A few months ago, I was asked to the keynote speaker at a Hmong College Student Leadership Conference. It was an incredible opportunity, especially considering that I was only 23 and in the audience were state senators and individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping my community. Below is my speech in full. Of course, I ad-libbed during the actual speech and made it a bit funnier, but none-the-less, my speech:
What makes a good Hmong man? As the oldest son of six children, I am expected to be the pillar of my family’s heritage and lineage and name. My role includes finishing college, obtaining a job, marrying a Hmong woman (or failing that, any woman), having children, and becoming the unifying chain that would hold my family together and bond us with other families within the Moua clan.
However, at 16, I came to the realization that I do not neatly fit this Hmong ideal. At 16, I realized that I am gay. But I didn’t know how conflicting my gay and my Hmong identities were.
During the 2004 presidential elections, I heard my mother scream at the television and say (in Hmong) “that gays are more vile and disgusting than dogs and should never be allowed to get married.” This was the first time I can remember anyone talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.
At the time, I didn’t know how to react. But her words stayed with me through my adolescence. On the day that I admitted my sexuality to myself, her statement was the first thought that popped into my head. The next thought was how I had failed as a son. I locked myself in my room, closed all the curtains, turned off all the lights, and cried. And I felt like she was right, I felt like I was no better than a dog.
I am gay. It is something that I cannot change about myself. I can never marry a woman nor have children the way my parents envisioned. I felt that instead of upholding my parents’ ideal of a perfect Hmong man, I had unknowingly tarnished my family’s name, lineage, and heritage; unwillingly disregarded cultural norms; and unintentionally broken traditional practices. I thought that no matter what I did, nor how hard I tried, I would never gain my parents’, my relatives’ or my community’s acknowledgment or respect. I felt that to them, I would never succeed. I was different, a failure. I was no good.
At 17, I realized that I could not change my sexuality, and I hated myself. I thought myself better dead. And because of that, I tried to kill myself by drinking a bottle of Pine-Sol. But I couldn’t go through with it. I was scared. Although I hated who I was, I didn’t want to die. After sitting in my bathroom for two hours, holding that toxic bottle in my hands and contemplating suicide, I promised myself that I would live my life. I wanted to show them that different can be good – that despite the fact that I am gay, I would be successful.
I chose to live – in spite of my differences, in spite of my family, my community, and my society telling me that who I am may be wrong.
When I was 20 – my aunt married her partner of seven years. My aunt is a lesbian, and she wed. My extended family was furious. They conducted a witch hunt to out all the gays and lesbians. And it was during this time that my cousin decided to tell her parents about me – the only one who was remotely comfortable with his or her identity. In her words, she thought that by disclosing my sexuality to her parents, my family would come to better understand, accept, and love the other potentially queer people in our family. She martyred me when I was only beginning to come to terms with my identity.
I found out about this when my aunt called me at work and said, “Kham, your parents know about you.” My heart plummeted as soon as I heard her utter those words. I couldn’t continue the rest of my shift. I was so scared – all my fears suddenly came to fruition. I thought that I would lose my family. I thought that I would be disowned – alone with nowhere to go.
At the time, I was working as an intern in the morning and as a community organizer during the afternoon and early evenings. For a week, I hid from parents. I lived out of my car and showered at my friend’s house when I could find the time. Eventually, my brother told me that my parents were leaving for a camping trip with my other aunts and uncles. As soon as I heard that they had left, I went home, packed everything I owned and left for my apartment at college.
When I came back home, my parents had returned. They stayed up all night to talk with me. The first thing my dad said to me was, “Kham, do you know what’s worse than murder? Being gay. At least when you kill someone, you serve your time. You can change. But gay? What do you do about that?” He said “Do you know how embarrassed we were when we found out one of our children is gay? We thought it was your brother. But to find out that it was you, our oldest, that was the most the most disappointing part.”
My dad said that my mother wanted to throw me out. She had piled up all my clothes and belongings, but he stopped her. I didn’t sleep for a week because every night, I would come home from work and argue, scream, and yell at my mother. And my dad, he would just sit on the couch and wait it out. Every night, a relative stopped by to lecture me on the consequences of my identity. My uncles, my aunts, even my grandmother stopped by to tell me that I – the oldest; the son that my parents put all their hopes on; the grandson and the nephew that my family thought would be most successful; the only one that everyone knew was gay – was the biggest disappoint to my family.
My mother said, “Kham, you are perfect in every way. You are smart; you do well in school; you are handsome. But you are gay. And I will never accept you. You will never be successful to me or your family. If you become a lawyer, I will try my hardest to make sure no one visits your practice. I will tell everyone what a shame you are and ruin you. When I die, I do not want you at my funeral.”
I didn’t know how to reply because I while I was grappling with my sexuality, I was also finally beginning to accept my heritage. For two years, I spent hours working in my community in order to learn about my identity and about people. I wanted to help my community, but more importantly, I wanted my mom and my dad to be proud of me, to love me despite the fact that I am gay. I made the Dean’s every semester in college because I wanted to prove that I could be successful, that I would be the most established man in my extended family in spite of my sexuality, that I could be good. And in that moment, in that conversation with her, I realized how fruitless all my actions had been. All I wanted to do was to prove to my parents I was worth something, and in the end, I was still seen as worthless – less than a dog, less than dirt, less than the gum on the bottom of their shoes.
A couple of weeks later, my parents took me to a shaman to fix me. I went because my dad pleaded to me. He said, “Son, if you let us do whatever we feel necessary, and if nothing works, then we have no choice but to accept you as you are. Let us do this.” So I went. The shaman had requested a bottle of water. When I got there, he took the water, waved it over a fire, and gave it back to me.
“Have you ever tossed a pebble in a body of water?” He asked me. I nodded, of course. “When you did that, a water spirit entered your body. And its the reason why you’re like this.” He then instructed to wash my face with the water every morning and every evening in order to cleanse myself. It didn’t work. But I pretended it did. My parents wanted to take me to temple – $300 for a bottle of my water from the shaman and $1000 to be fixed at the Buddhist temple. And that number would just keep increasing. I didn’t want to be a financial burden, so I lied.
Three years later, and I finally understand. My parents were just as trapped in the idea of good and bad as I was – this was just as much a process for my mom and my dad as it was for me. My parents had given up everything to come to the United States. My dad was an orphan, all he had was my mother, my siblings, and me. In us lived all his hopes and his dreams – we were his American dream. I, his oldest son, was where placed all those ideals. My mom came from an affluent family and lost her title, her wealth, and her sister in the war. Her upbringing had taught her to place her future on her children, on me. And when they realized that I could not have children the way that our culture desired, that I would not marry a woman, and that I would never become a full fledged man in my community – they lost all those hopes and all those dreams.
I may never be accepted as a good person by my parents but that’s okay. I’ve come to learn that Hmong culture is fluid – it changes with the youth. Our culture looks different now than it did 50 years ago, a hundred 100 years ago even. In fact, you might even be able to argue that it looks different now that it did just last year. I may not good man by the standards that my parents know, but I am a good Hmong man by the definition set forth by myself, by my peers, and by my generation.
Hmong culture has changed as we have migrated and moved. Our language has adopted phrases, idioms, and sounds originating from the mountains of China to the hills of Laos and the plains of the American Midwest. Our culture, like our community, is dynamic, not static. And we should not be afraid to call out the wrongs in our culture, in our tradition, and in our stories. We are not be defined solely by our culture; rather, our culture is reflection of who we are. And it should liberate us from oppression, not act as a chain around our necks.
I’ve been taught my entire life that being a Hmong man meant living a certain way, acting a certain way, loving a certain way. And how I should have been has chained me for a long time, made me hate myself for a long time. I was caught in an idea of what it meant to be good, even when I realized that I didn’t fit that definition – I ached to be recognized as such by my parents and their perception of good.
I am now 23 years old, and I am a proud, gay, Hmong man. My parents are not entirely okay with my sexuality. But they have come terms with the fact that I am gay. Sometimes, my mom will unknowingly mention my sexuality or one of my “friends,” before she quickly recognizes her language and corrects herself. Its a process, and the three of us are going through it together.
I am no longer the pillar of my family, nor am I the adhesive for my family within our clan. I cannot change my sexuality, nor would I change my sexuality if given the chance. It is as much a part of me as my name, my lineage, and my heritage. What makes me different is also what has given me perspective and a lens for social justice. Through my experiences as a gay Hmong man, I have witnessed and experienced firsthand the way that rigid cultural norms have led to depression, heartache, and the brink of suicide for many Hmong youth.
This is what lead me to social justice, to question what I have always believed to be right, and to demand and fight for change within our community, to make sure that we and those that come after us have a brighter future.
Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo, to question what we’ve been taught growing up – who to be, how to be, what to be.
So what makes a good Hmong man? Well, a good Hmong man, a good Hmong person is whatever we decide.
This was a very moving piece for me to read. I hope you all find it as powerful.