“I’d be fine if you came out as lesbian,” Nayoung Woo’s mother has told her. “Why won’t you tell me that you’re lesbian?”
“Because I’m not, Mom,” Woo replies. Which, in her case, is true.
Her mother’s willingness to accept her daughter’s sexuality runs almost polar opposite to what most other members of Queer and Questioning Asians and Pacific Islanders (Q&A) experience.
“I’m like the joke of the group,” Woo ’12 said, referring to her strange familial role-reversal. This is because in a typical Asian or Asian-American family, homosexuality is viewed as unnatural and shameful. Children are hardly encouraged to come out to their parents.
Christopher Lee ’13, for instance, a Q&A member and a gay rights activist from Korea, has not yet come out to his parents about being gay.
Lee said he is more concerned about how his family would manage the social stigma that would ensue with his coming out than how his parents would react to him personally. He emphasized that in Korean society, the entire family is criticized even if only one family member is perceived of having done something wrong or dishonorable.
The differences between the queer community in Asia–Korea, in particular–and the queer community in the United States was something that particularly interested Woo. She had this juxtaposition in mind when she contacted Lee to ask if she could make a documentary about his transition from Korea to the United States. At the time, Lee had just been accepted to Stanford.
The film, which Woo began working on the summer after her freshman year, is now being funded by the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SiCa).
“The documentary’s title is Should Be, Could Be, But Is,” Woo said. “‘Should be’ as in what the Asian culture expects you to be, and then ‘could be’ as in what the American LGBT culture thinks is possible for everyone, but is. You know, we’re neither. We can’t should be, and we can’t could be, so we’re just is.”
When he moved to the United States, Lee immediately noticed the cultural differences that Woo was so interested in documenting.
“The queer community here emphasizes coming out,” Lee said. “If you’re a gay rights activist, you have to come out to the whole society. And you have to come out to your parents as well. But I think it’s the opposite case in Korea.”
Lee noted that while in the United States people typically come out to their parents first, in Korea, it isn’t uncommon for someone to be fully integrated into the gay community but still hide their sexual orientation from parents and friends. And while terms such as “gay,” “queer” and “LGBT” are commonly understood in the United States, in Asia, “you could use the word queer and nobody would know what it means,” Woo said.
“It’s very foreign, the idea of gayness, and some parents just take it to be very westernized,” she continued. “So they’re like, ‘Oh, you go to school in America and that’s why you got messed up.’ Or people think it’s a phase.”
Still, in both Asia and America, there is a similar stigma attached to being queer and Asian.
“Asian parents invest a lot in their children,” Woo said. As such, parents expect a return on their investment, so to speak–they want their children to carry on the family line, a pressure that hits especially hard for queer Asian men.
Woo spent a portion of her high school career in the United States, during which she joined her school’s gay-straight alliance, even though her parents denounced “these people” as unnatural, advising her not to associate with them because “the bible says it’s not okay.” However, Woo said she has been able to change her parents’ prejudices by telling them stories about her friends and emphasizing “gay as people” as opposed to “gay as a concept.”
This strategy seemed to convince Woo’s mother, who now frequently expresses understanding for her daughter’s friends. But very few young Asians have this kind of open parental relationship.
Concern and confusion about coming out to parents is essentially ubiquitous in the queer and Asian community. It’s not an issue that more mainstream LGBT groups address and, for this reason, has become one of Q&A’s top priorities.
“We don’t start with, ‘Let’s come out, how do I do it?” Woo said. “That’s not our question. Is it wise for me to come out? Will it hurt my family?…How important are all of those values, as opposed to my personal identity? Because we have to deal with a different question, we need a separate community.”
In addition to comfort and advice, the organization provides a sense of natural belonging for many members.
“[Q&A] is a place where I don’t have to feel Asian or queer,” said Lee, who didn’t originally didn’t define himself as “Asian,” having come from a mostly racially homogenous community. “It’s a place where I can finally just feel like everybody else.”
This year, Q&A is expanding its focus from being solely a support group to promoting activism and awareness of the issues faced by the queer and Asian community. To do this, they have organized campus-wide events and talked to queer and Asian organizations at nearby universities. One issue that Lee especially cares about is visibility.
“In general, I think Asians kind of lack visibility in the media…in America,” he said. “In movies about gay people, it’s always white people. So I always thought that being gay meant you could only be white.”
The queer and Asian community is similarly underground in Korea, where many people end up getting married to the opposite gender simply to hide the fact that they’re gay. The ongoing discussion about gay marriage, Lee said, would seem wildly radical in Korea. Woo has observed similar differences.
“It’s not important for some people to hold up a rainbow flag and say, ‘I’m gay, deal with it,’” she said, describing how some of her Korean friends claim that they will wait “until their parents are dead” before they come out completely and some never intend to come out at all.
Reflecting on Woo’s footage thus far, Lee said he can trace the transformation he has experienced over the past two years. The film shows the emergence of his new passion for “this Asian American visibility issue” and the “lack of ethnic diversity within the mainstream gay community.”
He also hopes that he can use what he has learned from his own exploration to help others.
“I went through an identity crisis, being like, ‘Am I Asian? Should I be more Asian, or should I be more queer? Can I not be both?’” Lee recalled. “I’m trying to become this role model for queer Asian Americans, because there are so few.”