Musician SUNAH poses for a portrait at the Northrup King building in Minneapolis, on April 11, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

To continue reading this article and others for free, please sign up for our newsletter.

Sahan Journal publishes deep, reported news for and with immigrants and communities of color—the kind of stories you won’t find anywhere else.

Unlock our in-depth reporting by signing up for our free newsletter.

Support local nonprofit journalism that works for you.

Our community-based reporting is made possible by readers just like you. Become a supporter of your local nonprofit news organization today with a tax-deductible donation so we can continue doing the reporting that matters to you.

$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

SUNAH, artist, musician, advocate

Pronouns: She/Her, They/Them

Raised in a traditional Hmong family, SUNAH did not have a queer community to engage with until they joined SOY. They connected to the program because they knew local musicians and poets at the time who attended SOY events.

Through their experiences as a musician, activist, and artist, they began to develop a positive vocabulary to identify the LGBTQ Hmong community. 

SUNAH hopes to replace negative language some in the Hmong community use to describe LGBTQ people. There is no known word for queer or gay in the Hmong language. Terms from various Asian languages are sometimes used to describe the community; some carry a negative or dismissive connotation. 

“This has a direct impact on me because I believe language influences how people treat each other,” said SUNAH. “If we are connected to a negative energy and a negative word, that’s how people are going to see us.” 

Seeing an opportunity to address the language issue through music and spoken word, SUNAH applied for a spot on The Cedar commission. Located in the Cedar-Riverside area, the venue’s mission promotes appreciation for diversity through music and art. Once a year, The Cedar accepts applications for the commission from local artists who create new music and conclude with a performance of their work at a final show. 

SUNAH filled a performance spot at The Cedar after articulating how their style of spoken-word and instrumental music tells their story and could help listeners understand LGBTQ Hmong culture. SUNAH’s application stood out to the group reviewing candidates for the commission, said Robert Lehmann, booking and talent manager at The Cedar.  

“Queer identities are marginalized identities in society, especially queer people of color,” said Lehmann. “I think any work done to create positive and supportive places and language for those smaller communities is really valuable work.”

SUNAH performed their work in February 2021 after collecting input from queer Hmong people about positive Hmong words that could be used to identify their community. The performance used spoken word and music to examine the need for change in the Hmong language. It also addressed issues like gender-based violence against queer and trans people. 

“I am not dead yet,” said SUNAH. “I say that because Hmong folks who are queer and trans can never imagine that you can live this long because of the pain, suffering, and the rejection. The rejection takes lives away. I didn’t think I could live this long. I plan to live long.”

Since their time at The Cedar, SUNAH has focused their work at a local non-profit. Working as an advocate, they assist people from the Hmong and Southeast Asian community experiencing gender-based violence.  They are recording “No Word for Queer” with plans to release it in the coming months, and are also promoting alternative Hmong words they hope the Hmong community will begin to use.

Here is a list of the positive Hmong terms and their meanings that SUNAH and the queer Hmong community developed to describe LGBTQ people:  

  •  Mi Npauj Npaim: butterfly

“In our trans community, we relate to butterflies so much,” said SUNAH. “We were once caterpillars, but we have to go into our cocoon to blossom into a butterfly.”

  •  Keem: great and talented 
  •  Ntxhais Nraug: handsome women

  “To embrace the body I was born in and also embrace the masculinity in me,” SUNAH

describes.

  • Zaj sawv: rainbow
  • Tub Zoo Nkauj: pretty man
  • Hauw Paus Cua: rooted wind 

“My queerness is so much about freedom of the spirit, freedom of expression, freedom of desires, and freedom from fear,” SUNAH said. “Yet, I feel anchored by all of the trans and queer ancestry that has come before me and by my own experiences as a queer Hmoob person too.” 

  • Yam Ntxwv Hnub Qub: likeness 

SUNAH hopes to inspire others to continue creating and promoting positive Hmong language for the LGBTQ community.“I want to leave information behind and create new paths for the generation after me,” said SUNAH. “I think that’s important. Diversity, culture, and LGBTQ–that’s bigger than me and it doesn’t stop. We are always going to have folks who come after us… We need to start talking about love and accountability.”

Marla Khan-Schwartz

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.