Searching For Connection

By Blair Waltman-Alexin | Tuesday, February 23rd 2021

In her South Austin apartment, tiny lights come alive as Quỳnh-Hương Nguyễn fires up her computer. A small, slightly bent sticky note is taped to her monitor with a title scrawled on it: “The Window Of Happiness.” For Nguyễn, that’s especially true.

“I don't remember a point in my life growing up that I ever felt like I was accepted in a lot of places,” Nguyễn says. “I couldn’t escape unless I was going online.”

Online she could take a break from the balancing act she was always maintaining between her Vietnamese heritage and her queer identity. Nguyễn feared revealing she was queer to her family would result in her being homeless.

“I learned homophobia at a very early age,” Nguyễn says. “I remember specifically around when I was 13, one of my relatives specifically said to me, ‘If you are this ... you will get kicked out of this house.”

Nguyễn’s concerns about how her family would react are not unique among LGBTQ Asian Americans. A study by the Human Rights Campaign revealed that among this group, more than half of respondents said they were excluded, harassed or condemned as sinful either a lot or some by their community. Another study by the HRC Foundation and the University of Connecticut found only 19% LGBTQ Asian American youths said they could ‘definitely’ be themselves at home.

But finding acceptance within the LGBTQ community can be difficult as well. A 2004 study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute found that over a third of respondents ‘strongly agreed’ that LGBTQ Asian Americans experience racism within the LGBTQ community.

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Quỳnh-Hương Nguyễn holds a rainbow Pride flag in a college graduation photo. Nguyễn didn’t come out to her family when she was younger because she feared repercussions. Photo courtesy of Dania Juarez Photography.

Shilpa Joshi is the interim executive director of the National Queer Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance. They support a federation of Asian and Pacific Islander LGBTQ groups, offering everything from fundraising support to multi-lingual informational leaflets for families. But one of their main priorities is creating spaces where people can feel fully seen.

“There are so many places we dont bring our whole selves,” Joshi says. She pointed out that even in spaces that are predominantly for LGBTQ people of color, there may not be much Asian representation, let alone the particular culture a person may be from.

“It’s difficult to feel at ease,” Joshi said.

It’s a challenge Nguyễn knows well.

“When I go into Asian spaces, I have to decide whether or not my queerness should be a part of this conversation,” Nguyễn says. “And then in queer spaces, a lot of times, it's predominantly queer white folks.”

Nguyễn wanted a space where she didn’t have to bury an aspect of herself. In 2019 she helped create a storytelling event for LGBTQ Asians called “To All The Asians We Haven’t Heard.” It gave her an idea what impact such a space could have. But she wanted the community building to extend past this single event, to create a place where connections could be fostered over time. Once again, Nguyễn found herself turning to her computer.

“I … was so frustrated with the fact that like people weren't recognizing my Asian-ness and my queerness that I was like, OK, you know what? Let's just create that resource now,” Nguyễn says.

The Austin Queer Asians, or AQuA, private Facebook group went online in 2019, and has become a digital gathering place for LGBTQ Asian Americans across the state. People swap jokes, collaborate on projects and discuss everything from politics to family recipes.

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Quỳnh-Hương Nguyễn plays an online video game with friends. Internet conclaves like AQuA have given Nguyễn a space where she feels loved and accepted.

“It’s community building, but in a different way,” Nguyễn says.

This kind of online socialization has taken more and more of a central role for the entire LGBTQ community in recent years. Studies have posited that increased time on designated social media platforms can provide resources and support while helping to diminish the risk for depression and suicide.

“The internet has been one of the most groundbreaking things for people of marginalized identities,” Joshi says. She says social media platforms like TikTok give young queer Asians a place to find themselves reflected in ways they may not be in mainstream media, and it’s become a critical part of the way communities stay connected.

“It’s a convener,” Joshi says. “It’s a big connective tissue.”

For Nguyễn, she didn’t realize AQuA would be a connective tissue for so many people.

“When we initially started the group, I want to say, we had about 30 folks, which, I will be honest, that’s all I thought it was going to be,” Nguyễn says. “There’s more than a hundred now ... we were just realizing, wow, there’s so many of us.”

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Quỳnh-Hương Nguyễn sits outside with her dog Sunny. Like many LGBTQ Asian Americans, Nguyễn says she has struggled to find spaces where she can be herself.

Nguyễn has already begun to broaden the scope of AQuA by creating a public Facebook page that anyone can access. Whereas the private group is a place for people with similar lived experiences to gather, the public page is meant to help spread the word.

“Even if you’re not part of the group, maybe you ... run into someone who just moved here and is Asian, and they want to get into the community,” Nguyễn says. “We wanted to make sure that people know we’re here.”

Isolation was a hallmark of Nguyễn’s upbringing, as it has been for many LGBTQ Asian Americans. But in creating a resource for others, she’s also crafted something for herself —a community. And while she still has to balance being Vietnamese American, LGBTQ, a daughter, a sister and a trailblazer, AQuA has given her a place to feel connected.

“Often we forget that we’re not alone,” she says.

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