All Asian cultures share the universal value that elders are wise, and must be respected and taken care of. Regardless of ethnicity, we are taught from childhood to respect our elders. We revere those older than us, rather than question them. Different ethnicities practice their own customs and traditions, but being Filipino and raised in a religious Catholic household with less than accepting parents, I at times felt voiceless and invisible, without someone to count me in.
This can sometimes be an added burden for when one cultural tradition meets another: the Asian tendency to stay silent on certain topics because of how taboo or uncomfortable they may be. Being gay is one of those times when cultural habits can create an added and undue burden.
When voicing your truth means evoking the forbidden, you quickly realize the fine line between dishonoring your family and damaging your sense of self worth. Because Asian families tend to be more conservative and shy away from any iota of controversy, discussing LGBTQ issues is extremely rare, especially within our families, where conversations mostly revolve around what we’re going to do with our lives. According to one source, only 51% of LGBTQ Asian American youth have “come out” to their families--the lowest of any racial category, where white LGBTQ youth are out to family at an 80% rate.
Aside from tackling these typical pressures of success in education and the workforce, youth must also grapple with the exploration of their sexuality and gender—this is where mentorship and guidance for LGBTQ youth in Asian communities could be revolutionary. Since elders are the captains of Asian culture, it’s vital that LGBTQ mentors reframe the narrative that exempts those that bring shame: the queer kids, the girly boys, the tomboys, and anyone who doesn’t fit into their families’ vision of the perfect, successful, talented, wonder child.
One of my first mentors was my uncle, whom I’ll call Tito Paolo. My uncle introduced me to gayness. He was simply fabulous. He was an interior designer who exuded humble sophistication. He lived with us for a year while I was in elementary school. I remember we were in the living room together while Madonna’s Ray of Light was playing. When the bridge came on, he sang in a curiously high falsetto, boldly rocking out, unashamed, in a way I’ve never seen a man behave. Seeing that moment of queer, pure joy within a grown man changed everything for me; it’s one of the earliest memories I have of recognizing who I was going to become.
I’ll always remember the one Thanksgiving he spent with us, where he helped visualize the overflowing dinner table and created the most festive aesthetic we ever had. Red roses in crystal vases lined the ornamented table, while he adorned the ham with skewers of dark red cherries. Each dish immaculately plated, each plate fashionably set. Sparkles of green, red, and gold warm my memory of his influential artistic touch. That night was a fateful introduction to some of the marvelous, unique qualities that God bestowed upon the gays.
If it wasn’t for Tito Paolo, I would have learned later in life the importance of free expression and the irrelevance of gender binaries. As a young child, I failed every single masculinity standard my parents forced upon me. They tried to shatter every particle of femininity that I exuded, no doubt to nip my impending gayness in the bud. But who could unravel the magical ways of my Tito Paolo? The nuanced precision with which he carried himself, the way he danced, sang, absorbed and practiced his art, the way he entertained and simply LIVED in the comfort of our home was an example of how one could safely and vibrantly exist beyond the strict illusion of masculinity as proper. Because he was a trustworthy and confident adult in my early life, his presence blessedly cushioned my own realization to myself as someone “different.”
Growing up without an LGBTQ mentor or positive presence in your household/community, you may learn later in life that it's ok to be you, or you may never learn that at all. But the second we learn that it’s ok to be different, like who we like, wear what we wear, and be ourselves, and see all of that *demonstrated* for us, everything changes, and we start to build a safe foundation from which to flourish—this is the ultimate role of the LGBTQ mentor. Mentors bring awareness to the aspects of you, of who you are. Without them, you can be taught the wrong things about yourself that you spend years trying to bury. Although my parents tried to mould me into who they wanted me to be, thank you Tito Paolo for giving me the space to find me, simply by being yourself.
As a hopeful future mentor to Slaysians of all backgrounds, I believe it the responsibility of all able and aware adults of my generation and onward to ensure that future LGBTQ youth can live their lives filled with all the love we had ever lost in broken relationships, burning words, and memories that ever even slightly scarred our hearts. Elders, be Slaysians for the Youth. Youth, obey your Elders and make them proud. Let’s bring honor to us all.
Follow Nikko on Instagram @seathelife.
You've been part of the work so far, and you can be part of so much more in the coming year. So, let's build.