When Kevin Xiong was living in North Carolina several years ago, he was sure he was the only gay Hmong person in the world.
Then in 2005, a Google search led him to Shades of Yellow, a Twin Cities-based group of Hmong gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer folk — most of whom had also at one time believed they were alone. “That’s pretty much everyone I’ve talked to,” Xiong says. “Everybody thought they were the only one.”
Xiong was so excited about the group, he traveled to Minnesota to learn more about the organization, which got its start in 2003. At the time, Shades of Yellow — or SOY — was more of a social support network than an activist group, and its members generally tried to keep a low profile.
Since then, however, the group has evolved, revamping its mission statement to include pushing for visibility and acceptance — and Xiong wound up the group’s first executive director.
SOY’s dual aims are to support LGBTQ folks within the Hmong community and Hmong people within the LGBTQ community. It offers several private support groups to its members, but it also recently announced selections for its new leadership program, which will train 12 individuals in leadership and activism.
This summer, SOY plans to hold a meeting to discuss LGBT issues with parents and elders in the Hmong community. “We’re going to have community leaders come in and sort of be the medium between the younger generation and the older generation,” Xiong says.
“Hmong parents and elders know what gay is or what lesbian is, but they tend not to talk about it,” Xiong says. “It’s not a cultural norm.” And having children is paramount in Hmong culture, which puts huge pressure on gay and lesbian individuals. “My friend is a doctor, but his parents don’t term him successful until he gets married and has kids. Even if he adopts, that’s not good enough — they want blood grandchildren.”
Xiong has seen progress, but he still gets nasty letters and phone calls — sometimes even death threats. “Especially from parents,” he says. “Every other day I receive a call from someone saying, ‘You guys shouldn’t exist.’ “
Xiong recently traveled to Laos and Thailand to study how communities there react to gays and lesbians. He found that people are aware of homosexuality, but they don’t like to acknowledge it in their own culture. “In a Hmong village, people would say, ‘Oh yeah it exists in the Lao community; it happens in Thailand; we see it on TV.’ ” But to the follow-up question of whether there are gays and lesbians in the Hmong community, he received a uniform “no.”
“I’m like, hello?” Xiong says. “I’m speaking to you in Hmong and I’m flamboyant; have you not noticed?”
Xiong has also observed that Hmong fathers tend to have an easier time accepting gay children than do Hmong mothers. “I think it’s because it’s the mother’s responsibility to raise the child, so it will sort of be seen as her fault if the child becomes gay or different.”
Xiong’s own mother didn’t speak to him for a year after he came out, but now, he says, she’s become a great ally.
Xiong clarifies that to SOY, the term “ally” refers not only to straight supporters within the Hmong community, but also to non-Hmong gays and lesbians.
At SOY’s annual Hmong New Year’s party, Xiong has heard criticism from both sides. “Some people say, ‘Oh, it’s too Hmong,’ and we’re like, ‘Well we’re Hmong,’ and some people say, ‘Oh, it’s too gay’ and we say, ‘Well, we are gay.’ “
“That’s something unique about our organization,” he adds. “We’ve been able to incorporate both cultures into the celebration and make it our own.”