By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Marsha Aizumi and her son Aiden spoke about coming out of the closet at a recent conference called “Family: An API LGBTQ Gathering” [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender, Queer] held on June 13 at the North Seattle College.
It hasn’t always been so easy for Marsha to talk about coming out or the shame she admittedly felt when her transgender son Aiden first came out as a lesbian. Aiden later shared his desire to transition from a lesbian female to male.
The shame Aizumi felt was one she attributed to her experience of growing up in an Asian family, where she worried about bringing dishonor to her relatives. Such shame, she described, had effectively pushed her into the closet as her son struggled to come out of it. Once she began attending groups like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), they provided her with information and directed her to places where she could talk to people one on one.
“Asian families tend to not want to make public [those] issues that they’re dealing with. What that does is that not too many Asian families come out, so the ones that are dealing with these issues are very isolated,” said Aizumi.
Parents are often the ones to guide their children, but in the case of API communities, LGBTQ children must often help their parents navigate this issue because the parents don’t speak language, don’t have the understanding, and lack the proper support. Aizumi often describes her journey of accepting and embracing her son’s identity with an image she has in her mind of Aiden reaching into the closet toward her and saying, “Mom, we’re going to do this together.”
Coming out together
Two years ago, Aizumi approached former Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Seattle President Bill Tashima about starting an API LGBTQ family support group. Talks since then helped inspire the Family conference, where Tashima’s own family from Mukilteo and Ohio were in attendance to support him and his nephew, Paul Tashima, the current president of Seattle’s JACL chapter.
“Over the last year, we’ve mourned casualties of the silence created within the Asian Pacific Islander community around LGBTQ issues,” said Paul Tashima.
“Although isolation, bullying, and shame have always been problems for LGBTQ communities, cultural expectations within communities of color often magnify these issues by avoiding discussion altogether, which only makes it harder for individuals to reach out for support,” he adds.
Among the workshop topics covered at the FAMILY conference including Trans 101, Multiracial LGBTQ issues, and immigration. FAMILY also hosted sessions to empower students and allies to start their own gay-straight alliances or reinvigorate current ones. JACL Seattle, in partnership with other local Asian organizations, are also working to create the proper support system for API families of LGBTQ individuals.“When you’re coming out or you’re in a family of someone that is coming out, it is very important to know that there is support out there and there are other people like you. You don’t have to keep everything inside,” said Bill Tashima, who recalls the hardships of growing up gay in the 50s and 60s.
“I kept everything inside and it was a struggle. It’s never easy to come out, but it’s really important that people know there are others to help you. This not only goes for LGBTQ youth but also to parents of LGBTQ youth, and siblings and children of LGBTQ people because they also have a coming out to do,” said Tashima.
API-specific support groups
FAMILY was a free conference hosted by the JACL in partnership with the Pride Foundation, PFLAG, Tadaima, ACRS, API Chaya and other local organizations. It is one of many conferences at which Aizumi is a featured speaker. Since Aiden’s transition in 2008, Aizumi went from being a reluctant member of PFLAG to becoming an advocate for API LGBTQ issues and co-founding the San Gabriel Valley API PFLAG in Southern California. She, along with Aiden, wrote a book titled, “Two Spirits, One Heart,” about their mutual journey of working through her fear and shame to love and acceptance, which she hopes would help other families struggling to understand their child’s sexual or gender orientation.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions in the API community about individuals being LGBTQ. One of the huge issues is that the Asian families think it is a choice, and that it is an American disease. When the children come from countries like China, Korea, or Japan and move to cities that have a larger LGBTQ population, they may think, ‘If I didn’t move to New York or the U.S., they wouldn’t be gay or transgendered.’ I don’t think they understand that this is something the child is born with,” said Aizumi.
Correcting misconceptions is a large part of the advocacy work with API LGBTQ families, notes Aizumi. Another vital aspect is finding the proper language to explain heavy terms like ‘queer’ or ‘transgender’, an issue touched on in one of the Family workshops titled, “How to say ‘Queer’ in Mother Tongues.”
“If we’re not willing to come out, it means there’s still some shame involved, and then it’s not an unconditional acceptance. I never want parents to feel guilty if it takes some time, because it took me time. It’s a journey for parents. In the end, if the parents can get there, that’s going to be the most important thing for the child to know that their parents accept and love them,” said Aizumi.
In 2014, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) and Asian Pride Project released a series of multilingual PSAs on API parents who love their LGBTQ children in nine different languages that aired on various Asian ethnic TV stations. The PSAs were among the first public outreach efforts to make public the faces of everyday API families with LGBTQ sons and daughters, and inviting other parents to take a stand and share their stories.
For Bill Tashima, this progress is just the beginning.
The start of a greater conversation
“For Japanese Americans, we often wondered why our parents never spoke about incarceration and the struggles that they faced. They only spoke about the happy times, and you really had to delve. It’s only now that we find out a lot of the pain and suffering they endured and it’s only now that we’re talking about it,” said Tashima.
“I realized that I was the same way. I didn’t talk about what I went through when I was younger, and now I think well, maybe now it’s time I talk about it too, because it’s important for young people to know that we’ve gone through this too, and we’re here to help you,” he said.
Going forward, JACL Seattle chapter President-Elect Sarah Baker and Family conference coordinator and members are discussing the possibility of making Family an annual event, but focus will also be on forming, with the help of local API organizations, an API PFLAG to provide continued support and address the issues that are unique to API LGBTQ individuals and their families. (end)
For more information on the Family conference, visit apifamilyevent.com.
For questions about future API LGBTQ family support groups and other resources, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tiffany Ran can be reached at email@example.com.