I migrated to the U.S. from Ban Vinai refugee camp in 1993 and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin, but I relocated to St. Paul, Minnesota in 2001. I would not have used the word “queer” to describe myself growing up, but I knew early on that I was “different” from other boys. Growing up queer was extremely difficult for a Hmong refugee such as myself, especially living in poverty while trying to succeed in school and learning about my identity.
As some may say, it was hard to envision the Midwest as a destination spot for Hmong refugees or even queer Asian Americans. It was only until college did I realize how being Hmong, queer, and living in the Midwest would mean for me. Historically, the Midwest was not seen as a “gay friendly” region, and many have migrated away to seek more acceptance in, say, the Bay Area. But how does this picture of moving away in order to achieve liberation work for Hmong LGBTQ?
Linda Her, who identifies as a Hmong American lesbian, came out in the early 2000s and left St. Paul for San Francisco because she believed she was the only Hmong queer person. Speaking at the Minnesota capitol in 2012, she recalled, “The Hmong community and the LGBTQ community was not ready for me.” However, she eventually returned to St. Paul because she felt she was missing a part of herself being away from her family and the Hmong community.
Kevin Koob Meej Xiong, a gay Hmong man from Charlotte, North Carolina, moved to St. Paul in 2006 after coming out to his parents because he heard about Shades of Yellow, a Hmong LGBTQ support organization, started by Hmong youth. He reflects, “I came to Minnesota because of the resources available to Hmong LGBTQ at that time here. I found out about SOY in 2002 and after meeting a couple of the members at that time, I decided that I needed to come here to find myself.”
Indeed, the Midwest has operated as a sort of “Hmong queer San Francisco,” in the sense that the burgeoning Hmong population in the Twin Cities has allowed community building among Hmong LGBTQ.
Hmong LGBTQ come here to create community and participate in activism that impacts, even remakes, the state, by challenging the so-called homophobia of the Midwest. As far as I’m concerned, I’m staying.