This Sunday, Feb. 10, a Vietnamese New Year parade will fill the streets of "Little Saigon" in Orange County, Calif., but you won't see rainbow flags. That's because organizers refused to let LGBT groups participate. And the judicial system didn't help. This week an Orange County Superior Court judge denied an emergency injunction request by the Partnership of Viet Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organizations to force the parade to include their members.
Evidently, event organizers are concerned that Vietnamese culture will be harmed if gay people march in public. Well, folks, I can put those fears to rest. From my own life experience, I can assure everyone that being gay and Vietnamese makes me no less Vietnamese.
Tet is the most important holiday in Vietnamese life. Falling on the same lunar calendar spot as the Chinese New Year, it is celebrated with festivals, family gatherings and red envelopes filled with money gifted to children.
Ever since I was a little kid, I knew how important Tet was to my parents. We were an immigrant family from Vietnam, trying to navigate U.S. life after my parents fled with my siblings and me the night before Saigon fell in April 1975 to North Vietnamese Communist forces. So when Tet came around each year, it was an occasion to honor our heritage. For my family, that meant driving down to Westminster and Garden Grove, Calif., the epicenter of the Vietnamese American population and rightful holder of the nickname "Little Saigon." There, I'd see festivals, colorful outfits and even a parade.
At an early age, I realized I was gay. That's not easy for any young person to handle, but it's especially difficult in the conservative confines of Vietnamese and other Asian cultures. Looking back, I wonder how revelatory it would have been to see rainbow flags at the Tet festival. It might have made it easier for this little Vietnamese boy to come out and may have sensitized my parents to the normalcy of gay people much sooner.
That's why I was so upset to hear about the decision to block LGBT groups from this year's Tet parade in Little Saigon. There has been controversy in years past, namely in in 2010, when conservative groups protested the inclusion of gay organizations in the event. But back then, the City of Westminster was in charge and allowed LGBT groups to march. This year, the city could not afford to host the parade, so a coalition of private groups represented by the Vietnamese Federation of Southern California took over. Unlike a city government, the private groups argue that they are not bound to follow nondiscrimination laws and denied the LGBT group's application to participate.
This decision sparked protests and even competing online petitions on Change.org. The petition opposing LGBT inclusion riles me up, to say the least. The Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California writes this:
Showing the sexual affection such as kissing or holding hand in public is not acceptable or part of the Vietnamese culture; however, VA LGBT has acted out in the TET parade in 2011 which has caused the TET parade to fail in 2011 and 2012. This action has demoted the beautiful and enrich the culture of the Vietnamese community. In order to protect the TET parade and Vietnamese culture, we would seek for your help to sign this petition, so that VA LGBT cannot participate in the TET parade this year.
This reflects strong Vietnamese cultural feelings against homosexuality, which I obviously understand from my own upbringing. But it dispenses with logic by arguing that gay groups caused the 2011 and 2012 parades "to fail" and must be banned to protect Vietnamese culture.
If that were not bad enough, comments by individual signers of that petition are even more troubling. Signers wrote:
"Disgusting, against the human nature"
"This is to promote the Vietnamese culture. Many generation died for this so. Stay away."
"Until there is sufficient proofs that gay/bi transexual is normal for human nature, this practice should not be promoted ANYWHERE, not to mention in such a cultural event. (have anyone seen 2 male dogs mating?)"
It's sad when debate about a public event devolves into comments about male dogs mating. Whether the parade organizers and their supporters want to admit it, the Vietnamese population includes LGBT people. We deserve our place in the Tet parade just like Vietnamese lawyers, student clubs and dance troupes.
Luckily, the pro-gay petition on Change.org has far more supporters than the anti-gay plea. Although it may be too late to affect this year's Tet celebration, I am heartened by supportive comments such as these:
"This cause is important to me because I'm a queer Vietnamese-American woman. My sexuality does not make me any less Vietnamese, any less proud of my heritage and history, and any less part of the community."
"I am a Vietnamese-American son and brother, and I will not stand to see my LGBT brothers and sisters get pushed out of our community."
This comment from a woman in Stanton, California summed up my feelings particularly well:
"My parents left Vietnam decades ago as refugees to escape the oppression of the communist government. I am appalled that the Vietnamese-American community leaders would treat their own people like this. Please do not discriminate against LGBTs. They are our family and friends!"
Like so many other Vietnamese refugees, my parents had the courage to take their children out of a war-torn country and start life entirely anew in America. They came to the U.S. for what this country represents: freedom, democracy and opportunity. Years later, they would learn that I, their youngest son, am gay. And they would evolve from having some hesitation to my mother calling me last November on Election Day to proudly say, in her somewhat broken English, "I vote for Obama because he like the gays."
My parents are no less Vietnamese because they support their gay son. And the Vietnamese community in Little Saigon and anywhere else will lose nothing of their heritage if LGBT people march in their Tet parade.