G Lee Xiong, a senior majoring in social work at St. Thomas, has been touched by life on the margins. As teenagers her parents, before they met, swam with their families across the Mekong River from Laos to Thailand to elude political persecution from the Vietnamese government. They met in a refugee camp, where they lived in the early 1980s.

After two to three years in the camp, the couple, with their families, immigrated to the United States under the sponsorship of a family member living in Minnesota.

Xiong is the middle of seven, first-generation-American siblings, all born in Minnesota.

Given Xiong’s family history of immigrants and refugees, her inclination to study and advocate for marginalized populations seems a natural path.

As a scholar in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement program, Xiong studied how sexual identity development also is influenced by cultural identity development in the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) Hmong community.

“What I love about social work is working with people, especially with people one on one. The core competencies of social work are about making social change, fighting for social justice and making things happen for individuals and communities in need. As a Hmong American, I feel obligated to help my people,” Xiong said.

She noted in a presentation she gave in January at the National Conference on LGBT Equality in Atlanta that of the 64,000 Hmong Americans living in Minnesota, no records exist of the gay, lesbian and bisexual population among them.

“We need to capture a better understanding of the feelings among Hmong gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are given the message that they do not belong in their families and communities. As well as provide a better sense of unity in the Hmong community … .” she wrote.

Her adviser, Dr. Pa Der Vang, assistant professor of social work at St. Thomas and St. Catherine University, was excited when Xiong approached her with her topic, “Culture and Sexual Identity: An Analysis Through the Perceptions of Hmong-American Minnesotans.”

“This is a new area of study and is consistent with the values of social work, which emphasize scholarship and service to improve the lives of the oppressed in our society. In addition, LGBTQ issues among the Hmong is an understudied topic, so this was a great opportunity for G Lee to do some groundbreaking research,” Vang said.

In a previous research project through a Collaborative Inquiry Grant (through St. Thomas’ Grants and Research Office), Xiong “took a more general approach to acculturation with Hmong Americans.” The McNair project, she said, allowed her to explore another layer of Hmong-American culture and bring awareness to the identity challenges faced by LGBTQ Hmong.

She felt moved to research her topic after a reunion with a middle school friend, who is Hmong, last year.

“Although I don’t identify as LGBTQ, I am a huge ally, especially after hearing about my friend’s coming out process and her difficulty coming out to her family and workplace. For her to feel comfortable coming out to me when I hadn’t seen her in so long meant a lot to me,” she said.

Finding willing participants for her study, however, proved a challenge.

Research challenges and findings

“My goal was to get 30 to 50 (Hmong LGBTQ) participants, and I wound up with 17 (six gay or lesbian, four bisexual, one questioning and, oddly, six heterosexual). Though I probably would’ve received much less if weren’t for the help I received from Shades of Yellow.”

SOY, a St. Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ Hmong, is the only such organization in the United States. The organization helped Xiong distribute her surveys via Facebook and email.

Her findings provided a clue into why she encountered difficulty finding more participants: 70 percent admitted to experiencing difficulty fitting in with the community and 64 percent “dealt with their sexuality alone.” Sixty-two percent came out to close siblings and friends in early to young adulthood despite knowing they were gay since their pre-teen years.

Xiong added that “half of the respondents expressed fear of ruining their family’s reputation or bringing shame to the family.”

On the bright side, 64 percent said some of their families accepted their sexual identities.

All of her respondents agreed on the existence of “intergenerational differences on views of gender roles and the (Hmong) taboo of being gay, lesbian or bisexual,” Xiong noted. It’s a gulf with which she has personal experience.

Intergenerational differences

“In my family, for instance, there was always a desire for more sons because the importance of carrying on the clan (or family) name is very important in traditional Hmong culture,” she said.

Xiong’s parents had four girls, of which Xiong is number four, before conceiving their first of two sons.

“It was a struggle for me and my sisters growing up,” she said. “The family structure for us was very traditional. We were taught by the time we were seven or eight years old that we were responsible for the household chores, like cooking and cleaning.”

She added, “For children born here, including all of my brothers and sisters and myself, we grew up having to juggle two identities: being Hmong and being American. Speaking for myself, to hold onto Hmong traditions and the culture while balancing it with the American dream: going to school, getting an education, learning English, was difficult. My siblings and I understand Hmong, but to have a one-hour uninterrupted conversation without using any English is very hard.”

A language barrier and a lack of an LGBTQ linguistic framework in the Hmong language contributes to the intergenerational gap in understanding and talking about gender roles and the role of family. There is no word for ‘lesbian,’ ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ in the Hmong language.

“To translate those words in Hmong, you have to describe what you mean, for instance ‘a man liking a man,’” Xiong explained.

“When I was discussing the marriage amendment with my parents, who are in their mid-40s, they didn’t understand the importance of it because they couldn’t understand what it was in the first place. I had to explain it to them in Hmong, which was difficult,” she said.

Her parents had many questions: “How will a woman have kids if she is not married to a man?” “What will they do … adopt?” ‘‘What if we don’t accept a man liking a man?’” Xiong remembered.

With strict traditions concerning family and marriage, Hmong American youth still figuring out their sexual identities face many challenges, she acknowledged.

“This is where the divide comes in, in the (traditional) insistence on marriage between a man and a woman,” she said.

One of her research findings illuminates this intergenerational divide.

“Another common thing with all of my participants is that they felt marriage is something that shouldn’t be limited only to a man and a woman, that you should be able to marry the one you love,” Xiong said.

A participant in her study made a comment that she feels captures the essence of her project: ” … the Hmong community is fairly young in the sense that we have yet to really settle down and grow into American culture. Those of us born and raised here seem to have more open minds about the LGBTQ, whereas the elderly seem to have more of a close-minded, traditional, ‘old school’ mentality. It’s to be expected, but as a Hmong American, I feel it is up to us to help change the perception for the future.”

All of her participants were between the ages of 18 and 39, which didn’t surprise Xiong. She guessed that very few older Hmong (40 and older) feel comfortable coming out. (For the record, 59 percent were male and 41 percent female; 35 percent were first generation and 65 percent second generation.)

“Bridging the gap”

Xiong doesn’t want her research to stop with this project.

“I want to continue bringing this conversation to the elders and bridging the gap between the generations,” she said.

After earning a master’s in social work (she already has applied to a handful of graduate programs) and perhaps a Ph.D., Xiong said she’s interested in becoming a professor, thanks to Vang, who, she said, “wasn’t just a mentor and professor, but someone I was able to relate to and understand. I really looked up to her as a role model.”

She also has a dream “to open up my own organization or business with my sisters. My second oldest sister is currently in graduate school for pharmacy, and my oldest sister graduated with a nursing degree. Another sister of mine is working on getting her degree in family and marriage counseling. Perhaps we could open up a family social service clinic or something. I think that would be cool,” she said.