"There are no glbt Hmong people": Hmong American Young adults navigating culture and sexuality

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

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My involvement with the Hmong American community began in the late 1990s with an employment position at a Hmong social service agency. In my day-to-day interactions with coworkers and participants in our youth and adult education programs, I learned about the social and cultural contexts of the lives of Hmong Americans. My immersion in the Hmong American community was also facilitated by my participation in home visits, donation drives for new refugees, soccer and volleyball tournaments, and Hmong New Year celebrations. This engagement with the Hmong American community highlighted for me the central role of gender in the lives of Hmong American women and men. Issues related to gender role expectations, early marriage, and the implications for education and aspirations were frequent themes of conversation at work. The news media reflected this concern in another way, with stories about domestic violence and underage marriage in the Hmong American community. These stories frequently emphasized perspectives on and practices of gender issues as related to the assumed traditional values and customs of Hmong culture. Yet, my conversations with Hmong American youth and adults belied such easy explanations; they pointed instead to struggles over gender identity within social relations. In recent years, research has demonstrated the salience of gender in the experiences of Hmong American youth and adults. For example, researchers have illuminated the experiences of Hmong American women who choose education over marriage; the social stigma young married women experience from non-Hmong peers and teachers; and practices of masculinity among Hmong American youth which have resulted in antischool behaviors. Along with these researchers, my own work has examined the role of gender in the educational experiences of Hmong American students. 1 Despite these important contributions toward understanding cultural transitions within the Hmong American community, Hmong Americans are still characterized as traditional and patriarchal. More than thirty-five years after Hmong refugees began to arrive in the United States, news stories still cast Hmong culture as singularly traditional and backward. For example, in 2005 a Minneapolis Star Tribune article highlighting Hmong American gang violence asserted that a Hmong American female rape victim did not report the assault because "she feared her culture would require her to marry one of her atackers to save her reputation." The journalists argued that struggles between Hmong American youth and parents were due to irreconcilable differences between Hmong and American cultures: "The problem comes in mixing Hmong traditions with American culture. While Hmong refugees are struggling to survive in a culture foreign to them, their children are adapting more quickly and disobeying what they see as their parents' antiquated rules."2 In a similar vein, a Fresno Bee special series called atention to several suicides among Hmong teenagers and underscored the tensions between Hmong parents and youth. In one of eight stories, the journalist explicated the circumstances behind the suicide of a Hmong lesbian couple. According to the reporter, the "lesbian couple commited suicide together, knowing their love would never be accepted by their families or the Hmong community, which strictly forbids homosexual relationships." Once again, Hmong culture and identity are portrayed as irreconcilably traditional and suspended in time. 3 In different ways, both of these news stories make sense of the experiences of Hmong American youth and adults through an understanding of the clash between Hmong and American cultures. Here, the cultural implications surrounding sexual assault and the suicides among gay teenagers are sensationalized as events that only occur in Hmong families. Such stories also ignore the multiple generations, perspectives, and complexities in the Hmong American community. They obscure experiences of struggle that signify cultural transformation. In addition to the propensity to portray Hmong culture as unitary and static, we still lack knowledge about the multiple ways that Hmong Americans are transforming gender and sexuality. In particular, we do not know about the experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (glbt) Hmong Americans. Indeed, with few exceptions, litle research has covered the experiences of glbt Asian Americans and no research has been published about glbt Hmong Americans. The few studies on glbt Asian American students reveal that at school, students face racism, homophobia, and heterosexism. At home, relationships between glbt youth and parents are imbued with fear and conflict. As Joan Varney cogently observes, "In Asian communities where heterosexuality is assumed and in queer communities that are predominately White, queer Asian American youth have often felt as if they do not quite fit."4 This chapter seeks to explicate the ways that Hmong Americans are changing what it means to be Hmong women and men in their families and communities. It provides an understanding of the experiences of gay and lesbian Hmong individuals in their early to mid-twenties. The stories I share highlight experiences of alienation and conflict with parents and Hmong community members. At the same time, I illuminate the ways that Hmong parents, who at first disowned their children, became strong supporters over time. My research offers critical insights into the lives and experiences of Hmong glbt youth. It advances our knowledge base on glbt Asian Americans in general and glbt Hmong Americans in particular. Further, and more important, my work highlights the way that Hmong culture and identity are not a static "given" but are sites of change and disagreement.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHmong and American
Subtitle of host publicationNegotiating Identity, Community, and Culture
PublisherMinnesota Historical Society Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)9780873518482
StatePublished - 2012


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