Often difficult to be gay and Vietnamese says panel in frank and open community discussion

By Brandon Bailey San Jose Mercury News

Posted: 12/04/2010 09:34:30 PM PST

Updated: 12/04/2010 10:06:48 PM PST

Faced with lingering prejudice in an often conservative community, a group of activists and counselors held a rare public meeting in San Jose on Saturday to encourage family support for gays and lesbians and to talk about what it's like to be gay and Vietnamese.

"Please treat us like you would a friend or a son, just like all your other friends and sons," said 22-year-old James Chuong, who told an audience at the San Jose Public Library on Tully Road that he has not been able to speak with his parents and other relatives since they learned he was gay more than two years ago.

"They think we are bad people, and will go to hell," Chuong said in Vietnamese, his words translated by an English-language interpreter. Standing in front of about 60 people, mostly Vietnamese-Americans, Chuong added that he considered suicide when his parents first kicked him out of their home.

"I'm a good student, a good citizen," he said. "I have a hard time trying to figure out what I did to have to bear this stigma."

Telling family or friends that you're gay can be difficult for anyone, several speakers agreed, but it can be especially stressful in the Vietnamese community, where parents and elders were raised in a traditional culture for which homosexuality was a secret shame.

Younger Vietnamese-Americans are often more comfortable with the subject. But among older immigrants, "it's just never acknowledged," said Thanh Do, a leader in a group called the Gay Vietnamese Alliance, who helped organize the event with Vuong Nguyen of Song That Radio, a gay-oriented program broadcast weekly on KSJX-AM.

Another speaker, Mimi-Cristien Nguyen, described how she struggled to understand her own feelings for girls when she was a teenager in a refugee camp after leaving Vietnam. "They don't teach you about this in a refugee camp," she said.

Years later, after coming to the United States, she found the courage to tell her adoptive German-American family about her sexual orientation, although she feared their reaction. They were understanding, she added, but she still hasn't told relatives in Vietnam, and she often ducks the subject when she speaks with other Vietnamese immigrants.

Family members and others in the audience asked several questions. One man wondered if homosexuality could lead to the end of reproduction. A woman asked how to advise someone who's trying to decide whether to come out as gay.

Several speakers stressed that gays are not "abnormal" and do not choose their sexual orientation. Psychiatrist Phuong-Thuy Le said she's heard from Vietnamese parents who wanted her to help a gay son or daughter become heterosexual.

Counseling can help someone deal with the emotional strain of coming out, she said. "It's not to change the person."

Organizers said they hope the forum will encourage more dialogue in the Vietnamese community, and perhaps lead to formation of a support group for families of gays and lesbians.

"We were expecting maybe 10 people to show up," said Do, looking over the small but crowded meeting room. "This is huge for us."

More information may be obtained from the Gay Vietnamese Alliance at www.gvalliance.org or Song That Radio at www.songthat.com. Contact Brandon Bailey at bbailey@mercurynews.com and 408-920-5022