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Jimmy Nguyen

Views & Voices

Why we need more LGBT racial minority role models

Sunday, December 9, 2012

I don’t see many people like me in the media. I am gay and a racial minority (and oh yeah, an immigrant to the U.S.).

When I turn on the TV, go to a movie, or read the news, I rarely see any LGBT racial minority stars. That’s why it was so powerful in October when the Huffington Post published a list of “The Most Influential LGBT Asian Icons.”

Margaret Cho
Photo by Dan Leveille, via Wikimedia Commons.

George Takei
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Luminaries like George Takei and Margaret Cho headlined the crop of 54 gaysians. Somehow, my name managed to make the roster. But the greater honor was what happened next: after seeing me on the list, two young gay Asians sought me out for advice. That reminded me of why the world needs more LGBT racial minorities as role models.

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I saw no gay role models, let alone LGBT Asian icons. Today, we live in a time when LGBT people have rising prominence in media, the arts, politics, business, and other fields.

But most gay and lesbian celebrities are white: Ellen DeGeneres, Elton John, Suze Orman, Neil Patrick Harris, Anderson Cooper. Fictional gay characters also tend to be Caucasian: the entire main cast (of gays and lesbians) from Queer as Folk, Will and Jack on Will & Grace, and couple Cameron and Mitchell on Modern Family.

We’re so appreciative of this rising gay prominence that it’s easy to forget those representations do not reflect the full racial diversity of the LGBT community. (Of course, it’s doubly challenging to get cast for media projects if a performer is a racial minority and gay.)

Beyond the entertainment and media world, the story is similar. In politics and business, gay and lesbian leaders are predominantly Caucasian. Sadly, this is even true within our own LGBT non-profit groups. In 2008, only 4% of executive directors of LGBT organizations were people of color; that figure comes from The Pipeline Project, a group formed to develop LGBT leaders who reflect our multicultural, multiethnic community. It is a far cry from the 36% of the U.S. population who self-identifies as a racial minority.

Celebrities, icons and leaders are important. They inspire and influence people of all ages – especially young minds. Certainly, LGBT youth of any race can be inspired by Barney Frank and Rachel Maddow. But it is a simple human truth that seeing a successful person who looks like you can provide even more powerful inspiration.

Two young men reminded me of this lesson after the Huffington Post published its list of influential LGBT Asians. First, in early November, I got the following email from a young man in Southern California. (He asked me not to identify his real name, so I’ll call him “Peter”).

Dear Jimmy,
I recently started following you after reading @JR Tungol article on, “The Most Influential LGBT Asian Icons” on Huffpost Gay Voices… And I have to say that you are amazing and an inspiration and hope!

As a young gay closeted Vietnamese male… Would you give me some advice on coming out to my “old school parents?” How did you come out to your family?

A Young Gay Closeted Vietnamese Male

I was immediately touched because I was once that guy– young, gay, closeted, Vietnamese, and unsure of how to come out to parents from “old school” Asia.

I composed a long response to Peter – empathizing about how Vietnamese culture, language barriers and parental expectations may make it extra difficult to come out. I explained that I waited far too long, until my 30s, to tell my own parents. I also revealed what I learned: by not giving my parents enough credit, I cheated myself out of a closer relationship with them than years of being the academic golden boy ever created.

Peter thanked me, and even asked for some career advice because he just graduated from college. He then posted my entire response to his anonymous blog so that other people could see my advice. Peter does not yet have enough confidence to come out to his parents, but I hope he does soon.

More recently, a 22 year old gay man in Indonesia emailed me. (I’ll call him Tom). Tom wrote that he feels isolated with no friends, and has not come out to anyone. He asked what does real life mean “if there is no one you love” and wondered “Will I get my true love someday?”

My heart broke when reading this plea for help – because Tom’s challenges as a gay man in Indonesia will likely be even more difficult than if he lived in the U.S. While I could not guarantee that he would find true love any time soon, I gave Tom much of the same advice that I gave to Peter in Southern California. Most of all, I encouraged him to come out to trusted friends and family when he felt it was safe.

As much as I was trying to give advice, I also learned something valuable: visibility of LGBT racial minorities matters. Those two young gay Asian men tracked me down across email cyberspace because they saw me on the Huffington Post list. While they could have sought advice from anyone, I could speak to them with added credibility because I share their Asian background. For every Peter and Tom, how many more gay Asian youngsters out there want help from an Asian mentor? And how many LGBT people from other racial groups want role models who look like them?

That’s why the world needs more LGBT racial minority role models. Every day, gay and lesbian people of color are ascending in their professional fields. We need to support their continuing efforts to break through historic ceilings. When they succeed, we need to give them greater visibility. Media outlets can help by more frequently recognizing achievements made by LGBT racial minorities.

As a kid, I saw a media landscape devoid of any gays or lesbians, and certainly no LGBT racial minorities. For today’s youngsters, whether they live in Southern California or Indonesia, I hope their view will become far more colorful.

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13 more reader comments:

  1. I agree. Young black kids need to know we exist too!

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:44pm
  2. “There are no black gay people.” This is what my mother told me when I was 12 years old.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:48pm
  3. I am sorry but I find this story ignorant. I as a gay white man do not need a white gay role model. As long as there are positive gay people to look up to why the hell does it matter if they are the same race. We stick together no matter what size or race or anything else. Sorry for those I offend just my opinion.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:49pm
  4. Because it matters, Thomas. You don’t have to understand it personally. It just does.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:52pm
  5. Coming from a Latin lesbian woman, I must agree with Thomas to a certain extent, I’m sorry. Thomas, maybe the word “ignorant” is a bit harsh to describe the message being conveyed, but I also can identify with having more Latina role models or minority role models in place in our LGBT community. I’m just saying…

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 2:57pm
  6. People of similar backgrounds tend to go through similar struggles. Being a Asian gay man and being a white gay man are very different perspectives. To see someone come from a similar situation and succeed encourages people.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:37pm
  7. When growing up, we tend to look for role models who look like ourselves. Its only natural. It reinforces the notion that we can also break through barriers and become successful just like they did. @Thomas your comment actually reinforces what the author was saying. White gay men and women have a multitude of rolemodels. That’s great if you are white but its not ignorant for a minority to actually want to see diversity.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:45pm
  8. I agree with Diamond.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:46pm
  9. The word minority has always been used in such a negative context…that every time I see it I still get that bad feeling.

    We definitely are suffering because of a lack of positive portrayals of all members in all of our communities.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:53pm
  10. But minority is not accurate. Whites are outnumbered in the world.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 4:05pm
  11. Kevin, I’d say you’re right…lol

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 7:26pm
  12. Willie you are missing my point. I look up to many gay people in my life and the world. Wether they are white, black or asian has never mattered to me. The point is they are and were there to guide me and I never once thought about their race but that they loved me for me. And as it has been said white people are a minority in this country if you would like to get technical. But it should not matter. The point is all glbt individuals should feel supported by all races and genders to make our community strong.

    Posted on Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 7:55pm
  13. Actually whites are still a majority in America. Its projected that you will be until about 2042. A majority is defined as more than 50% of the population (thanks statistics 215). You will become a major plurality at that point. And the other majority will be Hispanic whites(uncle sams term not mine), but that’s not really the point. Tomas I get what you are saying, that no matter what color, race etc you look at lgbt people as people and that’s it. I think that is really cool but you are missing a point. You are a white gay male and even with the little amount of gay role models available(in media not your home life and social circles), a high percentage of them are white. Gay kids and teens tend to be very limited on having access to tangible lgbt role models until we goto college,move etc. Imagine a black gay person who grows up seeing no successful black gay people. It is not very encouraging.No matter what the lgbt movement as a whole is doing, we need role models who look like us, for reasons I have stated in the earlier posts. The author of this article talks about how 2 Asian youth contacted him because they had a connection to him. They saw a visible lgbt icon came from a similar background. An Asian kid may need pointers on coming out to his Asian family from well another Asian person who has done is before. It helps to know that they are out there. The author is not ragging on white lgbt icons, he is just saying that it would be cool if there was more diversity. To be able to say wow ” we as a people are in a place were lgbt minorities are visible” It legitimatizes that we are real. For example there are still black people who still think that there are no gays in the black community. How do we solve this….find them and make them visible. At the end of the day race SHOULD not matter, but it will until everyone is equally represented.

    Posted on Monday, December 10, 2012 at 2:01am