For LGBT Asians, changes back home offer hope

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NEW YORK — For Clara Yoon, there was never any question in her mind about helping her daughter when she came out as transgender in 2010. Yoon, who is Korean American, quickly joined a local support group for parents of LGBT children.
She soon discovered, however, that she was the only Asian parent in the group.

“I am sure there are many parents that need support,” said Yoon, who founded the API Project of the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays of New York City (PFLAG NYC) last August. The group meets once a month, though Yoon says that to date those at the meetings have been mostly members of the LGBT community.

Yoon knows the stigma attached to having an LGBT child within the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community is what stops most parents from coming. In order to get more parents on board, she is planning on changing tactics, she said, by organizing social outings as opposed to support group meetings.

“I always see parents of LGBT members talking to one another and matchmaking for their children,” she noted, though she added that many still try to set up their children on dates with members of the opposite sex.

“What they want is the happiness of their children. If the Asian community can be vocal to LGBT members and tell them they are part of our community, parents have no reason to not support them,” said Yoon.

Homosexuality within Asia is largely frowned upon, and is in fact still illegal in a number of countries. But activists say they are seeing an opening in attitudes, with a loosening of restrictions and a growing tolerance in some areas.

Up until the late 1990s in China, for example, it was not uncommon for same-sex couples to be arrested under the auspices of an article that listed “lewd behavior” as an illegal act. Those arrests have since declined and in 2001, China officially eliminated homosexuality from their reference book of mental illnesses. There has even been a growing chorus of support within China for legalizing same sex marriage, though no official government support has been forthcoming.

Although there is no official count of the LGBT population in China, scholars estimate there are 30 to 40 million in the country of 1.3 billion.

In Singapore, sex between men is still illegal, and journalists are prohibited from writing about topics having to do with homosexuality. Likewise, Malaysia has laws on the books that prohibit homosexuality. Still, LGBT rights protests in both countries have been occurring with more frequency in recent years.

These signs of change, although small, give hope to people like Yoon, who believe it can strengthen the push here to gain greater acceptance for LGBT members of the Asian American community.

Marsha Aizumi is a Japanese American mother of a transgender son, Aiden. The pair co-authored the book “Two Spirits, One Heart,” which details their experience with Aiden’s sexual orientation. Aizumi recently visited China, where she met and spoke with LGBT activists about their own struggles.

“I was reluctant to go because I don’t like traveling,” she said. “But I just want to make the world safer for my son and other LGBT people. I came back with a completely different perspective on how hard we have to work here and how even harder they have to work there.”

Aizumi spoke at a conference hosted by PFLAG China in the city of Fuzhou. Around 80 parents of LGBT children attended, along with the head of PFLAG China, an influential businessman and gay rights activist named Ah Qiang. “In America we have so many [advocacy] organizations. In China they are developing them, but they have fewer resources. I got to really see at a very raw level what they have to go through,” said Aizumi.

She noted there was also a great deal of interest among the activists she met in the achievements of the LGBT movement in the United States.

“I see the connections both ways,” she said. “What we are doing can really give hope [to activists in other countries] that the world is changing. On the other hand … if people are more open over there, it makes it easier for [immigrants here] to share with their families when their children come out.”

Which is why, she said, addressing the legal barriers that bi-national LGBT couples face is crucial. It’s one reason that, even after DOMA’s repeal, many LGBT organizations are still pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.

Until that happens, Aizumi insists she will continue to work within the API community to “make the world a better one for the children we love.”

This article was produced as part of New America Media’s LGBT immigration reporting fellowship sponsored by the Four Freedoms Fund.

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