It's time to talk about the mental health impacts of being Asian and queer

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image credit: Andre Menchavez

It's time to talk about the mental health impacts of being Asian and queer

August 30, 2019

Asian queer folks face a unique set of cultural factors when it comes to mental health. Discussions of mental health issues today are often centered around whiteness and do not take intersectional identities into account. It is difficult to find spaces in which mental health issues for people with Asian identities are acknowledged, much less mental health issues for Asian queer people. Within both communities, folks like myself, who identify as both Asian and queer, feel excluded⁠—even isolated. Entering Asian spaces as a queer person and entering queer spaces as an Asian person impacted the way I saw myself and my mental health.

In the hopes of better understanding my own relationship with mental health and the intersection of my Asian and queer identities, I interviewed fellow Asian queer folks about the issue. I spoke to Amazin LeThi (she/her), Moe Yang (she/her), and Renee Nikolov (she/her).  

Most queer spaces favor whiteness; I have been alienated from the queer community because of my Asian identity. These experiences of alienation taught me that the color of my skin made me undesirable. “No fats, no femmes, no Asians” is a phrase in the queer community I am too familiar with. Similarly, I faced the complexity of both fetishization and isolation while dating as an Asian queer person. Additionally, in my experience in the Filipinx community, religious fundamentals engrained in this culture were often anti-queer, and therefore, anti-me. I was subjected to religious counseling in middle school when I came out, and I was taught that queerness was blasphemous and wrong.

I spoke to student activist Renee Nikolov to understand her experience as an Asian queer person. “I lived with having to choose one identity over the other,” said Nikolov, who is biracial and bisexual. She described this feeling as a “pendulum of identity.” To exist in these communities, it feels like one must constantly sacrifice a part of themselves to belong. 

Activist Amazin LeThi elaborated upon this idea by describing her experiences as an Asian woman adopted into a white family. “We never talk about the trauma of growing up in a background of folks who aren’t like you. People take for granted waking up and seeing people who look like themselves,” said LeThi. Feeling like an outsider in your community because of an essential part of who you are can negatively impact your mental health.

Much of Asian culture places a high value on perception and reputation, especially in the eyes of our elders. My parents were raised to follow traditional models of family, spirituality, and virtues. In turn, they raised their children with these values. When I was younger, I found it difficult to be open about my sexuality to my family. I thought it was shameful. Still today, there is a perpetual pressure to conform and show no weakness in order to fit the mold of a “good” Asian family. Being queer and struggling with mental health are oftentimes seen as violations of that mold. 

I spoke to student activist Moe Yang about their experience. “Japanese culture tends to turn the other eye when it comes to queerness. In Asian cultures, heteronormative culture is the majority. There’s a lot that I’ve withheld about myself and my sexuality from my Asian family in order to conform to societal standards,” said Yang.

I relate to Yang. It can feel impossible to ever address mental health as Asian people when it feels like we can’t speak about it with those we love most. The pressure I have experienced to stay silent about my mental health issues has made me feel invalidated.

“Being open about your mental health can be seen as shameful to our community. For the most part, I believe they just don’t believe mental health exists,” said LeThi. 

Nikolov shared this perspective as well. “In the Chinese community, mental health is not talked about. If you share your struggle about what you’re going through, you’re burdening others. Especially with mental illness, it’s seen as something in our head,” she said. The adverse effects of going against these traditions and breaking the conformity mold of a “good” Asian family can create deep inflictions of hate upon ourselves as Asian and queer people.

Addressing mental health in Asian communities is not a problem that can be solved overnight. To start, queer spaces need to be more inclusive of folks of color. In these spaces, we need to tackle the root of the race-based issues by listening to the concerns of folks of color and validating their experiences. Also, we need to utilize the powerhouse of media by representing Asian and queer narratives, especially those dealing with mental health. These actions would alleviate negative impacts on the mental health of Asian and queer people.

I think of my young, queer, Filipinx self. I felt constricted by my conservative Catholic community telling me to pray who I was away. I was conditioned to believe that my golden Filipinx skin could never be loved by a man. I almost believed them. But I’ve seen the true power my identities hold, especially together. I hope one day, no young Asian queer kids feel the way I did, and instead, are empowered by the beauty of their identities.

Andre Menchavez is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and junior studying English and Law at the University of Washington. Proudly queer and Filipinx, he is passionate about intersectional activism and journalism. He hosts an online series “Q&A: Queer and Asian” at Queerspace Magazine and previously worked as a GLAAD Junior Editor. 

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