Come Out, Come Out: A Call to the Korean American Community
- Come Out, Come Out: A Call to the Korean American Community
Stephen Kang, Sep 01, 2006
At the age of 11, I had already figured out that I was attracted to
other men. I didnt learn the meaning of words like "gay" or "queer"
until much later, but one thing was always clear: This topic was not
safe to discuss openly.
The Korean American community in which I grew up was based in our local
church, which was a punishing place for lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender or queer people. Our leaders constantly told us that people
who lived outside of certain strict norms governing sexual behavior and
gender expression were destined for miserable lives and condemnation in
the afterlife. I, and (after I told them) my parents, knew that if
anyone in our community figured out that I was queer, it would mean
Our family remained locked in silence for many years, until 10 years
later, I made the difficult decision to start coming out to my close
friends. Eventually, I built a support network for myself, rooted in a
community of other LGBTQ people of Asian Pacific American descent.
But while Ive managed to find spaces where I dont need to stay
imprisoned, my parents havent.
"We are alone, your father and I," my mother once told me, weeping. "We
have no one to talk to about this, not our friends, not our family. We
only have each other." They derived strength and a sense of belonging
from their involvement in the Korean American community, and had no
desire to stand apart from it. But this membership came at a price:
their constant silence about their struggle to raise and love their
My mothers words devastated me. Until then, Id never directly
confronted the fact that my parents had been undergoing a battle that
was perhaps even lonelier than mine. I felt enormous guilt that my
queerness could cause them so much pain.
Then, I realized that my sexual orientation was not the issue. The real
issue was that the Korean American community as a whole, through
repression and silence, has created an environment where my family
cannot speak openly, for fear of judgment, harassment, or at worst,
Many LGBTQ Korean Americans remain invisible in order to survive, but
invisibility does not equal nonexistence. Although not all of us are
public about our identities, we are active in Korean American cultural,
political and student organizations. We worship at churches and temples.
We are active in Korean adoptee communities. We live, work, eat and play
in Koreatowns throughout the United States. Even those of us have chosen
to live apart from the Korean American community, or been forced out
because of intolerance, remain connected through our families and
Yet, we often wonder whether it will ever be possible to reconcile our
bonds to our Korean American communities with our lives as LGBTQ people,
particularly when the more homophobic strands of our community come to
In California in 2000, Korean American churches mobilized in massive
numbers to support the California Defense of Sexual Responsibility Act,
which would have barred public agencies from "endorsing, education,
recognizing, or promoting homosexuality as acceptable, moral behavior."
Religious leaders exhorted their congregants to vote for the regressive
legislation, stating that being queer would result in "condemnation,
death, and judgment."
LGBTQ Korean Americans and their allies successfully organized against
this campaign, working with non-queer allies in the community to combat
the proposition, but nothing erases the knowledge that at a critical
juncture, many people in our own communities stood against us.
Just as powerful as outright homophobia is the taboo that still shrouds
any discussion of these issues. I am involved in the Dari Project, which
was founded by LGBTQ Korean Americans in order to communicate our
stories to people who, for the most part, have never had the opportunity
to hear LGBTQ people talk openly about our experiences and struggles.
We created the Dari Project because no one else was going to do this
work for us. Our organizations and institutions are not explicitly
addressing the issues facing LGBTQ Korean American people, or working to
create spaces that are affirming of our queer identities.
Korean American leaders and institutions claim to represent and be
accountable to all of us. If that is true, they need to recognize that
LGBTQ people are embedded in their organizations, their communities,
their congregations, and perhaps, even their own families. Many of these
people are struggling in isolation.
This call is especially directed to our progressive organizations. Many
of these groups are doing incredible work in battling sexism and
violence within our communities, fighting for immigrant rights, economic
justice and peace on the Korean peninsula. But only a few have put the
struggles of LGBTQ Korean Americans on their agendas, rendering us
invisible, even in spaces that value social justice.
I am asking our leaders and institutions to recognize what is undeniable
truth: that LGBTQ people are part of the larger Korean American
community, and that a truly progressive vision of our society must
Stephen Kang is a queer Korean American man based in New York, and a
member of the Dari Project, www.dariproject.org