Ringing In the Lunar New Year with LGBT Activism By Grace Yia-Hei Kao
On Sunday, February 10, the Tet parade in Little Saigon, Westminster (CA) went on as planned. Several thousand people turned up to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year, or what Khanh Ho, Assistant Professor of English at Grinnell College, has likened to “Mardi Gras, New Years, and Christmas all rolled into one.”
Deliberately excluded this year from marching, however, were LGBT groups. I was saddened to have read that they were being denied the right to march because of their perceived incompatibility with Vietnamese values. I had become sadder still when I learned that it had been an Interfaith Council that had first pushed for their exclusion.
I work at a progressive institution that takes seriously the value of interreligious partnership and cooperation; I also serve as one of the co-directors of our Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. So let me reproduce below the letter that we co-directors, under the principal authorship of my colleague Duane Bidwell, sent to the parade organizers in response to their planned exclusion of LGBT participants on cultural grounds.
To Mr. Neil Nguyen and the Little Saigon 2013 Tet Parade Committee:
We are grateful for the opportunity to appeal to you as leaders and elders of the Little Saigon community. We ask you please to welcome the Partnership of Viet Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Organizations by permitting its members to march in the 2013 Tet Parade, as they have done since 2010 with much community support.
We write as a Christian pastor who studied with the late Ven. Buddhapalo, sponsored a Buddhist monk granted asylum by the U.S. government, and adopted a Vietnamese child; a second-generation Taiwanese American who has written a book on international human rights; and a lesbian bible scholar who has taught many Vietnamese students.
The Lunar New Year, Tết Nguyên Đán, is a special and sacred holiday in Vietnamese culture and tradition. It emphasizes the unity and cohesiveness of family, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are a part of Vietnamese families. LGBT people worship and provide leadership at Little Saigon temples and churches. Many are deeply spiritual, recognized as devout practitioners of their religious traditions.
We acknowledge the concerns of the Vietnamese American Interfaith Council in Southern California, and we are aware of the complex social, political and cultural issues that surround the full inclusion of the Partnership in the Tet parade. Yet there is great diversity among Vietnamese Americans and among their religious communities.
As a whole, Vietnamese Americans understand the pain of exclusion and living “in between” cultures. The ability to live with this ambiguity is a gift of courage—a gift that Vietnamese Americans offer to the nation as a whole. Perhaps one of the community’s challenges is living with that ambiguity in ways that honor emerging experiences and voices without imposing restrictions similar to those that have hurt Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans in the past?
You remain in our prayers as you reconsider your choice about including the Partnership in the parade. It is a decision to be made with imagination, concern for harmony, and respect for tradition; it must be linked to the past but work to secure a future of unity and cohesiveness for the community as a whole. If we as religious scholars can be helpful to you in this process, please do not hesitate to contact us.
We hope to see GLBT people marching proudly in the Tet parade, promoting love, support, good will, prosperity and justice for everyone.
With respect and gratitude,
Rev. Duane Bidwell, Ph.D. Grace Yia-Hei Kao, Ph.D. Carleen Mandolfo, Ph.D.
To reiterate, we (and the many other LGBT supporters who had engaged in letter writing and other forms of civic activism), were ultimately not successful in prevailing upon the parade organizers to allow LGBT groups to march (n.b., a judge had ruled that the privately-funded parade organizers were within their First Amendment rights to select whom to include and exclude).
Nevertheless, spokeswoman Natalie Newton for the Partnership of Viet Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Organization was quoted as having said after the parade that “In the end, it didn’t matter. We were so overwhelmed by the reaction of the people….[W]e were visible. Everyone knew who we were.”
Due to other familial commitments, I could attend neither the pre-parade LGBT activist events, nor the Tet parade itself. But I have never felt prouder to have signed my name to a letter of protest of that kind. I’m also heartened to learn that the LGBT Vietnamese community ultimately felt supported by the wider community and that plans are already underway to insure that LGBT exclusion will not happen again.
Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives.