The LGBTQ Cultural Divide: A Teachable Moment in the Josephine Zhao Controversy

As a gay Chinese woman, and a daughter of first generation immigrants, my journey coming out has been a struggle, complicated by social and cultural misalignment between my parents and myself. The recent controversy with Josephine Zhao, where both the Chinese and LGBTQ communities came seemingly to a crash, crossed an intersection that is all too familiar.  Unfortunately, the conversations surrounding Josephine’s withdrawal from her school board race did not take into consideration the social context of what she and I both know – that many in the Chinese and broader immigrant community still have a long way to go to accept people who love like me. The things she’s said are wrong but we should use this opportunity to bridge this gap rather than further alienating immigrant communities.

I have dedicated my life to LGBTQ activism but I’m not yet out to my entire family. Having my family’s love and acceptance has been a challenge because my coming out is a coming out for them as well. This is further underscored by the difficulty I’ve experienced reconciling being gay while still honoring my family name. Knowing this pain, however, drives my activism and my focus on bridging these two communities that I belong to – LGBTQ and immigrant – whose views and values can be so disparate.

When I met Josephine, we found common ground in our cultural backgrounds. My parents and I were not speaking at the time because of my sexuality. She devised a plan to guide my parents toward full acceptance. Due to her efforts and some helpful intervention from my grandmother, my relationship with my parents today has improved immensely. Instead of resenting them for struggling with my sexuality, I realized that loving my parents means giving them the time and space to progress in their beliefs. Others deserve our patience too.

One of the things I love about this country is our opportunity to grow and evolve as a person and for some, as a public servant. The Zhao controversy has created a lot of distrust from the community. The transphobic comments Josephine made in 2013 were unacceptable and I cannot speak to her recent troubling WeChat posts. However, I believe she has and is continuing to evolve. And when she says that she supports the rights of our transgender brothers and sisters to use the bathroom of their choice today, I believe her. 

Fellow progressives, we need to give people room to evolve – sometimes, within their own individual capacities based on their complex and multifaceted backgrounds. Affecting change does not occur while talking amongst ourselves about our shared values. It happens when we have the audacity to change the hearts and minds of others who may not see the world as we do.  When progress happens, like with Josephine and my parents, we have a responsibility to welcome them in.

To those that suggest Josephine should have known better (about legislation to require gender-neutral bathrooms) because she’s been in the US for thirty years, let me share that my parents have been here for over four decades and still experience difficulty navigating a medical bill. It is false and inherently racist to assume that immigrants should speak, read or write English proficiently just because they’ve been here for a duration of time. Many, like my parents, immigrated with little to no access to financial, educational or employment privileges enjoyed by others. Grasping new concepts emerging from our beautifully diverse LGBTQ community – many of which the general American population is still getting accustomed to – continues to be a work in progress for the immigrant community. But we ought not shy away from this work.

When I look at Josephine, I see my parents, relatives and a community that I struggle to identify fully with, but nonetheless to which I belong. I see an opportunity for us to utilize an ally to educate the larger immigrant community about our values. This is about reaching a community – like our LGBTQ community - that has long felt isolated and made to feel “different”. This is where these two communities have a shared experience and one that should motivate us to come together rather than create more divisiveness.

I challenge fellow progressives to understand and embrace the cultural and social barriers that exist between the immigrant and LGBTQ communities. Let us foster a world defined by compassion together. To me, that’s progressive. Will you join me in this effort? Share your story with me. #LGBTQImmigrants

Mandy Lee has served on multiple local and statewide LGBTQ civil rights and Asian Pacific Islander organizations over the years. Currently, she is President of a statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization.

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The above is published at https://www.thebaycitybeacon.com/politics/the-lgbtq-cultural-divide-a-teachable-moment-josephine-zhao