Community Essay : Laguna Beach Beating Opens Closed Asian Door : Homosexuality: A growing Orange County group is trying to overcome the gay taboo in Vietnamese-American families.

Daniel C. Tsang teaches the politics of sexualities at UC Irvine

A recent Laguna Beach assault brings into public focus not only anti-gay bashing but also the hidden topic of homosexuality among Vietnamese-Americans.

Given the importance of the family in Vietnamese and other Asian cultures, and the taboo about homosexuality, it would not be surprising that if the assault victim is gay, his family would be unaware of it, or unlikely to admit it.

An Orange County-based Vietnamese organization has been, for more than a year, breaking the silence over homosexuality in the community. The Vietnamese Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or Hoi Than Huu Viet Nam Dong Tinh, founded by Hoang Dien Pham, holds meetings the last Sunday of each month at Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County.

Pham, a self-employed businessman in Rancho Santa Margarita, referring to the Laguna Beach assault, said Tuesday "it was both" racism and anti-gay prejudice.

Pham's group, which has helped many Vietnamese-Americans come out to their families, conducts meetings primarily in Vietnamese because, he said, "Most of the parents who come to the meetings do not speak English." Attendance is about 35 people, with 80% lesbian or gay. There are 600-700 gay Asians who are members of homosexual groups out of 5,500 gay Asians in Southern California, according to estimates by the Gay Asian/Pacific Support Network.

Pham, who is not gay, said he started the group after his gay brother, a Catholic who could not accept his sexuality, committed suicide at age 28, and after his Vietnamese girlfriend came out as lesbian. By forming the support group, Pham has endured suspicion about his own sexuality. He's convinced he did the right thing, especially when he remembers a recent emotional meeting at which a mother (who spoke no English) confided to Pham that "my son was so lucky to have found you."

Not all Vietnamese-American gay men remain closeted from their families. Andrew Le and Tuan Le, his male lover, are leaders of the Los Angeles-based GAPSN. They made history last August when they "married" in a well-publicized ceremony. Wedding invitations from both parents in Vietnamese and English invited recipients to celebrate the "marriage" of "our children."

Information about Vietnamese-American sexual habits, gay or straight, is hard to come by. However, Joseph Carrier, a UCI-trained anthropologist, has been studying the sexual habits of Vietnamese men in Orange County under a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Carrier, a former researcher with the Orange County Health Care Agency, says that Vietnamese gay men in Orange County can be divided into two groups, "gay" and "outsiders." The former are members of established, gay-identified friendship circles, including one headed by a prominent Vietnamese man in his 40s from Southern Orange County. "Outsiders" are those who are outside these friendship circles.

In an article in the November, 1992, issue of the Journal of Sex Research, Carrier and two Vietnamese-American colleagues, Bang Nguyen and Sammy Su, state that "outsiders" include "some Vietnamese men who do not have a firm gay identity and are thus still questioning their sexual identity; others have come out to themselves as being homosexual, or as being bisexual. But none have identified themselves as being heterosexual."

They further believe that outsider men can be divided into two subgroups: "those who are moderately acculturated and those who are unacculturated" into American gay culture, with most highly acculturated men preferring non-Asian sex partners. They also do not have many homosexual Vietnamese friends, and tend to find their sexual partners mostly through "the institutions of the Anglo gay world."

Most unacculturated Vietnamese gay men, while sexually interested in other men, "are limited in finding sexual partners by their inability to speak English, by their lack of knowledge about the Anglo gay world, and by their social isolation in the Vietnamese community of Orange County."

Carrier's study was to relate Vietnamese-American gay men's sexual practices to the probability of AIDS infection. Although the incidence of AIDS among Vietnamese-Americans in Orange County remains low, Carrier and his colleagues warn that within the segment of the population of Vietnamese men with multiple sex partners, "the greatest individual risk for HIV infection appears to be for highly sexually active men whose partner preference is for Anglo and/or Latino men with whom they play both sexual roles in anal intercourse. These men have the potential to spread the AIDS virus within the Vietnamese population of men who have sex with men."

Carrier adds that the six Vietnamese with AIDS that he has interviewed all claim to have had sex only with Anglo partners. That pattern is likely to change, however, Carrier says, as more Asians get infected.

The ignorance regarding AIDS among Vietnamese-Americans was strikingly illustrated last December at an AIDS show at UC Irvine's Fine Arts Gallery. A Vietnamese gallery volunteer, working with photographs of a Vietnamese-American who died of AIDS, was shocked when he realized that Vietnamese-Americans can and do get AIDS.

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