From a young age, University of Washington student Joey Lu knew his gender identity did not conform to the norm. While growing up in China, he’d always liked toys and clothing made for both boys and girls.
Now Lu, a 20-year-old psychology major, knows he identifies as bi-gender—that is, he moves between stereotypically masculine and feminine gender identity. For the first time last winter, Lu took part in the UW’s Queer Student Commission drag show in Seattle.
But he wasn’t always able to express himself so openly growing up in China or, later, studying in Singapore.
Since coming to Seattle, Lu has found a community that accepted him in ways that he felt wasn’t always as available to him in Asia.
Lu’s story is familiar to some LGBTQ immigrants and international students studying at the University of Washington.
Shuxuan Zhou, a PhD candidate in the UW Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies program, said being in a new environment away from one’s parents—even if it’s just in a different city within China—allows for more flexibility and space to negotiate one’s identity formation and expression.
However, students don’t necessarily feel freer just because they are in the United States, said Shuxuan Zhou, who identifies as queer and has worked with LGBTQ activists in China.
“I don’t want to say or describe Chinese international students here [as if] they have been repressed in China and then come here and got liberation,” she said.
Other factors affecting a person’s choice to be out are race, class, parents’ attitudes, and local friend networks, she said.
But for some students from China, she said, if they are living away from their parents and have a supportive social network in Seattle, they may then choose to be more open about their sexual identity here.
For Lu, being out with his gender was affected by laws and culture.
In Singapore, gay sex is outlawed. In China, homosexuality is legal but while the nation is becoming more progressive about accepting gays and lesbians, Lu said expressing gender nonconforming behavior in the general public is still more taboo than it is in Seattle.
Lu said a lot of LGBTQ communities in China are hidden and isolated from mainstream culture. In his personal experience, some LGBTQ individuals in China may share their identities within that community, but not necessarily with their classmates or roommates.
Sometimes, the hush-hush nature of this topic can have a huge impact on an individual’s sexual relationships.
“What I’ve seen [is] a lot of people [in China], they’re just forced to get married, so they can’t really just come out and say, ‘Hey, I’m gay,’ or ‘Hey, actually I want to be a woman,’” Lu said.
Zhou agrees that discussions of LGBTQ identities in China is not as open as it is in some parts of the United States.
“In the Chinese community, if the parents feel uncomfortable with the children’s sexuality, they don’t really talk about it,” she said.
Differences from the home countries
International students from other Asian countries also say coming to the United States has enabled them to be more open with their sexuality.
Sawatt Siriphadung, 38, a doctoral student from Thailand visiting Seattle through a one-year scholarship, says Seattle’s LGBTQ culture is quite different from the one in Thailand.
Siriphadung identifies as gay, and was repeatedly harassed while growing up for what others perceived as un-masculine behavior. He said his parents would also try to “straighten him out” through various means, including forcing him to learn Thai boxing during his childhood.
That said, he believes the country has become more accepting of the LGBTQ community in the past decade, and he has come out to both of his parents and some of his friends back home. But he still feels somewhat restricted in Thailand.
Since arriving in Seattle five months ago, though, he said he’s felt more comfortable in his sexual identity.
“The culture here in the United States, the language…those factors have influenced me to go forward, to be outspoken, to do things I’ve never done before in Thailand,” he said. “…I feel that there is a right sense of Asian culture and mix between the East and the West here [in Seattle], which makes me quite comfortable about living here.”
UW sophomore Liem Nguyen, on the other hand, said he does not feel he acts differently in Seattle versus Vietnam, where he was born and raised until moving to the United States seven years ago.
Though he has never officially “come out” to any of his family members, Nguyen, 20, says his brother and cousins know and accept that he identifies as gay.
He said he can’t imagine telling his parents, though. Based on his own experience living in Vietnam and working with LGBTQ youth there last summer, older generations may not be as accepting and there is a lot of misinformation about the gay community. He also thinks that people of his parents’ generation put high importance on how their community perceives them.
“For old people there’s a lot at stake in accepting their child, because the dynamic in Vietnam is that people live in neighborhoods, and usually they are a very close-knit community,” he said. However, I think the old people usually identify themselves in how other people perceive them. So if they accept their child or something, other people will comment. It’s not like an individualistic approach like here in the U.S. It’s a very communal thing in Vietnam.”
Changing attitudes at home
Still, Nguyen says the future looks promising for LGBTQ individuals in Vietnam. He says younger people in Vietnam, particularly in metropolitan areas, are generally more accepting of the LGBTQ community. He said activists are also very proactive about changing misconceptions about this community.
“The (gay) community in Vietnam is very strategic,” he said. “They have goals every year. They know the sources that are spreading false information in the media and they tackle that. So I think generally speaking, Vietnam is very progressive in terms of progress of information spreading.”
And Lu, the psychology major from China, said he is now getting a lot of support back home as well—from his mother. Since confiding in her about his gender identity a few years ago, she has been a major source of encouragement for him.
“She actually is more open-minded than me,” he said. “I feel like there was a long period of time I really confused myself … My mom just said, ‘Follow your heart, because you only got one life.’ She actually was the one who comforted me.”
Because of this, he said, he feels comfortable being himself back at his mother’s home in China. There, he has his own room, and since he usually goes home during summer vacation, has more time to dress up and wear whatever he wants.
For now, Lu hopes to stay in the United States and eventually obtain his PhD here. But he’s hopeful about the future of LGBTQ rights in his home country.
“I believe it is changing in many countries, especially in Japan and now in China. I think people are starting to feel like this is a freedom of choice or maybe it’s a biological thing … you cannot just put people into jail for doing this.”