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LGBTQ Hmong Fighting the Culture of 'Ua siab ntev'

Aug. 22, 2017
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In Hmong, elders use a catchall phrase to address the complaints of the younger generation: Ua siab ntev, or, literally, be patient. It’s sometimes said to comfort wives suffering domestic violence or cheating husbands. As in its other applications, should the subject of accepting LGBTQ children ever be raised, the phrase means, at best, “Don’t try to change your culture.”

The Hmong social structure is clan based and strictly patriarchal. As in most cultures, marriage is sacrosanct and the sole means to preserve clan identity. Because LGBTQs do not contribute to continuing the family lineage, same-sex attraction itself becomes an act of defiance. So foreign is the idea that there is no word in Hmong for homosexuality. Hence LGBTQs are outcasts for their imperfection and infidelity to the clan. 

Hmong history is as complicated as it is long. Its most recent chapter begins with the end of the Vietnam War in 1973 and the subsequent resettlement of thousands of Hmong in the United States. Currently, more than 250,000 reside here. One of the largest concentrations is in St Paul, Minn. About 50,000 live in Wisconsin with just over 10,000 in Milwaukee.

Having been moved from ancestral lands in Laos and Vietnam and their agrarian lifestyle to refugee camps in Thailand, then relocated to an extremely foreign and often hostile environment in American cities, the Hmong found themselves culturally traumatized. Isolated by language, customs and social mores, a clash with their new surroundings was inevitable. However, it also disrupted their traditional social order.

Their children assimilated readily, albeit with difficulty. Some rejected Hmong values in the process. Struggling for identity and acceptance, the first generation of Hmong American LGBTQs began finding expression, too. But, they faced even more challenges than their straight counterparts.

One acquaintance writes short poems and essays about coming out and gay life. Like his American peers, his experiences reflect the typical tentative process of accepting LGBTQ identity. But unlike them, he confronts the added conflict of cultural separation. That, in turn, results in depression, loneliness, bitterness and longing to escape through internalized racism. Others, in deference to their large, closely knit families, often where children remain in the parental home until married, use the strategy of interracial dating to avoid being outed. As in other ethnicities where being gay isn’t an option, the tactic is a familiar one. And like them, it further alienates them from their families and forces them into secret lives.

Fourteen years ago, to address the needs of LGBTQ Hmong, activists in St. Paul created SOY (Shades of Yellow). The first and only organization of its kind, SOY’s mission supported Hmong, Asian and Pacific Islanders. It struggled, but, through its website, events and YouTube videos, managed to reach hundreds of LGBTQ Hmong Americans throughout the country. Sadly, the rigors of non-profits, like fundraising and maintaining volunteers, proved too formidable and forced its closure last June.

Locally, the UW-Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center offers assistance to Hmong students.

Despite all, and with a degree of personal risk, a small contingent of LGBTQ Hmong and their allies, perhaps a dozen with some in traditional costume, proudly marched in the Milwaukee Pride Parade. Hopefully, it will inspire others.

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