Sacramento activist speaks on being nonbinary and gender nonconforming in the Lao community

Tee Fansofa was about 7 years old when they realized they would never be able

Tee Fansofa was about 7 years old when they realized they would never be able to fully express their queer identity to their family.

On that day, Fansofa, who is Laotian American, nonbinary, gender nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns, performed a dance they had learned from a female classmate for their aunt and younger sister. In response, Fansofa’s aunt and sister mocked Fansofa intensely.

Although Fansofa hadn’t yet recognized their gender identity, that moment was enough for Fansofa to realize there was something about their true nature they would always have to hide from their family.

“I was so held back that I didn’t even come out until much later in my life,” Fansofa said.

Fansofa grew up in a large Lao community living in Fresno’s project housing. Fansofa’s family were Laotian refugees who came to the United States in the late 1970s after the Vietnam War and they were in poverty for most of Fansofa’s adolescence. They moved constantly from one housing project to another, Fansofa said, after losing their federally backed low-income housing to a fire when Fansofa was 3 years old.

A self-proclaimed ‘weird’ child

From the beginning, Fansofa said, they were a “weird” child who liked to be independent and question what they were told, such as the standards of masculinity they were raised with. Many Laotian communities emphasize the importance of the patriarchy. Because of this, Fansofa said, the Lao boys Fansofa grew up with lionized harmful male stereotypes such as being physically aggressive and disrespectful to women.

This environment also created a physical risk for being LGBTQ. Fansofa recalled the time a former childhood friend teamed up with his brother to beat their younger brother after he came out to them.

“I come from … a really toxic environment where I know I could be killed or really beat up just for coming out,” Fansofa said. “That stays with me.”

It wasn’t until Fansofa left home for University of California, Davis that they found a community and space to explore their identity without fear of being shamed by their Laotian peers. Even then, it wasn’t until Fansofa was about 25 that they decided to come out and realized they were nonbinary.

It was “isolating” to have to figure out who they were without the support of their family, Fansofa said, and they suppressed and concealed that struggle from their Lao community out of fear and internalized shame.

Fansofa no longer feels that fear anymore. But Fansofa still hasn’t told anyone in their family that they are queer. Fansofa isn’t hiding their identity, they said, but no one in the family has asked and Fansofa is no longer close with their family.

“I don’t think that conversation’s even necessary, or even accessible,” Fansofa said. “But I’m not hiding myself. If the conversation comes up to talk about a private part of my life … I’m willing to have that.”

Creating ‘the future I wanted to live in’

There’s been some progression toward LGBTQ acceptance in the Lao community, Fansofa said. But homophobia and transphobia is still a problem, one that simply “changes face” from outright discrimination to more passive expressions such as microaggressions.

That’s why Asian Americans — and Americans as a whole — need to have honest, vulnerable conversations about LGBTQ identity to safely explore who they are in order to address biases with community members who may not understand, Fansofa said.

It’s that desire for change that’s motivated Fansofa to look into grassroots community organizing, working with groups like the Sacramento Soup Kitchen, Decarcerate Sacramento and AYA, an organization that works to process trauma and frustration within the Black community through community discussions.

“I realized it was the only way for me to make a change in a real way that (was) maintained through time and was sustainable,” Fansofa said. “I knew it was the only way to create the future I wanted to live in and see for future generations.”

Fansofa is still recovering from serious injuries suffered at a Black Lives Matter protest on May 30, when Fansofa alleges they were hit in the head by a Sacramento police tear gas canister and several rubber bullets while distributing water and snacks to protestors. The incident left them with a fractured skull, a broken eyebrow bone and a broken jaw bone, which will need several facial surgeries, Fansofa said.

In a statement, Officer Karl Chan, a spokesperson for the Sacramento Police Department, said the police are aware of Fansofa’s allegations, but have not yet confirmed that Fansofa’s injuries were the result of use of force from Sacramento police.

It’s almost the end of Pride Month, part of which involves bolstering awareness of LGBTQ rights. So to young Asian Americans who may be questioning their own queer identities and feel they can’t turn to their families, Fansofa said it’s important to find folks who can understand and encourage self-exploration elsewhere, whether that’s through friends, reaching out to activists like Fansofa or turning to online communities.

“This takes surviving, this takes a lot of processing and dealing with trauma, and also takes a support network for yourself,” Fansofa said. “Find who’s gonna look out for you, find your resources, find your people and be careful.”

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