Friday, May 25, 2012

Transforming Our Cultures

Today, in honor of National Asian Pacific Islander Month, we are so happy to welcome guest blogger, Eileen Ma, Executive Director of API Equality-LA.  Since graduating from Columbia University, Eileen in 1993, she has worked as an organizer and field coordinator for many labor and community organizations nationwide, including the AFL-CIO, SEIU, SAG, Health Access, Power U Center for Social Change, the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, and many others. She has worked on a wide range of issues, including environmental justice, labor rights, equitable development, health care, and LGBT rights. Eileen is active in the Los Angeles community as a core committee member in the Asian/Pacific Islander Queer Women/Transgender Activists and other groups.

“A nation's culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people."
- Mahatma Gandhi

A recent API Equality-LA study on family relationships of Chinese gays and lesbians living in the US indicates that family acceptance of gays and lesbians is impacted significantly by broader community and cultural influences.  In addition to great concern about their parents’ feelings and expectations, gays and lesbians cite pressure from peers and social networks, fear of negative community perceptions, lack of representation of gays and lesbians in ethnic media, as well as family background, such as place of origin and family migration history, as factors in their coming out or staying in process. [1]

This study hints at the breadth of work the LGBTQ community and our allies need to do to create a truly accepting society where all gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people have the support they need from their families and communities.  The measure of equality is not just the quantity of laws on the books proclaiming equal rights, but must include the degree to which people are able to live lives free of the burdens of discrimination on a day-to-day basis.  In addition to the important work of PFLAG to build more loving families and beyond the legislative and policy battles for civil rights and recognition, we must aim for a more comprehensive cultural transformation in each of our communities.  

For API Equality-LA, in Asian communities, this means that beyond electoral and policy battles advocating for our rights, the most impactful work we do generates dialogue to reach hearts and souls in the Asian/Pacific Islander community, hoping to spark processes of evolution like the personal one President Obama just shared, which led him ultimately to support marriage equality.  We reach out to civic leaders and respected community organizations.  We reach out to people one-on-one at time-honored community events to invite them to consider issues of equality.  We participate actively in community activities to increase visibility of the LGBT community and to show our common cause with all.  We have learned to speak to our community in the language and with appropriate information they can understand, so that we meet people where they are and start from a common ground. 

This work takes time, but the results are remarkable.  After 7 years of hard work, API Equality-LA is proud to have helped to create a more positive climate for the LGBT community; we have influenced decision-makers and those who disseminate information and shape public opinion.  Every API state legislator in CA is now on record in support of marriage equality and acknowledge our power and importance as a community .  After decades of one-sided coverage vilifying the LGBT community, the major Chinese media now frequently and positively represent us and LGBT issues.  Moreover, LGBT equality has been adopted as a priority by an overwhelming number of well-respected API individuals and community organizations.  These are powerful signs of community and cultural transformation—and harbingers of the future we all want.

Surely, the work and progress may look a little different in every community, since the cultures of America are so diverse and distinct, but some of the major areas of work may be the same.  And the goal is certainly the same for all of us—to ensure that all people, including gays, lesbians, transgender and bisexual people, can not only have equal rights, but also live equal lives.

[1] Founded in 2005, API Equality-LA advocates in the Greater Los Angeles Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities for fair treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and marriage equality for same-sex couples.  For more information, including API Equality-LA's research, or to learn more, visit