Hmong queer community: the movement towards acceptance and equity

Since the first Hmong families moved to Minnesota in 1975, first- and second-generation LGBTQ Hmong people have come together with a common goal: to educate and advocate for LGBTQ acceptance within the Hmong culture. 

Dr. Brian V. Xiong, a Hmong scholar, has spent 18 years researching the Hmong LGBTQ community. He identifies as a LGBTQ Hmong member and began his research as part of his own self-discovery. Xiong wrote his doctorate thesis about the coming out experience of gay Hmong men and eventually published a book called “A Clan of Our Own.” 

Although no data exists about LGBTQ Hmong demographics, Xiong estimates that between 15,000 to 20,000 LGBTQ Hmong people live in Minnesota. This estimate is based on national mainstream LGBTQ population statistics and the 81,000 estimated Hmong people living in Minnesota. Xiong said hard data doesn’t exist, because in the Hmong culture talking about LGBTQ people is a “taboo topic.” 

Cultural expectations can also prevent accurate statistics, he added, because Hmong people may feel bound to gender-based traditions within the culture and decline to come out. 

“There have always been LGBTQ in the Hmong community, but the cultural practice is between a man and a woman,” said Xiong.

He says Hmong culture is patriarchal, where there are expectations that men lead the family, while women birth and raise children.

Xiong started working as program director at the Hmong 18 Council in January. The council started in 1997 after a Hmong community member ended the lives of herself and six children. Representatives from each of the 18 Hmong clans in Minnesota began efforts to help the Hmong community access medical, social, and legal services. Xiong said he is the first openly gay program director to serve on the council.

As the new program director, Xiong hopes to bring younger and older generations together by “moving the council to the next chapters to be more inclusive and to celebrate more diversity.”  

Hmong LGBTQ safe spaces 

Over the past 18 years, local and national agencies have multiplied across the Hmong community. But it’s hard to imagine that happening without Shades of Yellow (SOY), a non-profit founded in 2004 bringing LGBTQ Hmong people together in a safe space. 

The nonprofit represented a landmark: the first LGBTQ Hmong organization in the world. Over the next 13 years, SOY created a concrete foundation for an equity and acceptance movement by training youth, providing counseling, offering community workshops, promoting racial justice, and implementing art programming.

After SOY closed its doors in 2017, newer spaces for queer and LGBTQ Hmong people started to surface. Through word-of-mouth, social networking, and the creation of safe spaces, LGBTQ Hmong people began seeking services.

New and preexisting groups like Hmong American Women’s Association , Freedom, Inc., Cia Siab, Inc., and Hmong Queer Suab continue to gain popularity because they encourage inclusivity and provide safe spaces to be Hmong and queer. 

Alongside Xiong, other advocates in the community work daily to encourage equity and acceptance. 

Several former members of SOY continue to advocate, creating inclusive environments within the mainstream and LGBTQ Hmong communities. They organize events, provide cultural sensitivity, and provide safe and inclusive spaces for youth and adults. 

These following changemakers profiled by Sahan Journal all identify as LGBTQ Hmong and tell a strikingly similar story about recognizing their identity: each grew up thinking they were the only queer Hmong person who existed. Although each person had their own unique experience defining their sexuality, they all struggled at first to talk about their identities within their traditional Hmong families.

Through storytelling about their lives and work, they hope to inspire other LGBTQ Hmong people to live their lives openly and unapologetically. A number of upcoming events will also highlight the community:

  • Drag Tale Times, a summer series with Asian drag performers reading to children at Indigenous Roots Cultural Center, 788 E. 7th St., St. Paul, MN:
    -Saturday, May 14 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
    -Saturday, June 11 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
    -Saturday, July 9 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
    -Saturday, August 13 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Pride BBQ, a family-friendly event celebrating Pride month at Phalen Regional Park, 600 Phalen Drive, St. Paul, MN:
    -Saturday, June 25 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Marla Khan-Schwartz is a social worker and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Growler Magazine, Northeaster Newspaper, 89.3 The Current's blog, and Mitchell Hamline School of Law.