MINNEAPOLIS — When Oskar Ly came out to her mother a few years ago, her mother pretended the conversation never happened – an all too familiar story for many gay Hmong Americans and immigrants.
But Ly was determined.
She set out not only to live her life openly, but also to help other gay Hmong overcome cultural challenges and obstacles.
Since coming out eight years ago, she has become actively involved at Shades of Yellow, the nation’s first community organization aimed at creating a supportive environment for gay Hmong in the Twin-Cities area.
“Everybody’s life situation, their socioeconomic background is different,” said Ly, who Colorlines.com recently named one of 10 leaders building LGBT politics in the South and Midwest. “I wanted to work across ethnic and racial backgrounds.”
At SOY, Ly helps organize events, and more recently, has been educating people on a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 6 ballot where voters will decide if lesbians and gay couples should be able to get married.
Started in 2003 as an informal support group where gay Hmong could talk openly about their experiences at home, school, work and community, the nonprofit now provides support groups for youth and their parents, hosts annual events that are increasing in size, and advocates for equality.
Kham S. Moua, the organization’s board chair, said an organization like SOY is essential in a culture where many Hmong elders find it difficult to understand – and accept – that their children could be gay.
While no studies have been conducted to determine the percentage of gay Hmong people in the U.S., Moua said too many people have remained quiet about their sexual orientation and identity, and even married the opposite sex in order to avoid conflict with their families.
Hmong Population in the U.S.
It’s not surprising that SOY was born near the Twin Cities region.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military recruited Hmong to help them battle communists in Laos. When the military withdrew from the region in 1975, thousands of Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand to escape retribution.
General Vang Pao, who had mobilized thousands to leave their villages and join the fight led by the Central Intelligence Agency, helped more than 200,000 Hmong people resettle in California, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
It’s estimated that Minnesota has one of the largest Hmong and Hmong-American populations in country, with more than 66,000 Hmong and Hmong-American residents calling it home, according to the Hmong American Partnership. “We’re where the Twin Cities meet up with St. Paul, serving as a hub so that we can connect with more people,” Ly says.
Family and Clan Are Number One
When Hmong people look for a significant other, they’re usually looking for someone outside their own clan, said Vang T. Xiong, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at Minnesota State University, Mankato. The women will typically become part of her husband’s clan.
The husband’s role is to pass on to his offspring the clan’s last name, and ensure the longevity of the family name.
As with many minority communities, there is pressure to protect the Hmong ethnic identity and culture. Being unable to continue the family name or contribute to one’s clan is seen as a threat to the Hmong’s very survival. For gay Hmong shunned from their clans or families, it can sometimes feel lonely, Moua said.
Some studies have documented harsh realities for those who decide to be open with their family and community.
“We don’t have a word for gay and lesbian,” said Xiong. “When it comes to sexual orientation, it’s taboo [to talk about it] in the Hmong culture.”
Moua said a number of Hmong elders consider being gay a defiance, a type of trait young people pick up after they’ve been exposed to same-sex relationships in the media or have become more Americanized. The most common refrain is that there aren’t any gay Hmong people in the homeland.
“Because we only started coming out in the U.S., they believe it’s completely a western influence,” Moua explains.
There’s also a belief among the elders, Moua said, that those who are gay will face a life of solitude and loneliness as they will likely not marry, have families of their own, or be fully accepted in their clan.
“It also comes from a place of love,” Moua said. “It seems discriminatory … but they want their children to be fully involved in the extended family and clan. They want the children to be successful. The only way is not to be an LGBT individual; to get married and live a fulfilling Hmong life.”
As a result, when Hmong parents learn about their sons’ or daughters’ sexual orientation, they will still often attempt to persuade them to marry someone of the opposite gender.
“My mom has just wiped it from her memory,” Moua recalled of the time he came out to his parents. “My dad will bring it from time to time. He’d say, ‘Remember the time you told us you were gay?’”
The next sentence will invariably be insisting that Moua find a nice Hmong girl to marry and have children.
“In my own personal life, there’s still a long road ahead,” Moua said.
That’s not to say there’s no support from Hmong parents or relatives. One of SOY’s yearly celebrations honors the parents who’ve backed their sons and daughters, and have even become their biggest allies.
Mother’s love for her daughter
Ly’s own mother has started to come around. Over the last year, Ly has been able to talk to her mother more about being a lesbian. During a recent New Year’s celebration, her mother met Ly’s partner of more than two years. “They are as supportive as they can be,” Ly said of her parents.
“My partner is great too. She’s someone who I have a great relationship [with] and my parents can see that,” Ly said.
As Hmong parents begin to understand their children, there are some issues that these two generations in the U.S. will need to address, Xiong said.
In a traditional Hmong marriage, the groom must pay a dowry. He wondered what would happen if a same-sex Hmong couple ever got married.
“How would you pay that? The family would have to work it out,” he said. “It’s never been done before.”
But for now, Xiong, simply gives some advice to Hmong parents.
“Love your child,” he said. “Let them live life as a full human being.”