His conservative, Hmong mother told him it would be better that he were dead than gay the first time Fresno State student Shai Chang approached the topic of homosexuality.
“I asked her what she thought of gay people, and she immediately was like, ‘are you gay?! Are you gay?!,” Chang said. “Basically, she made it seem like she had wasted her time raising me if I was gay, that it would be better if I was dead.”
Chang and several other “queer students of color” shared such experiences at a panel discussion on Wednesday. Many of them touched on the complexities of being both gay and of a minority race.
The discussion was hosted by the Cross Culture and Gender Center (CCGC) at Fresno State to give queer students of color a platform to voice their issues. Joury Robles, lead student coordinator of LGBTQ+ programs and services at the CCGC, moderated.
Five students of varied ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations spoke at the event. At the introduction, each student identified his or her most salient identities:
Jose Leanos: Anthropology student, Mexican-American or Chicano, homosexual male.
Danika Brumbeloe: Fashion merchandising student, biracial (black and white), bisexual/queer, “bi to the core.”
Cecilia Knadler: Women’s studies and criminology student, from Lima, Peru, fluid lesbian/queer.
Shai Chang: Sociology student, Hmong-Asian, gay.
Polet Campos: Anthropology student, “queer-Catholic-Chicana.”
Although all the students hold unique identities, they face many similar issues of intersectionality. That is, they face a combination of oppressive institutions such as racism, sexism and homophobia.
“Our struggles are all very different, but they are all very significant,” Chang said. “We go through oppression twice – first, from our ethnicity and then from our sexuality. It’s really hard to be oppressed not just once but twice.”
Bridging the language barrier
One of the biggest obstacles Chang said he faced in expressing himself and his identity to his family was finding the right words. Articulating his sexuality is uniquely difficult given the limitations of his family’s native language.
“In Hmong, there isn’t a word to describe what gay is or what lesbian is,” Chang said. “The closest word is a Thai word, but it more closely describes transgender people. Many Hmong can’t understand because they are very conservative and close-minded – they see the LGBT community as a white people’s problems.”
Chang was not the only panelist who discussed problems with limited vocabulary to describe a subject as complicated as human sexuality. Campos said Spanish does not encompass a word for bisexual or queer, which made her coming out conversation difficult and confusing. She said the term that kept coming up was ‘tortilla.’
Usually, “tortilla” is used in a derogatory way to describe a lesbian or bisexual. The term comes from the tortilla-making process which involves patting tortilla dough back-and-forth.
“I mean what kind of shit is that?,” Campos said. “It was really hard to have that sort of pushed on to me. It’s one of those things where my identity isn’t taken seriously because I’m just a ‘tortilla.’”
Oppression on campus
Most of the students had felt some type of oppression while on Fresno State’s campus. Some of the instances were obvious as felt by Leanos, Brumbeloe and Campos.
Leanos said he first felt like an outsider in a freshman anthropology class when he presented his career goal of study sub-groups in the LGBT community.
“After that, the professor never called on me, and no one would sit by me. I felt isolated,” Leanos said. “I sort of gave up after that. I don’t say much about LGBT in classes anymore. The experience shut me up.”
Brumbeloe and Campos were targeted by the preachers who recently visited campus. Brumbeloe said the preachers saw a rainbow bracelet on her wrist and verbally attacked her.
“To be screamed at in public was so harmful to who I am,” Brumbeloe said. “I have never been so openly hated before in my life, and to have our school say they can’t do anything about it because it’s not hate speech. I was openly hated on this campus, to the point where I avoid that area now.”
Campos said she was telling a professor about the preachers being hateful and was asked if she did anything that was gay to provoke them. She said people assume she is straight based on her appearance, so if she is a target of homophobia, she must have done something “openly gay.”
“Stereotypes dig deep when they are reinforced by professors and other students,” Campos said.
Chang said he most often deals with disguised oppression. He said professors and students often contribute to an invisible but hostile environment.
“It’s not always apparent, but you can sense it,” Chang said. “It’s the little remarks that make you uncomfortable. It makes going to class hard…sometimes I feel like I can’t succeed in classes because I can’t connect with people in class.”
Navigating the workplace
Chang and Brumbeloe both work at the CCGC, a place they say allows them to feel free.
Brumbeloe said the black community is still largely homophobic because of religious beliefs. She said she is seen as an abomination and cannot talk about her sexuality among family, but work is completely different.
“I work in the Cross Culture and Gender Center, so I don’t have any problem,” Brumbeloe said. “It’s really lucky because I get to be very open and get to talk about my sexuality often.”
Chang felt a similar fondness for the openness at the CCGC.
“It’s a very accepting place,” Chang said. “I want to work at places like that all the time.”
Knadler also does work that allows her to avoid discrimination on the job.
“I’ve been an activist for the last three years, so there’s no issues,” Knadler said. “Being a rebel, it’s OK. I was a waitress before that and never really had problems. Mainly, it’s been my family and my Latino community that still has issues.”
Leanos, on the other hand, said he has experienced oppression at work for both his race and sexuality.
“I’ve lost jobs because of the way I looked, because I was racially profiled,” Leanos said. “Even though I was more than capable and interviewed well, at times when I had short hair, I looked like a gangster, and that wasn’t conducive to what the job was.”
Leanos said he has an expectation to be looked down on by white co-workers because of his race and that coupled with the negative ways he sees open LGBTQ+ co-workers treated is enough to make him hide his sexual identity.
Connecting to family and community
Being a part of a family or community is often a huge part of an individual’s identity. For some of the students on the panel fitting in is a complex art. For others, their sexuality has helped strengthen their ties to such groups.
Leanos has had a positive experience and said his coming out drew his family closer together.
“For me, both my ethnicity and sexuality have had a positive impact on my family life,” Leanos said. “I was fortunate to have a huge number of siblings, and I was fortunate enough they were all open and affirming and very accepting of me when I came out. Because of that, it’s made my family ties a lot stronger.”
Knadler has not had as smooth a time getting her family’s acceptance. She said her mom has mostly come to terms along with younger people in her family. But for the most part, the older generation does not support her.
“When I’m with my partner, who’s a girl, and my daughter, and we’re at family gatherings, it’s hard for us to show our affection,” Knadler said. “To family, it’s like ‘We get it, you’re gay, but please don’t show it to us.’ It’s hard not being able to show affection to the person you love.”
Knadler, as a mother, worries about the discrimination that might befall her daughter.
“As she gets closer to elementary school, I worry about administrators or other parents who might not want her to hang out with their children because of me,” Knadler said.
Campos’ family had a split reaction to her sexuality.
“My mom left the room, and my sisters joked that they knew,” Campos said. “My dad thinks it’s a good thing because it will be a cheaper wedding since I can’t marry a woman in a Catholic church and those are expensive.”
Campos said her family is more concerned for her safety and warns her about being open with the right people. Exploitation is a worry for Campos, who as a Latina says she feels fetishised and when people learn of her queer status, they assume she is open to anything. Campos and her family also fear she could be targeted for corrective rape given the machismo in Latin cultures.
“I don’t feel safe just for being a woman, and then for being Chicana and then for being queer,” Campos said.
Chang expressed a sort of catch-22 in balancing his cultural, familial identity with his sexuality. He says in Asian culture individuals are seen as representing their families more than just themselves.
“There’s a term that means losing face,” Chang said. “It’s like dishonor. The moment I tell them when I am gay, I will be disowned because they don’t want to associate with me being gay and being Hmong.”
Chang said he loves Hmong traditions and would be happy to have a Hmong wedding but knows that would be almost impossible. He said he feels a sense of self-oppression and stops himself from connecting to Hmong culture because he knows eventually he will be rejected.
“You have to lose your tradition to be gay. You can’t be both. It’s so hard being gay and being Hmong. I have to choose one or the other,” Chang said.
All of the students on the panel expressed dodging labels in one form or another. Many times, in the public eye, they feel confined to stereotypes.
Chang said once people know that he is gay, they think he is attracted to every guy he comes in contact with.
“Everything I do is gay, everything I touch is gay,” Chang said. “I can’t hang out with guys without people assuming things. Sometimes I will hear guys saying I was hitting on them, and I’m like, ‘Wow don’t flatter yourself.’”
Brumbeloe said people will see the parts of her they want to see. If it is convenient for people to think of her as black and straight, then that is all she becomes to them.
“They don’t hear that my favorite color is purple and that I sew clothes,” Brumbeloe said. “They see, ‘OK we got this black girl and she’s bi – OK got it.’ Then there’s this stamp they put on me. People say I didn’t know black girls could be bi, and I’m like ‘Yeah, we come in all different colors.’”
The next step
The panel concluded by discussing how other people can be stronger allies. They all agreed that people do not need to relate to their problems because it is often dismissive. Instead they said they just need someone to listen.
The discussants also agreed they and other queer people of color would benefit from more visibility. They felt events and discussions like the panel would be beneficial.
“We should have more talks like this because it promotes diversity, one of Fresno State’s
missions, one of Fresno State’s goals,” Chang said.