We are the ones we’ve been waiting for – Alice Walker
I remember standing just outside the gym doors as I listened to the familiar drum beat and twang of the cymbal I often heard at Tết when I would attend as a child. Dancing before me was a red and gold lion, their bodies moving across the room. It is our cultural belief that lion dancers remove negative energies and bring good luck, health, and prosperity.
There were Tết decorations around the room and the tables filled with jelly cups, hawflakes candy, and rainbow stickers. In the back, a clothes rack filled with bright color ao dai. There was a bubbling excitement shared by everyone in the room. We were all here to witness the first LGBTQ Vietnamese conference.
It is Spring of 2019 and I meet Tony (he/him) at an ice cream shop in White Center. I’ve known Tony since I was a kid because he attended the local high school with my older sister. It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other, but Tony’s presence is always the same, warm and friendly. We catch up for a while until I eventually tell Tony that I wanted to create a queer Vietnamese conference.
I had graduated from college in 2017, and while I had a good experience I felt something was lacking. College politicized me and allowed me the space to explore my identity as a queer nonbinary person. But even then I found little reconciliation for my identities as a queer Vietnamese person. In college there were spaces for either queer students or for Vietnamese students via the Vietnamese Student Association but none for both. Born in Saigon but raised in Seattle, Washington I longed to know more about Vietnamese culture. But being visibly queer, I never felt safe enough to attend an event hosted by the Vietnamese students on campus. I instead found refuge in spaces for queer and trans pepole of color. After graduating college, I typed “queer”, “trans”, and “Vietnamese” into the Google search bar. Even though Washington state has the third largest Vietnamese population in the US, I could not find any information on local queer and trans Vietnamese organizing. This fueled my desire to create a space where queer and trans Viet folks can come together and be in community.
When I met up with Tony, he agreed to join me on this journey and for the next nine months we planned what would be the first LGBTQ Vietnamese conference in Washington State. Soon after, Dao (she/they) and Van (she/her) joined our team and the four of us met twice a month after our 9-5 jobs to plan the conference. Since a conference like this never existed before, we pulled from our dreams of what it would be like to create a space of unapologetic belonging. We wanted to make sure that everything beautiful about being queer and trans and Vietnamese was present as this conference. This gave birth to ideas like hosting our conference in February the same month as Tết, one of the most significant holidays in Vietnamese culture, bringing in múa lân, fan dancers, and Vietnamese drag queens for our entertainment, and serving food like gỏi cuốn, bánh mì, grass jelly and soy milk drinks.
In looking for workshop presenters we tapped into our community connections. We curated workshops led by our queer and trans Viet community that felt meaningful to us. Everything from Gender Bending Cha Cha Lessons led by Total Nguyen to Gia đình là gia đình: Family Acceptance & Intergenerational Healing led by members of the Vietnamese Rainbow Orange County. Once we published the event, we were overwhelmed by the attention we received. Pockets of queer and trans Viet community everywhere began to connect with us, from New York to Texas and even Canada.
Since it’s founding in 2017, VietQ has been on a journey grounded in the healing and celebration of our identities as queer and trans Vietnamese people. Our conference in February 2020 was a stepping stone to our larger goal of fostering a community for queer and trans Vietnamese people in the Pacific Northwest. As a result of our conference we welcome two new members Kendy (he/him) and Lana (she/them) to our collective.
As VietQ continues to ground ourselves in this work it is important for us to recognize and honor that queer liberation began with our Black trans siblings. We honor the leadership and labor of Black and brown trans women and sex workers like Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who led the StoneWall Riots in response to police brutality. We say the names of Bree Black, Shaki Peters, Draya McCarty, Brayla Stone, Merci Mack and Tatiana Hall, all Black trans women who have gone too soon. We keep in front of our minds and hearts that just this year alone 33 trans and gender-non conforming folks have passed as a result of our violent system which perpetuates racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
Our responsibility as queer and trans Vietnamese people is to support and uplift Black trans organizations and leaders who have been at the forefront of this work. Just as equally important, we must challenge the anti-Blackness that exists within ourselves and our community. We must talk with our loved ones about the harm of anti-Blackness and why everyone should support Black Lives Matter. We must shed the stereotypes that Asian Americans are not the “protesting type”, that we are a Model Minority, and that we have achieved the so called “American Dream.” Instead, we will relentlessly fight for our Black and brown trans siblings. We will speak louder than ever knowing that our silence on issues of injustices make us complicit in white supremacy, and ultimately complicit in our own oppression.
Our identities as queer and trans Vietnamese people call that we fight for liberation. From our ancestors the Trưng sisters who led the first resistance movement against occupying Chinese in Vietnam to our parents who managed to create homes, build businesses, and send their kids to college after leaving their homeland with nothing. This also includes our non-blood related elders like Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Cecilia Chung, and all the revolutionaries who we are tied to in our love and commitment for justice.
At the closing of the conference we handed out lì xì to all of our attendees. For us this event was special, just like other occasions in Viet culture. In each envelope a chocolate coin for luck. In each envelope a hand written affirmation, reminding our queer and trans bạn of their divine existence. You are loved, you are worthy, you matter.
Born in Saigon and raised in Seattle, Tran Tonnu (they/them) is a community organizer and self-taught artist. They have a love for all things creative from cooking, to brand development, to modifying cars. As an advocate for mental health, Tran believes that when we heal ourselves, we heal our community. During the day, Tran is a communications coordinator at a small nonprofit dedicated to elevating community voice.