Sacramento conference embraces LGBTQ Asian and Pacific Islanders

Sacramento, Calif. — The Asian Pacific Islander Queer Sacramento Coalition hosted the first known API-centered lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer conference in the city April 16.

Held at California State University, Sacramento, “APIQ Homecoming: A Conference for LGBTQ+, API, and their Allies” drew in almost 80 local attendees, including about 15 students from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and featured 30 presenters.

“At first I was really debating whether or not I really wanted to get up at five in the morning just to attend some conference, but I’m really glad I did,” said UCSC freshman Sarina Sylavong. “I got to meet a lot of new people and learn so much from all the workshops I chose to go to.”

Kevin Mori, who is part of a Bay Area Japanese American LGBTQQ group called Tadaima, said the event had a good mix of local and out-of-town attendees, allowing him to connect with old and new friends.

“I thought it was really well-organized and they did a great job of focusing on local issues and needs,” he said.

The coalition was formed in November 2015 by a group of locals who recognized the need to bring the Sacramento-area API LGBTQ community together. According to a few of the conference planning committee members, there are no clear statistics on how many API queer individuals there are in the Sacramento region.

Planning committee member Michelle Huey, who is also the Japanese American Citizens League’s Northern California Western Nevada Pacific District Council youth representative, said that although she could not find any API-specific groups for LGBTQs in Sacramento during her research before the coalition’s formation, she had met several Sacramento-based people at the Tadaima conference April 2.

“We know that there’s an attraction and a need for our specific (API) sub-group,” she said.

Conference speaker and planning committee member Dee Lee said she had a hard time finding anyone from the community when she moved to Sacramento in November 2012 from Saint Paul, Minn. Before she co-founded the Sacramento Hmong LGBTQIA in December 2015, “It was like I didn’t know anyone — I didn’t know any Hmong or API queer individuals,” she said.

Main organizer Richard Carrillo said the inspiration to create APIQSC partly stemmed from his own personal experience. Carrillo, who is of Japanese and Mexican descent, said he got involved with PFLAG (formally known as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) after realizing that even after many years of being out to his parents, his mother still had difficulty understanding his sexual orientation.

Marsha Aizumi. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Marsha Aizumi. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

Understanding that some API parents also struggle with the process, Carrillo said it was great to have LGBT community activist, speaker, author and educator Marsha Aizumi speak at the conference about her journey as a mother of a transgender son.

“I do this work every day in gratitude for my son’s life,” Aizumi said during her workshop as she held back tears. “So when I see people in the audience who are willing to listen and learn and grow in awareness and understanding, I think the world is going to be safer for him, and for all our children.”

Aizumi and her husband adopted Aiden Aizumi, who was born female. He grew up as an athletic tomboy, happy with many friends.

However, his life became more difficult when he entered middle school, a time when sports are separated by gender, boys start liking girls and girls talk about boys, make-up and clothes — none of which Aiden Aizumi was interested in.

“My daughter, who was very athletic, didn’t fit anywhere,” Marsha Aizumi said. Aiden Aizumi began to feel the weight of not belonging, and started having panic attacks.

In his second year of high school, Aiden Aizumi came out as a lesbian and hoped that, after coming out, all the pain he had felt up until that time would disappear. Unfortunately, it “slapped a target on her back,” Marsha Aizumi said. Aiden Aizumi endured two years of bullying and harassment.

After winter break of his senior year, Aiden Aizumi told his mother that he did not want to go to school anymore. He did not tell her why, but Marsha Aizumi knew that her once successful child was now more withdrawn and failing classes. He was also diagnosed with agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that often causes people to avoid public places.

After Marsha Aizumi spoke with school officials, Aiden Aizumi was allowed to finish the second half of his senior year at home.

Aiden Aizumi came out as transgender in 2008, six months before his 21st birthday. Since transitioning, Marsha Aizumi said her son has “blossomed.” He is currently married, working full-time and studying to earn his master’s degree in educational counseling at the University of La Verne. Additionally, he gives away three chest binders each month in an ongoing project sponsored by gc2b. (Binding is a way to flatten or conceal one’s chest.)

Aiden Aizumi also facilitates a youth group for LGBTQ high school students. When he has time, he presents in workshops with his mother, which he said he loves watching her do.

“You can tell she is passionate about it and I like getting to do the work together,” said Aiden Aizumi, who was unable to attend the conference because of a scheduling conflict. “I think our story is more powerful when we are together because people can see both sides.”

In addition to sharing her son’s story, Marsha Aizumi shared some of her challenges, the biggest of which was shame and dishonor — not toward her son, but herself. She said she felt guilty at first and she blamed herself for being busy at work and not seeing the signs. She also felt shame and dishonor for being a terrible mother and because of these feelings, she said she “went into the closet” at the beginning of this process.

Now though, the shame and guilt she felt on herself has turned into pride.

“I’m proud of who my son is, and I guess that I’m kind of proud of myself — that I’ve been able to manage to confront these things and end up being as strong as I am,” she said, showing that the journey was as much a trial for her as it was for her son.

Sacramento and Elk Grove, Calif. PFLAG parent Janet Souza said she was impressed with Aizumi’s honesty, warm heart and humor.

“The fact that she still cries while telling her story resonated with me because after seven years of telling how my son came out, I still cry,” said Souza, whose son is now 27 years old. “It is an important story that I tell in order to help others who may benefit from my experience.”

Sylavong also attended Aizumi’s workshop and said that it was the most compelling session she could have chosen.

“I never really considered how parents felt towards issues like this, so it was very enlightening and touching to see the journey and challenges parents go through to stand by and support their children,” she said.

UCSC sophomore Shannon Liang said she learned a lot from Aizumi, who was supportive and understanding for those who needed guidance.

“She’s proof that Asian parents, who are usually really traditional, can be accepting,” she said.

Aiden Aizumi told the Nichi Bei Weekly that his advice for young LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islanders is to “surround yourself with people who accept, support and love you as you are and to not be afraid to reach out for support.”

Similarly for parents, Marsha Aizumi said it’s important to not be afraid to reach out because, in her experience, the more she learned and the more she talked about it, the less fear and shame she had.

“When we don’t reach out, when we don’t go into the community for help, then we feel alone and that shame, all of a sudden, I think, gets bigger,” she said.

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