Xay Yang poses for a portrait at the Northrup King Building in Minneapolis on April 14, 2022. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Xay Yang, Queer Justice Director at Transforming Generations

Pronouns: She/Her

Xay Yang knew she identified with the LGBTQ community at the age of 17, but felt pressured to adhere to certain traditions–like marrying a cisgender man from the Hmong community. She left her home for college to be her “authentic self.” 

As a first generation college student, Yang navigated college life often by herself. Realizing she did not have adequate support, Yang found LGBTQ connections on campus. 

Yang lived at Lavender House, an LGBTQ-friendly dormitory on the University of Minnesota campus. She began work at the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus where Yang met a mentor who encouraged her to attend SOY. She eventually joined SOY’s leadership program in 2010 after receiving an invite from former executive director Kevin Xiong. While Yang completed the training, she developed skills to support Hmong LGBTQ people.

The program encouraged leadership development by teaching advocacy, education, and support skills specifically geared towards Hmong LGBTQ work. Beginning in 2012, Yang helped plan SOY’s annual New Year’s celebration. In addition, she started the Midwest Queer & Trans Black Indigenous People & People of Color Conference with a colleague. They organized the event annually in cities across the nation.

The conference included the talent show, Txuj Ci, and showcased Hmong queer artists and allies. The event also gave LGBTQ Hmong people the opportunity to network and connect. The conference is currently paused due to COVID, but Yang hopes it will resume soon.

In her job as the Queer Justice Director at Transforming Generations (TG), Yang develops programming and provides mental health services to survivors of violence and Hmong men who perpetrated harm.

Members at Transforming Generations can attend the Sib Hlub Circle, which provides drop-in support for LGBTQ Hmong people. They can also attend the Zaj Sawv Leadership Institute, a leadership program for queer Hmong and Southeast Asian people. 

“We believe that if we invest in queer folks and give them the tools, they can go into their own circles to make change,” said Yang. 

For Yang, storytelling is an important medium for celebrating queerness, and she plans to release a podcast showcasing different queer perspectives. “I am hoping this podcast opens up people’s mind and hearts and helps them understand the lived experiences of queer folks,” said Yang.

The recent passage of a bill by a Minnesota House committee banning conversion therapy for LGBTQ people provides hope for communities bound by tradition, Yang said. But those bills won’t change how some Hmong families continue to enforce heterosexual norms.

“Parents bring a shaman in to convert and fix a Hmong person’s spirit because something may be broken about their spirit which is why they are queer, right?”

“It’s a constant battle and fight in changing the conditions in the Hmong community, and then changing the conditions in the larger mainstream community. All of those things impact our queer Hmong folks because we live in both worlds.”

Other proposed amendments to the Minnesota State Constitution like SF 850, state that equality will not be denied because of gender identity under the law. But Yang says to address needs in the LGBTQ Hmong community, additional services and support are necessary. 

“Any win for the mainstream LGBTQ community is a win for us, too,” said Yang. “A lot of the things we struggle with are still around survival, meaning housing and basic needs. I think a lot of these bills that support housing stability and medical care that could cover gender reassignment surgery and provide access to hormone therapy would support queer Hmong folks and meet our needs more than a bill that changes a definition.”

Yang hopes to inspire LGBTQ Hmong people through her personal life experiences. “I didn’t have a lot of support and direction,” said Yang. “It took me over ten years to realize I was in a domestic violence relationship and that impacted me throughout the years.” 

She encourages LGBTQ Hmong people to find support and says it is a matter of finding community and building relationships with other LGBTQ people.

“We want folks to know simply that they are loved, and people have thought about them for a really long time,” said Yang. “The things we are building now are for queer young folks. They’re not alone.”

*Update: 12:45 p.m. May 12, 2022: This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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.