family can be seen as cisgender and straight.

The way that society queers me, whether I identify as queer or not, aligns with the way my family as a whole is queered. All of this is to render me and my family as alien, as Other.

And being queer requires solidarity with other queer folks, whether they’ve had queerness imposed on them or not.

So my resistance is not removed from my family; it is instead entirely rooted in my family and my ancestry. I am carrying on a legacy of Vietnamese resistance that has lasted for more than a millennium.

Rather than trying to fix my family (when there is nothing wrong with them as far as I’m concerned), I am focusing more on divesting from a world that has tried so hard to convince me that my family is inherently flawed.

It’s time queer Asians discard this harmful, white-as-fuck narrative that tells us our families are our enemies. Here are three reasons why.

1. Queer Asians Have Existed Long Before the Illegitimate Settler-State Called America

Just take a look at the waria of Indonesia, the kathoey of Thailand, the bakla of the Philippines, and the hijra of India, among others.

It’s difficult to find research that doesn’t fetishize, misinterpret, and erase the complexity of these identities.

Many of these people have held spiritual, highly regarded roles in their communities.

And with so much history erased by colonialism, it’s safe to say that there are probably even more queer and gender non-conforming Asian legacies that have been lost.

Meanwhile, Western settler states like the United States and Israel are pinkwashing themselves to make themselves appear progressive, as if they are the inventors of queerness, in order to hide the fact that settler colonialism is one of the reasons queer people are oppressed in the first place.

It is racist to think that Asian families don’t understand queerness. It’s racist when white people get to define what progress is and then use it against queer people of color.

In our current Western context, no one, other than Asians themselves, know a thing about Asian families. The majority of people only know stereotypes.

And few people know much about families with LGBTQIA+ kids either, considering the one-size-fits-all style of representation in the media.

So queer Asians sit within what seems to be an especially invisible space – that sweet spot at the intersection of queerness and the multiplicity of our Asian heritage.

It’s important to recognize that while queer Asian families may seem to be virtually invisible, we have been here and have thrived since forever.

Our invisibility is a deliberate and essential part of cishetero white supremacy. We are erased in order to make the violence we face less known and easier to execute.

When people don’t know that we exist, they don’t know that we are still recovering from imperialism, or that we disproportionately face poverty.

In order to understand our oppression, we have to know our history. And our history isn’t telling us that our queerness is separate from our ancestry and our family.

It’s telling us that other models of family are possible, in which queerness is not just included, but celebrated.

It’s harder to leave our families behind when we realize that queerness-versus-family is not a choice we have to make.

2. Our Families Are Going Through Their Own Oppression, Too

We can’t forget that many of our families are also wading through the depths of oppression for themselves. Many made journeys across oceans, just to find that many of those in power will only hate and abuse them.

And when Asian families arrive in the US, many of them find that they are not made to benefit from a capitalist, white supremacist system.

Once Chinese laborers helped build and finish the Transcontinental Railroad, the US decided to ban almost all immigration from the entire continent of Asia.

Muslim women from South and West Asia face surveillance from American intelligence agencies and Islamophobic violence from society at large.

For Southeast Asian refugee families like my own, mental health issues are especially difficult and rarely addressed. 40% have depression and 35% have anxiety. And a startling 70% of Southeast Asian refugees are living with PTSD.

Colonial violence, from years past and present, is still robbing Asian families of their health and wellness.

Thus, when Asian families face oppression in so many ways, we have to put queerness into context so we can remind ourselves that all oppression is intertwined.

Anti-queer oppression cannot be separated from the anti-Asian racism that I face along with my family.

The oppression that I face personally is connected to the oppression that my family faces, sometimes in insidious ways. White masculinity is harming my father more than it helps him.

White feminism doesn’t give a fuck about my mother, as a nail salon worker, when they’re talking about the wage gap.

White queers aren’t worried about our families being incarcerated and deported, because they’re busy getting married.

The reality is that our families are already put under the strain of historical trauma and infinite structures of oppression.

Our families are already under the threat of being ripped apart; there isn’t need for any help from us.

Queer liberation means nothing if our families are still being victimized at every turn.

3. Our Families Are Not Lacking – We’re Just Told They Are

While we are attentive to the ways that our families seem to fail us (based on what we are fed from mainstream media), we can neglect the ways that we in turn harm our families.

One of the barriers between us and our families is language.

We’re unable to use the words “trans” or “queer” because our families don’t seem to have a point of reference. There is no Vietnamese equivalent for gender non-conforming.

I settle for describing myself simply as “the way I am” to my parents, and they understand. But I am downright disgusted by the idea of a queer Asian person rejecting their families for not being able to understand “queer” and “trans” in the American, English-speaking context.

My dad spent years learning English to survive.

He carried a dictionary with him and put himself through college barely understanding what he was reading in textbooks. To hold him up to the standards of an abusive education system is to reinforce the violence he’s endured.

And my mom is still mocked every day for her “Asian accent.” Meanwhile, none of the white ladies mocking her speak a lick of Vietnamese.

She is disparaged for knowing two languages; white women get by just being an English-speaking white person.

I was taught that my parents should rise to the standards of a nation-state where English is seen as the most important language.

But the fact is that my parents have the language to understand queerness, and they don’t need English to do so. It’s just that this language has been buried underneath so much time and trauma.

Rather than focusing on the ways that our families need to change, we should emphasize the ways that our families have found ways to survive and support us at the same time.

We should be thinking about how the world needs to change, not our families.

The world has convinced us that we need to fix ourselves and our families rather than the world itself. In so doing, structural oppression is allowed to continue.

For many of us, the end of queer oppression can be found by simply looking back at our heritage.

Leaving our families behind won’t save us. In fact, leaving our families behind may only serve to bolster oppression’s divide-and-conquer tactic.

The closer we get to our families and our rich histories, the stronger we can become. The better we can love and take care of one another, the closer we get to justice.

***

This is not to say that our families are never sources of pain.

The reality is that many of our families are sources of pain. It is part of the nature of human relationships. I want to honor the pain and anger that we feel towards our families while also emphasizing the ways that the world has tried to pit us against our families.

Not all queer Asian families are as I have described; rather, this essay is to directly combat the idea that all Asian families are the same. Some queer Asians will need to remove themselves from their families for reasons of safety or self-care. That is different from discarding one’s family entirely specifically for the purpose of queer liberation.

Just as our oppression is intertwined with that of our families, our justice will be bound up with our families too.

The sooner we realize that, the better. 

xoài phạm is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. They are a Vietnamese femme. They are tender and dangerous. They love mangos. They have places to be and people to scare. Read their articles here.