Editor’s note: Ryan Tiêu, a transgender individual living in Sacramento and the subject of this story, prefers to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns such as “they” or “them.”
Ryan Tiêu didn’t know the word “transgender” until high school. The Vietnamese word for “transgender,” Tiêu said, was derogatory. Tiêu, 24, remembers the critical moment at 16 when mother and child were able to begin to understand what it really meant.
Tracy Nguyen and Tiêu were enjoying an annual church fundraising fair in Santa Clara. The smell of barbecued chicken filled the air as church-goers crowded the parking lot, checking out the food and games. Nguyen peered into a bouncy house and was shocked. She saw a girl kissing Tiêu .
Nguyen had raised Tiêu as her daughter, and she socialized as female. But Tiêu did not identify as female or male.
But Tiêu’s mother didn’t know that. Nguyen recalled wanting to leave immediately. The two shared a silent 15-minute car ride home – nobody said a word. Back home, Tiêu broke the silence and told their mom that they liked girls and wanted to go through medical transition to become more masculine.
“”We are already struggling, why do you want to struggle more?’” Tiêu remembered their mom saying. “’We are already people of color and immigrants. Why do you want to add another thing?’ It was something that my mom conveyed to me when I was young.”
However, Tiêu had always been different, and Nguyen knew.
An estimated 1,615,000 California residents – about 5.8 percent of the state’s population – identify as LGBT, the largest estimated state population in the U.S., according to UCLA’s Williams Institute. While data show that only 2 percent of people of Asian descent identify as LGBT, many may not have come out yet or choose not to, according to Glenn Magnpantay, Executive Director of the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.
Magnpantay said Asian LGBTQ people often choose to suffer in silence because they don’t want to disrespect their parents, who sacrificed a lot to bring them to the United States. This could lead to depression, self-loathing, suicide and drug use.
Coming out is a process for parents as well. Nguyen cried and didn’t sleep for nights. She was scared because she had no idea what transgender was and what to do for her child.
In the months that followed, Tiêu and Nguyen pretended that conversation didn’t happen. “There was an elephant in the room but no one is going to talk about it,” Tiêu said.
At the age of 5, Tiêu came to the U.S. with their parents and younger sister from Sài Gòn, Vietnam, for a better life. Nguyen recalled sleeping three hours every day for the first five years as she worked full time while attending nursing college.
Tiêu, who now lives in Sacramento, has always been different, Nguyen said. Tiêu played with Legos instead of dolls and stuffed animals, made furniture out of wood as a hobby and liked fixing things in the house. Tiêu ran and lifted weights. Clothes did not fit Tiêu’s muscular build, so T-shirts were the only option.
But as Tiêu grew up, they became more conscious about their identity. Starting from middle school, Tiêu avoided going to the school’s bathrooms because they didn’t feel safe going to a male or female restroom – unless they couldn’t avoid it.
In Tiêu’s last year of high school, one of their teachers gave Tiêu access to a gender-neutral bathroom. “I felt relieved,” Tiêu said.
‘A start over’
Nguyen said she wasn’t worried because her friends’ daughters also dressed up like tomboys – until they went to high school and found boyfriends. Nguyen assigns maleness to Tiêu. She addresses Tiêu as “he.” They haven’t had a conversation about pronouns yet.
“I thought when he (Tiêu) has a boyfriend, he will not be tomboy anymore,” she said.
The kiss at the church fair gave Tiêu the opportunity to open up to Nguyen. Tiêu asked Nguyen if she knew what “transgender” meant, and explained they wanted to start a medical transition before going to college. “Almost like a start over,” Tiêu said.
Tiêu felt a wall had existed between mother and child due to language barriers. “I think it has to do with my and her capacity to learn and teach,” Tiêu said. “She doesn’t know that I work with trans and what I think about my transness. I don’t speak Vietnamese well and there are a lot of words that are not translatable between English and Vietnamese.”
Misunderstanding and shame about transgender individuals persists in Vietnamese communities, and Tiêu’s family takes comfort in how Tiêu is perceived as male.
“My mom thinks it was OK for me to date a woman when I am a man,” Tiêu said. “She thought I am heterosexual but I am actually queer.”
Nguyen doesn’t understand this gender identity. Nguyen said she knows that Tiêu’s gender is not the one decided at birth. “It is not that he wants to be (a boy),” she said. “He is very insistent that he is a boy.”
Tiêu said their mom’s lack of capacity to grasp this difference has to do with the sacrifice of an immigrant mother bringing her kids to the U.S.
“Her sacrifice made me able to live the life that I do,”Tiêu said “I don’t have to worry about getting by – she has done that on my behalf. I think it is a privilege to talk about these things, and I think she doesn’t have the privilege yet.”
“I had access to LGBTQ health centers or resources meant for people to grow their capacity and focus on this part of identity, but my mom was learning to survive,” Tiêu said.
Nguyen recalled asking if Tiêu could avoid going through surgeries, the key part of medical transition. She asked, not because of stigma, but because she didn’t want Tiêu to go through pain.
“But he confirms he wants. I let him make his own decision and support him,” she said.
And so she did.
Nguyen said she gave Tiêu parental consent to do the transition training when Tiêu was still a minor. She read articles to see what parents should do to help. She accompanied Tiêu to therapy sessions, hormone injections and medical transition surgeries across a span of almost two years. When Tiêu was immobile after surgery, Nguyen cared for their wounds, cooked meals and drove Tiêu to medical appointments.
Despite not completely understanding how Tiêu feels about their gender identity, Tiêu said Nguyen never tried to change who her child was. “She tried to change what I wore and how to do my hair, but eventually stopped trying because she realized that I was going to do what I wanted to do. She tried to change my outside, but never my inside.”
Nguyen took on the role of telling Tiêu’s grandparents about Tiêu’s transition. She advocated for Tiêu in the family, their community and the church. The family on Tiêu’s mother’s side learned quickly, but family on Tiêu’s father’s side still reverted to using the wrong pronouns and wrong names when Tiêu was not around.
Jennifer, Tiêu’s younger sister, said their grandmother still refers to Tiêu as “a woman” because she doesn’t speak English and doesn’t understand what “transgender” means.
Tiêu’s father chose to pull away from his child, recalled Nguyen. He never spoke to Tiêu about his child’s gender identity and communicated to Tiêu through Nguyen.
“My dad’s family blamed my mom for my transition,” Tiêu said. “That’s why I don’t particularly miss them. If they were given the right resources, things would have been different.”
Tiêu said mental health service providers should be more sensitive to language barriers and cultural issues such as stigma when dealing with those issues in the Asian-American community. For example, going through transition means having a different role in the family, Tiêu said, and the whole family needs to adjust its expectations as a part of transition-related care.
“They (family members) haven’t been given the same support (as I have had) from our government support health system,” Tiêu said. “If they (therapists) see my community as a part of me, they would also help them transition together.”
Magpantay said the voices and stories of queer and transgender people of Asian descent are often overlooked in the media.
“There are very few resources out there, accessible in different languages, to educate people about our identities,” he said. “They are often left out and experience isolation and invisibility, and their needs are marginalized.”
Tiêu now works at Sacramento’s Gender Health Center as a counseling program manager, overseeing the center’s mental health program.
“Being trans is not a 9 to 5 p.m. job. The center is a component of my life’s work,” Tiêu said.
Nguyen said she is proud of Tiêu, who “planned everything on the right track”. She feels like they are friends, and they Facetime or call each other twice a week.
“As long as he feels comfortable and right about his gender, I’m OK with it,” she said.